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Tuesday, November 25, 2014
7:00 AM | Posted by Kairos-Milwaukie UCC |
Thoughts on the Lectionary Passages for Thanksgiving Day (November 27, 2014) and the First Sunday of Advent (November 30, 2014)
By Jim OgdenLectionary Scriptures:
Thanksgiving Day: Deuteronomy 8:7-18, Psalm 65:1-13, II Corinthians 9:6-15, Luke 17:11-19
First Sunday of Advent: Isaiah 64:1-9, Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19, I Corinthians 1:3-9, Mark 13:24-37
We come to the beginning of a new liturgical year as we enter the Advent Season. It begins pretty much as the old year ending, with a call to stay awake as we await a day when “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” Those are words attributed to Jesus in Mark 13:24-25 and the “stay awake” part comes in verses 35-37. Not exactly images that fit the mood we encounter in the mall ringing with Christmas music and the belly laughs of Santa Claus.
The coming Sunday also caps the celebratory Thanksgiving weekend. The lectionary scriptures for Thanksgiving seem much more compatible with the joyful spirit many associate with Advent.
Instead, let me suggest entering into the season with a spirit of dependence. Many of us don’t much like to acknowledge our dependence upon anyone or anything. We’re also aware that dependence can take an unhealthy turn so that we talk about co-dependence in relationships. We can hardly stand the thought of being separated from one another. We are addicted. We couldn’t or wouldn’t survive on our own. Addiction or dependency also brings to mind drugs, substance abuse, etc.
We live in a culture where there is often a macho spirit in which we like to think of ourselves as “self-made.” Don’t tread on me. Don’t mess with me. Don’t invade my space or interfere with my life and its choices.
When I worked with the national staff of the American Baptist Churches in the USA, one of the values that guided our work was that of interdependence. We all depend upon one another, and upon natural environment (and ultimately the cosmos/God) around us. It’s not an unhealthy co-dependence. It’s a statement of fact.
When I utter a prayer before I eat, I am often keenly aware of the growers and shippers and marketers who made that meal possible, even of the living things (whether plant or animal) which are consumed in my eating and the earth and plant substances which season everything. This week, however, I invite us to allow ourselves to become overcome by a sense of our dependence upon God.
In one sense, that’s where all scripture, all religion, begins and ends. God is the source of all that is. It’s there in the Thanksgiving reading from Deuteronomy. Moses reminds the Hebrew people that they are being brought into a good land “with flowing streams, with springs and undergound waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper. (Deuteronomy 8:7-10) There “you shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God . . . Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God . . . do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God . . . Do not day to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth. But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth . . . (vss. 10-11, 14, 17-18).
Psalm 65 speaks in a similar tone. “You visit the earth and water it, you greatly enrich it; the river of God is full of water; you provide the people with grain . . . You water its furrows abundantly, settling its ridges, softening it with showers, and blessing its growth. You crown the year with your bounty; your wagon tracks overflow with richness. The pastures of the wilderness overflow, the hills gird themselves with joy, the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy.” (Psalm 65:9-13)
It would be easy to read into these words a somewhat magical process with no human participation. We might object to the overemphasis upon wealth and the abundance of nature. Many go through life barely able to eke out an existence on land with limited productivity. For whatever time we are able, though, let’s muster the will to read these poetic words as a call to acknowledge that life ultimately emanates from some source beyond us, even beyond our understanding and control---and give thanks.
While the reading from II Corinthians is about being generous and sharing what we have with others, it is clear that God is part of the cycle, God who “is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance . . . He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness.” (II Corinthians 9:8 & 10)
The Advent reading from Isaiah is another scene of mountains quaking, of God’s anger, of lives shaking like a leaf. (Isaiah 64:1, 4, 5-6) It also speaks of God’s power to deliver and declares, “O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.” (vss. 7-8)
The Gospel reading for Thanksgiving Day begins with the healing of ten lepers. (Luke 17:11-14) Most of us have been dependent at one time or another upon someone with the power of healing. Most of you have visited a doctor’s office, I imagine. I have, sometimes more often than I wanted. The Advent Psalm also assumes a power of restoration. “Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.” (Psalm 80:7 & 19)
The first Sunday of Advent gives us a reading from I Corinthians in which the gifts of life are seen as coming from “the grace of God,” of our being “enriched” through Christ Jesus, “in speech and knowledge of every kind . . . so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift. . . He will also strengthen you to the end.” (I Corinthians 1:4-5, 7-8)
The story of the lepers emphasizes, on Thanksgiving Day, giving thanks for life-restoring power. Only one of the lepers, a Samaritan at that, remembers to do it, prostrating himself before Jesus. (Luke 17:16-18)
We are dependent. Maybe instead of fighting it, we should prostrate ourselves before the mysterious power of Love and Life all around us, and give thanks.
Tuesday, November 18, 2014
3:38 PM | Posted by Rick Skidmore |
Lectionary Scriptures: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24, Psalm 100:1-5 OR Psalm 95:1-7a, Ephesians 1:15-23, Matthew 25:31-46
This Sunday is the last Sunday of the church year. The name given to the day, Christ the King Sunday, is of recent origin, established in 1925 by Pope Pius XI, to counter rising nationalism and secularism. From the very beginning New Testament Christianity was seen as a threat to the power of earthly kings and authorities. Our loyalty is to a higher power. As Pope Pius XI put it, “He must reign in our minds, which should assent with perfect submission and firm belief to revealed truths and to the doctrines of Christ. He must reign in our wills, which should obey the laws and precepts of God. He must reign in our hearts, which should spurn natural desires and love God above all things, and cleave to him alone.” shua 24: 24:1D Psalm 78:1-7 OR WIn 1969 Pope Paul VI moved the day to its present location at the end of the church year. It is a celebration of the consummation of all history when the ideals of God’s Kingdom will be realized. The Revised Common Lectionary calls it “Reign of Christ Sunday” since references to kings are challenging in democratic societies. “Reign of Christ” connects with the notion of “The Kingdom of God,” so central in Jesus’ teachings, shifting the focus from the “King” to the community of those who try to live by Jesus’ teachings.
Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Sweden, by the way, calls this Sunday the Sunday of Doom. I’m not about to try stealing that title from them, but it is true that the lectionary readings for the Sunday, including some of the ones before us this week, focus on judgment. Instead of focusing upon the judgment per se, I found myself sifting through the texts for clues about the values shaping this community in which Jesus’ teachings prevail.
The primary image that comes through is that of equality and justice, mutual caring and support. In all but one of the texts there is an image and sheep and/or shepherds. Both Psalms speak of us as “the sheep of his pasture.” “We are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.” (Psalm 100:3) “For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.” (Psalm 97:7a)
The picture of a caring shepherd and his sheep has been heart-warming for many. Think of the popularity of Psalm 23 and its picture of the Lord as our shepherd, or the images of the shepherd in some of Jesus’ parables (Jesus as the Good Shepherd, the one who seeks out the lost sheep and carries it home in his arms). The reality is much messier as the shepherd deals with smelly and rebellious sheep, but the image is also quite removed from what we often associate with kingship. Whatever the reign of Christ means, these are not images of a dictatorial overlord.
Two of the readings show, in fact, how relationships in the kingdom can get out of whack. In Ezekiel we start with the warm image of a shepherd seeking out and taking care of his sheep. God says, “I myself will search for my sheep . . . I will feed them with good pasture . . . they shall lie down in good grazing land . . . I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep . . . I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak . . .” (Ezekiel 34:11, 14 -16) Sounds great, doesn’t it? Then comes a turn in the story. Surprise! Relations among sheep can even go astray, or among the people who claim to be God’s sheep. The reading from Ezekiel turns out to be a judgment story. There are fat sheep and lean sheep, weak sheep and strong sheep. The fat sheep are under judgment because “you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns . . .” (verse 16, 20-22)
The biblical vision of the reign of God is one in which the weak are protected, where things are set right, where justice prevails. “I will feed them with justice,” God says in Ezekiel 34:16)
We spent most of our time at our weekly breakfast discussion this morning talking about the Gospel lesson, another of the series of judgment parables we’ve been looking at in recent weeks. In many ways it has been a favorite of those who are more liberal or progressive, who espouse a “social” gospel. The basis of judgment is not being able to recite the right creed or fulfill every detail of right ritual, as many who first heard the parable may have believed (and many today seem to continue to believe). The basis of judgment is service to those around us---feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting those in prison. (Matthew 25:34-37) A prominent feature of relationships where the reign of Jesus prevails is this kind of mutual caring and inclusion.
In this parable it is sheep and goats who are separated, rather than warring sheep abusing those who are weak. Some may want to find some significance for the goats representing those under judgment. It’s probably more a matter of drawing upon the reality that sheep and goats were often herded together. In the parable, there comes a point at which the sheep and goats ask when it was that they were observed performing (or not performing) these acts of kindness. The answer is worth pondering. It’s hard not to notice the reference to “the least of these” and to “members of my family.” (vs. 40)
Just as God is looking out for the weak sheep in Ezekiel, God observes those who are of service to “the least.” Life under the reign of Christ is not a matter of bowing down in humble obedience; it is a matter of bringing justice to the least. Our discussion this morning noted that this may require systemic action as well as personal kindness. Whole systems get out of kilter so that the least drop off the grid or are walled off so we do not notice them. Notice that it is “nations” which are gathered for judgment. (vs. 32)
In the parable we also find that the least are included as part of the family. The king speaks of them as “members of my family.” (vs. 40)
I have less and less patience with parables of eternal punishment, as apparently do most of those who participate in the breakfast discussions. If one can move beyond a literal interpretation of the judgment, however, it is clear that we are being presented with values that are central if we claim to live in the reign of Christ. Mutual service and inclusion, justice that touches the lives of even “the least,” are the basis for quality of life in the here and now. Someone in the discussion suggested that heaven and hell may be experienced in the here and now. To live in a society where injustice prevails, where we may be part of the practice of injustice, may feel like hell.
That leaves the reading from Ephesians. It makes no mention of sheep or shepherds. Its main connection to the Reign of Christ Sunday is its image of the great power of God who seated Christ “at his right hand in heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him head over all things . . .” (Ephesians 1:19-22) The reading ends speaking of “the fullness of him who fills all in all.” (vs. 23)
Living in the Reign of Christ means aligning ourselves with a power of love and life that fills all things, all relationships, starting within each one of us. The reading begins with a prayer. “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you . . .” (vss. 17-18) Wisdom, revelation, knowledge of God, hope, living according to our calling, having enlightened hearts---all values that can fill us as we work together and serve one another in the shaping of a community that thrives under the reign of God. Can you see it with the eyes of your heart enlightened?
Thursday, November 13, 2014
2:55 PM | Posted by Rick Skidmore |
Lectionary Scriptures: Judges 4:1-7AND Psalm 123:1-4 OR Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18 AND Psalm 90:1-12, I Thessalonians 5:1-11, Matthew 25:14-30
So what are we supposed to do while we’re waiting for the end of the world?
I grew up in a religious environment where we spent a lot of time worrying about the end of the world---whole denominations formed on the basis of minor differences of interpretation about the details of the days of approaching judgment. At least, they seemed minor to some of us. Who was going to survive and who wasn’t? A few seemed to gloat over all those who would be left behind. I used to have a Ziggy cartoon in which Ziggy is asked about a question about the end of the world. He says he’ll take what’s worth saving, put it in a doggy bag, and stick it in the refrigerator.
Not very funny if one takes it seriously! But I wonder whether most of us take such questions very seriously these days.
If nuclear annihilation doesn’t get us, destruction of the environment will. Barring any other premature end, science tells us we can always wait to be enveloped by the expanding sun (some five billion years or so from now).
I’ve said more than once that I don’t find such speculation very productive, but the nature of end times comes under consideration in Christian theology and in various biblical texts. We have only two more Sundays left before a new liturgical year begins with Advent on November 30th. This is the time of year when the lectionary focuses upon the completion of history, so I guess we can’t entirely avoid the topic.
Some of this week’s texts take us in that direction. Rather than get into discussion of details of how things might unfold, I’d rather ask the question of what we are to do in the meantime. No matter what those details are, mortality dictates that your days and my days of earthly existence will come to an end. Humanity may or may not come to a burning or cataclysmic end, but I personally don’t expect to live forever. How about you?
So---what are we supposed to do in the meantime?
Before getting into that I observe a couple of things sometimes overlooked among those who speculate on end times. More than once the Bible tells us that we can’t tie the details down, so why do so many keep trying? The reading from I Thessalonians begins, “Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” (I Thessalonians 5:1-2) Matthew gives us Jesus’ parable or workers entrusted with the master’s wealth who do not know when he will return. Last week’s parable of the bridesmaids ends with the words, “ . . . you know neither the day nor the hour.” (Matthew 25:13) In the chapter just before, Matthew has Jesus speaking these words: “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Matthew 24:36)
The other observation is that images of a judgment day (or hopes for one) often focus upon those who are rich and upon powerful oppressors. Judgment Day is a day when things are set right, when those people get what is coming to them. The reading from Psalm 123 cries out for justice. “Our soul has had more than its fill of the scorn of those who are at ease, of the contempt of the proud.” (Psalm 123:4) In Zephaniah, God’s judgment comes down upon “the people who rest complacently on their dregs . . . Their wealth shall be plundered and their homes laid waste . . . Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the Lord’s wrath . . .” (Zephaniah 1:12-13, 18)
Now, back to the matter of what we are to do in the meantime.
First, although images of Judgment Day have often been used to frighten people, it is clear that fear is not productive. As I read through the Parable of the Talents yet another time, I was struck by the inner state of the worker who received only one talent. (Of course, while the talent is an amount of money, the parable is about sharing the treasure of God’s Good News.) He was afraid, and fear immobilized him. (Matthew 25:25) Repeatedly God’s people are told to not be afraid. I Thessalonians tells us, “For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation . . .” (I Thessalonians 5:9) What are we to do? Begin by not being afraid!
Second, we are to stay awake. Looking at last week’s parable, I realized the emphasis was perhaps less on the fact that some of the bridesmaids ran out of oil and more on the fact that they went to sleep. The punchline challenges the hearers to “keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” (Matthew 25:13) Paul, in his letter to the Thessalonians, emphasizes staying awake: “So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake.” (I Thessalonians 5:6) When Jesus prays in Gethsemane before his death he chides Peter and James and John because they cannot stay awake. (Matthew 26:36-46) The letter to the Ephesians quotes a poem which says, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” (Ephesians 5:13)
So what does it mean to stay awake? I’m not sure these texts spell it out in much detail. We know that we are capable of walking through life in something of a stupor. These texts call us to be fully awake and aware. The possibility of impeding troubles must not be allowed to immobilize us. We are to keep on keeping on!
Psalm 90, with all of its gloominess, ends with a prayer: “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.” (Psalm 90:12) The parable of the talents tells us to take what we have and share it, use it in productive ways. Continue to use the gifts we have that the love of God might take root and multiple in life. The reading from I Thessalonians ends with the instruction, “Therefore encourage one another and build up each other . . .” (I Thessalonians 5:11)
Don’t let fear overcome you, Stay awake, encourage one another, and productively use the gifts you have been given.
Wednesday, November 05, 2014
5:01 PM | Posted by Rick Skidmore |
CHOICE AND CONSEQUENCES—THOUGHTS ON THE LECTIONARY PASSAGES FOR THE TWENTY-SECOND SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST (NOVEMBER 9, 2014)---BY JIM OGDEN
Lectionary Scriptures: Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25 AND Psalm 78:1-7 OR Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16 OR Amos 5:18-24 AND Wisdom of Solomon 6:17-20 OR Psalm 70:1-5, I Thessalonians 4:13-18, Matthew 25:1-13
During my adolescent years, in the early years of television, I enjoyed a show called “Truth or Consequences.” Contestants received roughly two seconds to answer a trivia question correctly. Failing to do so meant facing a consequence, usually a zany and embarrassing stunt. Not all consequences were negative, sometimes involving a reunion with a long-lost relative or with an enlisted son or daughter returning from military duty overseas, particularly Vietnam. During Bob Barker’s tenure as host, he ended each episode with the phrase, "Hoping all your consequences are happy ones." This seemingly trivial memory is not much more than a passing cultural phenomenon, except it reminds us that there are consequences in life, not all of them happy.
Choice is a theme we run into repeatedly in the Bible. The classic choice text is found in this week’s lectionary reading from the book of Joshua. Joshua has led the people across the Jordan into a new land where they have been sorely tempted (and sometimes yielding) to follow after other gods. Now, nearing death, he has “gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel.” (Joshua 24:1) His message from God? “Choose this day whom you will serve.” (vs. 15)
Sometimes in the Bible (or in the way we interpret various biblical stories) the consequences of choice have to do with heaven and hell. I’m sorry, I just don’t find worrying about heaven and hell (at least as some other-worldly destination) has much place in my theology.
On the other hand, I find the consequences of choice very much a part of my life experience. In my older years, I look back and am keenly aware of how I could have lived in a way that would have delivered this body to this time in better shape. It’s not that I was dissolute, but I could have eaten more healthily and exercised more. Now I am paying the consequences. Some of the consequences of our decisions (if not all) can be described as “eternal.” We get married and have children. It is true that we are not assured that a marriage will last, but the emotions and experiences have affected the very fabric of our lives. And if there is a divorce, whoever makes the decision by whatever process, everyone involved lives with those consequences for the rest of their lives. We can try to counter the effects of a choice, but the consequences can never be entirely erased.
Al Krass, described in his obituary in 2010 as a “pastor and social activist,” wrote a book in 1978 entitled “Five Lanterns at Sundown.” It is a detailed study of Jesus’ parable we sometimes call “The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids.” Krass rewrites it in contemporary terms as “The Parable of Ten American Suburban Women.”
We spent most of our weekly breakfast discussion time on this parable, one which we all find troubling. It is clearly a parable about being prepared, having a tone which reminds us of those who warn of the dangers of being left behind. Jesus tells the story of ten bridesmaids who go out to meet the bridegroom. (Matthew 25:1) The bridegroom is delayed and five of them run out of oil for their lamps. (vss. 5-8) They run off to buy some more, at the 7-11 in Krass’ clever contemporary rendition of the tale. When they return the banquet has begun and they are excluded, all because they were not prepared. (vss. 9-12) The parable ends with the exhortation, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
The story stokes the flames of fear in those who live mostly to avoid eternal damnation and gain the promise of heaven. Al Krass treats it as a parable of lifestyle choices we have made along the way of life in which we fail to face the urgency of the crises of the political and economic systems in this world, ending with a “Prologue” on “Re-Imaging the Church for the Long Night Ahead.” In his version of the parable, Helen (one of the five) is remembering and retelling the story of being excluded from the wedding. She concludes her story this way: “The essential things---the decisive things---had happened before sunset, before that day even. The events of the night were only the logical conclusion to the deep decisions the five of us---that the five of them---had made long ago.”
Choices have consequence. I wonder how many live without much awareness of that. How many of us take into account the impact of our decisions on our families and neighbors, on the poor and oppressed in our own country and other lands, on the environment? It turns out that the women in Al Krass’ take on the parable were too busy looking after their own needs to take account of anything else. Helen speaks of “the price of oil the way it got to be in those last months---who would willingly buy more than was needed? I mean, you’ve got to eat, too! And you’ve got to buy clothes and if you put all your money into oil, it’s not going to leave you with very much on hand for necessities, much less emergencies.”
It’s a parable for much pondering. Our breakfast group was troubled by the unwillingness of the first five bridesmaids to share. If this is a parable about the way the church draws boundaries---an issue in the early church, and today, Margie and I wondered, on our way home from breakfast, whom the two groups of women represented. Is it possible that the focus of the parable is upon the five doing the excluding, maybe symbolic of the religious leadership of the day who drew lines of exclusion and placed heavy burdens on people? We also wondered why the bridegroom was delayed. Is there a suggestion that instead of spending so much time waiting we need to keep the light burning in the present? In fact, the parable seems as much concerned about the women’s drowsiness and sleeping (vs. 5) as it is about the oil. Remember the punch line is about staying awake! (vs. 13)
Whatever interpretations one places on the details of the parable, it is still about choice and consequences. There are hints of connection with that theme or closely related themes in the other texts.
Psalm 78 speaks about consequences passed on to children. We are to “tell the coming generations the glorious deeds of the Lord . . . that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn . . .” (Psalm 78:4 & 6) We are called to think about future generations when we make today’s choices.
Although not included in the Protestant Bible, The Wisdom of Solomon (from the 1st or 2nd century before the common era) is regularly used by Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches as well as Jews. Like the book of Proverbs, it depicts wisdom as a feminine expression of the spirit of God. The readings included in this week’s lectionary might be seen as a call to seek such wisdom in our decision-making. “To fix one’s thoughts on her is perfect understanding . . . The beginning of wisdom is the most sincere desire for instruction . . . the desire for wisdom leads to a kingdom.” (Wisdom of Solomon 6:15, 17, 20)
Amos rants against worship which is empty because it takes no account of the condition of the world around. Even though they got into worship this time---unlike the five bridesmaids, there is no oil in their lamps. Amos delivers God’s message: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies . . . Take away from me the noise of your songs . . .” (Amos 5:21-23) So what consequences is God looking for? “ . . . let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” (vs. 24) Psalm 70 gives voice to those in need, an important voice to hear in our decision-making. Although addressed to God, the words, “But I am poor and needy,” are addressed to God’s people as well. (Psalm 70:5)
The reading from I Thessalonians has fed many debates about the details of the end times. These words were written as assurance to those worried about the fate of their deceased loved ones. (I Thessalonians 4:13) The final word is that we will all be with the Lord forever. (vs. 17) And what are we to do in the meantime? “ . . . encourage one another . . .” (vs. 18)
May our choices build up (encourage) rather than tear down---today, tomorrow, and forever.
Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog
Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.
Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.
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