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.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Reflection on readings for May 31

Turn to me 
   and be gracious to me,
as is your custom toward those
   who love your name.
With my whole heart I cry;
   answer me, O Lord.
I will keep your statutes.
(Psalm 119:132, 145)

2 Samuel 17:1-29
Absalom trusted Hushai but shouldn't have.

John 19:23-42
Jesus said to his mother, "Woman, here is your son" and to his beloved disciple, "Here is your mother." The world still has people who have lost their means of support, still has people able to provide nurture and companionship.

Psalm 119:129-152
This portion of Psalm 119 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."

Proverbs 16:12-13
It is an abomination to kings to do evil,
for the throne is established by righteousness.
Righteous lips are the delight of a king,
and he loves those who speak what is right.

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

Friday, May 30, 2014

Reflection on readings for May 30

You are my hiding place and my shield;
I hope in your word.
(Psalm 119:114)

2 Samuel 15:23-16:23
As the support for Absalom increased, David fled, along with a a large entourage of wives, servants, and officials. David directed that the Ark should remain in Jerusalem as he expressed his belief that the Lord would choose who should be king. One of his wisest counselors, Ahithophel, deserted him for Absalom. David sent Hushai to spy for him.

Hushai approached Absalom and expressed allegiance to him.

On advice of Ahithophel, Absalom to take over his father's concubines.

John 18:25-19:22
Pilate's questions: Are you the King of the Jews? What have you done that has caused you to be arrested?

Pilate's job is to protect his government and he wants to know if this man Jesus is a threat to peace and stability.

Jesus responds that he is not the kind of king that Pilate has been trained to watch out for. He doesn't have an army, for example.

Pilate asks again: Are you a king? Jesus responds "That's what you say," then adds some remarks that I think would have been unintelligible to Pilate:
For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice. 
And, isn't it hard to understand how truth can prevail without having an army? without being a threat to powerful people? How can we defend ourselves against truth, anyway? 
After all, Jesus didn't say that his followers were going to withdraw from the world. He said that it wasn't the world that gave him his authority.
Pilate sentenced him to death.

Psalm 119:113-128

Proverbs 16:10-11
Inspired decisions are on the lips of a king;
his mouth does not sin in judgment.
Honest balances and scales are the Lord's;
all the weights  in his bag are his work.

Prayer for Today: O Lord, when I am faced today with your presence, with your intention for me, help me to know who you are, to remember what your will for me is, and to show you to the world. Amen.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Reflection on readings for May 29

How sweet are your words to my taste,
sweeter than honey to my mouth!
Your word is a lamp to my feet
and a light to my path.
(Psalm 119:103, 105)

2 Samuel 14:1-15:22
As had Samuel, the wise woman from Tokoa uses a fictional story to evoke an appropriate judgment from David.

David agreed to spare Absalom's life, but didn't immediately allow him to come into his presence.

Absalom then tricked the people into thinking he cared more for them than his father, the sitting king, did. As his support built up, Absalom attempted to overthrow David.

Notice echos from David's overcoming Saul?

John 18:1-24
One of his closest disciples aided in his arrest. Another denied even knowing him.

Psalm 119:97-112
The psalmist reminds us that the Lord has provided us with a guide that will enable us to live the life that the Lord wishes for us to have, the one that will be the most beneficial to us.

Proverbs 16:8-9
Better is a little with righteousness
than large income with injustice.
The human mind plans the way,
but the Lord directs the steps.

Prayer for Today:  Trustworthy God, you have given us an inheritance that is invaluable – a life-long guide to living as children of God. Help us to learn well the lessons you have prepared for us, so that we may never be tempted to ignore or disregard your truths. We know there will be obstacles in life to overcome, but we seek you help in dealing with these traps with faith, courage and tenacity, as we journey towards our home in you. With joy, we celebrate the trustworthiness of our Great God.

If used in shared worship, please provide an acknowledgement as follows:
© 2011 Joan Stott – "The Timeless Psalms" RCL Psalm Year A, used with permission.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Reflection on readings for May 28

My soul languishes
    for your salvation;
I hope in your word.
My eyes fail with watching
    for your promise;
I ask, "When will you comfort me?"
(Psalm 119:81-82)

2 Samuel 13:1-39
Amnon, David's eldest son, became infatuated with his sister Tamar. He pretends to be sick. When the king visits his sickbed, Amnon asks him to send Tamar to bring food to him. The ruse worked. Tamar showed up with the food. Amnon told everyone else to leave the room. When Tamar refused his advances, he raped her.  Afterwards, he was filled with loathing for her and told her to go away.

Her brother Absalom tried to comfort her, but she couldn't be comforted. David was angry but didn't do anything. Two years later, Absalom killed Amnon. It took three years until David was able to take Absalom back.

 In our towns and in our churches are today's Tamars and Amnons and Davids and Absaloms. We don't always know how to care for and support the persons who have been abused by family members. We haven't figured out how to prevent any of the Amnons on acting on their urges. We may love both the victim and the perpetrator and now be able to step into the situation with a good solution. We are Absaloms. Someone has hurt someone, and we want revenge.

John 17:1-26
Those of us who may limit the meaning of "eternal life" to heaven can get a richer meaning from this prayer. Jesus defines eternal life as a life shaped by knowing God and knowing Jesus Christ who has been sent by God. In their commentary on John, Gail O'Day and Susan Hylen say "Jesus makes God known to people (They suggest looking at verses 6, 24, and 26) and, in so doing, provides eternal life.

Jesus asked God to glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you. Allen and Williamson in Preaching the Gospels point out that in the First Testament, "glory" and "glorification" referred to God's manifesting the divine will and power through people. They gives as examples, Exodus 16:10; 24:7; Wisdom 9:10; 2 Maccabeus 2:8.

In the days to come, these disciples will come together and scatter apart. The church still does. Jesus prayed that God would protect us so that we would be one. How unified are we? In what ways do we demonstrate that we know God? In what ways do we demonstrate that we are part of the world?

In his farewell prayer, Jesus asks that we may all be one.

He's preparing to give up his life and what he wants is for us to be not only each for him but each for each other.

This unity will both enable and demonstrate the love that God has.

God's love is not restricted or small; it is intended for the world.

Here's what Gail O'Day and Susan Hylen say in their commentary on John:
The words and work of believers are to be shaped by Jesus' life and death. As the one God sent, Jesus prays for those whom he likewise sends into the world. The relationship of the Father and Son shapes the relationship of believers to one another, and to God and Jesus.
Tangent: I'm trying to imagine what Christianity would look like if we, as in this prayer, were to become completely one. I don't think this is an argument against denominationalism any more than against congregationalism, but I think I had better think about it.

The unity of Christians would be instructive, Jesus says. The world is watching, is the modern phrase. And since they are watching, what do we think they see? How is your congregation demonstrating the love we receive?

Psalm 119:81-96
What could be hard about following directions that lead to the intended destination? This portion of Psalm 119 included some problems; e.g., we get distracted by our own problems, we may get forgetful, or the wicked may interfere with our journey.

In spite of these potential roadblocks, we can still keep on the right path. It is well lighted. We promised to do it. We need to do it. The path brings us joy.

Proverbs 16:6-7
By loyalty and faithfulness iniquity is atoned for,
and by the fear of the Lord one avoids evil.
When the ways of people please the Lord,
God causes even their enemies to be at peace with them.

Prayer for Today: Read Jesus' prayer again and then pray to God to live out unity. Amen.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Reflection on readings for May 27

Let your steadfast love become comfort
according to your promise to your servant.
Let your mercy come to me, that I may live;
for your law is my delight.
(Psalm 119:76-77)

2 Samuel 12:1-31
David had been much favored, had earned much success, had worked hard and achieved a lot. And he gave in to his desires for an attractive woman--and to cover up what he had done, had precipitated the death of her husband.

The Lord is not happy about this.

So, the Lord dispatches Nathan to convey the divine message.

Pause here. How do you think that God accomplishes things? Have you been asked to step in? Or, have you heard God's voice coming through someone willing to interfere in your business?

Back to David.

As soon as Nathan tells him the story about the poor man's lamb, David instantly recognizes the injustice. He still can tell right from wrong--at least, someone else's right from wrong.

Pause again. When we descry or disdain someone else's flaws, how do we catch sight of our own? The Lord sent Nathan. Watch out for the Nathan in your life.

John 16:1-33
Jesus was reassuring his disciples that even after he left them, the Spirit would continue to be their guide. This reassurance is meant for us, as well. We can continue to hear.

Jesus spoke to specific people, living in a particular geographic area, subject to the laws and customs of their time. Because of the Holy Spirit, we are able to hear the truth that will guide us--as different as we are from the original disciples, as different as our governments and environments are.

Jesus tells his followers that he is going and the Advocate is coming. This Spirit will guide the followers into all truth, will declare to them the things that are to come. We read this message as comfort--to them and to us, the continuation of the church.

I'm grateful to Fred Craddock for pointing out the implicit concern contained within this warning:
This text has been used to bless every fad and notion, but the fear of the new and different must not cause the church to abandon the promise. When the church becomes protective and defensive, ... preachers become curators. The Spirit continually presses the question, What is the meaning of Jesus Christ today?
Psalm 119:65-80

Proverbs 16:4-5
The Lord has made everything for its purpose,
even the wicked for the day of trouble.
All those who are arrogant are an abomination to the Lord;
be assured, they will not go unpunished.

Prayer for Today: O Lord our God, through your Holy Spirit, open us to discern your truth through all the new things that we hear. Amen.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Reflection on readings for May 26

The Lord is my portion;
I promise to keep your words.
I implore your favor with all my heart;
be gracious to me according to your promise.
(Psalm 119:57-58)

2 Samuel 9:1-11:27
David has been an ardent warrior, bravely facing mighty foes. And now, while his army is fighting somewhere else, he is lounging at home.

He notices a beautiful woman, Bathsheba, and he desires her.

Bathsheba's husband Uriah is one of the soldiers now at battle.

When Uriah returns, David is not able to trick him into providing an alibi for Bathsheba's pregnancy. David sends him back to battle, to the forefront of the hardest fighting.

We can see in David's sin many echoes in our own time. People who have demonstrated great ability, devotion, and talent to getting to the top then misuse their gifts. They become willing to harm many people.

As you read this story, imagine yourself as each of the characters. As David, what gifts have you benefited from? Have you misused your status? How does a middle-aged person overcome temptation?

As Bathsheba, how do you resist the advances of someone much higher in status to you? To whom can you turn for support?

As Uriah, how do you measure your loyalty to someone you have deservedly respected at times when that person has behaved in such a way that he has damaged that respect?

John 15:1-27
Go back and read Isaiah 5: The farmer worked very hard to make things right for that vineyard. Yet, the vineyard was a disappointment. The farmer responded.

Here in John's Gospel, the vineyard again is used as a metaphor: The branches that don't produce fruit are removed from the vine. The branches that do produce fruit are pruned so that they will produce more.

Consider the effect on your community from what your church congregation is doing. Would that community be better or worse off if your congregation pruned some of its actions and practices from the vine?

If the answer is "better off," then what further pruning would make the effect even better?

Continuing the metaphor of the vine, Jesus has just said that those who abide in him will bear much fruit. He then points out what happens to branches that do not bear fruit.

He is reminding us of the futility of the church trying to make it without adhering what he said, "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you."

Michaella Bruezella points out in Sojourner's Commentary the challenge in this command:
Indeed, our hardest task is not loving one another, but doing so as Jesus did—recognizing each person’s ability to receive God’s grace, and then serve as its ambassador to the world.
Remember, Jesus was preaching to people living in hard times, and John's gospel was written to people who knew loss and were facing more difficulties. To these people, at that time, came the command to love.
When we have suffered loss, when  we fear disruption in our community, when we don't feel in control of what is happening or is going to happen, we still need to heed that command, "Love one another as I have loved you."

To be able to withstand difficulties and disruptions, we must love one another--and remember what love looks like.

Psalm 119:49-64

Proverbs 16:1-3
The plans of the mind belong to mortals,
but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord.
All one's ways may be pure in one's own eyes,
but the Lord weighs the spirit.
Commit your work to the Lord,
and your plans will be established.

Prayer for Today: God, we give you thanks for the many ways that you have shown your love for us. Help us now to recognize how we can share that love with others--even those others that don't agree with us. Amen.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Reflection on readings for May 25

Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes,
and I will observe it to the end.
Let your steadfast love come to me, O Lord,
your salvation according to your promise.
(Psalm 119:33, 41)

2 Samuel 7:1-8:18
David had been victorious over his enemies--internal as well as external ones. He has been made king over all of Israel. He has brought back the ark of God from where it had been hidden during the battles. they put the ark in a tent and made offerings to the Lord.

David is living in a house and decides that the ark should have a house as well.

The Lord tells Nathan what to tell David about this idea.

The Lord is responsible for the beginning of David's story, his success against his enemies, and for David's future. David has it backwards if he thinks that it depends on him to provide a house for the Lord.

The Lord will build David's house.

The house and kingdom shall last forever.

A problem arises for us as we read these verses. David's son, Solomon, did build a temple--that was destroyed by the Babylonians. After the return of the exiles, a temple was built to replace it. Did the people think that God meant only for David not to build a temple? How did we discern that great houses of worship are appropriate and helpful?

We usually read the word "house" in this section to also mean "family." That is, we interpret God's promise to mean that David's descendants would rule Jerusalem forever. How long is forever? Foreign powers overtook their land. David's house was taken into captivity.

Another problem with the promise of forever. Would that mean that no matter what David or his children, grandchildren, and great (and so on) grandchildren did, that God would remain in relationship with them, provide for them? That is, does sin matter to God? Are we not being held responsible for our actions? See 1 Kings 9:4-7 for a statement of the conditional covenant.)

John 14:15-31
When they had asked him to show the the Father, Jesus told them they had already been able to see the Father. He added "Even if you don't believe my words, you've got my works to convince you."

Believe what you have heard me say. Or, believe what I have said. Or, let what you have seen me accomplish be proof.

Then he extends this pattern to include them: Those who believe in me will also be able to do the works that I do.

Jesus has just told them, "The one who believes in me will do the works I do." Believing is more than just sitting somewhere alone feeling smug. Believing is doing, and it's doing what Jesus did.

And not just doing but how we do or the attitude we have or the basis for doing--"If you love me, you will keep my commandments." Remember his words in 13:34-35, when he gave them the commandment, "that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Note that each "you" is plural. Jesus is talking to the church.

He's leaving them. But, the world will not lose what he has been able to do. The ability that Jesus has demonstrated to help them out will continue after the physical separation.

"In a little while, the world won't be able to see me any more, but you will."

"The Father will send an Advocate for you, the Holy Spirit."

Jesus outlines the work of the Advocate: to teach them and to remind them of everything that Jesus had said to them.

Jesus had spoken the words of the Father. The Holy Spirit will continue to speak to them--and to us.

Read ahead to John 15:7-15 to hear this commandment repeated.

Loving others is important to Jesus.

But, it can be hard.

If Jesus were physically standing there next to us watching every move, would it be any easier? He was preparing them for his physical absence. After he was no longer visibly among them, they were supposed to keep on doing what he had already told them to do.

They were not going to have to do this alone. He gave them the promise that God would send to them an Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, who would abide with them and be in them.

They are sitting around the supper table. Jesus is preparing them for what is to come. He's told them that one of them will betray him. He has commanded them to love each other. He has reassured them that he is not leaving them without support.

And they will know more than the world knows, "In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me."

How do we Christians see Christ in a way that the world does not? How do we show Christ to the world?

He adds to the promise of vision a promise of life, "Because I live, you also will live."

How does the church demonstrate that Christ lives? How does each congregation? Do congregations recognize that their existence as the church rest on the presence and promises of Christ?

Charles Cousar in Texts for Preaching points out that the world may not particularly value what the church is doing--especially when it is most faithful to Jesus' directive.

How has a denomination or congregation upset the world by doing or saying something that demonstrates our loving Christ and following his commands?

Psalm 119:33-48
If you see any of these signs, please pay attention.

Warning signs are intended to help us. So, are God's statutes.

"Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes, and I will observe it to the end," the psalmist speaks.

In Weavings, Marjorie J. Thompson calls obedience the deepest passion of love:
What transformation of our notions of obedience might be effected if we simply saw God's will as the deepest yearning of God's love for us--the passionate divine desire for our human fulfillment in God's unimaginably lovely design! Can we trust that what God yearns for in this creation is abundantly good and that we are intended to be vital links in the intricate web of cosmic life?
Can we pray for God's will to be done in and through us because we know it to be a light yoke with an achingly exquisite purpose with which we yearn to work in harmony? God is a sovereign whose supreme expression of ruling is to die for us out of fiercely loyal and immeasurably tender love. Perhaps if we were to grasp this truth with heart as well as head, we would be ready to help realize God's loving will on earth as it is realized in heaven.
Proverbs 15:33
The fear of the Lord is instruction in wisdom,
and humility goes before honor.

Prayer for Today: O Lord, you have sent many teachers to us. Help us now and always to heed the true word. Help us now and always in everything that we do and say demonstrate the love that you have shown the world through Christ. Amen.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Reflection on readings for May 24

Open my eyes, 
so that I may behold
wondrous things 
out of your law.
(Psalm 119:18)

2 Samuel 4:1-6:23
Saul is dead. His son Jonathon is dead (although his son is still alive). Although he was initially kept from battle, David turned a defeat into a victory.

Eventually, the tribes of Israel conclude that David should be their king.

Or, am I supposed to be reading this as finally the people of Israel catch on to what the Lord has long planned?

Are differences between factions no longer important after the leadership is decided? (If we read ahead, we see that the tribes will split apart after Solomon's reign).

Back to the king part. When the people had first wanted a king, the Lord had forecast for them what life with a human king would be like (see 1 Samuel 8), but they wanted one anyway. Their fear of their armed neighbors led them to a desire for a king. They no longer trusted God; they wanted a powerful human being to lead a powerful army against their powerful foes. Samuel had tried to talk them out of it, but failed.

Saul was made king, but failed.

Now, David is king, and, so far, seems successful. The enemies are driven back. The northern and southern tribes have combined. They have a new capital--Jerusalem.

David decides to bring the ark to Jerusalem. The capital will then have the earthly king and the mark of the presence of the heavenly king both in the same city.

A great procession marks the occasion--everyone is dancing, including David.

1. How are we to interpret the account of the death of Uzzah? Do we read this as a warning to be respectful in front of the Lord? Or, that the holiness of God is paramount? Or, that motives don't matter when we break the rules? (I'm not very happy with any of these)

2. What about David's conduct was so upsetting to Michal?

3. Was anyone upset that David took over the role of a priest?

4. What symbol or symbols remind us of the presence of God? In what ways are we reminded to mark our respect for them?

John 13:31-14:14
Peter has just asked Jesus where he was going, and he replied that Peter couldn't follow him yet. Jesus then added that Peter was going to deny him three times.

In today's passage, Jesus is speaking to a group, also addressing their concern about his leaving them behind.

"Don't be troubled," he tells them. He then gives them the basis for confidence, "Believe in God and believe in me".

Their faith in God and in him will allow themselves to remain connected with them even when they no longer can see the physical Jesus. They will remain connected to him. And they don't have to wait to die for this to be true. They will be in relationship with him--as he puts it, they will dwell with him.

I'm curious but haven't looked hard enough to find an explanation of why the word translated as "dwelling places" in the NRSV was translated as "mansions" in the KJB. The Greek noun mone has the same root as the verb translated as 'abide."

Thomas thinks that Jesus is talking about geography when he says that "You know the way to the place that I am going." Many modern Christians tend to think that Jesus meant that only Christians can get to heaven.

According to O'Day and Hylen's commentary on John, both interpretations are a misunderstanding of this gospel's message:
...the "I am" saying of Jesus' response (v.6) shows that "way" refers to the revelatory work of Jesus...similar to the gate and shepherd sayings of chapter 10; Jesus identifies himself as the point of access to life with God (gate, way) and the embodiment of that life (shepherd, life). Like the shepherd imagery, this language is familiar from the Old Testament. The "way" is usually associated with God's law and God's wisdom: "Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth" (Psalm 86:11; see Psalm 119:1,3, 5, 27, 33; Proverbs 2:8, 12, 13, 20). Moses' farewell discourse likewise associates life with obeying God's commandments (Deuteronomy 30:15-20). Judaism affirmed that the way to God was through the practice of and meditation on God's law. John affirms this basic sentiment and specifies that Jesus, God's Word, is that way to life....
O'Day and Hylen caution us to understand that John's gospel has as its central theological conviction that Jesus is the tangible presence of God in the world. People by encountering Jesus could have a new experience of God. John is concerned with helping Christians recognize and name God.

Psalm 119:17-32

Proverbs 15:31-32
The ear that heeds wholesome admonition
    will lodge among the wise.
Those who ignore instruction 
    despise themselves,
but those who heed admonition
    gain understanding.

Prayer for Today: O Lord our God, you have shown us the way. Help us now to follow that way. Amen.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Reflection on readings for May 23

With my whole heart I seek you;
do not let me stray from your commandments.
I treasure your word in my heart,
so that I may not sin against you.
(Psalm 119:10-11)

2 Samuel 2:12-3:39
War between the supporters of the two kings went on and on. Ishbaal insulted Abner, the commander of the army from Saul's time and the one who had made Isbaal king. Abner defected to David. David agreed to accept him only if he would secure the release of  Michal (the wife he had won by killing and mutilating Philistines at the command of Saul, the wife who later had helped him escape from assassins sent by Saul).

John 13:1-30
Jesus willingly performed the actions of a servant. He told that this was an example for them to follow? How hard could it be?

He had also metaphorized the foot washing by adding that not all of them were clean. At dinner later, he pointed out who he meant.

Psalm 119:1-16
A way that Christians have used to express disdain for Jews--and Protestants for Catholics--is to say that they are obsessed with the law. Walter Breuggemann reminds us that Torah piety is a living-out of the realization that they have been disobedient but were rescued by the Lord anyway. Thus, their commitment to doing what God wanted them to do was driven not by guilt, fear, or coercion, but by joy, comfort, and well-being (Theology of the Old Testament).

Psalm 119 demonstrates this praise of the law and the law-giver.

Brueggemann again, but this time in the commentary, Texts for Preaching points out the three steps in this section of Psalm 119:

Step 1, verses 1-3, We have seen destruction and disappointment. The Lord has shown us how we can attain happiness.

Step 2, But, just have been told what to do is not enough. We need continued support--verse 4 shifts to a prayer to the Lord.

The third step, verses 5-8, the psalmist expresses the resolve to keep Torah and to establish God's instruction as the pole around which life revolves...and the joy to be found in that commitment....

At the same time that the psalmist gives voice to this resolve, however, he or she confesses the power of human ignorance and weakness. In order to keep Torah, it must first be learned (v. 7b). And even when God's instruction has been learned, faithfulness to it is often interrupted by human weakness and sin, so that the petition in v. 5 becomes a necessary one for the poet to raise.

Proverbs 15:29-30
The Lord is far from the wicked,
but hears the prayer of the righteous.
The light of the eyes rejoices the heart,
and good news refreshes the holy.

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

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Reflection on readings for May 22

You are my God, 
and I will give thanks to you;
you are my God, 
I will extol you.
(Psalm 118:28-29)

2 Samuel 1:1-2:11
David mourned the deaths of Saul and Jonathan. He intoned a lamentation that he ordered to be taught to the people.

David is anointed king, but so is Saul's son Ishbaal. Israel followed Ishbaal; Judah, David.

John 12:20-50
Where we are in the story: Lazarus died and then was raised. In response, many believed. Frightened by this belief, some reported Jesus to religious authorities. After all, their religious practices were being allowed by a government that did not tolerate actions that were considered disrespectful or disruptive. These Jesus-people could stir up the crowds thus precipitating retaliation by the Romans.

In the week before Passover, Jesus enter triumphantly into Jerusalem.

We wish to see Jesus: Among those coming to worship were some Greeks, a term that usually meant Gentiles. Yet, since they have come to Passover, we may assume that they are, although Greek, also Jews--like Paul, for example. They approach Andrew and Philip, two of the disciples with Greek names.

As we modern Christians struggle with who should be allowed to be part of us, we can remember that our group has been a diverse one from very early days.

The meaning of his death: Jesus responds to them by a series of teaching about his soon-to-happen death. Yet, as he often is, he is cryptic. He talks about wheat. He uses a paradox about love and hate and loss and gain. Then, he speaks more clearly: "Whoever serves me must follow me. Where I am, there will my servant be also."

Read Jesus' pronouncement again, "Where I am, there will my servant be also." Does that mean that if Jesus' servant is not somewhere then Jesus is not? Or, does it mean if we are not carrying out our mission to do the work that Jesus showed us that no matter what we call ourselves, we are not really his servants?

I remember when Bishop Carder would visit Mississippi churches during his service in Mississippi. Before he went to the church building, he would wander about its neighborhood. He would ask passers-by about the church, if they knew anything about it, what impact it was having. Some of the respondents would not even know that such and such a Methodist church was their neighbor. Others would have seen the building, but knew nothing else other than there was that physical structure on the block. And some knew a lot about the impact of the congregation's ministry.

Try it in your neighborhood.

"Where I am, there will my servant be also."

The crowd doesn't understand what he's talking about, can't grasp the logic of it. even when they hear a voice from heaven, they give differing explanations.

Jesus responds to them rather indirectly. The ruler of the world is going to be ousted. Yet, Jesus adds that he himself is to be lifted up from the earth. They don't see the logic in this, either.

Note that the phrase, lifted up, has a double meaning. Jesus will physically be lifted up onto the cross. And he will be exalted.

Also note that when he is lifted up, Jesus will draw all people to himself. All.

In this gospel, Jesus will no longer speak to the crowds but only to his disciples.

Psalm 118:19-29
The king prepares for entry into Jerusalem. We hear words of thanksgiving for what has been done and a call for continued protection.These ancient words still speak to us and for us.
This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar.
(Caveat: translators disagree on this verse.)
You are my God, and I will give thanks to you;
you are my God, I will extol you.
If one applies Psalm 118 to Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, it must be remembered that for the original supplicant, the valley of anguish lay in the past, on the fields of war; for Jesus, the valley lay ahead, within the walls of Jerusalem

I often used to begin the worship service by quoting the first part of 24, "This is the day the Lord has made," and the congregation would immediately respond, "let us rejoice and be glad in it."

The "us" is important. Everyone in that congregation had known some kind of pain or rejection. Yet, they could rejoice.

But, even in that rejoicing over what had been overcome, we still need the strength and support that God offers to us.

Proverbs 15:27-28
Those who are greedy for unjust gain
make trouble for their households,
but those who hate bribes will live.
The mind of the righteous ponders how to answer,
but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil.

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

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Reflection on readings for May 21

O give thanks to the Lord,
    for God is good;
God's steadfast love endures forever!
(adapted from Psalm 118:1)

1 Samuel 29:1-31:13
The commanders of the Philistine army don't trust David to be loyal to them in a battle against his own people. After they destroyed a city and took captives, including David's wives, he did turn against them. He led an attack and rescued the spoils including his wives. After the battle, David established the rule that the active and reserve soldiers should share in the spoils. He also dispersed proceeds to elders in the communities.

The Philistine army attacked the army being led by King Saul and killed three of his sons, including Jonathan. Saul committed suicide.

John 11:55-12:19
Judas and Mary. He is male, a close associate who has been entrusted with the money, yet not loyal. She is a woman, as far as we know has not been traveling with then but has been staying there in Bethany, but does recognize the importance of Jesus.

She takes a large quantity of an expensive perfume and uses it to anoint his feet. She realizes that a great sacrifice on her part is appropriate because of his greatness. Later, Jesus will command his disciples to wash each other's feet.

Judas pronounces her actions as wasteful, "That money could be spent on the poor." But, he is not thinking of the poor. He's planning to use the money for himself. And Jesus knows this.

His rebuke to Judas should not in any way give us permission to ignore the needs of the poor. Rather, since they are always with us, we should always be thinking of ways to continue to show Christ's love through our own actions.

Think about the conflict between Mary and Lazarus on how funds entrusted to them should be spent, then think about how your congregation uses the funds entrust to them. How much of your offerings go to supporting your own congregation--salaries and operating costs,? According to an article in New World Outlook written by Scott Brewer in 2008, those items accounted for about 85% of church spending. The remaining 15% was used for mission and ministries outside the local congregation (including support for denominational costs).

Psalm 118:1-18

Proverbs 15:24-26
For the wise the path of life leads upward,
in order to avoid Sheol below.
The Lord tears down the house of the proud,
but maintains the widow's boundaries.

Prayer for Today: O Lord our God, guide us into caring for what you care for. Amen.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Reflection on readings for May 20

Praise the Lord, all you nations!
Extol the Lord, all you peoples!
For great is God's steadfast love toward us,
    and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever.
Praise the Lord!
(adapted from Psalm 117:1-2)

1 Samuel 26:1-28:25
David spares Saul again saying, "Let God decide when it's time to end his life."  When Saul realized that David had been able to get close enough to him to kill him, he tried to induce David to come back to him. David did not trust him so he took his wives and moved to Gath (Philistine territory) where he enlisted as a foreign mercenary.

Some decisions of revenge are left to the Lord. We don't always feel as we personally need to damage particular individuals. And, sometimes, what we choose to do next is questionable.

John 11:1-54
When their brother got ill, Mary and Martha sent word to Jesus. He waited two days before he went to see them.

By the time that John's gospel was first being distributed to the churches, Christians had been concerned about the delay in the return of Christ and the new life that they were looking forward to.

In this passage, Jesus chooses to delay; he is the one who decides when to make his appearance.

But, although he delayed his visit to them, he nevertheless was aware of what was happening to them and was concerned about them.

His delay is helpful in teaching them something. He puts it this way, "I'm doing it in the way that will enable you to believe."

To see this connection between witness to what Jesus can accomplish and the result of that witness, read John 20:30-31, Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah the Son of God, and through believing you may have life in his name.

Her brother Lazarus had died four days before Jesus arrived. Martha said, "If you had been here, he wouldn't have died." But, as she gives him the responsibility for not having already saved her brother, she adds, "But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him."

Jesus tells her that Lazarus will rise again. Martha responds that she already knows about future resurrections. Jesus says to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die."

Then he asks her the question, "Do you believe this?" She responds, "Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world."

Martha believes based on what Jesus has told her. She already believes although she is speaking at a time when Lazarus is still in the tomb. She is speaking when Jesus' death and resurrection have not yet ocurred.

Martha goes back to the house to tell Mary that Jesus wants to speak to her. When Mary rushes out of the house, the mourners there follow her because they think she is going to the tomb.

When Mary sees Jesus, she also says to him, "If you had been here, my brother would not have died." When Jesus saw her weeping and saw the mourners who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved. He asked, "Where have you laid him?"

Charles Cousar, in Texts for Preaching, A Lectionary Commentary based on the NRSV-Year A, says:
He "was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved (11:33, 38). The Greek terms carry the notion of anger and distress. It is more than a statement of Jesus' empathy with grieving friends. He is troubled. He perceives the evidences of death all about and knows that its power is still very much in place. He sees the sharp opposition that cannot tolerate the giving of life, the religious authorities who are threatened by his transforming deeds....

Excerpts from Written That You May Believe, by Sandra Schneiders:

....death is examined in its origin or cause, its nature as human experiences and spiritual reality, and its finality or purpose. ... The will of his Father, not human volition, controls life and death. Therefore, whatever death means, nature and human intention cannot be regarded as its ultimate causes because what they bring about, that is, physical death, is in some sense not death; and they cannot bring about death at all except according to God's will and design (page 175-76).

... Martha's confession of faith is in no way a response to the sign of the raising of Lazarus. It is a response to the word of Jesus revealing himself as the resurrection and the life. The sign comes after Martha's confession and does not function as a guarantee of her faith but as a crisis for the Jews who have gathered. Martha does not expect the sign (cf.11:38-39) any more than the disciples of any time or place can expect physical death to be overcome by miracle. Her faith like ours, responds not to the signs of the public ministry but to the revealing word of the present Jesus.... (page 106).

And then I read Jan Richardson's post about Lazarus on her blog, The Painted Prayerbook. I have copied an excerpt but hope you will read the rest.

Nobody goes into the tomb to pull Lazarus out; no one crosses into his realm to haul him to this side of living. Lazarus has to choose whether he will loose himself from the hold of the grave: its hold on him, his hold on it.

Only when Lazarus takes a deep and deciding breath, rises, returns back across the boundary between the living and the dead: only then does Jesus say to the crowd, “Unbind him, and let him go.” Not until Lazarus makes his choice does the unwinding of the shroud begin, and the grave clothes fall away.

Psalm 117:1-2

Proverbs 15:22-23
Without counsel, plans go wrong,
    but with many advisors they succeed.
To make an apt answer is a joy to anyone,
    and a word in season, how good it is.

Prayer for Today: O Lord our God, awaken us to your call. Strengthen our willingness to follow you. Amen.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Reflection on readings for May 19

I love the Lord.
God, you have heard my voice
    and my supplications.
You inclined your ear to me,
    therefore I will call on you as long as I live.
(adapted from Psalm 116:1-2)

1 Samuel 24:1-25:44
Although Saul is leading a force to capture David, David passes up on the chance to kill him and wouldn't permit his followers to attack. David confronts Saul publicly, offering proof that he recognizes  him as the Lord's anointed. He promises that he will not harm Saul. Saul asks that the Lord reward David and says that the reward will include the kingship.

David sent his men to seek alliance with a rich sheep-owner, Nabal. It was a feast day; so, they asked to be invited.  Nabal responded by saying, "Who is David? My own people need what I have to offer. He's not important enough for me to give him and his men anything.

When he heard this, David prepared to go to battle with Nabal. When Nabal's wife, Abigail heard about this, she went to David, taking a feast that required ten donkeys to carry. She begged David not to take her husband's words seriously but, instead, to forgive him. When Nabal found out, he had a stroke. After Nabal died, David married Abigail--and sombeody else, too.

John 10:22-42
We Christians are now in the period we call Eastertide--those weeks between resurrection and Pentecost. We are reading about Jesus' final journey to Jerusalem.

He is in the temple. It's Hanukkah, a time for remembering the rededication of the temple after the Maccabeans' successful revolt about two hundred years earlier.

They would have heard about him--including how he had healed many and fed many. But they weren't sure who he was. Some believed he was the promised Messiah. Others did not.

"How long will you keep us in suspense," they asked him that day. "If you are the Messiah, say so."

He responded to them, "I've told you before, but my saying it didn't make you believe. You saw the work that I could not, but the evidence of your own eyes didn't make you believe."

They weren't the last witnesses who weren't able to believe. To paraphrase Chrysostom, it takes a sheep to recognize a shepherd.

When they asked him to tell them plainly whether he was the Messiah, he said that he had told them but they hadn't believed. Then rather than claim that he is the expected messiah, he shifts to identifying himself as the son of God:
"The work that I do in my Father's name...."
"What my Father has given me...."
"The Father and I are one."
They hadn't believed either what he had told them or even the works that they had witnessed. Only believers can believe.

Membership in this flock is permanent, once in is always in--"I give them eternal life....No one will snatch them out of my hand."

How do they get to be believers? How do they get to be his sheep?

Psalm 116:1-19
I can't remember my first prayer. I don't even remember who first told me about prayer or suggested words that might be used. I'm guessing that grace before meals and those bedtime prayers were the first. But, I don't remember who taught me about prayer in time of great difficulty. Somebody must have, because I have been praying that kind of prayer throughout the tough times in my life.

One source of instruction for all of us is, of course, the Psalter.

The psalm chosen we're reading today is a thanksgiving psalm. And, as a thanksgiving psalm, it also states the need for the prayer that the Lord has answered.

The psalmist remembers the time of distress and anguish and calling on the Lord for help. And, having received that help, the psalmist then gives thanks.

Notice that the psalmist is not being totally private, but is promising to be a witness to the care and support that the Lord gives.
I will pay my vows to the Lord
in the presence of all his people,
in the courts of the house of the Lord,
in your midst, O Jerusalem.
Praise the Lord!

Proverbs 15:20-21
A wise child makes a glad father,
but the fool despise their mothers.
Folly is a joy to the one who has no sense,
but a person of understanding walks straight ahead.

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

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Reflection on readings for May 18

Not to us, O Lord,
not to us,
but to your name give glory.
(Psalm 115:1)

1 Samuel 22:1-23:29
David escapes, his family joins him as does a crowd of discontented people who are in debt--about 400 of them. He seeks protection for his family from the king of Moab. Saul complains to the people around him, "What has David done for you? Would he try to help you? Won't anybody tell me where that man is hiding?" Doeg will and does.

Saul summons the priests who have given shelter to David demanding why they have done so. They respond by asking who wouldn't be willing to help a man in the service of his king, who also is the king's son-in-law. Saul says, "Kill all of these priests." Doeg kill 85 of them.

When he hears about the massacre, David retaliates and escapes.

John 10:1-21
We are in the period of Jesus' ministry before the last supper but during a time when he is performing many miracles--displeasing his opponents, the religious authorities. Jesus said that he had come into the world to exercise judgment so that those who don't see can and those who see will become blind." His opponents responded, "Surely we aren't blind, are we?"

So, are Jesus' words in chapter 10 an answer to that question? Is Jesus talking to his followers or his enemies when he describes himself as the shepherd?

Whether he is talking to them or not, isn't he talking about them when he contrasts his own role as the shepherd with that of the thief and bandit?

He has healed a blind man; they have criticized him because he did it on the sabbath. Wouldn't a shepherd have been concerned enough about the sheep in his care not to look on the calendar before helping it?

The sheep can tell the difference between the true shepherd and the false one. They know which one to follow.

John was writing about Pharisees, but they weren't the last false shepherds. Christians must continue to distinguish between the voices speaking to them. Jesus says that the sheep can tell the difference. Is that still true of today's sheep? Do we recognize the voice of the shepherd or are we likely to follow some other attraction?

Jesus offers assurances to his listeners: "I am the gate." I am the way in for those who are in need.

He's still using the metaphor of sheep, so we imagine a flock of sheep pushing against the fence, needing the comforts offered inside and needing protection from the dangers out there where they now are.

Until they can find the gate that will let them in, they are stuck there outside.

Jesus says, "I am the gate." I am the way that the sheep can escape dangers and get into the pasture.

Let's not restrict Jesus' promise to afterlife only. He's telling us sheep that there is a way out of our troubles and a way into what we need now.

Important distinction: attributes of the good shepherd with that of the hired hand. A good shepherd is willing to give up his own life to protect the sheep in his care. A hired man is willing to give up the sheep in order to protect himself.

Sometimes we can read these words as reassuring. When I am in trouble, Christ was protect me. Surely, the first Christian communities would have needed such reassurance.

But, we can also read them as prescriptive. We who are the body of Christ, we who are the church, have in our care many who need protection. Or, we should have them in our care.

Look around you. How are the sheep doing in your town? When trouble comes to them, do you run toward them or away?

Another distinction--that may not be important: sheep in my fold and sheep that do not belong to my fold. Who are the other sheep? Do you consider them to be the responsibility of your congregation?

Who is the other for us?

Who are these sheep that Jesus cares for that aren't in our fold? People of our community who have a different level of income or ethnicity or religious affiliation? People in another country?

How hard is it for us to imagine that someone different from us in many important ways can also hear Jesus' voice?

Psalm 115:1-18

Proverbs 15:18-19
Those who are hot-tempered stir up strife,
but those who are slow to anger calm contention.

Prayer for Today: O Lord, our God, open our eyes to see those around us who are lonely, who have needs, who are in trouble. Inspire us to offer the support and comfort that the people around us need. And, O Lord, open our hearts to see and to help those who are not in our immediate community. Amen.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Reflection on readings for May 17

Praise the Lord!
Praise, O servants of the Lord;
praise the name of the Lord.
(Psalm 113:1)

1 Samuel 20:1-21:15
His father King Saul is threatening to David, but Jonathan acts to protect him. Saul becomes very angry with Jonathan, maligns his mother, warns him that David will try to usurp his kingship, and throws a spear at him. Jonathan goes to the place where David is hiding. They embrace and weep. Jonathan promises unending friendship. One of Saul's servants, Doeg, witnessed this.

John 9:1-41
Theological reflection (that I find troubling so I'm going to skip over) followed by action. Jesus sees a problem that needs to be solved, so he gets to work immediately.

Notice that the blind man did not ask Jesus for help.

Onlookers don't accept that a miracle has occurred. Their responses include questioning whether it happened at all to asking how it did happen. When the no-longer-blind man tells them that and how Jesus cured his blindness, they wanted to know where Jesus was now.

Did they want to thank him? Did they want him to do something for them now? Did they want to learn how to help other people who needed it?

Do we recognize miracles?

What is our reaction to someone's being healed? What do we want to know? Why?

Can we remember (or imagine) being brought out of something as difficult as blindness?

John gives us a look at how religious people can behave. When confronted with a miracle, they asked some questions then pronounced their opinion that this Jesus could not have accomplished what was purported for him to have done. Their rationale--some of them asserted that he was not scrupulous enough in following the rules of their religion. Others categorized Jesus as a sinner and remarked that sinners weren't able to do the kinds of things that had been credited to him.

Since they weren't able to agree among themselves, they interviewed the once-blind man himself. He said "He is a prophet." Not yet satisfied, they then interviewed his parents. Because of their fear of what would be thought of them, they refused to say what they thought. Instead, they merely repeated what their son had told them. "If you want to know what he says that happened, ask him, not us."

As we consider the evangelism efforts of our particular local churches or our denomination, we might consider who represents us in this story. Are we the official religious types that can judge whether someone has been able to do the work that God wants to be done or even who is eligible to try? Are we the parents who are so afraid of others' opinions that we are incapable of admitting the good that God has done in our lives, how people close to us have been helped? Or, are we like the man who had been healed--able to recognize what has been done for us and willing to say so?

How much blindness is self-inflicted? How much blindness is protective when we really don't want to see something anyway?

It's wasn't just back then that people who are used to being in charge didn't like anybody doing something that disturbs their authority. They weren't willing to accept that this new guy, this Jesus, was able to accomplish something that they themselves hadn't even thought to try to do.

"In the first place," they insisted, "you shouldn't give the credit to anyone that we don't approve of. Credit belongs to God." The man who had been healed refused to enter the controversy. Theology wasn't the topic that concerned him at the moment. He, with some irony, asked why were they so concerned with the procedure that Jesus had used for healing, "Why do you want to know more about him? Are you considering becoming one of his followers?"

They responded negatively and huffily, "We know what true religion is like, and we don't know anything about this new guy."

"What else do you need to know?" he replied to their criticism. "He healed me. Only if he were from God, could that have happened." The religious authorities had had enough of arguing. They expelled the man.

In discussing this episode in her commentary on John, Written that You May Believe, Sharon Schneiders says:
The reader is, of course, supposed to identify with the man born blind. But do we, perhaps, but become sophisticated evaders when that confession has consequences for our reputation or job or safety? Even worse, are we religious authority figures whose first allegiance is to the institution and who are willing to suppress the prophets among us when their testimony to their experience calls that institution or our position within it into question?
The respectable religious insiders, perceiving a threat, had been investigating the claims that someone not authorized by them was able to perform miracles. They interviewed the man whose life had been changed by Jesus. When he responded to their queries by asking them, "If this man were not from God, he could do nothing," they accused him of heresy and expelled him.

Jesus returns. We don't know where he has been in the meantime. In verses 6 and 7, he had given the man instructions which the man followed in verse 8. But then, the narrative shifts to the reaction of the people to the man whose blindness has been healed. The reaction had not been positive.

Jesus had been walking along when he first saw the man. Now he comes in response to the news that this healed man has been driven out of his community. Jesus asks him, "Do you believe in the Son of Man?" The man asks to know who this is so he can believe in him. When Jesus says, "You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he," he responds, "Lord, I believe."

This man who has been excluded from regular life because of one kind of difference--blindness--and then ousted because of another--refusal to give in to the religious hierarchy now admits what he seems to have already figured out (see verses 30-33).

This man can see that Jesus is from God; the religious authorities are blind to this. But, they do seem to have some uncertainty, at least. They ask Jesus, "Surely we are not blind, are we?" Jesus judges that they are. We Christians still have a similar difficulty in accepting that God can send help and love to people who aren't part of our select group, who don't follow the rules that we think are essential.

All of us religious types need to contemplate what Jesus is trying to get across to us when he says, "But now that you say, 'We see,' your sin remains." Let us ask what it is that we can see so clearly that our sight has become an occasion of our sin.

Psalm 113:1-114:8
God had been with them and God goes with them.

God's people can remember how God was with them at a frightening time.

And they see God's impact on the entire earth.

God cares about this small group of people who had been mistreated by a powerful government. They are grateful.

But not just this small group.

The sea recognizes God. As does the Jordan River.  So do the mountains, the hills, the whole earth.

Proverbs 15:15-17
All the days of the poor are hard,
    but a cheerful heart has a continual feast.
Better is a little with the fear of the Lord
    than great treasure and trouble with it.

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

Friday, May 16, 2014

Reflection on readings for May 16

Praise the Lord!
Happy are those who fear the Lord,
who greatly delight in God's commandments.
(adapted from Psalm 112:1)

1 Samuel 18:5-19:24
A mighty enemy has been eliminated. The reaction of the people is joy. The king's reaction is to get angry because someone else is getting praised. In a plan to get rid of David, Saul decides to bribe him to death--to offer him the prize of his daughter if David kills a hundred Philistines. When David brings proof that he has done so, Saul gives him Michal (who, incidentally, loves David) as a wife. David continues to be successful in battles against the Philistines.

And Saul is still paranoid, still feels that his own status is being threatened by David's success, and talks to his servants and Jonathan about killing David. Jonathan intervenes. He warns David and then tries to reason with his father. Things are all right for a while, but when David has another victory, Saul decides to kill him. His daughter Michal helps her husband David escape. David sought refuge with Samuel. Saul tracked him down.

John 8:31-59
Jesus told them, "You say  that Abraham is your father, but you act as if you are children of the devil." He then added, "God is my father. You don't know him, but I do."

In our own times, we can be confronted by people who claim that they are following God's wishes, but what they do doesn't look at all like what Jesus said that God's children would be doing.

Psalm 112:1-10
Blessings accrue to the righteous. Following the Lord's commandments will make you happy, your descendants rich. I read the first three verses and wondered if I had entered into Prosperity Gospel land. Wondering how this psalm was related to the pride v. humility message, I kept reading.

Verses 4 through 9 describe the lives and actions of the righteous: they are merciful and generous.

People secure in the Lord don't have to be afraid.

When righteous people favor distribution to the poor, the wicked get angry. But, those angry people--or as I would rather interpret it, the anger of those people--melts away.

Proverbs 15:12-14
Scoffers do not like to be rebuked;
they will not go to the wise.
A glad heart makes a cheerful countenance,
but by sorrow of heart the spirit is broken.
The mind of one who has understanding seeks knowledge,
but the mouths of fools feed on folly.

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

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Reflection on readings for May 15

Praise the Lord!
I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart,
in the company of the upright, in the congregation.
Great are the works of the Lord,
studied by all who delight in them.
(Psalm 111:1-2)

1 Samuel 17:1-18:4
The army of Israel is camped in the valley of Elah facing the Philistines who are gathered for battle. (Previous battles between them in chapters 13 and 14). Goliath of the Philistines steps forward. He is 10 (or 9, or 6) feet tall, head protected by a bronze helmet, body by a coat of mail, legs by sheaves. He's carrying a javelin and holding a shield. He hollers out sarcastically, "Why are you positioned to fight a whole army? I'm one man. Just send out one man to fight me. If he beats me, the war is over. You win. If I beat him, the war is over. You lose."

All of Israel, including their king, Saul, hear this challenge. They don't have any 10-foot tall, armor-bearing soldiers to respond to this challenge. They are dismayed. They are afraid. In the meantime, not even on the battlefield, was David. His brothers are soldiers. He helps his dad take care of the sheep--when he's not playing music for Saul (16:14-23). He arrives at the battlefield in time to hear Goliath repeat his challenge.

King Saul has seen Goliath. He tells the lyre-playing shepherd, "You're not up to the job." David is willing to confront the king. He tells him what the job of shepherd involves. He's had the necessary experience--he has been able to kill lions and bears. "The Lord who saved me from lion and bear will save me from that Philistine." Saul is convinced enough to let David try. He gives him his own armor, hands over his own sword. But what has worked for Saul doesn't work for David. He can't even walk in the armor that Saul is used to. Instead David uses the tools he is accustomed to, a small bag of stones.

Goliath is amused when he sees what kind of opponent Israel has sent against him. Unfortunately for him, his helmet didn't extend over his forehead, and David had good aim.

Israel will continue to face powerful foes. They will continue to need someone to step forward. As do we. The battle is the Lord's, but we aren't supposed to cower in the crowd. We are to step up and out. 

John 8:21-30
What we say and what we do indicate who we think Jesus is.

Psalm 111:1-10
Although most of our prayers are asking please, we do occasionally (often?) also say "thank you" to God. Psalm 111 can be a model for our expression of gratitude. Gratitude for food, for a home, but also for the nature of the Lord, the one who would want to provide for us and is able to.

Gratitude, in this case, that's not a secret. The prayer is expressed in the company of the congregation.

Proverbs 15:11
Sheol and Abaddon lie open before the Lord,
how much more human hearts!

Prayer for Today: O Lord, as we face whatever challenges are there for us today, remind us of this story of David, his willingness to risk himself in order to protect his people. And, as we face whatever challenges are there for us today, also remind us that our actions teach others who we think Jesus is. Amen.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Reflection on readings for May 14

The Lord says to my lord,
"Sit at my right hand"
(Psalm 110:1a)

1 Samuel 15:1-16:23
The Lord regrets the choice of Saul as king and informs Samuel it's time to anoint a new king. Samuel is afraid but does what God wants anyway.  Samuel misunderstands at first what is important in a leader. He thinks the one with he best appearance will do the best job. But, God tells him not to judge by outward appearance. The Spirit of the Lord comes upon David at the point of being anointed by Samuel.

Questions that arose in my mind as I thought about Samuel and David:
Who takes the role of prophet in our contemporary congregations?

Considering how many evil acts have taken place by someone using the name of the Lord, do we want to retire permanently the role of prophet?

Are our modern-day ordinations in any way similar to the anointing of a human being by a prophet?

John 8:1-20
In those days some very religious people were blind to the light Jesus was conveying. They just couldn't see the validity of his teaching. In those days ....

Psalm 110:1-7

Proverbs 15:8-10
The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord,
but the prayer of the upright is his delight.
The way of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord,
but he loves the one who pursues righteousness.
There is severe discipline for one who forsakes the way,
but the one who hates a rebuke will die.

Prayer for Today: God, when we read these stories of how our ancestors behaved and thought and judged, we may look at our own behavior and thoughts and judgements. Turn the light on for us. Amen.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Reflection on readings for May 13

Do not be silent, O God of my praise.
Help me, O Lord my God!
Save me according to your steadfast love.
(Psalm 109:1, 26)

1 Samuel 14:1-52
Like Jephthah (Judges 11), Saul made an oath before battle. He swore that anybody who ate anything before battle would be cursed. His son Jonathan, unaware of the oath, ate because he was hungry. When one of his soldiers informed him of what Saul had said, Jonathan responded by saying every soldier would have been able to fight better if they had eaten as he himself had done. When Saul was ready to kill Jonathan over the oath-breaking, the people wouldn't let him.

John Goldingay writes, "Even Saul's ordinary soldiers know that God is not a legalist and it's possible to raise with God the question whether circumstances make it feasible to renegotiate a promise.

John 7:31-53
It's the last day of the festival of booths, a time of celebrating the harvest and remembering the time of wandering in the wilderness. Near the end of the festival, the priest would pour freshly drawn water on the altar as an offering to God. Allen & Williamson in their Preaching the Gospel say that although this rite originated as a petition for rain, it had developed into a broader statement of salvation. They cite the Babylonian Talmud's explanation of its significance by citing Isaiah 12:3, "With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation."

Jesus says to them, "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in my drink." John has used water as a metaphor before--The Samaritan woman who asked Jesus for living water (4:1-15) and the crowd who had been fed bread and wanted true bread from heaven (6:25-35).

Allen & Williamson mention several passages that use the metaphor of water; e.g.:
For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and steams on the dry ground; I will pour my spirit upon your descendants, and my blessing on your offspring (Isaiah 44:3).
Then he brought me back to the entrance of the temple; there, water was flowing from below the threshold of the temple....Wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish, once these waters reach there. It will become fresh; and everything will live where the river goes....(Ezekiel 47:1-12)
John tells us that what Jesus was talking about is the Spirit. Since we now know that Modalism is a heresy, we need to be able to interpret "for as yet there was no Spirit," as not meaning that the Spirit did not exist before Jesus. Here's what O'Day and Hylen have to say in their commentary on John:
These words should not be taken as a general statement that God's Spirit did not yet exist, for John the Baptist makes reference to the Holy Spirit's presence at Jesus' baptism (1:32-33).

Instead, the future gift of the Spirit underscores the way in which the Spirit will become known in the life of the church after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. Jesus' teachings about the Spirit's role in the church are found in the farewell discourse (chapters 14-17), and his gift of the Spirit is narrated in 20:22-23.

Psalm 109:1-31

Proverbs 15:5-7
A fool despises a parent's instruction,
but the one who needs admonition is prudent.
In the house of the righteous there is much treasure,
but trouble befalls the income of the wicked.

Prayer for Today: O Lord, open us to your Spirit. Support us and carry us with your Spirit. Open us to understanding what your will is for us today. Amen.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Reflection on readings for May 12

My heart is steadfast, O God,
my heart is steadfast;
I will sing and make melody.
Awake, my soul!
Awake, O harp and lyre!
I will awake the dawn.
I will give thanks to you, O Lord,
    among the peoples,
and I will sing praises to you
    among the nations.
For your steadfast love is higher
    than the heavens,
and your faithfulness reaches
    to the clouds.
(Psalm 108:1-4)

1 Samuel 12:1-13:23
Samuel told them they were wrong to insist on having a king and to give thought to all that the Lord had already done for them and could continue to do. Who would we rather have authority over our lives?

When King Saul and his army were camped waiting battle against tens of thousands of Philistines, he got tired of waiting for Samuel to preside over the offerings. When Samuel did finally arrive, he was angry that Saul had usurped his priestly duty. He told Saul that his kingship was not going to last long.

John 7:1-30
Jesus said that the world hated him because he testified against evil acts. When some religious people criticized him, he responded by accusing them of not adhering to God's law.

Psalm 108:1-13

Proverbs 15:4
A gentle tongue is a tree of life,
but perseverence in it breaks the spirit

Prayer for Today: O Lord, help us to recognize your will and to follow it. Amen.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Reflection on the readings for May 11

O give thanks to the Lord,
for you are good;
your steadfast love endures forever.
(Psalm 107:1)

1 Samuel 10:1-11:15
When Samuel told him what the Lord had in mind for him, Saul did not immediately accept the role. Samuel then told the people that their desire for a king was in effect an indication that they did not appreciate or trust what the Lord had done for them. Saul hid, but was outed. Samuel announced to them that Saul was to be their king. Not everybody agreed.

With the aid of the spirit of the Lord, Saul was ready to lead. With some threats, they did follow Saul into battle and defeated the Ammonites.

John 6:43-71
Jesus reminds them of their ancestors' trek through the wilderness--between slavery and promise. They would have starved without the manna. Eating the freely provided manna made it possible for them to live and to continue their journey.

Jesus tells them that he is the manna for them, that their consumption of him will make it possible for them to live and to continue on their journey.

They didn't buy into the concept right away. Just hearing an assertion was not convincing enough for them.

And some were offended. Jesus recognized that his teachings were difficult to understand and to accept, and he responded to their complaints. John tells us that Jesus always knew that not everyone would believe his words.

Remember, those who believed him and those who didn't were all together that day at a place of worship. It still happens. People go to church, listen to the sermon. Some get really offended. They can't bring themselves to believe.

The most recent General Conference, not without precedence,  combined what is good about Methodism with what is not so good. Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton points out what was frustrating, sobering, and head scratching. Here's an excerpt:
...if we are going to ever reach a point of moving this denomination into God’s preferred future, if we are ever going to find a way to make our church relevant for the 21st century, we must find a way to respect one another more deeply and cooperate with one another more significantly. This conference should remind us that the church cannot change without all parties, or at least most of them, finding a way to compromise, cooperate, and respect one another. That applies to liberals and conservatives, central conferences and U.S. jurisidictions, young and old.
And I'm reading today's passage from the Gospel of John. Jesus is talking to his disciples, and even they have a hard time accepting his teaching. Many of them give up on him and walk away. Jesus asks the ones who remain, "Do you also want to go away?"

Peter, not unusually, speaks up, "To whom else can we go? We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God."

Even those closest to Jesus have the choice to walk away. Some take the choice. But, some have not only heard Jesus' message, they have come to believe it.

Why ever they were first attracted to him, they are now staying for the right reason: they know that he is the Sent One of God. (I've been reading Ronald Allen & Clark Williamson's Preaching the Gospels).

Modern-day application: How do we get people to come to church? How do we get them to stay? Why do we stay?

Psalm 107:1-43
Psalm 107 gives thanks for deliverance from many troubles: refugees (4-9); prisoners (10-16); people suffering from illness (17-22); sailors and travelers on ships (23-32).

And the thirsty and the hungry. How does the Lord accomplish all this? Do we expect the water in our rivers to become miraculously clean and for all the unemployed to be miraculously at work? How does God work miracles, anyway? God does have to work alone. God can lend inspiration to us to figure out how to solve problems and to carry out those solutions.

Sometimes, it is appropriate to look for fault and assess blame, but, it is always appropriate to seek the help of the Lord--directly and also through the work of scientists, economists, and politicians.

And, it is appropriate to give thanks. The words in this psalm continue to fit the situation of God's people through the ages. We can remind ourselves and witness to others that God's steadfast love does endure, that we have felt God's presence lead us through and out of troubles.

As I read verses 33-37, I am struck that although they can be read quite literally, they don't have to be. That is, God is the creator of our earth, the source of the rain necessary for life to continue. But, God is the source of what Jesus called living water. God works through us turning our parched lives into fruitful ones.

Proverbs 15:1-3
A soft answer turns away wrath,
but a harsh word stirs up anger.
The tongue of the wise dispenses knowledge,
but the mouths of fools pour out folly.
The eyes of the Lord are in every place,
keeping watch on the evil and the good.

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

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Reflection on readings for May 10

Many times you have delivered them,
but they were rebellious in their purposes,
and were brought low through their iniquity.
Nevertheless you regarded their distress
    when you heard their cry.
(adapted from Psalm 106:43-44)

1 Samuel 8:1-9:27
How do I decide what is most important? Who will get it for me? Once I know the answer to those questions, I will know where my allegiance will lie.

The Old Testament passage for today is describing a time when the escaped slaves were back in their promised land but before they had an established monarchy. They didn't have a royal king and retinue to tell them what to do--and protect them from foreign enemies. They had the priest Samuel to communicate God's wishes to them.

Samuel warned them of the dangers of turning away from paying attention to what God wanted them to do. They wanted a powerful person to protect them. Samuel listed for them what powerful people have the power to do. He can take your sons and appoint them to take care of his horses, to plow his fields and reap his harvests, to manufacture armaments. He can take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He can take your best lands and give them to his courtiers. He can tax you heavily.

When you have a king, you'll have a king. You'll have someone who can control your family and your resources.

Commentators tells us that this passage is part of what they term the Deuteronomic literature, an evaluation of mistakes they had made that led to loss and exile.

And we read it today also pondering how we got where we are, where we ought to be, and how we get there. That is, where do we place our allegiance?

James Newsome writes in Texts for Preaching of Samuel's emotions:
Do these who now cry out for  warrior-king not realize that, by means of his own combined offices of judge, prophet, an priest, he has secured the well-being of his people? In their craving for a monarchy, patterned not on Yahweh's will but on the countless kingdoms around them, they are simply giving in to the ancient temptation to cournter the sword with the sword....
Samuel had listed for them the ways that the king would take from them, but the community refused to listen to him. They said, "We want a king so that we can be like other nations. We want a king who will govern us and fight our battles."

James Newsome in Texts for Preaching:
To be honest, there are few in our time who can fault Samuel's contemporaries, for the history of the world is too full of peaceful persons who have been led to slaughter by their more powerful and aggressive neighbors. But the decision of the people of Israel now is a momentous one, and Yahweh, instead of rejecting them in return for their rejection, simply points out to them the terrible consequences of their choice....In their effort to avoid oppression from without they have embraced it from within.
Preaching the Old Testament, Allen & Williamson,
The church continues to be vexed with a problem similar to that described in this passage. At what points are the life and witness of the church strengthened by accommodating, even adopting, the values and practices of the culture? And at what point is the church compromised by doing so? When the congregation, figuratively speaking, asks for a monarch, the preacher can follow the model of Samuel and help them think critically about such situations.
John 6:22-42
Why do we go to church? What do we expect to get out of it?

Or, what methods do we use to try to get other people to join our church? What do we think motivates them?

Jesus told the crowds that day, "You've come because I provided food for you."

He adds, "You're searching for the wrong kind of food. Church suppers are great, but you'll still want breakfast the next morning."

Yet, I don't think he is disparaging typical church evangelistic efforts. We do want to get people in the doors. But, once inside, they need to know more.

Jesus has told them that they need to work for a different goal.

Both are important--work and what they are supposed to work for.

Their work is to believe. Believe--how hard is that? Believe--is it possible? Believe--does he mean creed or something else?

The goal is bread. And they want it. They ask how they can get this true bread from heaven. Jesus says, "You've already got it. I am the bread of life."

This passage is raising a lot of uncomfortable questions for me today: Why do I go to church? What do I pray about? What am I working for? How do I know if I have passed the "believe" requirement? Am I looking for a sign? And most disturbing, what do I do with verse 35? I know that hunger and thirst exist, and I know that good, believing people are among the hungry and thirsty. And I know that I don't want to metaphorize the terms completely.

Psalm 106:32-48

Proverbs 14:34-35
Righteousness exalts a nation,
but sin is a reproach to any people.
A servant who deals wisely has the king's favor,
ut his wrath falls on one who acts shamefully.

Prayer for Today: O Lord, increase my belief. O Lord, direct my belief toward your way. Amen.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Reflection on readings for May 9

But they soon forgot his works;
they did not wait for his counsel.
(Psalm 106:13)

1 Samuel 5:1-7-7:17
When the Philistines take the Ark, they suffer for it (the translation I'm using says tumors; Goldingay says hemorrhoids.). They give the ark back along with a guilt offering. Twenty years pass, a time when the Israelites themselves are showing allegiance to foreign gods. When they decide to return to the Lord, Samuel leads them in fasting and repentance.  

About that time, the Philistines decide to attack again, but the Lord defeats them. Samuel sets up a stone, an Ebenezer, as a reminder of the help the Lord has provide for them.

John 6:1-21
The meal that Jesus provided, like that of the original Passover, was about more than food on one day. And it was about more than satisfying physical hunger.

The disciples were at sea because it was dark and Jesus had not yet come to them. What responses have we made to darkness and loneliness? How has Jesus come to us even when we were in some boat in the dark? And, did he get in the boat then or not?

Psalm 106:13-31
How do we forget God? What do we substitute for God in our attention, our loyalty, our trust? What do we expect God to do when we turn to other sources of protection and guidance? Who intervenes for us?

Then, turn all those questions to be about people around you who have not been showing that much loyalty to God? Does it occur to us to intervene on their behalf by asking God's forgiveness for them?

Proverbs 14:32-33
The wicked are overthrown by their evildoing,
but the righteous find a refuge in their integrity.
Wisdom is at home in the mind of one
   who has understanding,
but it is not known in the heart of fools.

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

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Reflection on readings for May 8

Praise the Lord!
O give thanks to the Lord,
for the Lord is good;
God's steadfast love endures forever.
(adapted from Psalm 106:1)

1 Samuel 2:22-4:22
"The word of the Lord was rare in those days...."

Had God really withdrawn from Israel? Historians can stack up the reasons why God might well have decided to ignore those people at that time. They certainly were not behaving in a way that indicated that they had been listening anyway.

Or, had God continued to be reaching out, and they just were too busy listening to their own voices and desires to pay attention?

When we feel lonely, abandoned, stuck in a situation without solution, can we hear God's voice? Or, when we feel complete, secure, satisfied, do we bother to listen?

Whose voice do we listen to when we are trying to make a decision?

Samuel heard God's voice but did recognize that whose voice it was.

Eli knew God, but it didn't occur to him that God would want to talk to Samuel.

It took three tries, but Eli finally caught on.

Would Samuel have ever known that God was intruding on his life if Eli hadn't told him?

When we are Samuel, we need Eli.

When we are Eli, we need to help Samuel.

How are we to read verse 3:19? Do we lean entirely on the easy interpretation, "What God wants, God gets"? Is that what "the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground" means?

Or, should we be influenced by the context of this memory? Eli heard the hard word from God transmitted through the young Samuel. And Eli accepted the word. "Don't hide anything from me," he commanded Samuel. So Samuel did what Eli was willing to have done.

What would have happened to God's word if Eli had told Samuel to be quiet, quit running into his room, and go back to sleep?

Can you imagine being Eli?

John 5:24-47
Reading verse 44, I wonder whose glory we are seeking, in what ways do our lives show our attention to God's words.

Psalm 106:1-12
The psalm begins with a call to praise and a list of reasons why praise is appropriate. The Lord is good. The Lord continues to love us. This thankfulness is followed by the reminder that we are supposed to be good and loving also--and that our doing so will make us happy. Yet, we have not always done what we should have done; we have sinned.

Proverbs 14:30-31
A tranquil mind gives life to the flesh,
but passion makes the bones rot.
Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker,
but those who are kind to the needy honor him.

Prayer for Today: O Lord, forgive us for those times we didn't listen to you, the times that even though we did know what you wanted us to do, we turned away. Remind us of the times you have rescued us and help us not to go astray again. Amen.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Reflection on readings for May 7

The Lord spread a cloud for a covering
    and fire to give light by night,
and gave them food from heaven
     in abundance.
God opened the rock, 
   and water gushed out;
it flowed through the desert like a river.
(adapted from Psalm 105:39-41).

1 Samuel 1:1-2:21
Hannah did not have what society valued in a woman and what she herself wanted desperately. The other wife had many children but lacked the love of their husband. She acted out her resentment and jealousy.

Elkanah did notice that Hannah was upset but didn't know or wouldn't admit knowing why.

We can generalize and modernize this situation. Some people have more things than others do. The haves sometimes lord it over the have-nots. Jealousy affects us badly. People in authority sometimes are clueless.

In Hannah's case, she was determined to make her life better. Her solution was prayer.

When he saw her praying, the religious authority assumed she was drunk. Was he also clueless? Or, was he that unaccustomed to seeing fervent prayer?

Hannah responded to his criticism by explaining who she was and what her situation was.

Eli may not have discerned her sincerity before, but after hearing, he could. He told Hannah that God was going to grant her petition.

What people today can sing Hannah's song with gratitude and sincerity? Who hopes to see God act in the way that Hannah describes?

How could the powerful be happy about the promise that their weapons will be destroyed? Or, how could people who now have full stomachs look forward to having to accept jobs that pay barely enough for food?

Do those rich, powerful, well-fed folks somehow think they deserve what they already have?

Hannah thought differently. "Get over yourself," she said.

God cares about the poor, Hannah promises.

John 5:1-23

Psalm 105:37-45
People of long ago sang this psalm a reminder of particular acts for which they should be grateful. The Lord had delivered them from captivity in Egypt, led them through the wilderness, provided for them food and drink. We who have come later can fill in our own reasons for gratitude, the gifts provided to us, the direction shown to us.

And we can, like them, remember to live the way that the Lord intended.

Proverbs 14:28-29
The glory of a king is a multitude of people;
without people a prince is ruined.
Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding,
ut one who has a hasty temper exalts folly.

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