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.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Reflection on readings for April 30

I will sing of loyalty and of justice;
to you, O Lord, I will sing.
(Psalm 101:1)

Judges 11:1-12:15
Jephthah was the son of a prostitute and Gilead (person's name or just somebody who lived in the town of Gilead?) Driven from town, he formed an outlaw band. When the Ammonites made war against Israel, the elders of Gilead asked Jephthah to command their army. He bargained with them obtaining their promise that he was successful in defeating the Ammonites, he could be the city's leader.

He then bargains with God. He makes a vow that if he is victorious, when he returns home he will offer as sacrifice the first person who comes out of his house. He was victorious. He did return home. And the first person out of his house was his daughter. He blames her, "You have become the cause of great trouble to me. I can't take back my vow."

Her response indicates that she knew about the vow. We're left to wonder if she intentionally sacrificed herself.
(adapted from Gender, Power, & Promise, Danna Nolan Fewell and David M. Gunn).

John 1:1-28
Commentators have explained that John was impressing upon us that the Word was always in the world, was present at its creation. We use these opening verses of his Gospel to support our understanding of the Trinity.

Yet, I am pondering on verse 10, "He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him." Why did the world not know him? Has the world caught on yet?

I keep reading. Verse 11 says "He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him." Okay, many of the Jews of his day did not convert to Christianity. But, how many Christians of my own day really accept Christ; that is, do we show evidence of this acceptance by the way we live our lives?

"And the Word became flesh and lived among us," (v14). In their commentary, John, Gail R. O'Day and Susan E. Hylen point out something that I had totally missed--The use of first person pronouns--John intended for his readers--intends for his readers--to understand and accept that the Word is here--As O'Day and Hylen put it, "The eternal Word of verses 1-2 now completely enters the human and time-bound sphere by becoming flesh...The story of God and the Word is no longer a cosmic story, but is an intimately human story.

Psalm 101:1-8

Proverbs 14:13-14
Even in laughter the heart is sad,
and the end of joy is grief.
The perverse get what their ways deserve,
and the good, what their deeds deserve.

Prayer for Today: Lord, you have come into our world and lived among us. Open us now to see your presence. Mold us into acceptance of your will and obedience to your intentions. Amen.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Reflection on readings for April 29

Make a joyful noise the Lord,
    all the earth.
Worship the Lord with gladness;
come into God's presence with singing.
Know that the Lord isGod.
It is God that made us,
    we belong to God.
    we are God's people,
    and the sheep of God's pasture.

We enter your gates with thanksgiving,
   and your courts with praise.
We give thanks to you, bless your name.
For the Lord is good;
    God's steadfast love endures forever,
    and God's faithfulness to all generations.
(adapted from Psalm 100:1-5)

Judges 9:22-10:18
Abimelech, who had obtained the kingship by killing his rivals, was consequently attacked by those seeking revenge.  Battles ensued. His army stormed cities, killing all the residents. Then, at an encampment around a tower where all the residents of the city had shut themselves in, Abimelech approached the entrance of the tower to set it on fire. But a woman in the tower threw a millstone on his head and crushed his skull.

Other rulers followed. And the Israelites again did what was wrong in the sight of the Lord. When they were overtaken by their enemies, the Philistines and Ammonites, they cried to the Lord, admitting their sins asking yet again for deliverance. Once again the Lord could not bear to see them suffer.

Luke 24:13-53
Not everyone catches on right away. Jesus was right there with them. And they didn't recognize him. They knew about the resurrection. They were even surprised that their travel companion didn't seem to.

They may not have been able to recognize Jesus right away, but they are ready to talk about him to strangers who show interest.

They tell of what they had been expecting and what they had been told.

They tell this stranger about Jesus, how he was a prophet and the one who had been sent to redeem them; yet he had been handed over by the religious authorities to the Romans who had consequently condemned him to death and crucified him.

The story got stranger. Some of the women in their group had told them that when they had gone to visit his tomb, a vision of angels had said he was still alive. Hearing this, some in the group went to the tomb and confirmed that the body was missing, but they didn't see Jesus.

And, on the road to Damascus, they don't recognize him yet.

Although the one that they had hoped would rescue them had himself been executed, although they had not been able to see for themselves the angels that some of the women had said had told them that he was not alive, they still allow a stranger to walk along with them, to talk with them. They even listen to a sermon from him. Then, since the day is almost over, they invite him to stay with them.

Loss. Disappointment. Frustration. Yet, an offer of hospitality.

And at the table, when he took bread, blessed it, broke it, and shared it with them, they recognized him.

Loss, disappointment, and frustration did not end with those first Christians.

And, as we celebrate Holy Communion, we can recognize him.

As soon as they recognize him, they can understand something that has already happened, something that they hadn't noticed at the time but now makes sense to them--"Were not our hearts burning within while he was talking to us about the Bible?"

It's night, they've had a long walk, it's after supper, and they decide to go back to Jerusalem right then, not the next day.

The recognition of the Lord has to be shared, and shared immediately.

In Jerusalem, they learned that the Lord had also appeared to Simon.

Note the repeat about how he had been made know to them in the breaking of the bread. We usually interpret this to be related to Holy Communion, but we may also want to think about we recognize Christ in our midst when we share those ordinary meals as well.

The other gospels don't tell us about Ascension; so, every year we turn to Luke: And then to this group of disciples who have been huddled together in fear and, even in the joy of recognition, have been disbelieving, he now commissions them, "You are witnesses that the Scriptures have been fulfilled."
Commission--I am sending upon you what my Father promised. Stay here in this city until that power comes.

While they are waiting, they gather in the temple.

I'm thinking that many of us Christians have gotten stuck in that period between Ascension and Pentecost. We have known the presence of Christ. We have heard and believed the promised made to us. We're expecting something great to come among us. We are gathered together in great joy to continue our worship of the Lord. We love church and we love the Lord and we love each other. But....

He reminds them that the part of our Bible we call the Old Testament is valid--and necessary for their understanding. We aren't supposed to cut off a large part of the Bible and we aren't supposed to cut off a large part of our neighbors--The risen Christ said to them that they were to include in their witness all nations. Does "all nations" include the people who live on my block that I have never even spoke to? Does "all nations" include people who are of a different socio-economic level?

Psalm 100:1-5
Psalm 100 begins by commanding us to worship the Lord, appropriate to a day when we celebrate the reign of Christ.

"Enter his gates," that is, step away from the world that has been profaned, and step into a place of worship, a place in which we can experience the presence of the Lord.

We can continue to obey these commands. We can step away from the ills of the past and begin our new lives today recognizing the steadfast love and faithfulness of our Lord.

Proverbs 14:11-12
The house of the wicked is destroyed,
but the tent of the upright flourishes.
There is a way that seems right to a person,
but its end is the way to death.

Prayer for Today: Choose a prayer from Joan Stott's website The Timeless Psalms.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Reflection on the readings for April 28

Let them praise your great and awesome name.
Holy is the Lord!
Mighty King, lover of justice,
you have established equity;
you have executed justice and righteousness.
Extol the Lord our God!
(adapted from Psalm 99:3-5)

Judges 8:18-9:21
When the people asked Gideon to be their king, he refused. Gideon made an error in judgment; he used captured gold to make an object that the people then treated  as if it was worthy of worship. When Gideon died, the Israelites forgot God and turned to Baal.

One of Gideon's seventy sons, Abimelech, having determined that he should be king, hired some men to kill all his brothers. Only one brother, Jotham, survived.

Abimelech asserts that they need a king and the king should be him. When he hears about this, Jotham tells a fable: The trees want a king. They ask the olive tree, but he is too busy. They then turn to the fig tree who tells them he is too productive doing what he's doing now. The vine is next, but he says producing grapes for wine is more important than being a king. They finally turn to the bramble who agrees but adds a warning.

Luke 23:44-24:12
Entrusting his spirit to God, Jesus dies. Sharon Ringe points out that saving faith is a prominent theme in Luke and Acts: "That faith encompasses the promises of salvation that God gives and the presence of God in the holy and righteous Christ in whom those promises are secured."

At dawn break on the first day of the week, the women who had accompanied him from Galilee and had witnessed the crucifixion came to the tomb with spices to anoint his body. The stone blocking the entrance to the tomb had been rolled away. Two men in dazzling clothes spoke to the terrified women, "Why are you looking for the living among the dead? He is risen. Remember, he told you that this was what was going to happen."

They didn't believe yet. Peter also looked in the tomb and was amazed.

Let us ponder. The ones who had been with Jesus a lot, who had heard him speak, still didn't expect what was going to happen.

Psalm 99:1-9
When God told Moses to lead the people on the next stage of their journey, Moses pleaded for the assurance of God's continued presence.

God's people continue to need God and to know that they need God. Psalm 99 calls for praise of the Lord our God.

This psalm addresses God, as a mighty king and tells what kind of king God is: one who loves justice, establishes equity, and works righteous judgment.

The psalm reminds us of the journey through the wilderness--references to Moses and Aaron, the speaking from a pillar of cloud, and how God forgave them and that God had exacted retribution.

Whether we read of this journey as history or as metaphor, we are reminded that the Lord is great, what the Lord cares about, what we can expect, and how we are supposed to respond.

Proverbs 14:9-10
Fools mock at the guilt offering
    but the upright enjoy God's favor.
The heart knows its own bitterness,
    and no stranger shares its joy.

Prayer for Today: Choose a prayer from Joan Stott's website The Timeless Psalms.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Reflection on readings for April 27

Make a joyful noise to the Lord all the earth;
break forth into joyous song and sing praises
(Psalm 98:4)

Judges 7:1-8:17
Even though Gideon has shown reluctance to attack the Midians--unsure of his own abilities or unsure of the Lord's help, the Lord tells him the army he has amassed is too large. On instructions from the Lord, Gideon lets all those afraid to leave--reducing the army by two-thirds. A test in how one drinks water from the river reduces the army to 300.

Through the efforts of the Lord, they triumphed.

The immediate reaction by one of the tribes that had not been involved was open resentment at having been left out. Others did not want to feed the exhausted and hungry troops as they continued in their pursuit of the enemy kings. Gideon reacted violently.

The people under the protection of God still have fears, still express reluctance to endanger themselves, still get their feelings hurt, still refuse to help people who have helped them. And not just in Gideon's time.

Luke 23:13-43
The leaders scoffed, "Let him save himself if he's the Messiah." The soldiers also mocked him, "If you are the King, then save yourself." Their point--since he was being crucified, then just how powerful could he be?

Allen & Williamson in Preaching the Gospel remind us that Jesus never claimed to be the Messiah or the King of the Jews. Rather, he spoke of himself as the "Son of Man" and of the kingdom of God.
But Luke's leaders and soldiers misunderstand salvation, seeing it entirely in terms of the continuation of life or military "liberation" and not as the restoration of people Israel through forgiving of sins, including the marginalized, feeding the hungry, or dying the death of a martyr, a witness, to all of these.

Those long-ago leaders and soldiers thought that anyone who couldn't stop his own death sentence must not have much power. We might ask ourselves what is proof to us of power? what goals do we think the powerful should have? And, we might also ask what salvation means to us--whether it can begin only after we die or whether it can start right here, right now.

Also we might consider what kind of people, what kind of actions that we make fun of.

The authorities had condemned him to a humiliating, painful death. Many onlookers had just watched--not voicing agreement with what was happening but saying nothing in protest. But other witnesses, powerful people and soldiers, had mocked him. Even one of the criminals condemned to the same punishment derided him in the same terms as the others had, "If you're the Messiah, then start saving."

The first dissenter to the scoffing and mocking is the other criminal who is being crucified with him that day. "We deserve this punishment because we have done what they have accused us of doing. This man has done nothing wrong." He then addresses Jesus directly, "Remember me when you come into your kingdom"

Jesus had not responded to the leaders or soldiers or the criminal who kept deriding him. But, he does respond now, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise." Jesus has not done anything to prevent his death that day, but death is not the end of life.

Psalm 97:1-98:9
One time when someone in the congregation complained about having to sing unfamiliar hymns, I told her that the Bible told us to and quoted Psalm 98:1, "Sing to the Lord a new song." Yes, I know that was snarky, but, I was kind often enough that they put up with me when I wasn't.

And, I wasn't just being snarky--this psalm does call us to newness. Every day, we have something to be grateful for that day. God has led us to a new victory over new problems.

That the psalms include many laments is appropriate since we find so many situations in our lives as individuals and our life in community to times of despair, fear, and need. Yet, the psalms also include praise and thanksgiving. This year as we read through the books we call the Old Testament, we can remember the Israelites' pain at losing their country and their frustration at the length of time it took to reform their nation even after they had been granted release from their enemies. Yet, they turned to God, worked to rebuild their temple as the place where they could focus and proclaim their gratitude.

Let us continue to practice gratitude to God by singing the phrases of Psalm 98:
Shout with joy to the Lord,
all you lands;
lift up your voice, rejoice and sing.
How does having God in our lives change those lives?

Robert Putnam has written a book about how religion is shaping our lives ("our" being American because that's what I am). Here's an excerpt from the review of it by Michael Gerson in the New Republic.
Putnam asserts, "religious Americans are nicer, happier and better citizens." They are more generous with their time and money, not only in giving to religious causes but to secular ones. They join more voluntary associations, attend more public meetings, even let people cut in line in front of them more readily. Religious Americans are three to four times more  socially engaged than the unaffiliated. 
Proverbs 14:7-8
Leave the presence of a fool,
    for there you do not find 
    words of knowledge.
It is the wisdom of the clever to
    understand where they go,
but the folly of fools mislead.

Prayer for Today: Choose a prayer from Joan Stott's website The Timeless Psalms.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Reflection on readings for April 26

O come, let us sing to the Lord;
let us make a joyful noise 
    to the rock of our salvation!
Let us come into God's presence with thanksgiving;
let us make a joyful noise 
   with songs of praise!
(Psalms 95:1-2)

O sing to the Lord a new song;
    sing to the Lord, all the earth.
Sing to the Lord, bless God's name;
   tell of God's salvation from day to day.
Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised.
(from Psalm 96:1-2, 4a)

Judges 6:1-40
Things are going badly. Although they have made their home in Israel, they are sharing the land with powerful enemies who destroyed their crops and stole their animals. Israel cried out to the Lord who responded "I rescued you from Egypt and gave you this country. In return you have worshipped other gods."

The angel of the Lord then came to a farmer's son Gideon who was beating out wheat in a winepress. According to John Goldingay, "Everybody knows you beat out wheat in the most open place you can let the wind carry away the chaff, and you are left with a nice stack of pure wheat....The image shows how crushed and humiliated the Israelites themselves are." (from Joshua, Judges & Ruth for Everybody.)

The Lord is not like a football coach from a winning team that sends out scouts to find the fastest, strongest, most confident candidates.

The Lord commissions Gideon to deliver Israel from the enemy Midian. Not seeing how he could possibly be capable of doing so, Gideon asks for a sign. The Lord sent him a sign then told him to tear down the altar of Baal that belonged to his father and replace it with an altar to the Lord your God. Gideon followed these instructions but at night not during the day when anyone could see him.

When they got up the next day, the townspeople were ready to kill Gideon for what they considered a sacrilege. His father Joash intervened saying that if Baal were the god, he could defend himself.

Then all the Midianites, Amelaekits, and eastern tribes crossed the Jordan. The Lord took possession of Gideon who called out for others to join him and many did.

But Gideon still needed to be convinced that this dangerous venture could succeed. He gave a test to God, "I'm going to lay a fleece of wool on the floor and if in the morning there's dew on the fleece but not on the ground, then I'll believe you." The next morning as he wrung the dew out of the fleece, he asked God to do one more proof, "This time, let the fleece be dry and the ground wet." God did it.

Does Gideon doubt that God wants him to accept a task that seems to be beyond his capability or does he doubt that it is God who is asking him to do it?

Luke 22:54-23:12
As we read the gospel accounts of the condemnation of Jesus, we need to remember that they were written at a time of conflict within early Christianity and within Judaism between those who followed Jesus and those who did not.

Judas, one of the closest to him, one who has been entrusted with care of the money, betrays him. Peter, one even closer than Judas, out of fear for his own safety, denies that he even knows him.

An assembly of religious leaders try to get him to admit that he has claimed to be the Messiah, he responds "if I tell you, you will not believe and if I question you, you will not answer, but from now on, the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God. They then ask him if he was the Son of God. He again answers indirectly, "You say that I am." They take these comments to be an admission that he had in fact claimed to be the Messiah, the Son of God.

They bring him before Pilate, the representative of Roman power in Judea. Pilate would have little interest in their theological disputes unless they had an impact on what he was interested in--keeping the peace. They make charges against Jesus that would be disturbing to Rome, "He told us not to pay taxes to Rome because he is the Messiah, a king."

Pilate asks Jesus if he claimed to be the King of the Jews. Jesus responds to him in a manner similar to the response he made to the religious authorities, "You say so." When Pilate can't find any threat to Roman power in this response, the religious authorities remind him that Jesus has been stirring up the crowds throughout Judea, from Galilee to Jerusalem.

Hearing Galilee, Herod determines that Jesus is under Herod's jurisdiction. Since Herod happens to be in Jerusalem at the time, Pilate turns him over. Herod is pleased because he has heard so much about him and hopes for a sign. But, Jesus is no more cooperative with him than he had been with Pilate.

Herod and his soldiers treat him with contempt dressing him up in a king costume and send him back to Pilate (Neither Matthew nor Mark mention Herod's involvement in the trial.)

Psalms 95:1-96:13

Verses 7 and 8 of Psalm 96. in the Common English Bible say "Give to the Lord....". The New Revised Standard Version says "Ascribe to the Lord." When I read this passage in the NRSV, I wondered when was the last time that I heard the word "ascribe" in conversation. I don't think I use it often--or, ever. So, of course, I googled it. That's how I learned that ascribe is used as a company name. For example:
Our Ascribe™ Consumer Content Platform provides the ability to extract insight from unstructured data anywhere and transform it into actionable insights. ...
Although I'm not sure what a content platform is, I do see a powerful metaphor in their description of what it does--provide the ability to extract insight from unstructured data. I'm asking myself, "Where did I see God today?" That is, as I go through my normal day, as I meet people and events, how do I see God working through them, being present to me?

But not just noticing.

As I continue to read the description of the content platform, it promises not only to extract insight but also to transform it into actionable insights. That is, to do something with the awareness.

Psalm 96 promises that the Lord is coming to judge the world, to judge it with righteousness and with truth. May we live lives that make this news good.

Proverbs 14:5-6
A faithful witness does not lie,
but a false witness breathes out lies.
A scoffer seeks wisdom in vain,
but knowledge is easy for one who understands.

Prayer for Today: Choose a prayer from Joan Stott's website The Timeless Psalms.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Reflection on readings for April 25

Understand, O dullest of the people;
    fools, when will you be wise?
The one who planted the ear, does that one hear?
The one who planted the eye, does not that one see?
(Psalm 94:8-9)

Judges 4:1-5:31
In the book of Joshua, we read of many victories against the Canaanites. In Judges, we read that as time as passed, they are now being oppressed by King Jabin and the commander of his army, Sisera.

More surprisingly, a woman, Deborah, is a judge of Israel. She summoned a general, Barak, to inform him of the Lord's command to defeat Sisera's army. Barak agreed to go to battle only if Deborah would go, too.

In Gender, Power, & Promise, Fewell and Gunn question whether his insistence that Deborah accompany him indicates cowardice or lack of self-confidence on his part or distrust of Deborah's authority. After all, they are more accustomed to hearing a male voice report what God wants.

Barak's army routed the enemy. Sisera panicked and fled by foot going into hiding in the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite (that is, a descendant of Moses' father-in-law) who was associated with King Jabin. Sisera thought that he would be safe there. Jael told him not to be afraid and brought him something to drink. After he dropped off to sleep, se drove a tent peg into his temple, killing him.

Chapter 5 is the song sung by Deborah and Barak describing the successful efforts of God's people. Rather disconcerting is the last section that describes the events through the expectations of Sisera's mother. Fewell and Gunn ask: What is the difference between Deborah and Sisera's mother in their will to defeat the enemy? What even is the difference between Israel and Canaan? Canaan is defined as the enemy but Israel has certainly defied God over and over and over.

Luke 22:35-53

Psalm 94:1-23
I read this psalm and am comforted by its assurance that I can turn to God for protection against those who would harm me, that God is my refuge and protector, that when the wicked band together, God will wipe them out. However, I also need to take warning that I don't become one of those arrogant evildoers that have tormented the psalmist.

Proverbs 14:3
The talk of fools is a rod for their backs,
but the lips of the wise preserve them.

Prayer for Today: O God, remind us of all the times you have been our help, all the times you have been a consolation for us. Give us the confidence to continue to trust in you. Amen.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Reflection on readings for April 24

It is good to give thanks to the Lord,
to sing praises to your name, O Most High;
to declare your steadfast love in the morning,
and your faithfulness by night
(Psalm 92:1-2)

Judges 2:10-3:31
Their ancestors had known slavery and freedom, had suffered a long journey through the wilderness, and fought battles to occupy the land that had been promised to them. Now, in their new home, they didn't recognize the help that the Lord had given them. They abandoned the ways of the Lord and adopted the ones of Canaan.

The results were bad. Then the Lord once again rescued them.

John Goldingay in Joshua, Judges & Ruth for Everyone lists three ways that distinguish God's choice of leaders: God is not bound by eldest-ism nor able-ism nor ethnocentrism. He cites Ehud as an example.

Luke 22:14-34
Jesus is aware of what is awaiting him in Jerusalem. He shares a passover supper with the apostles. He takes a loaf of bread, gives thanks, breaks it, and gives it to them, saying "This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me." We recognize these four steps and the words as part of our Christian eucharist each Sunday (or once a month, or maybe, quarterly).

They begin to dispute over who is the greatest. I hope this practice is not a weekly one in your congregation--or monthly or even quarterly.

Jesus predicts Peter's denial.
Jesus chose Peter knowing that Peter would have moments of failure.

Psalm 92:1-93:5

Proverbs 14:1-2

Prayer for today: Choose a prayer from Joan Stott's website The Timeless Psalms.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Reflection on readings for April 23

Satisfy us in the morning
   with your steadfast love,
so that we may rejoice and be glad
   all our days.
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!
(Psalm 90:14, 17)

Judges 1:1-2:9
The beginning of the book of Judges begins with the Israelites planning to enter Canaan, their victories, but also some defeats. The rest of this book also describes ups and downs in their allegiance to the Lord. The people will turn away from the Lord and start worshipping other gods. The Lord will punish them by allowing them to be dominated by the political powers that also worship those gods. Then the Lord will appoint a judge to deliver them from oppression. After a while, the Israelites will again start worshipping other gods.

Luke 21:29-22:13
By the time Luke wrote this gospel, the followers of Jesus would have experienced the destruction of the temple (see Luke 21:5-6)  and of the city of Jerusalem (Luke 21:20-24). He ties together disruptions caused by humans and by nature to a promise of God's action. These words of Jesus would guide them to a response to the turmoil of their times, and us in ours.

We can be as sure of God's intervention in upsetting times as we can be of a tree's leaves indicating that summer is coming.

Notice that everybody will experience that summer. Not just especially religious people. Not just especially religious people that also go to our church. Summer comes for everyone--whether they deserve better weather or not.

We've heard this story before. We need to hear it again, and we need to tell this story to others who need to hear it. The world needed a redeemer. The world needs a redeemer.

Luke's gospel tells us Jesus' instructions for what not to do and what to do while we are waiting
1) Give up activities that distract--drunkenness and dissipation, but also plain old worry.

2) Be alert

What challenges you in this scripture?

What hope does it offer?

If you knew how much longer you had to live, what would you do differently?

What would you be sure to continue doing?

Psalm 90:1-91:16
These psalms offer an assurance of God's protection, but also speak of dangers.

In Psalm 90, we are threatened with God's wrath. In 91:9-13, we are assured that we are assured that since we are who we are that the Lord will ensure that nothing bad will happen to us. Yet, we have seen good people suffer, have evil befall them, dash their feet against a stone (actual as well as metaphorically.) So what are we to do with these assurances?

I'm not going to join Job's friends in as assertion that anybody who suffers must have done or thought something to deserve the pain. That is, reading verse 14, the promise that God makes, "I will deliver those who love me, protect those who know me," should not be read to mean that "Those who aren't delivered and protected deserve not to be."

Yet, I can pray quite honestly the opening verses of Psalm 91. I do experience God as a refuge and a fortress. I do trust God.

Here's my compromise (I don't like that word, but I can't come up with the term that better expresses my thoughts): Verse 15 is an assertion that I can agree with. I can depend on God to be present with me whenever I am in trouble. That presence is in itself rescue--I am not suffering alone, and I am not suffering without possibility of salvation.

Proverbs 13:24-25

Prayer for Today: Choose a prayer from Joan Stott's website Timeless Psalms.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Reflection on readings for April 22

How long, O Lord?
Will you hide yourself forever?
(Psalm 89:46a)

Joshua 24:1-33
They are poised to enter Canaan, their past and future land. They have taken possession of the land and allocated it among the tribes. They are divided into tribes, family groups, but they are one people who worship one God.

Joshua has assembled all the tribes. He reminds them of how God has led them here.

"Make up your mind today," Joshua tells them. "Decide whether you are going to follow God or choose other gods."

Each person, each family, each leader has to make a choice. Yet, the choice involves the entire community. They have shared a history, their present situation depends on each other's decision, and their future will be affected by not only what each one does but also on what is important to their neighbors. John Donne was right.

Following God's will is not always easy. We are often tempted to do things that seem more immediately rewarding. The people meeting with Joshua that day had a history of voicing allegiance then backsliding.

Scholars think now that this portion of the book of Joshua was written after exile to help Israel to understand why they had lost their nation.

We are troubled by verse 19. Can it be that God will not forgive us? One reading is that Joshua's words are to remind us that sin does have consequences. We should consider these consequences before we act.

But, as we read more and more of the Bible, we are reassured that God continues to reach out to us, and, yes, forgive us more times than we deserve.

Joshua asks them to make a commitment. A commitment is more than a single promise at a single point in time. A commitment is a change in the rest of our lives.

Luke 21:1-28
They are talking about the temple, how beautiful it is--beautiful to see and beautiful in purpose. Then Jesus announces to them that one day this temple will be destroyed.

Those listening to him that day would have known about the destruction of the first temple and the pain and disruption of the exile that the destruction had signaled. Those would have read the words that the prophets had used to call the people to repentance and change and the accusations and sorrow that followed when they did not.

They responded to his announcement by asking "How will we know when this is going to happen?"

Jesus cautioned them not to be misled by some who would claim to be coming in his name. Still good advice. Then he told them what signs would foretell the end: Wars and insurrections, natural disasters, and great signs from heaven.

With help from Allen & Williamson's Preaching the Gospels, here are several texts that would be useful for background reading: God destroyed the first temple because of Israel's unfaithfulness, Jeremiah 7:1-14; Signs of tribulation, 2 Chronicles 15:5-6; Daniel 11:20-44; Elements of nature--earthquakes, famines, plagues, and astrological signals, Haggai 2:6; Zechariah 14:5

After listing the portents of the end--war, earthquakes, heavenly signs, Jesus warned them that before those disruptions would come arrests and persecution for them. The first hearers of Luke's gospel would have been witnesses to the disruptions both within the synagogues and with the Romans whose government and army occupied and controlled their nation.

Jesus said, "Your arrests will give you the opportunity to testify. You don't need to worry about what you are going to say because I will give you the words and wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict."

They are not to take this as an assurance that nothing bad was going to happen to any of them. They are not exempt from suffering. Rather, some of them were going to be betrayed by relatives and friends, some of them were going to be put to death, they were going to face hatred because of their loyalty to him.

Yet, he added, "But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls." Historically, tribulation did befall the early church. And, historically, God has continued to support the community through conflict--internal and external. Sharon Ringe in her commentary on Luke writes:
Even a false assurance (21:18)--for many would indeed suffer harm--echoes an earlier word of comfort (12:7). The final promise is not that they will be spared the suffering, but rather that their hope lies in endurance (21:19)--standing firm and refusing to give in to the evil around them.

Psalm 89:38-52
This psalm that began with praise now turns into a lament. Scholars tell us that this part of the psalm reflects Judah's reaction to Babylon's destruction of Jerusalem and consequent taking into captivity of much of the population. The nations of Israel and Judah were no more. Davidic kingship was ended. (Women's Bible Commentary, 228).

We can use these verses of Psalm 89 to voice our own reactions to loss and for permission to do so.

Proverbs 13:20-23

Prayer for Today: O Lord, we wait for your presence. We need once more to feel your love for us, for your faithfulness to us. Remember us when we are in pain, when we are insulted, when our enemies taunt us. We remember what you have done for us and ask for help during this trouble. Amen.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Reflection on readings for April 21

Righteousness and justice are the 
    foundation of your throne;
steadfast love and faithfulness 
    go before you.
Happy are the people 
    who know the festal shout, who walk, O Lord,
    in the light of your countenance;
they exult in your name all day long,
and extol your righteousness.

For you are the glory of their strength;
by your favor our horn is exalted.
For our shield belongs to the Lord, 
our king to the Holy One of Israel.
(Psalm 89:14-18)

Joshua 22:21-23:16
When they got to their region, the eastern tribes built an altar. The other Israelites became so angry about this that were ready to go to war against them. The eastern tribes rationale for their altar was not that it was an altar for an alien God but an altar for the same God the other Israelites recognized. They had just been worried that the Jordan River would be used as a boundary to separate them from the rest of the tribes. They wanted to insure that they could continue to worship the Lord they knew. These words satisfied the other families.

Modern day worshippers still disagree, still distrust others, still separate themselves because of these disagreements and distrust.

Joshua's farewell speech reminded them that their possessions had come to them because of the Lord, and that the Lord continues to fight for them. They are supposed to love the Lord, and be careful not to fall in the ways of the Lord rather than fall into habits of temptations.

Luke 20:27-47
Jesus has come to Jerusalem. The crowds welcomed him enthusiastically but the religious authorities are not pleased with him at all. They have questioned him and even sent spies to try to trap him into saying something about taxes that would warrant his arrest (19:29-26).

When that trick did not work, they try another. They try to force him to take a position on the theory the alternative he proposed would alienate either the Pharisees, who believe in resurrection, or the Sadducees, who don't. That is, the Sadducee asking the question doesn't want elucidation or support; he wants to drive a wedge into the crowd of supporters.

The question was based on the requirement in Deuteronomy that if a man died without a heir, then his brother should marry the widow. They asked then if a seven brothers followed their law one after the other, at the resurrection, whose wife would she be?

Jesus responded first by stating that life after death is not like life before it. Resurrection is not merely resuscitation (also see 1 Corinthians 15:35-57).

Then he uses a reference to Exodus to remind them that those who are dead to us are alive to God.

I've used Sharon Ringe's commentary on Luke in this comment and now quote directly:
Jesus' response ends the riddles (20:39-40) but not the opposition. One who speaks so well that he is able to defuse the arguments of the powerful presents a clear and present danger to the public order, and appropriate steps must be taken.
Psalm 89:14-37
Psalm 89 is an assertion of the covenant God has made with David, and a reminder that this covenant is unconditional, "Forever I will keep my steadfast love for him, and my covenant with him will stand firm" (23).

Reading this psalm after the exile, the Jews could adopt God's promise to David as king to themselves as descendants of the people in David's kingdom. Christians have also appropriated this promise since we recognize Jesus as a direct descendant of David.

We might discuss who is included and if anyone is not.

And we need to think about what this unconditional covenant means.

Verses 30-33 remind us that sin has consequences. We may suffer because of wrong choices we have made. We may suffer because of wrong choices someone else has made.

Sin has consequences.

Yet, God doesn't give up on us so easily.

We need to remember both of those things.

Proverbs 13:17-19

Prayer for Today: Choose a prayer from Joan Stott's website The Timeless Psalms.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Reflection on readings for April 20

I will sing of your steadfast love,
O Lord, forever;
with my mouth I will proclaim 
your faithfulness to all generations.
I declare that your steadfast love is
established forever;
your faithfulness is as firm
as the heavens.
(Psalm 89:1, 2)

Joshua 21:1-22:20
The eastern tribes, the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseth, had come over to help the other tribes win their land. Joshua send them back home with the reminder that Moses had given them their land based on what the Lord their God had promised; therefore, they were supposed to do what else Moses had said--to love the Lord their God and to keep God's commandments, to serve God with all their heart and soul.

Luke 20:1-16
Jesus told them a parable. The owner of a vineyard put some people in charge of maintaining it. When it was time for them to account for their management, they deliberately refused to turn over to the owner what was his. The owner sent employees then even his own son. They killed the son so they they could have the vineyard's profits for themselves.

Leaders of the church today: You mention God a lot, but how does your congregation distribute the assets under its control? Do you think of your monetary (and other kinds of) collections as belonging to you or to God? Not what you say, but what you do.

Psalm 89:1-13

Proverbs 13:15-16

Prayer for Today: O Lord, you have entrusted us with many possessions. Help us now to use those gifts in the way you intended. Remind us as we judge others' needs of the trust you have placed in us. Help us to be deservings of that trust. Amen.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Reflection on readings for April 19

O Lord, God of my salvation,
when, at night, I cry out in your presence,
let my prayer come before you;
incline your ear to my cry.
But, I, Lord, cry out to you;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
(Psalm 88:1, 2, 13)

Joshua 19:1-20:9
The land is assigned to the tribes by lots. In the case of Simeon, that tribe was assigned part of Judah's because the portion was too large. After they finished distributing the land, Joshua was allowed to choose the town he wanted. They then set aside cities of refuge for people accused of unintentional homicide.

Luke 19:28-48
Jesus has just told the parable of the ten pounds (we said talents when I was a child). Three people are each given a gift. Two of them are willing to run risks but one is not--he hides what he has received. Jesus says one of those hard sayings, "But as for these enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them--bring them here and slaughter them in my presence."

In today's reading, the people recognize Jesus as the king as he comes riding in on a donkey (look at Zechariah 9:9--go ahead and read the rest of the chapter as well to help understand what the people were expecting from the king and the Lord). Crowds gather, they throw their cloaks on the road (as had been done for King Jehu, 2 Kings 9:13).

Large numbers of followers begin to shout loudly their thanks to God for giving them this king.

Not everyone is pleased.

When some in the crowd tried to get him to get his disciples to quiet down, he responded "Even if they were silent, the stones would cry out." He's reminding them what Habakkuk had said about the powerful who try to protect themselves from debtors (Habakkuk 2:6-11).

Now, another way to look at this passage: I wouldn't have noticed the absence of palms in Luke's version if Allen & Williamson had not pointed it out to me in their Preaching the Gospels without Blaming the Jews:
Luke's omission of these branches is significant. Branches recollect 1 Maccabees 13:49-53. For three centuries Palestine had been under foreign rule. In 141 BCE, Jewish rebels defeated the Syrian oppressors. When the Jewish victors recaptured the temple, they waved branches. The branches became a symbol of Jewish independence. By omitting them, Luke signals that the church is not a revolutionary movement and encourages his community to live within Roman rule even while criticizing that oppression and recognizing that God will judge Rome ...
Psalm 88:1-18

Proverbs 13:12-14

Prayer for Today: The GBOD has posted this prayer.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Reflection on readings for April 18

Glorious things are spoken of you,
O city of God.
(Psalm 87:3)

Joshua 16:1-18:28

Luke 19:1-27
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.

Psalm 87:1-7

Proverbs 13:11

Prayer for Today: Christ, our Savior,  keep us mindful of what you have told us that saved people do. Amen.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Reflection on readings for April 17

Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me,
    for I am poor and needy.
Gladden the heart of your servant,
   for to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
(Psalm 86:1, 4)

Joshua 15:1-63
Caleb offers his daughter Achsah as a wife to the man who can successfully oust the inhabitant of a piece of land that had been designated as his. Othniel took the land and Caleb gave him Achsah. She then asked her father for more land--a field with springs.

The rest of the tribe of Judah was also successful in taking over the land assigned to them by Caleb. An exception was the Jebusites, who could not be driven out of Jerusalem.

Luke 18:18-43
He tells his disciples what is going to happen in Jerusalem. Even though he is very specific, they don't understand what he's saying to them.

Psalm 86:1-17
Psalm 86 begins with a plea to the Lord for help, a plea not based on anything done to deserve help but rather on the nature of the Lord--good, forgiving, and abounding in steadfast love. The psalmist continues by  recording the unique greatness of the Lord, and how everybody--all nations--recognize this greatness.

In verse 11, we have two more requests: Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name. The psalmist wants to know more about God so as to live the kind of life that God would want. Moreover, to live that kind of life, the psalmist is going to have to give up other distractions.

After the requests come expression of gratitude including a reassertion of God's love and care.

But, even with the knowledge that God is powerful and loving, the psalmist recognizes that life can be far from perfect, "O God, the insolent rise up against me; a band of ruffians seeks my life, and they don't care about you at all."

In this time of difficulty, the psalmist asks God, "Turn to me and be gracious to me; give me strength; save me."

When we are in our own times of difficulty, we can pray this psalm, we can ask for Lord's favor, because we also can remember the times that the Lord has helped us and comforted us.

Proverbs 13:9-10

Prayer for Today: Pray Psalm 86.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Reflection on readings for April 16

Show us your steadfast love, O Lord,
    and grant us your salvation.
Let me hear what you will speak,
for you will speak peace 
    to your people,
    to your faithful, 
    to those who turn to you in their hearts.
(adapted from Psalm 85:7, 8)

Joshua 13:1-14:15

Luke 18:1-17
Today'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.

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.

Then, Jesus tells them the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. 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. 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.

Psalm 85:1-13
I'm looking at this psalm today as a primer on a kind of prayer--a prayer when we want our lives to be different and we admit that we may have had some responsibility in their not being what we would have been, what we want them to be.

1. Remind the Lord, "You have been favorable to us." List some specifics. Of course, the Lord already is quite aware of this. The reminder is really for you.

2. State plainly what you want, "Restore us, Of God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us." Probably implicit is that God's indignation will no longer be needed because you intend in the future to act like a person worthy of that salvation you're asking for.

3. State just as plainly how bad things are when you are not right with God. "Will you be angry with us forever?"

4. Now, that you have listed your wants, be ready to hear what God wants, "Let me hear what the Lord will speak."
Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him,
that his glory may dwell in our land.
Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
and righteousness will look down from the sky.
5. Affirm God's gifts and your own promise to be worthy of receiving them "Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps."

Proverbs 13:7-8

Prayer for Today: Pray Psalm 85, focusing on the verses that fit the kind of day you are having today.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Reflection on readings for April 15

My soul longs,
indeed it faints
    for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh sing for joy
    to the Living God.
(Psalm 84:2)

Joshua 11:1-12:24

Luke 17:11-37
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.

Psalm 84:1-12
A worshipper of God is on a pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem. My husband and I are within easy driving distance of the church we attend. I read in the psalm, "My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God." I'm pausing to consider whether my soul longs and faints for that building I am headed toward. I do want to be there, I feel deeply (some weeks, anyway) the need to be there, but I'm not sure about the fainting part. Further disturbing to me is that while I am really, really glad to have that church and to be going there, I have never sung out loud about it while on the way.

So, what does this psalm say to me?

I'm not willing to leave it totally for the original psalmist.

Part of the difference is that the building I am talking about is one that I go to on the average about three times a week. The psalmist, I repeat, is making a pilgrimage. Yet, why would familiarity and ease about the access cause me to be less joyful?

Perhaps I am being too narrow in the application of the psalm to my religious life. Try this: my whole life is a journey toward the presence of God. As I go through my ordinary life--grocery shopping, TV watching, grandchildren enjoying, I am in the presence of God. God's dwelling place, God's courts, God's house--none of those are completely defined by any one building constructed by human beings.

So, Sunday mornings and the rest of the week, let me sing with the psalmist, "A day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. O Lord of hosts, happy is everyone who trusts in you."

Proverbs 13:5-6

Prayer for Today: Choose a prayer from Joan Stott's website The timeless psalms.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Reflection on readings for April 14

O God, 
do not keep silence;
do not hold your peace 
    or be still, 
O God!
(Psalm 83:1)

Joshua 9:3-10:43

Luke 16:19-17:10
When alive, the rich man enjoyed being rich. He dressed well and ate well. He used his money to satisfy himself well beyond need although he might have shared some of it with that poor, sore-covered man who was right there by his front door.

We know that the rich man was aware of the poor guy--he even knew his name. I'm pausing here to wonder why I think that ignoring the needs of people whose names we know is different from ignoring those of strangers.

He not only knows the name of Lazarus; he wants to be waited on by him. "I need something. Send Lazarus to help me."

Abraham informs him that the situation is now reversed: the one who had good things now doesn't, and the one who had suffered in his lifetime is now comforted. Moreover, the time to change that is past. The rich man has lost the opportunity to use anything that he once controlled.

The rich man reacts by wanting to ensure that his relatives don't end up the way he has. He begs Abraham, "Send Lazarus to warn my brothers so they won't have to end up the way I have." Abraham reminds the rich man that those brothers have already received sufficient warning because they have access to the Bible. Abraham says that he doesn't think the Bible works for everyone, but that a visitation from someone who has died would.

I would be willing to interpret this remark as a reference to the resurrected Christ, but Abraham's next remark limits that willingness. He says, "If they don't believe the Old Testament, they won't believe the New one either."

Believing in Christ does not mean that we are to cut up and throw away the front part of our Bibles. And if we were to do that, we would miss a whole lot about the necessity of helping the poor. Just saying.

Jesus had been instructing the apostles, and, at times, the crowds, in discourse and with parables what life with him would be like and what is expected of those who follow in his way.

They may have needed to have their confidence bolstered. They asked to have their faith increased. Jesus replied, "If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could get a mulberry tree to jump in the ocean just by telling it to."

When I was in the 5th grade, somebody gave me a necklace with a mustard seed encased in a plastic ball. I used to look at that tiny seed and wonder why the trees around me weren't listening to me. And I lived in a place where the trees weren't very big.

Other Bible readers, like me, have been troubled by this passage. Is Jesus promising us that we will be able to perform superhuman actions or great magic tricks? Or, is Luke using hyperbole or even metaphoric talk?

Fred Craddock in Preaching through the Christian Year C points out that the "if" in Jesus' statement can be translated in two ways, The word "if" could be describing a condition contrary to fact. Or, "if" could be describing a condition according to fact.

Try substituting "since" for "if" to see how this would sound in English. Craddock says Jesus is giving them "an indirect affirmation of the faith they have and an invitation to live and act out in that faith. They ask for an increase in their faith. He says that the faith you already have is effective and powerful beyond your present realization."

Do we deserve any special praise for following Christ? for accomplishing what he has required of us? Or, as Christ's servants, aren't we when we think of ourselves as doing good as dramatic as getting a tree to jump in the lake, aren't we even then just doing our job, just doing what Christ's servants are to do?

Psalm 83:1-18
At those times that we feel under attack and that God is not paying enough attention to us, we can pray this psalm. Remembering those times that God has gotten rid of enemies for other people, we can ask for God to get rid of those who are harming us. The psalm concludes with a reminder (to the psalmist or to God?) that the wrongdoers need to know God.

Proverbs 13:1

Prayer for Today: O Lord, remind us when we need it of our faith in you and remind us that we can and are supposed to use that faith. Amen.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Reflection on readings for April 13

O God, You have taken your place in the divine council;
In the midst of the gods, you hold judgment:
"How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked?"
(adapted from Psalm 82:1-2)

Joshua 7:16-9:2

Luke 16:1-18
Jesus told his disciples a parable about a rich man about to fire his manager who had been accused of squandering his property. I don't know if that mean incompetence or dishonesty or if it matters.

When his boss demands an accounting, the manager knows that he has no defense. And, he doesn't think he's going to be able to get a job as good as the one he has. The only prospects he sees are manual labor or begging.

Since, he doesn't want to do either of those, he comes up with an alternative plan. He summons each of his master's creditors and reduces the amount they owe. Whatever his previous shortcomings had been, this act is certainly dishonest. He has been entrusted with the care of someone else's resources, and he is misusing them to satisfy his own needs.

How are we to interpret this parable? One alternative is to assume that the boss represents God and that the manager represents the church. We treat the world and the goods in it as if they are ours. We use them for our own benefit, or we waste them without considering whose they really are. How would we react if God called us to account? How would we try to justify our decisions and our behavior?

The manager in the parable took actions that would prevent the master from getting his due. In what ways, do we that make up the church act that would limit what the world understands about God?

An employee had abused the trust of his employer and had been caught. The boss told him he was going to be fired. So, the employee figured out a way to get more of his boss's money while he could.

That story is not particularly shocking to modern readers, and I doubt it would have been then, either.

The boss's reaction, though, is surprising. Rather than having the employee sent to prison, he commends him for his shrewd actions. And, even more difficult to understand is Jesus' comment, "And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes."

It doesn't help much that commentators disagree on whether that comment was made by the boss or Jesus talking about the boss. Either way, Jesus is offering it to his disciples. We would have been more comfortable with a parable in which the dishonest employees was caught and repented and tried to pay back his boss and so on.

So, I was relieved to read the interpretation offered by Ronald Allen & Clark Williamson in their Preaching the Gospels without Blaming the Jews. They disagree with the standard assumption that the owner in the parable is a representation of God. Rather, they propose that Jesus is using the story to "cast a negative light on some Pharisees (and other Jewish leaders)". Thus, in their view, "The dishonest manager is not a model but a foil for the Pharisees. They are as misguided as the manager."

Allen & Williams tie this parable to the one in chapter 15 of the Prodigal Son. They interpret the story of the older son resenting the acceptance of his brother as a parallel to that of some Jewish leaders who resented the inclusion of Gentiles in the early church.

In any case, I know I would be more comfortable if Luke had just left this story out altogether. I am not helped much by the commentators who try to convince me that the employee was cutting his commission out of the debt and that's what the boss was commending.

But, whether I get the intended meaning of the parable right or not, I still am grateful for verses 10-13. They sound a lot more like what I am accustomed to hearing from Jesus.
"Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth."
We didn't create this world; God did. We didn't create the wealth on the earth, but God has entrusted it to our care.

Psalm 82:1-8
One troubling aspect in this psalm is that God will judge our actions.

Something else troubling is the actions that we are going to be accountable for. God is going to judge whether we
    give justice to the lowly and the orphan
    maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute
    rescue the weak and the needy
    deliver them from the hand of the wicked.

We need to review this checklist as we determine how our church congregation should be involved with our neighborhoods and we need to review it as we determine what each of us personally is called to do.

How far does this Bible stuff go? Should we also think about this list as we make decisions on who to vote for?

Proverbs 13:2-3

Prayer for Today: Choose a prayer from Joan Stott's website The Timeless Psalms.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Reflection on readings for April 12

Hear, O my people,
while I admonish you;
O Israel, if you would but listen to me.
(Psalm 81:1)

Joshua 5:1-7:15
All of the people who had begun the journey from Egypt had died. Only people who had been born in the wilderness will enter the promised land. Since none of the males born during the exodus had been circumcised, the Lord directed Joshua that it was now time to do so.

Metaphorizing this, I ponder what practices that an older generation considered necessary have their children forgotten or not gotten around to or object to. What practices should be restored?

As the Israelites had eaten the passover meal in Egypt the night before they left, this new generation also kept the passover. They can because they now are in a place that has food other than manna. Again metaphorizing, I wonder how we mark transitions and how we determine that it is time to do so.

These are not perfect people. Despite being told specifically not to take some things devoted to the Lord, some of the men did--with serious consequences.

Luke 15:1-32
The Pharisees and scribes--read religious leaders or religious insiders--were disgruntled that Jesus was willingly spending time with people that they did not consider worthy.

He asked "What shepherd wouldn't leave behind 99 safe sheep to go after the one who was lost?" Apparently a rhetorical question because he added, "And having found that lost sheep, the shepherd invited all his friends for a celebration."

Or not a rhetorical question now that I think about it because his critics that day are displeased by his allowing sinners so near. Or, maybe they are waiting to hear that those sinners have repented before they can be joyful about having them around.

Would the religious insiders have agreed that there would be more joy in heaven about sinners being there than them? Or, could they have seen that their own attitude of exclusion and superiority qualified them for the category of sinner? Is Jesus holding out to them the opportunity to repent of their sins--sins that they can't repent of until they recognize and admit that they have?

Jesus follows the lost sheep parable with one about a lost coin. Again something valuable is lost. Again the owner searches dilligently. Again the owner rejoices when the lost is retrieved.
Again, the owner invites others to celebrate that the lost has been found.

Jesus that such joy will be in heaven when one sinner repents.

I keep getting stuck on the repent part. What did the sheep or the coin do to get saved? Maybe the sheep was bleating and the coin was shiny? Would that constitute repentance? I'm settling for the assumption that these parables are not about somebody else repenting but they are about the pharisees and the scribes, about what their attitude is and what it ought to be.

The respectable people sure didn't like it that Jesus was willing to associate with people who weren't so respectable. And they said so out loud. And Jesus answered them out loud.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son (or, as some put it, the Parable of the Two Sons, or, as others put it, the Parable of the Waiting Father) is part of his response.

Something like what was upsetting the religious leaders keeps on happening. People who don't behave the way we want our children to grow up should be welcomed into our fellowship? Join our local church? Speak at the Annual Conference? Who makes the rules? Who gets to decide who is following them? Have they read the Bible? Don't they care?

These are questions that the respectable church members can ask. Jesus is talking to the respectable people of his time. But, before we address their attitude, let's look at an example of someone who inarguably does not behave the way he should have.

In the parable, the younger son does behave in an unquestionably poor way. He demands his inheritance before his father dies. He squanders it in dissolute living. Then the economy turns against him. Just as he runs out of money, so does the whole country. He finds an unpleasant job that doesn't even pay well.

So hungry that he's eating pig food, he starts comparing his situation with the one his father provides for his employees.

Whether he would have repented even if his circumstances had been different, we don't know.

What we are told is that even though he no longer feels that he deserves to have the status of a son, he wants to return to his father--because his father treats non-sons well.

I can read this parable as an illustration of repentance and forgiveness in a family. The younger son has sinned and recognized his sin. Or, at least, he has recognized that he needs his family. Admitted to himself not yet to those he has sinned against. But, before he can do that, his father comes to him, comes not reluctantly or grudgingly but running.

His father embraces him. Then, the son speaks his words of repentance.

Or, paying attention to the introductory words of this chapter about the grumbling Pharisees and scribes, I can read this parable metaphorically. Who is welcome at the table? What prevents someone from being worthy of sharing a meal with us? Who gets to decide? Which comes first--repentance or grace?

Further, what is this grace for, anyway--and, who's it for? Remember that Abraham was blessed to be a blessing (Genesis 12:1-3. Remember Jonah's assignment. (Thanks to Allen & Williamson, once again). Also, remember that foreigners had been included in the Exodus (Numbers 9:14; Judges 1:16)

If Jesus had stopped at verse 24, we still would have a powerful example of unmerited grace--a father forgiving his son and celebrating his return. When we sin, we can find hope that we will be forgiven. When someone sins against us, we can find an example of how to show forgiveness.

But, Jesus did not stop with the celebration.

Rather, he introduced the elder brother. Like the Pharisees and scribes who had been complaining that Jesus was associating with sinners, the elder brother had always been obedient. And, like them, he wasn't happy at all about the inclusion of someone who had not exhibited much obedience.

He's particularly upset by the extravagant celebration. "I've done everything you could have expected, and now, you are giving a dinner for him!"

The father reminded the elder son that he still was going to get everything that he had been expecting to get. Celebrating the return of the younger brother did not change the status of the elder brother. "But," the father insists, "You need to be happy about his return. He was lost to us and now has been found."

Psalm 81:1-16 

The psalm begins with a command to sing joyously to God then lists some reasons why we should.

Verses 10-16 are in the voice of God, saying what I, God, did, and what you, the not-always-grateful people did next. God had rescued the people from slavery in Egypt and provided them with the necessary food to keep them going on their journey. And God provided them with something else necessary for their journey--instruction in a way of life.

What response what we expect from people who had received such gifts? What God got was a people who refused to listen, who refused to obey. God's response to that recalcitrance was to just let them do what they wanted to do.

But God is not abandoning these abandoning people. "If only they would listen," God says.

Off on a tangent part: The psalm ends with this verse: I would feed you with the finest of the wheat and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you. I immediately was reminded of the singing group Sweet Honey in the Rock. Take some time today to listen to them.

Proverbs 13:1

Prayer for Today: Choose a prayer from Joan Stott's website The Timeless Psalms.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Reflections on readings for April 11

Restore us, O God;
let your face shine,
that we may be saved.
(Psalm 80:3)

Joshua 3:1-4:24
They are poised to cross over the Jordan into the land promised by them. Compare this crossing with the one that took them from captivity in Egypt into their long testing in the wilderness (Exodus 14).

As Pharaoh's army had drawn near, the people had been afraid. The Lord instructed Moses what to do. The Lord sent a strong wind to make a path through the sea so the Israelites could cross over on dry ground.

Now, forty years later, Moses has died, and Joshua is their appointed leader. He also receives instructions from the Lord. Once again the waters are divided, and the people can cross.

What is different is that on this crossing, the priests and the ark of the covenant are part of the story. Also different is that this time is that they are not just one group; they are twelve tribes.

The priests go first with the ark. As their feet enter the river, the waters begin to separate.

Imagine being one of the priests and stepping into the rushing water. When the people saw the water piling up, they then stepped into the path. Imagine being able to trust that the danger would wait for you to make your way across.

They had the ark to hold. What are we holding to remind us of God's commands and help?

Luke 14:7-35
How many poor people did you invite to share a meal with you at your church? Could a crippled person easily get into your building? Could a blind person find the sanctuary, the Sunday School room, the bathroom?

As we answer these questions, let us remember what else Jesus said that day: You will be blessed because they cannot repay you.

Those of us who are used to thinking of the term "Family Values" to be synonymous with Christian Values may have struggled with this particular passage. Is Jesus really telling us that we have to hate our families and to leave them behind if we want to join the church? Not a message I see being lived out by the churches I am familiar with.

Just about as troubling is the requirement to halt needed work like foundation building or to begin projects without considering what resources are necessary.

So, once again I am grateful to Ronald Allen & Clark Williamson who wrote a lectionary commentary called Preaching the Gospel without Blaming the Jews.

Early Christians would have found these commands difficult as well since rabbinic Judaism has no instructions to hate family. To help us to interpret what Jesus is saying to us, Allen & Williamson suggest we need to put the passage in context. Jesus had just told a parable about a man who invited a lot of people to dinner and they were too busy with their own lives to show up.

The banquet is the kingdom. The excuses represent the kinds of ties that people have--to real estate, to work, and to family--ties that keep us from giving our ultimate commitment to the work of God in the world. .... Jesus' teaching about hating our loved ones is not recommending that we feel hatred for them....It is about choices, decisions.

More from Allen & Williamson:
The language is hyperbolic. We are to have a relative love for the relative and an ultimate love ... for God and God's kingdom.... We are to assess critically whether we can finish what we start, whether we can stay the course of discipleship. Can we make the commitment to peace, justice, economic sufficiency for all, and respect for the well-being of the stranger that commitment to the kingdom and following Jesus entail?
Psalm 80:1-19

Proverbs 12:27-28

Prayer for Today: Lord, forgive us for those times that we have not followed you, those times that we have forgotten what we are capable of doing for you, those times that we were distracted from your will. Amen.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Reflections on readings for April 10

Help us, O God of our salvation,
for the glory of your name'
deliver us, and forgive our sins, 
for your name's sake.
(Psalm 79:9)

Deuteronomy 34:1-Joshua 2:24
Moses was allowed to see the prize but not hold it. Moses had devoted his life to people who often did not appreciate him. After his death, they wept for him for thirty days, the mourning period for a parent.

His burial place is not known. His mourners could not make it a shrine or a place of pilgrimage. They had to move on.

Although his burial place has been forgotten, his leadership is not. The book of Deuteronomy ends with a eulogy, but these words of praise are not contemporaneous with his burial. Rather, they are written much after that time. These words reflect an assessment of Moses' place in the history of God's relationship with humans: No prophet after him was known to the Lord face to face. He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders he performed, all his mighty deeds, and terrifying displays of power.

They need a leader, and Joshua is chosen. We have two versions of his commissioning. In Numbers 27:18, God tells Moses to choose Joshua. In Deuteronomy 32:23, the Lord speaks directly to Joshua. Two versions, but not necessary contradictory ones.

How did the people themselves discern that Joshua was to be the appropriate successor to Moses? How is God's will ever discerned?

In preparation for their entry into that land beyond the Jordan, Joshua sent two spies to view the land. The only part of the land they saw for themselves was the house of Rahab, a prostitute, where they spent one night. The king of Jericho, having found out that spies were there, ordered Rahab to turn them over. She didn't.

After the soldiers left, she spoke to the spies that she had hidden, giving a speech that sounds like she had been reading Deuteronomy.  She helped them escape.

Why did they go to that particular house? Why was she willing to protect invaders into her country? How had she learned the history of the Israelites?

Luke 13:22-14:6

Psalm 79:1-13
We can read this psalm and be able to put ourselves into the thoughts of those ancient people in Judah who suffered when the Babylon army invaded. "Foreigners have come in," they lament. "They have defiled the temple. They have laid Jerusalem in ruins." Both the center of worship and of government have been lost.

And lives were lost, too. So many were killed, that there weren't enough survivors left to bury them.

The lament does not stop with the listing of their losses. It includes what happens after that. Rather than wanting to support them or at least be sympathetic to them, their neighbors mock and deride.

I'm pausing to think about what would be the expected reaction by anyone to somebody else's suffering. How often do we think something like, "Well, what could you expect? After all, they really deserve what they got"?

And I'm thinking about how I feel when I suspect, or know, that onlookers are judging me. Now, since the psalm is a community lament, I should reword that to how I as an America feel when other nations mock my country for getting what they judge that we deserve. Suffering makes us feel bad. Being mocked rather than being sympathized with can make us feel worse.

What are we supposed to do when we have been hurt badly? We don't have to pretend that we like it. This psalm complains to God about what has happened and how long it has taken with no improvement in sight, "How long, O Lord? Will you be angry forever?"

The psalm suggests that it is not up to us to seek vengeance, but, rather, that we are to turn to God to take care of it for us, "Pour out your anger on them. They have laid waste to the land you have given us."

How willing are we moderns to allow God to handle the vengeance that we can so clearly see is really overdue?

Proverbs 12:26

Prayer for Today: Choose a prayer from Joan Stott's website The Timeless Psalms.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Reflections on readings for April 9

There is none like God,
who rides through the heavens to our help.
(adapted from Deuteronomy 33:26)

Deuteronomy 33:1-29
At the end of his life, at the end of their journey through the wilderness, Moses bids farewell. He reminds them of all that God has done for them and tells them what to expect in their new home.

Luke 13:1-21
The religious leader was indignant that this person would openly violate an essential requirement. The accused, the one we call Lord, pointed out the hypocrisy.

Notice that Jesus isn't saying that the sabbath is unimportant. Rather, he's pointing out its importance adds to the significance of healing the woman who has been crippled for almost two decades. As Sharon Ringe puts it in her commentary on Luke: "The core question is not whether to keep the sabbath, but rather how to keep it, and specifically, how keeping the day "holy" to God...."

Also note that the woman did not approach Jesus asking him for help. Rather, he saw her, called her over, healed her.

Which religious rules are we keeping but in the wrong way? Do we wait for people to come to us for help, or are we watching for opportunities to give help?

Further note the woman's reaction. As soon as she was healed, she began praising God. Do we remember to be grateful to the source of our gifts?

Psalm 78:65-72

Proverbs 12:25

Prayer for Today: O Lord, as we remember Jesus' healing the crippled woman on the Sabbath, help us to discren which commandments we are able to keep by braking. Amem

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Reflections on readings for April 8

Where are their gods,
the rock in which they took refuge?
There is no god besides me.
(taken from Deuteronomy 32:37, 39)

Deuteronomy 32:28-52
Moses reminds them what God has done for them and that no other object of worship can do. Troubling to some is that God promises vengeance. To others, this promise is a reminder that we ourselves are not supposed to do the avenging but instead leave it in God's capable hands.

Luke 12:35-59
"Do not worry," Jesus had said. Then he tells them what to do instead: Get ready.

Don't worry doesn't mean don't care.

Jesus has just told them that God is the source of their gifts (12:22-34), that God's kingdom is what they should strive for (31) and what will be given to them (32).

Continuing with the image of kingdom then, Jesus discusses their role--they are to God the king as earthly servants are to earthly masters.

What worthy servants do is be ready at any moment for any need of the master. If the master tells you exactly what time he's going to show up, then you could take off work until that time came. But, if you don't know when he's going to get home, then you have to stay ready.

But, something unexpected occurs in Jesus' parable: when the master gets there, he will serve the meal to the servants.

Staying ready to open the door, keeping those lamps lit--only insiders can do that. (Allen & Williamson's Preaching the Gospel)

Perhaps I shouldn't continue to be surprised that church people often don't get along with each other, that they squabble, engage in backbiting and, often frontbiting. The arguments may be over which Sunday School class gets which classroom, what kind of music or musical instruments are allowed at the morning worship service, and, even theological disputes at times.

After all, didn't Jesus warn us?

Well, okay, he probably wasn't talking about the kinds of disputes I have noticed, but he did say that peace was not the ultimate good. He didn't intend to paper over disagreement over essential matters or to ignore what was wrong.

In my own lifetime, church congregations have been split over civil rights and the Vietnam War. Many churches today have internal disputes about ordination of women and inclusion of gays and lesbians.

He did not come to bring peace. He lived a life that brought him to crucifixion. Taking him seriously, taking his message seriously, taking the decisions he made seriously will disrupt our lives. We don't join the church for the same reason we would join some kind of social club. We join the church to continue his work in the world. And sometimes, that work is scary.

Why do we have so much trouble discerning what it is that we are supposed to do? It's not because we are incapable of recognizing clues.

Jesus demonstrated this truth by reminding them that they knew that clouds in the west meant impending rain (from the Mediterranean Sea) and wind from the south (from the Negev desert) meant the temperatures were going to rise. They had the capability to recognize and interpret weather signs.

And they had the capability to recognize and interpret other signs, as well. Only a hypocrite would pretend that he didn't have enough information to know what was just in the circumstances.

Psalm 78:56-64

Proverbs 12:24

Prayer for Today: Lord, keep us watchful, keep us prepared, keep us ready, keep us faithful. You have told us over and over what you expect of us. Help us now to respond. Amen.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Reflections on readings for April 7

Bring us to your holy hill.
(adapted from Psalm 78:52-54)

Deuteronomy 31:1-32:27
Moses makes his farewell and assures them that the Lord will continue to go with them. Moses wrote down and told them that everyone was supposed to assemble every seven years to hear the law read. Everyone included everyone--not only men but also women and children; not only the people of Israel but also aliens. Everyone.

The Lord told Moses to appoint Joshua as successor. "They're going to violate my instructions," the Lord told Moses. "I will be angry with them. They will need reminding of what I have already done for them."

Luke 12:8-34
What makes us feel safe? What is worth worrying about? What is important enough to us to be included in our prayers?

There was Jesus right there in front of him and what he wanted was some support in getting what seemed like to him a fair share of the family money. Well, he may not have realized yet exactly who this Jesus was. What's our excuse for the prayers we make?

One person asked the question, but Jesus gave the answer to the crowd. Yes, we all need to hear the caution, "Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions."

I'm hoping that I can rest on the term "abundance" and that Jesus is giving me an o.k. to pray for a sufficiency of possessions. What does make us feel safe? What is worth worrying about? What do I pray for?

Jesus answered the man that day, as he often did, by telling a parable. A man spent a lot of effort accumulating possessions, so many that he needed more space to put them in (I'm a little concerned here because I am rather constantly complaining about not having enough closet space.) Anyway, the man in the parable was all ready to celebrate having so much stuff when God pointed out that none of the stuff would be available to him for very long, "You're dying tonight. Tomorrow, it'll be your heirs that will be enjoying those things that you were so concerned with."

Jesus said, "You've been worrying about the wrong thing. Instead of focusing on your own financial situation, think about how you can serve God."

"Do not be afraid," Jesus tells them. I looked at the preceding verses in Luke and found some specifics in what not to afraid of--what you will eat or wear or how long you will live. Just glancing at the headlines in this morning paper or the letters to the editor remind me that we, despite Jesus' words, still worry a lot. We worry about somebody else getting our share of things, encroachments on our lives in some ways, and our physical security. "Do not be afraid," Jesus tells us.

He goes on, "Sell your possessions, and give alms." Not worrying is hard enough, but giving up that very thing that I was worrying about not being enough?

Jesus reminds us that what is important for us is what we worry about. If my concern is my own security, then I will protect that security against all encroachment--real or not. But, what if my concern could somehow be how God's will would be acted out on earth, how God's love and care could be extended and expressed through my efforts--wouldn't that change my actions and thoughts and prayers? Can I trust God?

The notes to the Wesley Study Bible remind us that Methodists have a history of being concerned about the deleterious effects of riches--or worrying about having and keeping riches:
Both Jesus and Wesley had much to say about wealth and poverty. Wesley feared that riches were a sign of self-indulgence and frequently warned his Methodists to practice generosity rather than self-indulgence (see Sermons 87: "The Danger of Riches"; 108: "On Riches"; 126: "On the Danger of Increasing Riches")....
Psalm 78:32-55

Proverbs 12:21-23

Prayer for Today: O Lord continue to lead us, to guide us through the wildernesses that surround us. Bring us to safety on your mountain. Amen