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Thursday, October 30, 2014

Lectionary Scriptures:

For All Saints Day (Saturday, Nov. 1):  Revelation 7:9-17, Psalm 34:1-10, 22, I John 3:1-3, Matthew 5:1-12

For Sunday, Nov. 2:  Joshua 3:7-17 AND Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37 OR Micah 3:5-12 AND Psalm 43:1-5, I Thessalonians 2:9-13, Matthew 23:1-12

 

Since Sunday, November 2, is a day when many congregations will celebrate the saints as part of their worship, I’ve included the readings from Saturday (All Saints Day) along with the Sunday readings, although I will not be focusing primarily upon a traditional “saintly” theme.

 

Traditional theology has often included reference to a time of tribulation which we must survive to reach the promised eternal future with God, the future described in the reading from the book of Revelation as being “before the throne of God.”  There, we are told, the saints will “worship him day and night . . . and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.  They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”  (Revelation 7:15-17)

 

This reading is included for All Saints Day because it seems to depict a gathering of the saints in this “heavenly” setting.  “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages . . . robed in white.”  (vs. 9)  These are the ones, we are told, “who have come out of the great ordeal.”  (vs. 14)

 

I don’t want to add to attempts to create a systematic theology of end things, nor even to discuss the meaning of this “great ordeal.”  I had no other name for it than “The Tribulation” when I was growing up.  Today I am able to look up many different translations and find it called “the great distress,” “the great suffering,” and “the terrible persecution.”  Those who want to emphasize issues of justice may like J.B. Phillips use of “the great oppression.”

 

Our son in Hawaii sent us a copy of “Da Jesus Book,” a translation in Hawaiian Pidgin.  Here the words are “da big trouble.”  Whatever the long term unfolding of history, most of us face enough trouble along the paths of life without adding a cosmic cataclysm to worry about.  Most of us see enough tragedy and violence, domestic and international, in the daily headlines, on the streets of our cities, or in our homes, to occupy all the attention we can give them.  Psalm 107 speaks of those the Lord “redeemed from trouble.”  (Psalm 107:2)

 

Finding our way through, or out of, trouble, seems to be one of the themes of scripture.  It’s there in the reading from Joshua, where it involves walking through the Jordan River on dry ground.  We are caught up in an astounding story where “the waters flowing from above stood still, rising up in a single heap . . . while those flowing toward the sea . . . were wholly cut off . . . While all Israel were crossing over on dry ground, the priests who bore the ark of the covenant of the lord stood on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan, until the entire nation finished crossing over the Jordan.”  (Joshua 3:16-17) 

 

I don’t care, today at least, to get caught up in a discussion of “what really happened,” i.e., to try to find a rational “explanation” for this event.  I don’t even want to interpret the place of this story in the history and identity of the Israelites.  I simply want to take it as another biblical example of God’s presence as we deal with the troubles that sometimes threaten to inundate us from this side and that.  We find it is Psalm 34:6---“This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord, and was saved from every trouble.”  It’s there in the Beatitudes where there is comfort for those who mourn and blessing for the persecuted (and many others).  “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven . . .”  (Matthew 5:1-12)  Going back to Psalm 107, we read, “Some wandered in desert wastes, finding no way to an inhabited town; hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted within them.  Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress.”  (Psalm 107:4-6)  In Psalm 43, the Psalmist asks, “Why must I walk about mournfully because of the oppression of the enemy?  O send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; . . . Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?  Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.”  (Psalm 43:2-3, 5)

 

We are not told that life will be easy, only that God will walk with us through all things, and that we can get safely to the other side of the river.  Even Paul, in I Thessalonians speaks of “labor and toil,” of working “night and day.”  (I Thessalonians 2:9)  As always he offers encouragement to the Thessalonians in their attempts to live a worthy life.  (vs. 12)

 

I wish I had an easy answer for getting through troubles.  An unseen presence does not always seem like enough comfort and encouragement, but on sometimes it’s all we have---and, as in all things involving faith, it may be more than we think.  In the meantime, we are encouraged to put one foot in front of the other and continue toward the other side.  During my tenure on the national denominational staff of the American Baptist Churches, I spent some years leading a department through some troubled times.  At the end of that time, one of my staff members said, “You not only kept us afloat, you continued rowing toward the other side.”  I still treasure his words these many years later.  May we all continue rowing toward the other side.

 

The two scriptures we discussed at breakfast this week do not address the theme of “troubles” head on.  Instead they focus on leadership.  Who will lead us through troubled times?  Can we trust them?  What is their motivation?  In both Micah three and Matthew 23, we are warned to be alert for corruption and hypocrisy.  With election day coming up, they seemed most appropriate.  Micah three warns against “prophets who lead my people astray.”  (Micah 3:5)  It speaks of rulers who “give judgment for a bribe, its priests teach for a price, its prophets give oracles for money.”  (vs. 11)  Following such leaders is to go down the path of destruction.  (vs. 12)  The true leader is “filled with power, with the spirit of the Lord, and with justice and might.”  (vs. 8)

 

In Matthew the emphasis is upon leaders who “do not practice what they teach.  They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.  They do all their deeds to be seen by others . . . They love to have places of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues . . .”  (Matthew 23:3-6)  It’s important to notice that the teaching itself is not at fault.  “ . . . do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do.”  (vs. 3)  The punch line in the telling of this story, however, is in the instruction to be a servant.  “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”  (vss. 11-12)

 

It is true that those who are humble and willing to be of service to others may find others taking advantage of them, even ridiculing or persecuting them, but it is they, I believe, who will best find their way through the troubles and know the full meaning of living in God’s Kingdom.

 

That leaves one reading---I John 3:1-3.  The only thing it seems to have in common with some of the others is its reference to a time of transition---with no reference to troubles or tribulation.  The focus is upon our identity as children of God. “What we will be has not yet been revealed.  What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.  And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.”  Getting through finally seems to be a matter of identity---as children of God, as those who live as “servants” in God’s Kingdom.

 

Reading the Bible in Hawaiian pidgin has been refreshing, so I leave you with that version of portions of two of this week’s lectionary readings.

 

Matthew 5:11---“You guys can stay good inside wen dey talk bad to you guys, an make you guys suffa, an dey talk any kine bout you guys, cuz you guys mines.”

 

I John 1:1-3---“Tink bout da kine love an aloha da Fadda wen show us! He even wen call us his kids! An we his kids fo real kine, you know . . . My good friends, we God's kids awready.
Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Lectionary Scriptures:  Deuteronomy 34:1-12 AND Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17 OR Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 AND Psalm 1:1-6, I Thessalonians 2:1-8, Matthew 22:34-46

 

In this week’s lectionary reading from Leviticus, the Lord says to Moses, “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”  (Leviticus 19:1-2)  Wow!  Really!  You’ve got to be kidding.

 

I suspect that most of us don’t often think of ourselves as holy, certainly not holy like God.  What does it mean to be holy, anyway?  We batted that question around a bit at breakfast this morning---before we even looked at any of the texts.  The wisdom, and biblically-informed understanding, was astounding.  By refusing to first examine the texts, or perhaps just because of the “earthiness” of the members of this group that gathers weekly for breakfast, the answers didn’t float away into the clouds.  Our understandings of holiness were tethered, sometimes perhaps a bit tenuously, to everyday reality, in some cases shaped negatively by the rigidity and self-righteousness of church experiences earlier in our lives.

 

Rather than try to recreate the breakfast discussion, I want to take note of some common dictionary definitions and biblical understandings, before plunging right into this week’s texts.

 

A common understanding of “holy” is captured when it is defined as “religious and morally good.”  Being holy is living according to the rules.  A second definition puts it this way: “exalted or worthy of complete devotion as one perfect in goodness and righteousness.”  Holiness and perfection are sometimes connected (and abused) biblically and by some churches whose theology adheres to a particular interpretation of sanctification and perfection.  Someone who is considered “holy” may even be “venerated as or as if sacred,” “sacred” sometimes being viewed as a synonym of “holy.”  Such people are may be considered “saints,” the Catholic Church having a whole process for identifying them.  A “saint,” in that process, is, among other things, someone associated with two miracles after their death.  When the Bible speaks of “saints” it literally means “holy ones.”

 

One final definition from the dictionary: “having a divine quality.”  It’s there already in the words from Leviticus:  “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”  The holiness to which the people are called in that verse is an attribute of God.  Being holy is, in some way, partaking of the very nature of God.

 

The reading from Leviticus is, in fact, part of what has been called “The Holiness Code.”  Chapters 17-26 of Leviticus differ in style from the rest of the book.  Without getting into detail it appears to be a collection of laws that define what it mean to be holy as God is holy.  They take, as we (and portions of the Bible) often do, a moral approach to being “holy.”  Remember, though, that this holiness is rooted in a deeper reality, losing (or finding) ourselves in the essence of God’s being.

 

The particular selection of verses in the reading reminds us that being holy involves our relationships with our neighbors.  “You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor.  You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor . . . You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin . . . You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  Twice in this list, the words, “I am the Lord,” are interjected.  (Leviticus 19:15-18)

 

The Gospel reading from Matthew looks back to this connection with neighbor in Torah, when Jesus is asked which commandment is the greatest.  Jesus says, “'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind' and "a second it like it:  'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”  (Matthew 22:36-40)

 

In Luke’s version of this encounter, after Jesus’ response the questioner wants to know, “Who is my neighbor?”  (Luke 10:29)  Jesus uses the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-35) to make the point that our neighbor is not just the person who lives next door to us---with whom we may or may not be on friendly terms.  However one interprets the nuances of the parable, two things are quite clear.  1.  The definition of neighbor stretches beyond usual boundaries to include those with whom we might normally refuse to associate, Samaritans in this case.  2.  Being a neighbor involves giving compassionate help where there is need.  (Luke 10:36-37)

 

So---I come to the theme suggested in the title of this week’s blog entry.  Holiness is found, among other places, when we find God is the middle of our relationships with one another, including our neighbor in the broadest sense of the word.  There is a biblical story about a burning bush before which Moses is told, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”  (Exodus 3:6)  I would suggest that standing in the presence of another human being is standing on holy ground.  There are many experiences in life that can probably be defined as “holy,” but perhaps the highest is when we experience intimate loving and caring in human relationships.

 

Paul often gives thanks for his relationships with Jesus’ followers in the churches to which he writes, encouraging them to care for one another.  Among his more moving expressions is that found at the end of the reading from his first letter to the Thessalonians.  “ . . . we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.  So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.”  (I Thessalonians 2:7-8---It may be worthy of note that later in the letter---I Thessalonians 4:3-12---he writes of sanctification and holiness, perhaps in terms that sound a little legalistic to us but including the reminder that “you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another.”)

 

Only one of the three remaining lectionary texts fits neatly into the “holiness” discussion.  Psalm 1 is notable for its contrast between what might be called a “holy” person and an “unholy” one.  They are defined by their embrace of “the law of the Lord” or their scoffing at it.  I don’t find the sharp contrast as instructive or comforting as I once did, but it does suggest holiness is defined, at least in part, by the direction in which we try to aim our lives.  It is more about willful choices than minor misdeeds.

 

Psalm 90 is more a cry for compassion:  “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love.”  (vs. 14)  It ends with this petition:  “Let your work be manifest to your servants, and your glorious power to their children.  Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands---O prosper the work of our hands!”  (vss. 16-17)  Can we see here a hint that God’s holiness may somehow be expressed in “the work of our hands”?

 

The reading from Deuteronomy gives us the story of Moses’ death.  (Deuteronomy 34:5-7)  He died looking across the river into the land he would not reach. (vss. 1-4)  We don’t need to go back to the story about how he lost that opportunity to reflect on the fact that life usually ends with some tasks and aspirations not achieved.  It is sufficient to realize how the moments of memory shared with the gathered community can be moments when it feels like we are standing on holy ground.  Every human life has its holy moments.  It is particularly moving, in this case, when we are told, “Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated.”  (vs. 7---What I wouldn’t give for some of that unabated vigor.)  “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.”  (vs. 10)

 

We’re coming up on All Saints’ Day.  What if we looked around at one another and at neighbors near and far and said, “Holy, holy, holy”?
Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Lectionary Scriptures:  Exodus 33:12-23 AND Psalm 99:1-9 OR Isaiah 45:1-7 AND Psalm 96:1-13, I Thessalonians 1:1-10, Matthew 22:15-22

 

Oh, how the memory of an old man (me) mixes things together.  As I was reading this week’s lectionary selections, my mind tugged me back to times when science fiction was a steady part of my reading menu.  The phrase, “To infinity and beyond,” arose out of the mist, and I immediately associated it with Star Trek.  Wrong!  It is the signature phrase of Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story.  Each episode of Star Trek did begin with the haunting narration of these words:  Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

 

In both cases our minds are stretched to look beyond familiar and easily explained horizons.  Any God worth worshipping, any religion worth practicing, has that kind of “beyond” element at its heart.  It’s not a “beyond” that allows us to escape the world, but a “beyond” that illuminates, help us to acknowledge that the meaning is life is much more than surface observations and impressions.

 

These are some dictionary definitions of “beyond”:  on, at, or to the farther side of,”farther on than; more distant than,”outside the understanding, limits, or reach of,” superior to; surpassing, more than.”  We sometimes speak of “the great beyond,” usually meaning life after death.  I was never a great follower of popular musical groups, so it was only when it came up in an internet search that I knew R.E.M. had a song entitled, “The Great Beyond.”  Most of the lyrics don’t contribute much to my emphasis this week, but the central refrain expresses the sentiment of many religious seekers. 

 

I'm breaking through
I'm bending spoons
I'm keeping flowers in full bloom
I'm looking for answers from the great beyond

 

“I’m looking for answers from the great beyond.”  Aren’t we all?  We want clarity.  What is God really like?  Show us, God, and then everything will be all right.

 

Moses wanted to see clearly.  The reading from Exodus tells us a delightful, slightly amusing, story if we can get beyond some of the literal images that may offend us.  Moses is feeling overwhelmed with the task God has given him.  (Exodus 33:12)  God assures him, “My presence will go with you.”  (vs. 14)  If God is the one who is going to have his back, Moses wants a clear look at this partner.  “Show me your glory, I pray.”  (vs. 18)

 

“Glory” may be another way of speaking of the mystery that is just beyond our understanding.  It is most commonly associated with words like “magnificence, illumination, brilliance.”  It is often used to speak of great honor, praise, value, wonder, and splendor.  Several of the readings this week are about ascribing glory to God in the latter sense.  Psalm 99 talks about the Lord as a king, “exalted over all the peoples.”  (Psalm 99:1-2)  “Let them praise your great and awesome name . . . worship at his footstool.  Holy is he!”  (vss. 3 & 5)  Psalm 96 sings the praises of the Lord in a “new song.”  (Psalm 96:1-2)  “Declare his glory among the nations . . . For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised . . . Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name.”  (vss. 3-4, 8)  To come into the presence of this God is to experience awe.  The tone and context in Isaiah are somewhat different, but the sense of a God who carries us to the very edge of the beyond is very much present.  God says, “I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who call you by name . . . I am the Lord, and there is no other . . . I form light and create darkness . . . I the Lord do all these things.”  (Isaiah 45:3, 5, 7)

 

The source of all the power behind that is what Moses wants to see.  I’m not sure I could stand it.  Sounds a little scary.  In fact, that’s what God tells Moses.  “It’s too much for you.  It’s more than you can take in and understand.”  Actually, these are God’s words:  “You cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.”  (Exodus 33:20)  God does promise to show Moses his “goodness” and declares, “I will be gracious to whom I will gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.”  (vs. 19)

 

Then the story turns a little weird.  God puts Moses in a safe place (“a cleft” in the rock) and promises to show his “back.”  (vss. 21-23)  Is God going to “moon” Moses?  The King James Version of the Bible actually says, “back parts.”  Of course, most of us don’t think of God in quite such physical, human-like, images.  One writer speaks of it as seeing God going away, so that Moses gets “the after-glow of the Divine radiance.”  Maybe we are best able to see the “glory” of God, the hand of God at work, in hindsight.

 

There’s much to ponder, on another day, in this final three verses of the Exodus reading.  Whatever we see in them, it is clear that the fullness of God’s reality, the fullness of life, cannot be fully grasped and understood.  Moses simply has to trust that God will be, is, with him.  That is, perhaps, central to what it means to walk in faith, for us as well as Moses.

 

It’s true in everyday living as well as in some “beyond.”  As much as we would like clear instructions that could be applied in every specific situation, we don’t always get them.  When Jesus is asked a question about paying taxes, we don’t get a clear discourse on how to approach matters of church and state.  Of course, as was often the case, they are out to trap Jesus.  (Matthew 22:15-16)  They want him to answer in a way that will allow them to charge him with treason.  He asks for a coin and asks whose image is on it.  (vss. 19-20)  It is the emperor, so Jesus says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  (vs. 21)  It leaves wide open what belongs to the emperor and what belongs to God.  Some would say that all things belong to God.  Does that mean that human governments have no legitimacy whatsoever?  Others would say that money belongs to the government which mints it, that they can legitimately collect taxes.  But what if government and the collection of taxes become oppressive?  There are no easy answers in life.  All we can do is look at God’s backside and try to discern where glory is at work.  Walking in faith requires that kind of decision-making daily.

 

Finally, the epistle reading from I Thessalonians combines mystical awe and living out the implications daily.  As always, Paul remembers with thanksgiving “your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”  (I Thessalonians 1:2-3)  He talks about the message of the gospel being more than words.  It “came to you . . . also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction . . . you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit.”  (vss. 5-6)  Dare we say that it came as an expression of “glory”?

 

The bottom line, though, comes when all that “glory” is lived out, to the best of our ability, in everyday life.  “ . . . you became an example to all . . . in every place your faith in God has become known . . . the people . . . report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God . . .”  (vss. 7-10)

 

Moses didn’t stay hidden in that rock.  He went to work as a community organizer, encouraging his people to move forward enlightened by God’s glory, even when the glory is viewed only from the back side.  Another story, in the next chapter of Exodus is equally “fantastic” and worthy of note.  Moses’ face “shone,” so that he had to put a veil on before speaking to the people.  (Exodus 34:29-35)

 

Whatever glory is in the beyond, in the “more” of God and the “more” of life, it is awesome indeed, more than we can fully understand, overwhelming.  Nevertheless, even when all we see is the back side, we are called to live according to whatever light we have received.

 

As was the case last week, I leave you with a quote which I intuitively link with all I’ve been saying.  It is from Brian Doyle’s novel, The Plover.  Enrique (the villain of the novel) has been badly burned.  Now he is being cared for by an enormous compassionate woman on the deck of the Plover, the protagonist 's boat presently off on island in the south Pacific.  She says to him, “You are as burned as burned can be.  Why do you want to live in the fire?  The fire is no place to be.  Whatever it is you were looking for isn’t there.  It was never there.  You cannot command the fire.  The fire is not ours.  You can visit the fire but if you try to live there, this is what happens.  This is the time for you to think about the next person you want to be.  You cannot stay the same person all your life.  If you are still a child inside this body you need to come out now and become a man.  You forget that I worked for you for a year and a day and I saw you with the fire.  I saw how you talked to it.  Whatever it was you used to be is burned and gone.  This is a good time to think about a new skin.  You still have your old feet but everything else will be new and who will live inside your new parts?”
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?”
Thursday, October 02, 2014
Lectionary Scriptures:  Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 AND Psalm 19:1-14 OR Isaiah 5:1-7 AND Psalm 80:7-15, Philippians 3:4b-14, Matthew 21:33-46

 

There’s something in most of us (maybe even all of us) that seems to long to do what is right and live in a world where the people around us do what is right.  Despite the evidence that many of us miss the mark (maybe don’t even aim for it), I like to think that there is a divine impulse at work within us (individually and together) urging us toward what some call “righteousness.”

 

Problems begin to arise, however, when righteousness is expressed through the rigidity of law, when our interpretations of what is right differ and we try to impose our understandings on others, sometimes by force.  We even have a saying, “Might makes right.”  When we clash over our definitions of right and wrong, it is often the powerful who are able to force the weak to submit to their definitions.

 

Psalm 33 is not one of this week’s readings, but those readings did bring it to mind, so I include part of it here for whatever you want to make of it: “A king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength.  The war horse is a vain hope for victory, and by its great might it cannot save.  Truly the eye of the Lord is . . .  on those who hope in his steadfast love . . .”  (vss. 16-18)

 

While this week’s lectionary readings do not all directly and centrally address the definition of right and wrong, they can help us reflect on the nature of those definitions, their function, and how they come about.

 

The reading from Exodus 20 is one version of the Ten Commandments.  (See Deuteronomy 5 for the other prominent version.)  They are presented as God-given, but they are also understood by many as simple rules that are essential to the proper functioning of society as people who live in relationship with one another.  Societies don’t function very well if there are not a few rules about respect and mutual welfare.  Rules are seen as a matter of tribal survival.  Unfortunately fear has often been used to coerce obedience to the laws.  If you don’t obey these commandments you’re going to hell.  Even here we have verse 20:  “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.”

 

Several of the readings use the image of God as owner and planter of a vineyard, his tribes being the vineyard.  It was cared for with deep love, but it didn’t behave as intended.  It didn’t follow the rules of good horticulture.  It yielded only wild grapes. (Isaiah 5:1-3)  God’s people have become wild and unruly.  “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!”  (vs. 7)  The vineyard will be allowed to follow the natural path to destruction.

 

Perhaps it is not as much active punishment for disobedience to the law as it is recognition that total lawlessness and disorder cannot long persist.  We need some order in our lives and relationships if we are to live fruitfully.

 

Psalm 80 is a poetic expression of the same image.  “You brought a vine out of Egypt . . . You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land.”  (vss. 8-9)  Now the vineyard is facing destruction.  (vss. 12-13)  The reasons are not spelled out.  Instead the Psalmist cries out, “Turn again, O God of hosts; look down from heaven, and see; have regard for this vine.”  (vs. 14)

 

The Gospel lesson is a parable about a vineyard left in the care of tenants.  The owner, who lives in another country, sends slaves to collect from the tenants.  The tenants kill the first contingent of slaves; then, a second.  Finally the owner sends his son, whom they also kill.  (Matthew 21:33-39)  It is tempting to take the path of some theologians and read this as a story about Jesus (the son) being crucified, and many prophets (the slaves) before him.  The immediate application seems related to the specific occasion and audience.  “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” Jesus asks.  The respondents assume that it is a parable about punishment for criminal behavior, and it is about consequences.

 

Jesus summarizes the meaning in verse 43:  “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produce the fruit of the kingdom.”  At this point the chief priests and Pharisees who have been listening to the parable “realized that he was speaking about them.”  (vs. 45)  Some have used this parable to suggest that Christians have superseded the Jews in God’s favor.  Rather the parable, I believe, is always speaking to the immediate hearers whoever they happened to be.  It is not any specific tribe that is God’s vineyard.  God’s call is for all to bear fruit, to live “righteously.”  There will always be people who rise to the challenge and others who fall short.  The laws that lead to life are given to inspire and guide all of us, not a rigidly woven straightjacket that defines who is in and who is out.

 

(As an aside, I note that it would be interesting to come at the parable from a different perspective.  What about the absentee landlord who sends “slaves” to perhaps take advantage of these hard-working tenants?  Did Jesus intend his hearers to notice such nuances in the story?  Worth exploring at another time, or on your own.)

 

I’ve mentioned before that my wife and I have been reading Rachel Held Evans’ book, Faith Unraveled.  She sometimes comes up with a truly inspiring paragraph or two.  A couple I’m including here are an appropriate part of our discussion of might and right.

 

“ . . . we all carry around false fundamentals.  We all have unexamined assumptions and lists of rules, both spoken and unspoken, that weigh down our faith.  We’ve all got little measuring sticks that help us determine who’s ‘in’ and who’s ‘out,’ and we’ve all got truths we don’t want to face because we’re afraid that our faith can’t stand change.  It’s not just conservative Christians.  Many of us who consider ourselves more progressive can be tolerant of everyone except the intolerant, judgmental toward those we deem judgmental, and unfairly critical of tradition or authority or doctrine or the establishment or whatever it is we’re in the process of deconstructing at the moment.  In a way, we’re all fundamentalists.  We all have pet theological systems, political positions, and standards of morality that are not essential to the gospel but that we cling to so tightly that we leave fingernail prints on the palms of our hands.

. . . .

“Taking on the yoke of Jesus is not about signing a doctrinal statement or making an intellectual commitment to a set of propositions.  It isn’t about being right or getting our facts straight.  It is about loving God and loving other people.  The yoke is hard because the teachings of Jesus are radical: enemy love, unconditional forgiveness, extreme generosity.   The yoke is easy because it is accessible to all---the studied and the ignorant, the rich and the poor, the religious and the nonreligious.  Whether we like it or not, love is available to all people everywhere to be interpreted differently, applied differently, screwed up differently, and manifested differently.  Love is bigger than faith, and it’s bigger than works, for it inhabits and transcends both.”

 

In the epistle reading, Paul attests to the limits of tribal law and custom.  He has excelled in every way in the religion of his ancestors.  (Philippians 3:4b-6)  He counts all that as nothing compared to the life and hope he has found in Christ.  (vss. 7-11)  Most of all he emphasizes that he hasn’t finished the race of life yet.  “ . . . forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”  (vs. 14—See also vss. 12-13)  Life is always about stretching beyond the limits of any particular codification into the future where God is still speaking.

 

Finally, Psalm 19, familiar to many, speaks of the Law, stressing its power to revive the soul and rejoice the heart.  (vss. 7-8)  It is “more to be desired . . . than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.”  (vs. 10)  Law is not just rigid rules.  Law is a matter of the heart.  It is more than what is written on parchment.  If we are attuned to nature we may find the road to harmonious living.  (vss. 1-6)  Psalm 19 can perhaps be seen as giving us meditative guidance as we seek to move beyond the abuse of power and might to a law written on the heart. 

Some of us grew up using the final words of the Psalm as a unison benediction at the end of worship or heard them as words just before the sermon.  “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”  (vs. 14)  May they be words kept in our hearts and minds as we daily seek to do what is right in personal living, in our relationships with one another, in our national and international dealing with the people of this world.  Hear again these words of Rachel Held Evans:  Whether we like it or not, love is available to all people everywhere to be interpreted differently, applied differently, screwed up differently, and manifested differently.  Love is bigger than faith, and it’s bigger than works, for it inhabits and transcends both.” In Isaiah we read that the owner of the vineyard “expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!”  There’s still lots of crying.  May the meditations of our hearts be attuned to those cries!

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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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