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Tuesday, September 23, 2014
Lectionary Scriptures:  Exodus 17:1-7 AND Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16 OR Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 AND Psalm 25:1-9, Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32

 

Scripture reading, for me, is not always a straightforward process.  My mind makes all kinds of unexpected connections that may or may not be there for others, nor are they necessarily there in the intent of the writer.  Those connections, often influenced by some other reading I’ve been doing, are what you sometimes get in this space.

 

This week my mind was reminded that we’re often left with as many questions as answers in our reading of scripture and our theological ruminations.  Last week I noted that biblical answers often are shrouded in a bit of mystery.  What is God’s name?  “I Am Who I Am” or “I will be who I will be.”  Not exactly precise and definitive.  The name given this food in the wilderness, Manna, is a question.  “What is it?”  This week when Jesus is asked about the source of his authority, he turns the question back on his questioners in such a way that they end up responding, “We do not know.”  Jesus then says, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”  (Matthew 21:23-27)

 

My wife and I have been reading a book by Rachel Held Evans.  The title is Faith Unraveled: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask Questions.  I have learned that faith is as much about questions as it is about answers.  A curriculum used in some progressive churches is called Living the Questions.  I’ve been blessed with a high tolerance for living with unanswered questions.  I know that is extremely difficult for some.  Why can’t we just have clear and simple answers so that everything makes sense?

 

It may well be that there is a lot more fuzziness in life than we want to admit.  Many are familiar with the derogatory political use of the term, “Fuzzy Math,” but how many of us know that there is a formal and respectable area of study called, “Fuzzy Mathematics”?  The same holds for “Fuzzy Logic.”  My current venture in mind-stretching reading has been Brian Greene’s "The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality.”  Brian Greene is a physicist at Columbia University, a leading expert on quantum physics and string theory.  In this book he uses the word “fuzzy” at least 24 times.  I’ve not gained enough understanding to begin to try to explain such uses of “fuzzy,” the very use of the word suggesting that clarity is not fully possible.  Here’s an example from Greene’s book:  “ . . . quantum mechanics makes things jittery and turbulent,” he says, going on to speak of a field that “will undulate up and down at this or that speed,” its “value” undergoing “a frenzied, fuzzy, random jitter.”  And we thought scientists had it all figured it out!

 

One of the questions that continues to come up in our breakfast discussions centers on one of the slogans of the United Church of Christ:  “God Is Still Speaking”  Our question:  Where and how is God still speaking? Or How do we know what God is saying?  I can’t give a final answer that does not include some fuzziness, and I’d be a bit afraid of anyone who thought he or she had the final word on the matter.  People claiming to be guided by an exact knowledge of that God is saying are often much to be feared.

 

This week’s lectionary readings, however, set my mind to thinking about that question again.  I see some clues, probably a bit fuzzy.

 

Exodus 17 gives us another story about complaints in the wilderness, this time about water instead of food.  (vss. 1-3)  God directs Moses to strike a rock in the presence of the elders.  Water comes out of it and the people’s thirst is quenched.  (vss. 5-6)  It seems like a miracle but perhaps the rock simply marked a place where water was available.  Maybe God guided Moses' eye so that he noticed it, much like seems to have happened in the story of the burning bush.  The result is taken to be a sign of God’s presence.  “He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’”  (vs. 7)

 

Is it too much to suggest that an important step in hearing God still speaking is to pay attention, watch for the unexpected, see signs in the rocks and streams around us?  Maybe, but I can live with being surprised by that kind of fuzziness.

 

The reading from Psalm 78 tells the same story in more poetic form.  “He split rocks open in the wilderness, and gave them drink abundantly as from the deep.  He made streams come out of the rock, and caused waters to flow down like rivers.”  (vss. 15-16)

 

The reading from Ezekiel represents a move beyond the sins of the fathers being visited upon a thousand generations.  Here we are now in exile, in a foreign land, without the temple.  We’re beginning to see that our relationship with God is something within, beyond all the familiar rituals.  Each person is responsible for his or her own relationship with God.  (Ezekiel 18:2-4)  Granted there are images of death as punishment for sin that we find hard to digest (vss. 26-27), but there is also God’s declaration, “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone.”  (vs. 32)

 

Toward the end of the reading we find a call that surfaces more than once in the book of Ezekiel.  “ . . . get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!”  (vs. 31)  Is this perhaps part of what it takes to hear God still speaking?  It requires a new way of viewing reality.  It requires paying attention from a new center.  Can we then see the value of every life?  “Know that all lives are mine,” God says in vs. 4.  If we pay attention to the lives of those around us, perhaps we will hear God speaking and can, “Turn, then, and live.”  (vs. 32)  It’s all a bit fuzzy, but maybe it’s the kind of fuzziness through which God works.

 

I believe Paul, in the reading from Philippians, is making a similar point when he instructs his readers to “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”  (Philippians 2:5)  Now there’s a lofty ideal.  View and experience life through the mind of Jesus.  Relate to one another in the humble manner of service you see in him.  Our breakfast discussion wondered whether humility required a poor self-image.  (See vss. 3-4)  Humility is seen here more as a contrast to selfishness and is fleshed out with the example of Jesus, whose faithfulness to his commitments led him to a cross.  (vss. 5-8)  The passage ends with the declaration that “it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”  (vs. 13)  When we see God at work in acts of humility and service, we may well be witnessing God in the act of still speaking.  Trying to discern where that is happening can, at times, be a bit fuzzy, but paying attention to the work of humble service to others can give us new insights into God’s ways.

 

There was a wonderful retired school teacher in one of the congregations I served.  I called her “my warm fuzzy.”  Her presence always stirred up embers of faith in me that were on the way to losing their glow.  When I talk about “fuzzy theology,” I’m not always talking about that kind of “warm fuzzy.”  God may be speaking in the midst of conflict, in moments when we are challenged by injustice, by daily headlines, etc.  In all cases, we need to pay attention, on the lookout for a thirst-quenching word, or experience, in the wilderness.

 

Beyond the question of authority in the Gospel reading is a parable about two sons.  One says he will do the job he is given; the other declines.  The one who agreed to go does not; the one who declined ends up going and doing the work.  (Matthew 21:28-30)  The context is not unlike that in last week’s parable---the issue of the inclusion of the Gentiles.  Jesus asks, “Which of the two did the will of the father?”  (vs. 31)  The point in almost any context is that actions speak louder than words.  In this case, even tax collectors and prostitutes are included.  (vss. 31-32)  The parable underscores the focus of the Philippian reading.  Pay attention to what people are doing, how they are relating to one another, if you want to hear God speaking.

 

Perhaps the reading from Psalm 25 sums up this attitude of attentiveness, a prayer for the kind of heart and spirit that allows us to hear God speaking through the fuzziness of everyday life.  We don’t have all the answers, but we can live with the questions, daily seeking God’s leading and steadfast love.

 

“To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul . . . Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths.  Lead me in your truth, and teach me . . . Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love . . . Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, Lord! . . . God leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.”  (vss.1, 4-7, 9)
Thursday, September 18, 2014

Lectionary Scriptures:  Exodus 16:2-15 AND Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45 OR Jonah 3:10-4:11 AND Psalm 145:1-8, Philippians 1:21-30, Matthew 20:1-16

 

Isaiah 56 (not one of this week’s readings) speaks about the inclusion of foreigners and strangers (vss. 3-5), declaring that God’s house “shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” (vs. 7)  In the middle of the previous chapter God has said, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways . . . For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”  (Isaiah 55:8-9)

 

God’s vision of inclusion is so much bigger than that of many human beings.  That larger vision, as well as human chafing against it, is evident in this week’s readings.  We so often want God to do things our way rather than lifting up our heads and opening our eyes and minds to a larger vision.

 

I thought about making “complaining” the theme of this week’s blog.  When God does something unexpected, like extending compassion to someone we think should be punished, we complain.  When life is difficult, we complain.  When others flourish, especially those we think of as enemies, we complain.  Well, not everyone.  I actually experience Kairos-Milwaukie United Church of Christ as a place with a broad and inclusive vision where there is little complaining.  Still, I wonder if there aren’t those among us who would be happier if we thought God would make everything go according to our bias.

 

Jonah’s encounter with a big fish is a widely known story in our culture.  Jonah, one of God’s prophets ended up in the belly of a big fish after he ran away from God.  God wanted him to go preach to the Ninevites, whom Jonah looked upon as enemies not worthy of being called to repentance.  (Jonah 1:1-17)  While in the belly of this fish, Jonah had a change of heart.  (Jonah 2:1-9)  After the fish “spewed Jonah out upon the dry land” (vs. 10), Jonah hastened to Nineveh and delivered God’s message.  (Jonah 3:1-4)  The people repented (vss. 5-9).

 

The story is more of a parable than a history and science lesson.  I believe it was a story performed as a four act drama in a time when many of God’s people needed their vision of God’s inclusive love stretched.  This week’s reading brings us into the story at the beginning of the fourth act.  God has compassion on the Ninevites and Jonah is upset.  (Jonah 3:10-4:1)  He tells God that this is why he fled in the first place, “for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”  (vs. 2)  You didn’t do it my way.  You didn’t rain down revenge upon my enemy.

 

Within this story we find a couple of phrases that are worthy of note.  “God changed his mind” (Jonah 3:10) and was “ready to relent from punishing.”  (Jonah 4:2)  Certainly challenges some of our ideas about God.

 

God isn’t finished with Jonah yet.  Jonah is outside the city pouting. (vs. 5)  A bush grows up and Jonah is happy to receive its shade, but God sends a worm who attacks and withers the tree.  (vss. 6-7)  Again Jonah is angry.  Twice in this reading he says, “ . . . it is better for me to die than to live.” (vss. 3 &8)  Sometimes it seems like we would rather die than accept changes that challenge our sensibilities.  I once served in a congregation where a powerful member opposing a proposed action stood up and said, “I’ll bring this church down before I let that happen.”  God takes note of Jonah’s compassion for the bush “for which you did not labor and which you did not grow.”  (vs. 10)  God points out that Jonah seems to care more for the bush than the people of Nineveh.  Those are not the ways of God.  “ . . . should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”  (vs. 11)  God is concerned about every bush, person, and animal.

 

Nineveh, by the way, was one of the largest cities in the world at that time.  It was located in what is present-day Iraq, near the city of Mosul.  Ancient lessons about God’s compassion are a vivid reminder of the reach of God’s compassion today.

 

The Gospel reading is a parable about workers who put in varying hours of work and all receive the same wage.  “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.”  (Matthew 20:8)  Those who had worked the longest “grumbled.”  (vs. 11)  Who wouldn’t?  It offends our sense of fairness.  The landowner reminds them that they have been paid exactly according to what was agreed upon, telling them that he has chosen to give the others the same.  (vss. 13-15)

 

The parable is probably not primarily about economics.  In the context of early church discussion, it is about newcomers into the ranks of the faithful, about God’s love for all people, not just those who have followed him for centuries.  It may also be a challenge to how religious leaders of the day perceived and dispensed justice.  Evangelicals have often used it as a parable about who gets into heaven---although heaven and hell are never mentioned.  Deathbed confessions, they say, will still get you in, even if the idea offends those who have lived an entire life of faithfulness.

 

The punch line is another instance in which first and last are turned topsy-turvy. (vs. 16)  We have our way of viewing worth and rank, but God looks at things with a different eye.  Our attempts to rank one another---including ourselves---are blown right out of the water.  Too often we try to measure our worth by putting someone else down, but the point of both these readings is that God is much more generous with divine love than we are inclined to be.  “ . . . are you envious because I am generous?” the landlord asks. (vs. 16)

 

The focus of the other reading from the Hebrew scriptures (Exodus 16:2-15) is slightly different, but begins with complaining because God isn’t doing things the way some of the people had hoped.  I find the word “complain” or “complaining” six times in this reading, sometimes twice in the same verse---vss. 2, 7, 8, & 9.  They’ve escaped from Egypt and how here they are out in the wilderness, tired and hungry.  (vs. 3)  It’s not the way things were supposed to go.  We might as well have died back there in Egypt.

 

God promises and provides quails and “bread.”  (vss. 4-15)  Many interpreters feel compelled to “explain” this “miracle,” particularly what earlier translations call “manna.”  Here it is described as “a fine flaky substance.”  (vs. 14)  The Hebrew word actually means, “What is it?”  In the New Revised Standard Version we read, “When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, ‘What is it?’  For they did not know what it was.  Moses said to them, ‘It is bread that the Lord has given you to eat.’” (vs. 15)

 

Maybe we need to pay more attention to the mysteries God leaves us with.  “I am who I am.”  “What is it?”  Such mysteries may open the door to wider visions and understandings.  God and the works of God cannot be confined to our tiny boxes or our narrow cultural biases.

 

If we were to continue further in the story, we would find that they were to collect only enough for one day at a time.  Those who defied the instruction and tried to hoard food ended up with something rotten and wormy.  Trusting does not always come easily to us.  We want everything to go smoothly.  We want to be surrounded by abundance, but God’s ways are not always our ways.

 

The Psalms often celebrate the ways in which the Hebrew people experienced God’s liberation at work in their midst.  Psalm 105 is one such psalm, remembering, among other things, the quails and manna (see vs. 40).  No complaining now---just celebration and praise and thanksgiving.  The other Psalm is more generic in its celebration, speaking of God’s “works,” “mighty acts,” and “awesome deeds.”  (Psalm 145:4-6)  Such phrases would have evoked memories from the Exodus stories among those who first sang these words.

 

Paul never experienced a smooth road, nor did he offer one.  He could identify with Jonah and with the Israelites in the wilderness.  He struggled with questions of living and dying.  “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain . . . I am hard pressed between the two . . .”  (Philippians 1:21-23)  In the end, he chose sharing life in community with his fellow travelers.  (vss. 24-26)

 

Paul never complained about suffering, nor did he expect to be free of it.  At the end of the Philippians reading, he tells his readers that God “has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well---since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.”  (Philippians 1:29-30)

 

God’s ways are not our ways.  We might expect God to build us a four-lane freeway that never has any traffic jams.  Sometimes, though, we get stuck in traffic.  In Paul’s theology, God does all things “graciously.”  When we’re in what seems like the wilderness, when our sense of what is of worth is challenged or turned upside down, maybe God is trying to get us to see things from another point of view.  Maybe such times are times to look for the wonderful inclusive ways in which grace may be at work.

 

Psalm 145, in celebrating God’s liberating work among God’s people, ends with these words:  “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”  (vs. 8)  Would that our ways were more like God’s ways!
Wednesday, September 10, 2014
Lectionary Scriptures:  Exodus 14:19-31 OR Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21 AND Psalm 114:1-8, OR Genesis 50:15-21 AND Psalm 103:1-13, Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 18:21-35

 

I’ve become more aware, and uncomfortable, with the violence at the core of some of the central stories in our Judeo-Christian heritage.  This week’s readings related to the liberation of slaves from Egypt comes at great cost.  Liberation, of course, always involves cost, but is it necessary for so many lives to be violently obliterated, often, the stories tell us, at God’s instigation?

 

Listen to some of the story as reported in the readings about crossing the sea:

 

“The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that followed them into the sea; not one of them remained . . . Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore.”  (Exodus 14:28 & 30)

 

The next chapter is a victory song:  “I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea . . . The Lord is a warrior; the Lord is his name.  Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he cast into the sea; his picked officers were sunk in the Red Sea.  The floods covered them; they went down into the depths like a stone.”

 

While Psalm 114 is not as graphic, it celebrates the same event, in which “the sea looked and fled.”  (Psalm 114:3)

 

I know that the story is centrally about the liberation of an oppressed people.  It is not a story which celebrates the military might of a nation which overpowers those who have little ability to resist.  It moves in the opposite direction, and we must never lose sight, in stories like these, of the fact that God is on the side of the oppressed.

 

Modern times, however, have shown us the power of non-violent resistance and alternative means of overcoming the powerful.  Non-violent leaders have come along---Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela.  There were advocates of violence in the movements with which they were associated, but non-violence prevailed, and won great victories.  Jesus seemed to advocate a more reconciling approach.  Some of the other texts of today turn us toward the power of a forgiving and/or nonjudgmental attitude.  Justice is not primarily about revenge.

 

Before turning to those other readings, however, it’s worth noting what happens at the end of the song of victory in Exodus 15.  Miriam, Moses’ sister and a strong leader alongside him, sings a short solo.  (vss.20-21)   Miriam has become a popular figure among some Jewish feminists.  Our discussion at breakfast this morning took an interesting turn when I asked those present to share stories about their own experiences of liberation.  The majority are women, so the discussion turned to issues of women’s liberation.  The presence of Miriam in this reading suggests an alternative path of interpretation for those who wish to take it.

 

Now, what about the other texts?  The end of the story about Joseph and his brothers is offered as one possible reading.  His brothers come before Joseph and, following the instruction of their now deceased father, pleading for forgiveness.  (Genesis 50:14-17)  Weeping, they fall before him, and are surprised to be the recipients of Joseph’s great love for them.  “‘. . . have no fear;’ he says, ‘I myself will provide for you and your little ones.’    In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.’”  (vs. 21)

 

I’d never really paid much attention to a subtle dynamic in this interchange.  Power is often still at work in the acts of forgiveness, the one offering forgiveness lording it over the one or ones being forgiven.  Nowhere here does Joseph do that nor does he speak direct words of forgiveness.  He, in effect, tells them to get up, to stop putting him in the place of God.  (vs. 19)  He reestablishes a caring and kind relationship with them by standing with them on equal footing.  When forgiveness functions at its best, this kind of deep reconciliation occurs. 

That was the aim, partly realized, of the hearings conducted by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa.  I once served as pastor in a county where the sheriff was, believe it or not, a seminary graduate.  He established a process where victims of crimes and those who had committed the crimes talked and listened to each other in a series of Victim-Offender Reconciliation meetings.  What a way to attempt to move beyond strategies of revenge!  If only we could find our way to such talking and listening in current arenas of conflict and tribalism around the globe.

 

The Gospel reading is also about forgiveness, beginning with the question, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?  As many as seven times?”  Jesus response:  “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”  (Matthew 18:21-22)  Some translations say, “Seventy times seven.”  It makes little difference.  The point is not a matter of keeping count.  Forgiveness is to be given as often as it is requested.  I like the way a portion of I Corinthians 13:5 is translated in the Good News Bible:  “Love does not keep a record of wrongs.”

 

Matthew goes on to record Jesus telling a parable about a man who owed ten thousand talents.  (Matthew 18:24)  He falls on his knees, pleading for patience on the part of his master, who, surprisingly, forgives him.  (vss. 25-27)  The forgiven man then goes out and refuses to give the same forgiveness to someone who owes a much smaller amount to him.  (vss. 28-31)  The amounts need not concern us.  Some suggest that the first debt may have been as much as half a million dollars in today’s currency, while the 100 denarii owed by the second debtor may have been as little as $70.  Whatever the amounts, there was a great discrepancy.  One who was forgiven much refused to forgive even a little.

 

The parable links the receiving and giving of forgiveness.  (vs. 35)  Learning to work side by side in just and caring relationships requires hearts which meet in a mutual attitude of forgiveness and love.

 

Before turning to the reading from Romans, which may get us to the fundamental issue, note that Psalm 103 also emphasizes forgiveness, the forgiveness of God “who forgives all your iniquity.”  (Psalm 103:3)  “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love . . . He does not deal with us according to our sins, not repay us according to our iniquities . . . as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.”  (vss. 8, 10, & 12)

 

The reading from Romans moves beyond forgiveness to a nonjudgmental attitude.  It addresses a situation in which people are “quarreling over opinions.”  (Romans 14:1)  They disagree about what foods can be eaten, what day should be set aside for worship, etc.  (vss. 2-6)  They were deep religious issues in this time of religious ferment and change.  It’s not necessary to know the background of each issue to see that judgmentalism is the focus.  People are looking down on those who don’t follow their own preferred practice.  That never happens in our day, does it?

 

“Who are you to pass judgment? . . . Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister?  Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister?”  (vss. 4 & 10)  My ways are better than your ways!  Isn’t that an attitude that fuels so much conflict?  My religion is better than your religion.  My country or tribe is better than yours.  And we do terrible things to one another, setting in motion a dynamic that pits revenge against forgiveness.

 

This reading intervenes earlier in the process.  What if we just stopped judging one another?  Wouldn’t we already be a long way down the road toward reconciliation?  Don’t we have here the seeds of an alternative to violence?

 

In the middle of these verses, we are reminded of how self-centered we get in our relationships.  We are told that no matter what alternative we choose, we are to place it in the context of the Spirit of Christ.  “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves.  If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”  (vss. 7-8)  We, all of us, all of us involved in this “quarreling about opinions.”  Liberation without violence requires a new way of looking at things and at one another.  When we look for and find the image of God in the one to whom we would do violence, we have begun to travel down the road to reconciliation.
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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