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Wednesday, October 08, 2014
Lectionary Scriptures:  Exodus 32:1-14 AND Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23 OR Isaiah 25:1-9 AND Psalm 23:1-6, Philippians 4:1-9, Matthew 22:1-14


Often when we’re speaking of dreams and nightmares, we are referring to something that occurs while we are asleep.  One definition of “dream” is “a series of thoughts, visions, or feelings that happen during sleep.”  A “nightmare,” then, is “a dream that frightens a sleeping person : a very bad dream.”


Sometimes our dreams and nightmares even wake us up.  Some are regularly able to, upon awakening, remember the contents of those dreams and nightmares.  Others, not so much.


Dreams and nightmares, though, are more than sleepy time events.  Among the definitions of “dream” I found the following:  an idea or vision that is created in your imagination and that is not real,”something that you have wanted very much to do, be, or have for a long time,”a strongly desired goal or purpose,” “something that fully satisfies a wish,” an “ideal.”  The nightmare version is “a very bad or frightening experience or situation,” something (as an experience, situation, or object) producing a feeling of anxiety or terror.”


Many find great inspiration in some of the ideals expressed by spiritual visionaries in the Bible.  Some of those “dreams” are expressed in this week’s lectionary readings, starting with the familiar 23rd Psalm.


Using agrarian imagery which is alien to many in our day, it pictures sheep who safely graze under the watchful eye of a caring shepherd.  Our relationship to God is like that, the Psalms says.  “The LORD is my shepherd.”  (Psalm 23:1)  The popular imagination pictures David, who in his younger years spent much time caring for sheep, grasping this insight while sitting on a hillside looking out over the sheep, perhaps calling them by name.  The image carries over into the NewTestament so that Jesus is seen as the Good Shepherd (See John, chapter 10), one who tells parables about a shepherd who goes out searching for the lone lost sheep.  (Matthew 18:10-13, Luke 15:2-7)


The vision addresses a deep longing in the human spirit, to find security and peace, to know caring love, to have our souls fed.  “ . . . he restores my soul.” (vs. 3)  The shepherd is with us even in the presence of our enemies and in the midst of danger.  (vss. 4-5)  On this day, the poem swells in David’s being to a mighty crescendo:  “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.”  (vs. 6)  Notice in this translation, the vision is not just off in a future heaven; it is something surrounding me “all the days of my life.”


Some of the dreams imagine a place of justice and inclusion, sometimes pictured as a great feast.  Isaiah speaks of a God who has “done wonderful things, plans formed of old, faithful and sure . . . For you have been a refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in their distress, a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat . . . On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a fest of well-aged wines, of rich food with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear . . . the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces.”  (Isaiah 25:1, 4, 6, 8)


Notice that the feast is also in Psalm 23:  “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”  (vs. 5)  It also appears in the Gospel lesson where it shades into something a little bit more nightmarish as we will see when I get to talking about our worst nightmares.


The reading from Philippians contains one of Paul’s loftier moments of vision, a dream that continues to inspire.  It is part of one of his most joyous letters and celebrates, as do some of his other writings, life together in a community of love and shared work.  It is like family.  “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord . . . Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, Rejoice.”  (Philippians 4:1 & 4)  Note that, despite what some have said about the place of women in Paul’s theology, women come in for high praise here as those who “have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel.”  (vss. 2-3)  The dream is so down to earth---not necessarily easy, but everyday.  “Let you gentleness be known to everyone . . . Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God.”  (vss. 5-6)  It talks about “the peace of God, which passes all understanding,” and, like Psalm 23, soars to the pinnacle of life guided by positive values.  “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”  (vs. 8)


Wouldn’t you like to live in a society where people were deeply committed to such values?  Dream on!  It doesn’t seem to work that way most of the time, does it?  People are free to choose, and, too often, people (including us) make other, sometimes destructive, choices.  That’s when nightmares enter the picture.


The Gospel lesson contains a parable in which Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a wedding feast. (Matthew 22:1-2)   The invited guests are too busy to come (vss. 3-5), so “slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.”  (vs. 10)  So far one could take it to be a story about inclusion.  When a similar parable is included in Luke, that seems to be the point.  (Luke 14:15-24)


Certainly, it is a parable that arises out of discussions in the early church about those Jews who became enemies of Jesus and sought his death.  (Do we really need to be reminded again that it was not all Jews and that many Gentiles the world over have seen opposed the teachings of Jesus?)  The problem in Matthew’s telling of the story is the wrathful God who kills all those who refused to come.  (vs. 7)  It is made worse when the king arrives and noticed that one of the guests from the street is not dressed properly.  (vs. 12)  His instruction:  “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing to teeth.”  (vs. 13)


I simply do not believe in that kind of God.  My search of commentaries didn’t offer much help.  Mostly, all I can do is chalk it up to understandings that were prevalent in that day.  I can also acknowledge that nightmarish consequences often follow the rejection of positive opportunities.  Indeed, the punchline of the parable seems to be verse 14:  “For many are called, but few are chosen.”  Many have puzzled over these words.  Many interpretations have been offered.  I wonder if we need go any further than the truth that when choices are offered, too often we make choices that have destructive consequences.  Out of such choices grow nightmares.  The call is to come to a table where the prevailing values are those listed in Philippians.  Our prayer is that more than a few choose to live by such values.


The reading from Exodus also involves people’s choice.  (The reading from Psalm 106 is a poetic version of the same story.)  In their longing for security (their search for a dream), they cannot wait patiently while Moses is on the mountain.  They decide to take things into own hands, hoping to find security in an idol.  (Exodus 32:1)  One might notice the centrality of gold in this story.  (vss. 2-4)  How often do we seem to worship gold?  The story can be understood in terms of the influences of Egyptian and other religious practices that were tempting to some of the Hebrew people.  Idolatry, however, is not just about human-formed deities; it is about what we give our highest allegiance to.  When we give our allegiance to that which is not worthy, that which cannot give deep meaning and purpose to life, nightmares may be the result.


In this case, we have a wrathful god again.  He wants to destroy the people.  (vss. 8-10)  What kind of lesson does that teach?  Even Moses calls God to task.  What will people say?  What kind of God will they think you are?  (vss. 11-12)  Remember the kind of God you said you would be.  Remember your covenant.  (vs. 13)  It seems like an odd conversation, but the heart of the conversation needs to be repeated anytime someone tries to make us cringe in fear before a wrathful God.  Such a god is one of my worst nightmares, not because I live in fear, but because believing God is like that destroys the hopes and dreams of too many people.  Living with such a god, or running from such a god, can incite nightmares---even wars.

We spent some time at our weekly breakfast discussing the political manipulation of our fears.  If we surrender to living in fear, it will be a nightmare indeed.


So---will it be dreams or nightmares?  My mind tends to make intuitive connections, so I conclude with words I read last night, written by Chet Raymo in The Soul of the Night.

 

“There is a tendency for us to flee from the wild silence and the wild dark, to pack up our gods and hunker down behind city walls, to turn the gods into idols, to kowtow to them and approach their precincts only in the official robes of office.  And when we are in the temples, then who will hear the voice crying in the wilderness?  Who will hear the reed shaken by the wind?”

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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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