It took a year to read the Bible, then almost 9 months to read the Apocrypha. Now, I'm going to try to offer reflections on the Narrative Lectionary. But, I won't be posting daily--at least, for a while.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Glorious Inheritance, a Reflection on Ephesians 1:11-23

Sections of Ephesians 1 are used in the lectionary five times: 2nd Sunday after Christmas and Ascension every year; Reign of Christ, Year B; July 10-16, Year B; and this year for All Saints.

Reading the passage and thinking about how its message applies to our celebration of All Saints Day, I am focusing today on the references to saints. Paul's prayer is for those who have faith in the Lord Jesus and love toward all the saints, that they might know the riches of the glorious inheritance among those saints.

Let's pause a moment to think about what we mean when we hear the word "inheritance" and then reflect on what it means in this letter. He calls it glorious and refers to it as being immeasurable greatness of power. But not just money that the descendants can use to buy a lot of expensive stuff for themselves. Rather, the power is working among us to continue the work that Christ began and the work that continues by the church, his body, which fills all in all.

Repeat from Nov 2008
God raised Christ from the dead, Reflection on Ephesians 1:15-23
Paul wrote to the Ephesians, and through them to us, "You have been called. God has immeasurable power, and has put this power to work in Christ by raising him from the dead... The church is the body of Christ."

Simon Barrow, of Ekklesia, has written about the continuing contemporary importance to Christians of the concept and fact of resurrection:

So let’s get straight to the heart of the matter. What does it mean to speak, as Christians should do, of the “bodily resurrection of Jesus”, the wounded and crucified healer, as the very basis of our life?

Rather, to confess that “God raised Jesus” is to believe that everything of substance in the life of Jesus, the human person who is indissolubly God’s person, is dynamically taken up in, through and beyond death into the life of God – a quality of living and a form of life that affirms, but also transcends, anything we can currently mean by the term ‘life’. This is not any old life but “new life”, says the New Testament, in a variety of ways. It is, if you will, God’s unconditioned love recreating possibilities for emergent life that we thought had been lost, sinfully destroyed, denied, wasted, gambled away or blocked off. Not some vague post-mortem assimilation into the Godhead, but a new order of being.

To believe that “Christ has been raised” is to live in a new way, sustained by God rather than our own efforts alone, as if the order of death had no final determination. Among other things, it is to refuse killing as an instrument of policy, as an untruth not just a moral outrage. This is why resurrection, the non-violent, non-vengeful and utterly gracious (‘given’, not made or claimed) form of eschatological living, is the ultimate threat to Caesar and his empire – which finally can only rule by death and its thrall, because it knows of no other possibility that would allow it go on being what it is.

Repeat of a Repeat:
Power to the Church, a Reflection on Ephesians 1:15-23
Repeat from last year:
"I pray that God will send you the Spirit," Paul writes to the Ephesians.

Here's what the Spirit does for the church: enlightens the eyes of your heart
--that is, helps you to catch on to what God intends for you to be doing and what God has already done for you.

To these early Christians as they began to form congregations and missions, he is emphasizing power and what power is to be used for.

To these Christians adjusting to their life after the crucifixion of Jesus, he writes of the power available to them through God. God put this power to work in Christ and has made him the head of the church. The church is the body of Christ, "the fullness of him who fills all in all."

As I regularly do, I have been reading Boring & Craddock's People's New Testament Commentary. And, as I regularly am, I am glad that I do. For example,here's their discussion of the phrase, "glorious inheritance":

The phrase refers to God's inheritance, not the believers'. In Old Testament theology, Israel as God's chosen people is often called God's inheritance (Deut 4:20; 9:26, 29; 2 Sam 21:3; 1 Kings 8:51, 53; Ps 28:9; 33:12; 68:9; 78:62, 71; 94:14; 106:5, 4-; Isa 19:25; 47:6; 63:17; Jer 10:16; 51:19). For the author of Ephesians, to be in the church is to be incorporated into the continuing people of God, Israel (2:11-12).

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Divine Agenda, a Reflection on Luke 6:20-31

Earlier in this chapter, after chastising some religious folks for criticizing his disciples for plucking some grain on the sabbath, Jesus healed a man in the synagogue. When you interpret rules, consider what the rules were meant to guide you to do.

The passage from Luke chosen for the commemoration of All Saints is the beginning of a sermon given before a great multitude of people who have come to hear him and to be healed. (This section from Luke is similar to what we call the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7).

Jesus counterposes blessings with woes. Read them and consider the typical value system. Jesus says that the poor will receive the kingdom of God, those who are hungry now will be filled, those who weep now will laugh, and those who are reviled because of their service to the Son of Man will receive a great reward in heaven. On the other hand, those who are rich now or well-fed or laughing or well-regarded have already received all the good they are going to get, only woes are left for them. Other scriptures include similar reversals; e.g., Deuteronomy 11:26-29; Luke 1:46-55.

Sharon Ringe in her commentary on Luke reminds us:
In each case, the blessing makes a statement of fact: one is blessed because of a future that is a sure part of God's reign. There is no note on threat or challenge in these blessings: Nowhere do they say, "Do this in order to guarantee a specific result." They announce a truth about the divine agenda rather than a mandate for human morality. In a similar way the list of woes is not one of behaviors to be avoided or changed in order to avert disaster. Instead it states facts....They are not being punished for thir actions; rather, they have enjoyed the blessings, and now the turn passes to others.

Friday, October 29, 2010

After the End, a reflection on Daniel 1-3, 15-18; Psalm 149

In my recent experience, the local church has celebrated All Saints Day by remembering by name the members of the congregation that have died in the last year. The church gathers, remembers, is consoled. This passage from Daniel when I looked at it today at first didn't seem to me to fit the mood or message of that kind of service. But, I kept looking--at the words of Daniel, and, of course, of the words of commentators.

Daniel is living in troubled times. He is expecting apocalyptic change to come into his world. I have been thinking about All Saints Day as a time we remember someone we have lost and receive consolation that that person is not in the presence of the Lord. Daniel was thinking about his whole nation and everybody in it being swept up. As he said, "my spirit was troubled within me, and the visions of my head terrified me."

Yet, the response to this terror is also one of great consolation, a promise to the holy ones of life in the kingdom of God forever.

Background, repeat of a post from 2009 on another passage from Daniel:
Cyrus of Persia had conquered the Babylonians and allowed the Judeans to return home from exile and to rebuild their temple in Jerusalem. Limited automony under Persian rule continued until Alexander led the Greek defeat of Persia. After his death, his empire split into rival empires--and Judea lay between them.

At the time the book of Daniel was written, the beginning of the 2nd century BCE, the Secleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes had turned his attention to control of the Jerusalem temple and the gold that was there.

Hear echoes of their situation in the reading from Daniel 7. In a time that a great beast that devoured and crushed, Daniel has a vision (7:1-8).

In his vision, Daniel sees the Ancient of Days, a overwhelmingly powerful one who is served by thousands and myriads. Daniel then sees what he describes as One like a human being. This one is presented to the Ancient One who gives him dominion, glory, and kingship. Every nation of every language is to serve him. His dominion is eternal.

[Source: Lawrence M. Wills, commentary in the Jewish Study Bible]

Christians have appropriated this vision for the coming of Christ because we see his role as one to break the dominion of those who would do harm. We agree with the Jews that God is sovereign over history and that God intends blessings for us not repression and violence....

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Fulfillment, a Reflection on 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12

Paul (or one of his followers) is writing this letter to a congregation that has been doing a lot of things that are commendable. They have exhibited an abundantly growing faith and an increasing love for each other. Yet, they are suffering persecutions and afflictions. Being good does not make us immune to the badness of others. But, as the Thessalonians demonstrate, being treated badly does not keep us from doing good.

In verse 11, Paul turns to prayer. What do we want people to pray for us? Do we want success? money? good health? peace of mind? These aren't exactly what Paul is praying for in their case. Rather, he is asking that they be made worthy of their call, that they will do the work that God has intended for them to do. Their work will demonstrate Jesus.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Complain while Waiting, a Reflection on Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-14; Psalm 119:137-144


"O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?"

The prophet laments that he sees destruction and violence all around him. The law is not protecting the righteous from the wicked. And he wants to know why the Lord isn't fixing things right now.

We continue to see injustice. We turn to God both because we think that God would not approve of anyone causing injustice and because we think that God has the power and the willingness to change the situation.

So, we have this reading from Habakkuk that gives us permission to complain, to cry out, and to question God, that gives us words that were said long ago for a specific situation but fit our own specific troubles in our lives.

Habakkuk was willing to wait for an answer and did receive one. The Lord told him to tell others that they, too, would have a vision, but that they too should be prepared to wait.

Good news or hard message? The proud do not see the need for God's help. The righteous, however, live their lives faithfully.

The lectionary this week chooses a portion of Psalm 119 as a respond to the reading from Habukkuk. It assumes that we religious people are going to have a reason to complain, "Trouble and anguish have come upon me." But, the main thrust is our trust that the Lord is in charge and will make things right for us. And, because we believe this, we will act the way the Lord intended for us to act, "Your righteousness is an everlasting righteousness, and your law is the truth."

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

What God Asks of Us, a reflection on Isaiah 1:10-18; Psalm 32:1-7

Isaiah presents the case against Judah. He uses the epithets Sodom and Gomorrah. It helps to understand this passage if we realize that their sin was inhospitality rather than what seems more convenient to us to be against.

"Don't be like Sodom and Gomorrah," Isaiah tells them that the Lord is saying. "They pretended to worship me, but they neglected to do any true worship. What I require is not parading around in public but rather taking care of those who need care."

What good is our worship if we ignore God's concerns?

The Lord has specific suggestions: rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

We shouldn't comfort ourselves by saying that we don't sacrifice bulls in our sanctuaries anymore. These warnings are still relevant. What are our churches concerned about? How much time and money are we spending on ourselves and much effort are we putting into seeking what God considers justice?

The Lord gave and gives options: No matter how sinful you have been, you can repent and change. Building a world in which all have justice will result in a world in which you will benefit. Building a world in which many suffer will result in your having to live there too--a place of need and threat and fear.

Psalm 32 contrasts the joy of being forgiven with the pain in consequence with the refusal to admit one's sins:
Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you;
You are a hiding place for me;
you preserve me from trouble;
you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Salvation of Zacchaeus, a Reflection on Luke 19:1-10

As a tax collector, Zacchaeus would have been viewed as a collaborator with the occupier. Yet, Jesus invites himself over to his house. How shocked should we be? After all, in last week's Gospel passage, Luke 18:9-14, Jesus declared a tax collector to be justified but not the religious person who was proud of being religious.

But, Zacchaeus is also rich, and as Sharon Ringe reminds us in her Commentary on Luke, rich people don't fare as well; e.g., 12:13-21; 16:19-31; 18:18-25.

The people who were there did not approve of Jesus' willing association with someone they perceived to be a sinner.

Zacchaseus' response was to vow to give up half his possessions and repay four-fold anyone he had cheated.

Then Jesus declares, "Today salvation has come to his house because he too is a son of Abraham." As a son of Abraham, he is not clutching his wealth to himself but sharing it with the poor who need it and returning what he did not deserve. Sharon Ringe asserts:
Because of his political and economic role as a chief tax Collector, Zacchaeus has never been in a position to consider membership in the people of God something on which he can presume (note John the Baptist's warning in 3:8). In fact, some would say that his profession has made him the equivalent of a Gentile.

Suddenly his membership in the chosen people is reinstated. His earnest promise is not mentioned as a reason, but one is left with the sense that they are connected. His embrace of the opportunity to give alms ... does not earn his new identity.... But the lifestyle he has embraced makes his identity evident.

"Salvation has come to his house," Jesus said. The question of salvation is not how we get it but what we do with it.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Human Desertion, Divine Loyalty, a Reflection on 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

The writer of this letter to Timothy closes with an acknowledgement that his death is near, "The time of my departure has come," and an appraisal of what his life has been like, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith." He expects his new life, and that of others, to be good, "There is reserved for me the crown of righteousness..., and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing."

That good fight that he had fought was not restricted to enemies. His friends had at times deserted him, but, looking back, he sees that he had always been strengthened by the Lord. So, looking forward, he confidently expects the Lord to continue to be with him, to continue to rescue him and save him for the heavenly kingdom.

As Carl Halladay puts it in Preaching through the Christian Year C, he has known human desertion and divine loyalty so that "the mood of our text is confident, and the message is one of hope."

Saturday, October 23, 2010

a Reflection on Psalm 65

The psalm begins with an acknowledgment of the debt we owe God, "Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion; and to you shall vows be performed."

Not just us, but everyone, "To you all flesh shall come," and "you are the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas."

This psalm notes specific gifts. One is forgiveness, "When deeds of iniquity overwhelm us, you forgive our transgressions."

And God sends rain, "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, for so you have prepared it."

I'm struck by the combining of these two, examining parallels between them. What happens to a life without forgiveness, if we become sunk in despair over our past sins, what barrenness of purpose, of existence, would it be? But, God's forgiveness, as abundant as the roaring sea, can make it possible for us to live lives of abundance, providing us with overflowing bounty that we can share as the watered fields provide grain for us.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Reign of God, a Reflection on Joel 2:23-32

The prophet Joel is writing to a people who have gone through a devastation. An attack by locusts had destroyed their crops. Drought has dried up the waterways hampering any expectation of more crops. Then God has pity on them and once again sends rain.

Joel calls on them to be thankful for the rain, to recognize that God's action will result in new crops, abundant crops.

Everyone will receive, and everyone will be grateful. God promises, "I will pour out my spirit on everyone. Distinctions of gender or age or financial status won't matter."

Then why do we keep making distinctions?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Home of God, a Reflection on Psalm 84:1-7

Here is a psalm that describes the joy of being able to worship in the temple, the longing to be there. I can't help but think about those Sunday mornings when we still had young children at home to get ready for church and wondering if the words of this psalm describe what I was thinking. Or, what am I thinking on a typical Sunday morning now? Does my soul long, indeed faint for the place? Do I sing for joy to the living God? Well, sometimes, I think so.

But this psalm is about more than looking forward to occasional attendance at a formal worship service. It is also about what happens to us because we have experienced the presence of God. The psalmist describes the path toward the house of God: "As they go through the valley of Baca (read this to mean a place of thirst), they make it a place of springs."

So, another question is raised by this psalm: Does the thought of attending church at the end of this week affect the way I go through the week? As I go through areas that lack something, do I work to fill the need? Or, do I even notice those needs?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Sinners in Anguish, a Reflection on Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22

During the season between Pentecost and Advent, the lectionary offers two Old Testament passages each week, one of which is paired with each week's Gospel reading. This week, since the OT passage is from the Apocrypha, this alternatives is offered from Jeremiah.

In the passage from Luke, a devout religious practitioner is criticized but an outsider, the tax collector, is accepted. His attitude had been humble, his prayer had been an admission of sin and a request for mercy.

His prayer, although an individual lament, is an echo of the one from Jeremiah that is a prayer for the nation: We have sinned and been unfaithful. Help us although we do not deserve it.

In their distress, Israel turns the Lord pleading not to be forsaken.

The Lord replies that they have loved to wander (we can read this literally or metaphorically), and, now, they will suffer the consequences. They respond by more pleas and another acknowledgement of their sins. They acknowledge the care that God has already bestowed upon them and the covenant between them, "O Lord our God, we set our hope on you, for it is you who do all this."

Despite their prior actions--and because they can remember the prior actions of God, they ask for forgiveness and restoration.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Prayers that reach the Lord, a reflection on Sirach 35:14-20

In case your Bible does not include the Apocrypha, here's today's lectionary passage:
Do not offer him a bribe, for he will not accept it; and do not rely on a dishonest sacrifice; for the Lord is the judge, and with him there is no partiality. He will not show partiality to the poor; but he will listen to the prayer of one who is wronged. He will not ignore the supplication of the orphan, or the widow when she pours out her complaint.

Do not the tears of the widow run down her cheek as she cries out against the one who causes the to fall? The one whose service is pleasing to the Lord will be accepted, and his prayer will reach to the clouds.

[Note: Because the Hebrew text of Sirach was lost until the 19th century and other fragments of it were found in the 1960's, scholars have been presented with some differences in content and in the numbering of chapters and verses. The numbering I am used is based on the choice of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. The same verses in NEB and the REB would be numbered Sirach 35:12-17]

In this week's passage from Luke, two people pray--one a patently righteous person; the other, a sinner. But, how they pray is a bigger difference. One is grateful for his superiority; the other, contrite and asking for mercy. Jesus said, "All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."

In the passage from Sirach, we read that the Lord will hear the prayers of the one whose service is pleasing to the Lord. So, it's not doing right that is wrong. The Pharisee should have been doing all those things he was bragging about, but he shouldn't have been bragging.

In Jesus' time, the tax collector would have been seen by the faithful as a collaborator with Rome, thus an undesirable person to be around. In the time of Sirach and of Luke, widows and orphans and poor, would not have had much social status. Their well-being would have been dependent on the charity of those around them. God will pay attention to these outsiders, will listen to their prayers.

Now that we know who God is listening to, we might consider who gets our attention.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Humbling, a Reflection on Luke 18:9-14

If we read this parable as a comfort to us because we are so much superior in our righteousness than the Pharisee, then we have missed the point. I remember someone saying as she began her path toward ordination, "If they want humble, I can be the most humble."

Jesus is speaking to those--that includes us--who think themselves so righteous that they are contemptuous of others who just cannot measure up to their standard. In describing the Pharisee, Jesus is not telling us that there's sometime wrong with fasting or tithing. Nor is he saying that there is anything wrong with going to a holy place to pray.

Further, Jesus is not saying that the sins of the tax collector are to be emulated.

The Pharisees of Jesus time had teaching similar to this passage from Luke. Allen & Williamson, in Preaching the Gospels give an example:
For instance, Rabbi Gamaliel said, "Do not walk out on the community. and do not have confidence in yourself until the day you die. An do not judge your companion until you are in his place." Rabbi Simeon said, "And when you pray, don't treat your prayers as a matter of routine; but let it be a pleas for mercy and supplication before the Omnipresent, the blessed, as it is said, For he is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and full of mercy, and repents of the evil...."

What's wrong is not righteousness but self-righteousness. As Fred Craddock puts it in Preaching through the Christian Year C, "The Pharisee trusts in himself; the tax collector trusts in God: that is the difference."

He then cautions us that the point of the parable is not to think that the tax collector should be proud and thankful that he is not like the Pharisee, and that we shouldn't be either.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Instructions for Ministry, a Reflection on 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5

These instructions to Timothy could be titled "How to be a minister," as long as we remember that ministry is not restricted to those who have been ordained.

1. Read the Bible. He is told to remember his own formation including specifically the sacred writings that had been instructive. As Christians, we need to remember that Timothy would not yet have had access to what we call the New Testament since it wouldn't have yet been canonized--or, even completed at the time of Timothy. The scripture that is this passage is designated as inspired by God and useful for teaching, reproof, correction, and for training in righteousness, is what we call the Old Testament.

2. Proclaim the message. And keep proclaiming it. Convince, rebuke, and encourage, but always with patience.

3. Be prepared for people preferring teaching that seems easier on them or harder on others.
Allen & Williamson, in Preaching the Letters, say:
There will be a time, says Paul, when people "having itching ears...will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires" (v.3). Every pastor understands this point. Paul's counsel is that the gospel of God, the incredibly good news of God's grace lovingly offered to each and all and God's command that justice be done to each and all, is the one word that the church is given and called to make known. As for you, says Paul, "carry out your ministry fully" (5).

4. Be the kind of messenger that doesn't harm the message.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Sweet, a Reflection on Psalm 119:97-104

In this week's reading from Jeremiah, the Lord is quoted as saying, "I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God and they shall be my people." Israel will once again be aware of how to live in a way that will bring them to the kind of life they had been given and then lost.

This portion of Psalm 119 helps us to put into words how we can perceive God's instructions as a blessing to us--rather than an onerous burden. An understanding of this world that God has created, we help us know we may best live in it. In the words of the psalm, God's law makes us wise.

And this wisdom that we have learned affects the way we live, the choices we make.

And we will be glad that we are following God's intentions for us:
How sweet are your words to my taste,
sweeter than honey to my mouth!
Through your precepts I get understanding;
therefore, I hate every false way.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Blog Action Day, Clean Water

In her blog Yearning for God, Jan wrote about the crisis we face:
Unsafe drinking water and lack of sanitation kills more people every year than all forms of violence, including war. Unclean drinking water can incubate some pretty scary diseases, like E. coli, salmonella, cholera and hepatitis A. Given that bouquet of bacteria, it's no surprise that water, or rather lack thereof, causes 42,000 deaths each week.
More people have access to a cell phone than to a toilet. Today, 2.5 billion people lack access to toilets. This means that sewage spills into rivers and streams, contaminating drinking water and causing disease.
Every day, women and children in Africa walk a combined total of 109 million hours to get water. They do this while carrying cisterns weighing around 40 pounds when filled in order to gather water that, in many cases, is still polluted. Aside from putting a great deal of strain on their bodies, walking such long distances keeps children out of school and women away from other endeavors that can help improve the quality of life in their communities.
It takes 6.3 gallons of water to produce just one hamburger. That 6.3 gallons covers everything from watering the wheat for the bun and providing water for the cow to cooking the patty and baking the bun. And that's just one meal! It would take over 184 billion gallons of water to make just one hamburger for every person in the United States.
The average American uses 159 gallons of water every day – more than 15 times the average person in the developing world. From showering and washing our hands to watering our lawns and washing our cars, Americans use a lot of water. To put things into perspective, the average five-minute shower will use about 10 gallons of water. Now imagine using that same amount to bathe, wash your clothes, cook your meals and quench your thirst.

Forgiveness, a reflection on Jeremiah 31:31-34

The Lord says to a troubled people who had over and over neglected to what they had promised, "I will forgive their iniquities and remember their sins no more."

Repeat from earlier:
"They broke the covenant I made with their ancestors. I'm going to make a new covenant."

Try to look past our supercessionist interpretation of the phrase "new covenant" all the way back to how Jeremiah's listeners would have understood it. "This covenant will be written on your hearts."

John H. Hayes In Preaching through the Christian Year B:
The newness is a special gift, the capacity to be faithful and obedient. In the Old Testament, the heart is the seat of the will (see Jeremiah 29:13; 32:39; Ezekiel 1:19; 36:26); consequently, the special gift here is a will with the capacity to be faithful. God thus promises to change the people from the inside out, to give them a center. This covenant will overcome the conflict between knowing or wanting one thing and doing another...

The Lord is promising not new content but new contact--or, renewed contact.

Repeat from Lent of last year:
The Covenant Renewed, Reflection on Jeremiah 31:31-32
We're reading this message from Jeremiah as Christians in Lent. Lent, a time of reflection and repentance. A time that begins with Ash Wednesday and its reminder of our death, a time that ends with Easter and its reminder of eternal life.

Jeremiah is writing to people who were really in need of repentance. People whose lives were in ashes.

"You have been unfaithful to me," the Lord told them, "and I'm taking you back."

God made covenant with them. God had given them a home and they moved to Egypt. God brought them back home. They neglected God. They disobeyed God. They misused their gifts. They neglected neighbors in need. They were overrun by powerful enemies and taken into exile in Babylon. God renews the covenant and brings them back.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Restoration, a Reflection on Jeremiah 31:27-30

They knew from their own experiences what life is like under disruption, loss, and exile. Now, Jeremiah is giving them words of restoration. The Lord who had overseen their destruction will watch over their renewal.

Jeremiah then tells how people are going to react, "They will no longer say, 'The parents have eaten sour grapes and the children's teeth are set on edge.'"

According to the commentary by John M Bracke, Jeremiah means that they are going to stop complaining about the perceived unfairness of the exile but rather will recognize that they had deserved to be punished (also see Jeremiah 18:1-32).

In his commentary on Jeremiah, R.E. Clements interprets this not as an expression of a doctrine or a defense of the principle of shared family responsibility but rather to give voice to despair:
It is equivalent to "What is the use of trying--our ancestors have done wrong and we are paying the price!".

Their punishment had been real and they and their descendants had recognized it as deserved. But, new life is possible.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

From Where Will My Help Come, a Reflection on Psalm 121

Commentaries tell me that this psalm was used by pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem to celebrate various festivals. The goal was important, desirable, worthy, but the trip to get there was often uncomfortable, even dangerous.

We moderns can benefit from the words of this psalm. We are also on journeys. We're not traveling through geographic Israel toward the physical Mount Zion to visit the site of the temple in Jerusalem. But, we are moving in our lives surrounded by calls to give allegiances to worldly pleasures and protections. As we go through each day, we may be confronted by, interrupted by, irritations or even threats of actual danger.

The psalm is the lectionary choice to respond to the Genesis reading of Jacob's traveling home when he was not certain that his arrival would be welcomed. From the struggle during the night, Jacob was able to recognize that he has been blessed by God.

May we in our own journeys, real and metaphorical, as we face our own adversaries, in situations due to our own transgressions or not, have the assurances offered to those ancient pilgrims that are still offered to us:

God will protect us from stumbling, night or day, now and always.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Reflection on Genesis 32:22-31

Jacob is fleeing from the anger of his father-in-law Laban but he's returning to the place that he had earlier fled because his brother Esau was angry enough with him to issue threats. Jacob has sent reparations to Esau hoping to mollify him.

The night before Jacob is going to meet with Esau, he sent his wife, maids, and children ahead along with all his possessions, and remained alone in the camp.

There, a man wrestled with him until daybreak. Jacob would not give in even when his hip was put out of joint. "I won't let you go," Jacob told the man, "unless you bless me."

The man did bless him and also gave him a new name--Israel, a name that means "struggles with God."

Jacob recognized that his conflict had been with God. He has his blessing but he will carry his injury with him.

Gene M. Tucker,in Preaching through the Christian Year C writes:
Those who know struggle--and who does not?--will find it easy to identify with both the protagonist and the storyteller. Life entails strife, conflict, and struggle. Often we can neither see the face nor know the name of what confronts us in the night. The struggle may even be with the unfathomable mystery of God. The passage, however, goes further than holding up a mirror to life as struggle. By example it says: do not let go, but continue to struggle,, even when God is experienced as threatening. Furthermore, by its resolution it concludes that struggle--even with God--may end with a blessing even though one may limp on afterward with the scars of the battle.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Widow and the Unjust Judge, a Reflection on Luke 18:1-8

This week's passage from Luke begins, "Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart." Noting the "then," I looked back to see what had been happening just before he told them the parable.

The lectionary has skipped verses 20 through 37 in chapter 17. In that section, Jesus had responded to the question by the Pharisees of when the kingdom of God was coming. He told them that it wouldn't be coming with things that could be observed because it was already among them. We read this as a statement that God's kingdom was already evident in the ministry of Christ.

Jesus had then turned to his disciples and told them that they shouldn't be misled as to the days of the Son of Man. He reminded them of what had happened to the unfaithful in the time of Noah and of Lot. Some enjoying themselves, tending to their own needs, then came destruction and only a few survived.

The widow in the parable has been waiting for justice, pleading for vindication, for a long time. The early church could have seen the parallel in her situation and theirs. By the time that the Gospel of Luke was written, the early church had been waiting for the reappearance of Christ for a long time. In many, many ways the church continues to wait for justice for the weak and their vindication against the powerful.

The widow persistently and publicly continued to ask for justice from a judge who had power but was not himself just. He finally gave in to her, saying "I'm tired of her bothering me."

Jesus told them to learn from what the judge said.

Commentators split at this point. Some say that Jesus is telling them to keep praying to God, to keep arguing, pleading, seeking justification. Others don't like the idea of all of God being represented by an unjust judge so they put the emphasis on the need for God's people to keep pleading with those who have power.

In either case, Jesus intends for us to keep praying.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Wrangling doesn't work, a Reflection on 2 Timothy 2:14-15

People who professed themselves to be Christians do not always get along with or agree with other people also professing to be Christians. That can happen between denominations and between congregations, and also even within a congregation.

And that's the way it used to be, too. In verse 14, we read, "Avoid wrangling over words."

"After all," he concludes, "those arguments don't convince anybody and cause hard feelings."

"Rather than wrangle," Timothy is told, "rightfully explain." The writers of the New Interpreter's Study Bible, who have studied Greek better than I have, comment "Rightly explaining," literally "cutting straight," implies the delivery of the word without resort to "wrangling."

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Faithfulness of God, a Reflection on 2 Timothy 2:8-13

"Followers of Jesus suffer," the author of this letter reminded Timothy. "I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained."

Not many modern day Christians face imprisonment for their attempts to live a Christian life and to announce that they are doing so. But, imprisonment isn't the only cost. We may find ourselves slipping in faithfulness just because of our concern to maintain our own comfort or security.

We might say "Get over yourself."

But not totally over. The letter promises that the short-term sacrifices are, in fact, short term. "If we have died with him, we will also live with him. And if we endure, we will also reign with him."

The letter follows these reassurances with a caution, "If we deny him, he will also deny us."

Yet even that caution is modified with the next assurance, "If we are faithless, he remains faithful."

Although I might prefer just to hold on to that assurance, I am going to offer the explanation made by Allen & Williamson in their Preaching the Letters:
....Affirming or denying Jesus seems to be a quid pro quo--God will treat us precisely as we deserve. But verse 13 counters with "If we are faithless, he remains faithful--for he cannot deny himself." What he cannot deny is "the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus" and that makes him who he is.

Boring & Craddock in their People's New Testament Commentary also deal with this tension between denial and faithfulness, "God's faithfulness is not dependent on ours; God's acceptance of us is based on who God is, not on who we are or what we have done." They assert that "this paradox permeates the whole New Testament" and offer the examples of Philippians 2:12-13 and Revelation 20:11-15. I would add that there's also a lot of undeserved acceptance in the Old Testament as well.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Grateful Praise, a Reflection on Psalm 66:1-12

This psalm begins with a call to the whole earth to praise God, to acknowledge what God has done and has the power to do. An example of God's praise-deserving deeds is cited--providing a dry path through the sea for the Hebrews escaping slavery in Egypt and then continuing watchfulness and protection.

Past escape and even ongoing watch by God does not keep us from getting into trouble. Delivered from oppression into their own land, they faced temptation, had difficulties, underwent times of great trial.

And, as earlier in their history, God brought them through their difficulties.

We can imagine those exiles in Babylon reading the letter from Jeremiah and responding with singing this psalm. We can also imagine singing it in our own lives when we face our own particular difficulties in our own particular locations. As God has brought others out of their confinement, we can look forward to being brought out to a spacious place.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

In Times of Disruption, a Reflection on Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

They aren't where they want to be. They have lost their home. They are surrounded by strangers. And they are going to be there a lot longer than they had hoped.

The prophet Jeremiah sent them a message, "Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce." In time of loss and despair, they are told to take care of themselves--to find shelter and food, what's needed for refuge and sustenance.

And, they need to recognize that this isn't going to be like a camping trip or even a long journey. He also tells them to get married, and that they will still be in this foreign land when it's time for the children born from these marriages to get married themselves.

Shelter, food, and family. Not hopeless yearning for what was but isn't. Not exactly acceptance but a way to continue under unwanted circumstances.

Then Jeremiah adds another directive, "Seek the welfare of that foreign city and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare will be your welfare."

We can apply this prophecy to our own lives in different ways depending on whether our current situation is more like that of the exiles or more like that of the Babylonians.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Todah, Reflection on Psalm 111

In his Theology of the Old Testament, Walter Brueggeman proposes that "the beginning of an Old Testament theology is in the liturgical, public acknowledgment of a new reality wrought by Yahweh in the life of the speaker and in the community of the speaker".

He cites Psalm 111 as an example of a todah, the public expression of thankfulness.

This psalm begins with a call to the congregation to join in praise, "Hallelujah" and recognizes the deeds that the Lord has accomplished. In citing particular acts--providing food, giving them a home--the psalm also describes the nature of the Lord, the one who would want to and be able to do these things.
The Lord is gracious and compassionate
His handiwork is truth and justice

The Samaritan in the parable recognizes the work of the Lord, was grateful for it, and expressed that gratitude. Psalm 111 gives us words for those recognitions in our own lives.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Medical Help for a Foreigner, Reflection on 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15a

excerpted from entry in July
Although she is being held captive by the enemies of her people, the young girl wants to help Naaman. She tells his wife that the prophet in Samaria can heal him. The commander's wife listens to the young girl.

The wife listens. And she passes on the information to her husband. He tells the king what the young girl has suggested. The king tells him to do as the captive girl has recommended and sends a letter to the foreign king and a generous compensation for the cure.

The king of Israel doesn't have any idea who the healer is. The young girl knows more than the king.

However, when Elisha hears about his king's distress about not being able to help Naaman, he steps up. He tells the king to send the man in need to him.

Naaman came with his horses and chariots. But, he didn't get the welcome or advice that he thought his status required. Elisha didn't even bother to meet him personally, but, rather sent a servant out to give his advice. Naaman had not minded getting advice from his wife's servant but resented being met by Elisha's.

Further, he didn't like the prescription. Elisha had told him to go wash in the waters of the Jordan. Naaman didn't see how Israel's waters could be superior to Aram's.

Again, a servant intervened. One of Naaman's servants tells him to get over himself. He does. He becomes well again.

Questions begged by text:
1. Who can you trust?
2. Who are you willing to help?
3. How does your life change after you have been helped?

That's how the text spoke to me earlier this year, but this week particularly with the addition of the foreign king's response, I am struck more by his gratitude. After being healed of leprosy, he like the Samaritan in the parable from Luke, returned to the healer and voiced his gratitude and his acknowledgement of the God who had made the healing possible.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Ten Were Healed, a Reflection on Luke 17:11-19

Luke presents us with an account of people carrying out Biblical injunctions. That is, since they are lepers, they are keeping themselves separate from everyone else and also calling out a warning so no one will inadvertently come near them. Further, when they are cured, Jesus tells them to head for the temple so a priest can certify that they are no longer lepers. (That's also in the Bible. You can look it up in Leviticus 13:35-45; 14:2-32).

Nine of the ten who have been healed follow these instructions. However, one does something else. He returns to Jesus, thanks him, and gives praise to God for his healing.

Jesus asks why the nine others did not return to give thanks to God and points out that this one who did is a foreigner.

They all had been suffering. They all had turned to Jesus for help. They all had faith that Jesus could heal them--even the foreigner. And all were healed. Jesus then tells them all what to do next. Nine do it.

Yet, Jesus holds out for praise the one who returned to him for thanks. Sometimes, we have something to learn from outsiders.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Remembering and Reminding, a reflection on 2 Timothy 1:1-14

Paul addresses Timothy as his beloved child. He writes that he is grateful to God when he remembers Timothy in his prayers night and day. Remembering Timothy's sincere faith (as a sideline, please note that Paul gives a lot of credit to Timothy's grandmother and mother so perhaps we shouldn't be too adamant in asserting misogyny in Paul), anyway, remembering his faith, Paul reminds him to use that faith.

Paul reminds Timothy that God has provided us with a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline--and that all those are needed because discipleship may entail suffering.

Paul also gives credit to his ancestors by saying that he worships as they did. Paul did not believe that Christians worship a different God from the One worshiped by Jews. Further, Paul asserts that the grace given to them was given long before it was revealed through the appearance of Christ, Allen & Williamson, in Preaching the Letters, explain it this way:
What Paul exactly meant, we do not know, but the gracious disposition of God to God's creatures seem always to have been the case; our good fortune is that because of God's self-disclosure we know this.

Although Paul is undergoing suffering because of work, he is confident of God's protection. He tells Timothy to hold on to what he has been taught, "Guard the good treasure entrusted to you," and that he will also be aided, "with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us."

Jouette Bassler, in her commentary on 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus in the Abington New Testament Series, writes about Paul's view of suffering:
He presents suffering as inevitable for any Christian and essential for any church leader. Through suffering, a church leader identifies himself with Paul and manifests his confidence in the fundamental Christian promise of life. Failure to endure sufering suggest shame--not shame in the cross of Christ of Christ, but a lack of confidence in God's power to save."

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Lamenting Losses, a Reflection on Psalm 137

In exile, all they can do when we think about their loss is sit and cry. They couldn't forget what they had lost, and they didn't want to.

We may not be facing a Babylonian army coming in and destroying city and temple and taking us away. But, many of us have faced severely disruptive losses in the last few years of economic turmoil. Investment accounts have been devastated; home values dropped below the mortgage balance. And many of us may have faced other kinds of losses, deaths of loved ones, divorces, physical dislocations.

And, in our losses, we may find it difficult to adapt to the new life required by our changing situation. I'm trying to imagine how much worse a bad situation would be if I had to face tormentors like the ones in Psalm 137.

Yet, this psalm although not ignoring pain, also expresses a refusal to forget that what is lost.

Here's how Walter Brueggemann, in Theology of the Old Testament/Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy, describes the practice of grief:
In the meantime, Israel is not to grow silent about its deserved plight. Israel in exile is a community that grieves and protests. Indeed, in exile the ancient social practice of lament and complaint becomes a crucial theological activity for Israel. The practice of grief is an exercise in truth-telling. It is, as evidence in Psalm 137 and Lamentations, an exercise in massive sadness that acknowledges, with no denial or deception, where and how Israel is. But the grief is not resignation, for in the end, Israel is incapable of resignation.

As in many laments, Psalm 137 includes a desire for vengeance. Yet, the psalmist is not swearing to repay the predator. Rather, he is trusting the Lord to take care of it. Or, I can accept the notes in the Jewish Study Bible that says the rocks in verses 8-9 should be read as a pun on Petra, the Rock, a fortress city--that is, the fortress protecting Edom becomes what will punish Edom.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Settling on Hope, a Reflection on Lamentation 3:14-26

The lectionary during this period offers two alternative Old Testament readings each week. One of these is paired with the gospel selection. The lectionary then offers a psalm to be used in response to each of the readings from the Old Testament. This week, the reading from Luke about faith is paired with Habakkuk who was experiencing a faith crisis (with thanks to Shelley Cochran's The Pastor's Underground Guide to the Revised Common Lectionary). But, instead of one psalm suggested, we have a psalm and a reading from Lamentations to use in response to the Habakkuk lection.

Here are some excerpts from the laments, "I have become a laughingstock to all people....My life is bereft of peace, I forgot what happiness is."

We are accustomed to turning to other people for solace in times of our need; yet, in his great need, those people around him did not offer support or comfort; rather, they made fun of him. How alone does a laughingstock feel when he is surrounded by cruel people. Could any solution to his pain be possible?

But, even in his despair, he has been able to hold on to hope, "The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. His mercies never come to an end."

His hope lies not in anything he has done to deserve help but rather on the faithfulness and compassion of the Lord