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Wednesday, September 03, 2014

 Lectionary Scriptures:  Exodus 12:1-14 AND Psalm 149:1-14 OR Ezekiel 33:7-11 AND Psalm 119:33-40, Romans 13:8-14, Matthew 18:15-20

Joanna’s internship has come to an end and it’s back to work for me.  I’ve appreciated the respite from the weekly writing of an entry in this space, but I will miss the presence of Joanna in the ongoing life of our congregation.  I want to use this space to offer deep thanks for her leadership in general, and specifically for her assuming my responsibilities for the blog and for our Tuesday morning lectionary breakfast.  Early in the summer, while Margie and I were traveling, we faithfully read what Joanna wrote.  Since we’ve returned, we’ve participated in the breakfast (as well as worship, etc.) under her leadership.  As part of her mentoring team, we have had times of reflection with her.  It has been an enriching time for all of us.

Joanna’s style differs from mine.  We all, in fact, have differing styles.  My return to writing has triggered a look at what I will do with this space moving into the future.  I’m a person who, with great enjoyment, looks for themes that might be shared among seemingly diverse topics.  As you know, that’s been my approach to the lectionary.  Take the whole thing and look for themes.

Many approach the lectionary in a more limited way.  Focus on one or two of the lectionary passages and look for the message in them.  That has been the approach of both the blog and the breakfast group during my absence.  We discussed some of the options this morning and decided a focus upon the lectionary is still needed.  At breakfast, I will probably reign in my wandering over all the passages.

Here I will probably try to comment briefly (although “brief” often eludes me) on all the passages, but focus on only one or two.  We’ll give it a first run this week and see how it works.

If I were looking for a theme in this week’s readings, I would tip between two related themes in which we are looking for God’s protection or are overwhelmed by God’s vengeance upon “the wicked.”  If we can overcome the limits of both those perspectives, perhaps we can find a higher theme (an alternative?) articulated in the reading from Romans.  The title I’ve used, “Getting Along,” may sound a little light, even flippant, but it is a start.

So---comments on each of the passages in order, saving the readings from Ezekiel 33 and Romans 13 for more emphasis.

Exodus 12:1-14---Instructions for celebrating the Passover---“a day of celebration for you.  You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.”  (vs. 14)  At its heart is the troublesome promise that God will protect God’s people (will pass over them) from a judgment that will come upon their enemies.  (vs. 13)  This celebration is central to Jewish identity and the Christian celebration of the Eucharist is closely related to it.  The blood sacrifice of the lamb has since early Christianity been part of the Christian understanding of Jesus.  Many are undertaking the needed task of rethinking that image and of how Judaism and Christianity related at this point.  Not me, today!

I would note two verses that are intriguing if one is looking for a different perspective on the story.  The sacrifice is a household sacrifice (vs. 3), but verse four encourages small households to share the offering of a lamb.  One aspect of getting along is to share our resources with one another.

Verse 11 advises to celebrate with “your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand . . .”  This together with the instruction to keep no leftovers (vs. 10), come from the image of a people on the move, ready to pick up and leave on a moment’s notice.  Although much commentary has been written, I’ll leave it for you what meaning you discern as you pick up and move on.

Psalm 149, like so many Psalms, contains a lot of singing and dancing.  (vss. 1-5)  In verse six, however, the singing takes a troublesome turn.  It becomes a tool of vengeance---“Let the high praises of God be in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands, to execute vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples . . .”  Even though it is apparently in the name of righting wrongs brought about by the abuse of power (kings are bound in fetters and nobles with chains of iron), the vengeance has not proven to be a very effective way to peace.

I’ll say a little more on vengeance when I return to the reading from Ezekiel, which has some of the same tone.

In Psalm 119, we can always expect to find reflections upon the working of the Torah in the lives of God’s people.  The reflections of the Psalmist in this reading show commendable impulses.  God’s decrees are seen as counter to a focus on “selfish gain,” e.g.  (vs. 36), eliciting a desire to “turn my eyes from looking at vanities . . .” (vs. 17)  There is still, however, the underlying tone of “dread,” the sense that God is out to get us if we make one misstep.  (vs. 39)  The God to which I respond fills me with more singing than cringing.

The Gospel reading, within our theme of “Getting Along,” offers a recipe for settling differences.  First go and talk with one you believe has sinned against you.  If they don’t listen, go with one or two others.  The next step is to go before the whole church to seek resolution.  (vss. 15-17)  So far, so good.  If there is still no reconciliation, however, you are to shun them.  “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile or tax collector.”  Ouch!  Worse than ouch!  About the only thing I bring out of this passage is the emphasis upon the community.  Two or three together are at the heart of the way we get along, “for where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”  (vs. 20)

Finally, this week, all I am able to do is fall back on the reading from Romans.  It’s not often that I look to Paul to bail me out.

Before I go there, however, let’s look at the reading from Ezekiel.  It is a word of warning to “the wicked.”  (vss. 8-9)  In fairness, in the traditional Christian understanding, God offers a way out, forgiveness for our transgressions (vss. 9-10), but is the judgmental God who hangs us over the fires of hell what we really need?

Margie and I have been reading a book by Rachel Held Evans, Faith Unraveled: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask Questions.  It traces her disillusionment with her intense Fundamentalist upbringing and education.  It came to focus when it seemed to her that God sent more people to hell, many of whom hadn’t even heard about Jesus, than went to heaven.  There might be a lot to debate in her book, and we haven’t gotten to where she is now on her journey, but there are a lot of us to whom a God of vengeance and hostility is not acceptable.  It’s not the God we have come to know in the life and teachings of Jesus, nor is it the God who is central to the mainstreams of Judaism or Islam.

Brian McClaren has made it his mission to help the religions of the world (Christianity in particular because it is his religion) to move beyond what he calls “The Religion of Hostility.”  His book,Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?, attempts to reinterpret the historic doctrines of the Bible. Viewing one’s tribe as chosen, has often led to hostility.  McClaren suggests instead that we are all chosen.  Each “kind . . . has a right to exist---and it has no right to deprive other kinds of their God-given right to exist . . . God’s original calling to each species was not to domination, revolution, purification, assimilation, competition, victimization, or isolation---but to creative participation in a dynamic and evolving story whose source, unfolding, and destiny was in God.”

I can’t begin to offer McClaren’s full analysis and argument here, but we need to find ways beyond these texts of violence and vengeance.  McClaren points to the ways in which Paul and Jesus reinterpret some of those texts, speaking of “flipping” their meaning.  At one point, he offers an insight which I see as good advice in our reading and interpreting of all lectionary passages.  “In our liturgical practice of reading, interpreting, and preaching the Bible,” he says, “we are repeatedly forced to choose between hostility and hospitality, mercy and condemnation, compassion and legalism, forgiveness and revenge, laying down our lives or taking the lives of others . . . page after page, reading after reading, Sunday after Sunday.”
In the meantime, I am left with the reading from Romans as a formula for getting along together in God’s love.  We often turn to the Sermon on the Mount, but as a concise and practical set of instructions, nothing beats these three verses.  Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”  Then, in the 14th verse, the instruction is to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”  The imagery is that of putting on a new set of clothes.  If we are to “get along”, the high calling is to wear Jesus’ teaching and love and live by them in all of our relationships.

Maybe we can’t do it all, or perfectly.  The challenge is to take it one step at a time.

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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