Wednesday, April 10th
Throughout the year, the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ produces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for April 10th: Psalm 20; Habakkuk 3:2-15; and Luke 18:31-34. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
Yesterday’s Daily Devotional of the UCC was written by Rev. Tony Robinson. His meditation was based on the same Gospel passage we read today. He says in part, “I'm not sure the disciples were dumb, or at least that I am any smarter than they were. There are lots of times when I've heard only what I wanted to hear, not what was being said.” And I have to agree with him.
Jesus is blunt and the disciples are not stupid. They simply cannot process what Jesus reveals. They have already made up their minds who He is and what He must do. They are drawing on a thousand years of tradition that prepared them for a powerful, conquering Messiah. How do you reconcile that with “he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon. After they have flogged him, they will kill him …”? Not to mention, what in the world would “rise again” mean?
Our expectations are powerful and they can even silence the voice of God. Last evening was our final Lenten Discussion. Rev. Mic Comstock talked with us about the early Congregational tradition that each local church manifested the roles of Christ as king, priest and prophet.
Then he focused on what it may mean for a congregation to be the prophet. This took us an hour and from the feel of our questions it could have gone on much longer. He did, however, convey the traditional warning that personal opinion can masquerade as prophetic revelation.
The Congregational tradition reaches back to the earliest example of the church by insisting that it is the agreed upon pronouncement of the entire congregation that expresses the prophetic role. The dialogue and consensus of the community works to amplify the voice of God so that it may be heard above individual expectations.
Currently, we are becoming excessively individualized. The anonymity of the web has created platforms that elevate any and all thoughts that may cross our minds or well up from the bile in our guts. Maybe we need to return to the example of the filter of the church where discussion and argument are welcomed, but as respectful dialogues.
Rev. Comstock mentioned that along with Sunday morning and evening and Wednesday evening worship, the church community would gather on Thursdays to discuss how to live the Christian life in their then current circumstance. They would debate, for example, the Christian merits of remaining loyal to the king or rising up in rebellion for noble principles. Maybe the church can be the place where again differences of opinion may be shared and compromise found. And maybe this in itself is prophetic.
Lent is the unmistakable reminder that God does not have to follow our expectations. So may we listen for God’s voice even when it sounds so different than our own. And may this humbleness also help us to listen to each other.
Tuesday, April 9th
Throughout the year, the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ produces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for April 9th: Judges 9:7-15; Psalm 20; and 1 John 2:18-28. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
If you’ve been reading more of the Bible this Lenten season, and I hope you have, if you’ve become more engaged with the Word of God, then you may find yourself both celebrating and arguing with the text. This is not a lack of faith. This is relationship. This climaxes in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus brings God to come and live among us as one of us. I don’t know how much of a service it is when we treat Jesus as so holy that we separate salvation from incarnation. There’s a difference between sanctity and sanctimonious. Jesus’ life shows that He can handle our questions and concerns. Can we?
The Old Testament has a raucous relationship with God, which is not to say an irreverent relationship with God. The Hebrew text is not shy in sharing the author’s tumultuous relationship with God.
At this weekend’s Youth Group gathering, Rev. Jenn Valentine shared a meditation with us based on Psalm 13 from the New Living Translation of the Bible. It goes like this:
“O Lord, how long will you forget me? Forever?
How long will you look the other way?
2How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul,
with sorrow in my heart every day?
How long will my enemy have the upper hand?
3Turn and answer me, O Lord my God!
Restore the sparkle to my eyes, or I will die.
4Don’t let my enemies gloat, saying, “We have defeated him!”
Don’t let them rejoice at my downfall.
5But I trust in your unfailing love.
I will rejoice because you have rescued me.
6I will sing to the Lord
because he is good to me.”
I had never caught the imagery of the Psalmist chasing after God demanding justice while God seems to continue walking away. I was astonished by vs 3’s “Turn and answer me!” The Psalms are part of the liturgy of the Jewish faith and they do not shy away from an honest relationship with God. When God feels distant and unperturbed, the person of faith calls Him out. This may seem uncharacteristic to our liturgical ears, but the Psalmist vents and then ends with praise for Yahweh. It is relationship.
In my own relationship with the text, when I read today’s passage from Judges I smile. I love its taunting message to power. Those who seek to rule over others, to subjugate and dominate them, do so because they have nothing productive to offer. Can you imagine this passage being read to one of Israel’s or Judah’s kings, or, for that matter, to any of today’s abusers of power? It makes me smile.
But I have to admit that I am left unimpressed by the sentiment behind the passage from 1 John. Raymond Brown wrote with such penetrating insight in his commentaries on John, and he emphasized the insular nature of that community. Anyone who disagreed and left, even for another Christian community, was an “antichrist.” The author was sure the end-time was upon them because people chose to believe in Christ differently. This is a spiritual affliction from which we suffer still today as Christians and churches.
Lent is our chance to continue to deepen our relationship with Christ, and sometimes that means challenging God with our questions, but it also means being faithful enough to wait for answers, even answers that are unexpected. Don’t be afraid to say, “Turn and answer me.” A living relationship can handle it.
Monday, April 8th
Throughout the year, the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ produces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for April 8th: Exodus 40:1-15; Psalm 20; and Hebrews 10:19-25. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
In one of my Old Testament classes somewhere along the line, I learned about amphictonic leagues. These would be loosely knit groups that were held together by a shared religious faith or shrine. The term comes from ancient Greece, but it applies as well to ancient Israel.
The twelve tribes assembled around a sanctuary to Yahweh at its center. The Tabernacle with its Aaronic priesthood that today’s Exodus passage describe is that religious shrine. It held the tribes together. Yahweh was literally at the center of their lives.
When the movable Tabernacle became the permanent Temple, David made sure that it was placed in neutral location so that all of the tribes could claim equal title to God’s sanctuary. Jerusalem was taken from a foreign people and became David’s capital. It sat at the border between northern Israel and southern Judah. Again, the sanctuary was at the center of the people of Israel, not unlike Washington, D.C., was at the center of the earliest United States of America.
During the Middle Ages, when the world was being discovered by European explorers, maps still insisted on God at the center. Christians designed maps that reflected discoveries, but also overlaid these with theology, and as such, Jerusalem was drawn at the center of the world.
We have obviously moved beyond these physical definitions, but is it not comforting to think in a spiritual sense of God at the center of our lives? The psalmist once wrote: “Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses, but our pride is in the name of the Lord our God.” Such a reliance on God testifies to a more tangible faith-life than many today expect. Often we place God at the fringe and we’re comfortable with that. God doesn’t intrude that way. But God at the fringe can’t inspire and transform us or our world the way God at the center can.
Jesus is a transformative Saviour. No one expected a Saviour like Him. He changed everyone who believed in Him, and He still will do the same if we let Him live at the center of our lives. This is something to at least consider in these last weeks of Great Lent.
“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” (Ps 19:14)
I was visiting with a couple this past week. They’ve been going through some consistently difficult times. One of the things they mentioned is that it’s hard for others to understand their situation because others have never been in anything like it. And then there was this amazing statement, a thank you to Jesus for all of His suffering, because while others may not understand, Jesus does.
There were, of course, prayers that things would get better, but there was also this powerful statement of connection in the midst of their ongoing hardship that Jesus knew what they were enduring and that He could sympathize with it.
That was such a profound statement of Lenten faith. It was a prayer that captured the theology of Christ going to the cross, maybe not so much suffering for us or in place of us, but as suffering with us.
I’ve returned to that prayer many times this past week. It ties in with something we talked about on Monday at our Deacons’ meeting, and then was repeated at Wednesday’s Lenten Discussion.
We were talking in both cases about why we go to church. Often we complain about why others don’t go to church, but it seems more constructive to concentrate on the positive. What is it that brings us here? What is that keeps us here? What is that we can’t find anywhere else but here?
Rev. Barbara’s presentation this past Wednesday included taped interviews with people from her church who were asked that question of why do we go to church.
What our Deacons would like to ask now is that after this morning’s Service when you have a few moments at Chat and Coffee, that you take one of the slips of paper available on the table here to the side, and that you write down a few of your thoughts about why you go to church. You don’t have to sign your comments, but we’d like to collect them afterwards and reprint them on a bulletin insert for Easter.
Rev. Barbara, for example, mentioned, as a Minister would, that church is where she meets Jesus. I agree that Jesus is everywhere, but we need to remember that church is the community called together – by Jesus! This is the special place, time and people where Jesus has asked us to meet Him. He’s everywhere, but He’s especially here. Church is another powerful blessing of connection just like I heard in that prayer of “Thank you Jesus for your suffering.” Today’s Gospel ties in with this message. It shares the story about Jesus’ last anointing. He’s at the home of Lazarus, the man Jesus had raised from the dead. Lazarus has two sisters, Martha and Mary. Before we can fully understand Mary’s action in today’s Gospel, we need to go back to the story of the raising Lazarus. Jesus is delayed in reaching His friend and Lazarus dies. When Jesus finally arrives, Martha rushes out to meet Him, but the Bible is quite clear in that it says, “Mary stayed at home.” She’s angry and disappointed in Jesus. She doesn’t want to see Him.
That’s the background story to this morning’s Gospel, which is the story of their next encounter after the raising of Lazarus. Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with oil that was worth a full year’s wages for a labourer. Jesus says that this act is preparation for His own death, but for Mary, it was an extravagant gesture of appreciation.
She had missed her chance the last time Jesus came when she chose to stay at home. It would never happen again. Mary forevermore cherished her time with Christ. The act of anointing was extravagant, but it expressed the depth of Mary’s connection with Jesus.
That’s what Rev. Barbara was talking about. Church is her blessed chance to be with Jesus and she will not miss those sacred opportunities of connection. I hope we can all appreciate this gift, and in our own ways never take church for granted.
Let me share one more gift that helps me to answer why I go to church. There are some un-familiar sounding words from Jesus after Mary anoints His feet, and it’s actually too much to unpack right now, but Jesus says, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
The world can be mean and messy, and sometimes it can become too much. The problems that face us are always there and that can make our efforts to make the world a better place seem futile. It’s like Jesus said, “You always have the poor…”
But church keeps helping me week after week to hope.
On Wednesday we saw a great presentation on an effort called Ultimate Peace. Look them up if you have a chance. It’s a small but intense effort to bring young Jews, Arabs and Christians together in Israel by playing Ultimate Frisbee. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sZonLGnkK8w
When these young people come together to meet each other and to see past the barriers of our differences, they bond. They form lasting friendships with people they thought they had to forever hate. And that gives hope.
Rev. Barbara’s son is one of the leaders of this group and he kept tying-in his work with Ultimate Peace with his own Confirmation as a teenager, with his decision as a young adult to belong to a church. His faith, his going to church, gives him the hope to make a difference.
That’s a blessing. And before we break and come together around the blessing that is Holy Communion, let me leave you with words that Linda read for us: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing, [says God.]”
That’s hope. The old ways don’t have to remain and forever define us. A new world is possible, and for that gift of hope that I receive every Sunday, for this I am truly grateful.
And I hope you’ll take some time to think about why you go to church and then maybe share it with us by writing it down after Service.
And for all these things we pray in Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Friday, April 5th
Throughout the year, the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ produces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for April 5th: Psalm 126; Isaiah 43:8-15; and Philippians 2:25 – 3:1. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
When you talk about the Middle East, you’re talking hot and dry. Water is a protected resource in that arid region. Back in biblical times, it was a matter of life and death. If the rains didn’t come as expected, people would die of starvation. Even today, Israel is dotted with wadis. This is an Arabic word that refers to dried up river beds. Water flows through these channels only during the rainy season. Otherwise, there is only hard, cracked clay. It is not difficult to imagine how reassuring it must have been when the rains returned and the river beds filled.
This is the imagery the Psalmist uses as pilgrims ascend the roads leading up to Jerusalem and to its Temple. The pilgrims would have been familiar with the Psalms of Ascent, and together they would have joined in singing them joyously on their way to the House of God: “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb.”
I like particularly that phrase “like those who dream.” Religion gives us a passport to imagine better realities. This is not to deny reality, but dreams, visions, help to inspire us to build better realities. I love when faith motivates us to plan for better than it is. Dreams don’t have to be a contrast between reality and naivete; they can be a contrast between reality and what we hope, what we envision.
Paul understands this. He is imprisoned. Epaphroditus has nearly died. But Paul wasn’t defined by the past or the present. Paul, in Christ, could always dream of the better. And this is how the extremely realistic Paul can say to the Philippians: “Finally, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord.” No matter how bad it is, our faith can let us dream. And for that, "Thank God."
Thursday, April 4th
Throughout the year, the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ produces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for April 4th: Psalm 126; Isaiah 43:1-7; and Philippians 2:19-24. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
Scholars see the hand of three separate authors in the one book of Isaiah the prophet. The first is found in chapters 1-39, the second in 40-55, and the third in 56-66. This means that today’s Isaiah passage is from the hand of Deutero-Isaiah, the second Isaiah. First Isaiah writes during the final years of the Kingdom of Judah. Deutero-Isaiah is a prophet during the time of Judah’s exile. Their nation has been defeated, the population deported, strangers are living in their homes, and Jerusalem and its Temple have been destroyed.
This could have turned the people of Judah into an historical footnote. When the northern tribes of the nation of Israel fell before the Assyrians about a century and half earlier, they became assimilated into the cultures around them. Judah, instead, remained intact as a people without a land. It was their faith in Yahweh that kept them united. It was their hope that Yahweh would not desert them no matter how bad things were. And it was in this milieu that Deutero-Isaiah speaks to God’s people.
In today’s passage, Yahweh reveals through His prophet that no matter the trial, He will not abandon them. In an age when these defeated people may have felt invisible, God knows them: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” With so much happening that could erase easily their identity, the transcendent God bends down to tell them that each one of them is known personally to the Almighty. This shared experience was the unifying factor that fostered community as the People of God.
Sometimes when we speak about God, He can seem so distant and unmoving, not a real part of our world and our lives. Could the Almighty really understand the trials, fears and uncertainties of everyday human life? Passages like Deutero-Isaiah’s assure us that He knows us, and then the life and even death of Jesus of Nazareth make certain that He knows what it is to be us. Whenever we may feel distanced from God, remember that the suffering Saviour endured whatever the world would dare throw at God so that forever we are each known by name. And may this awareness also bring us closer together as the community of God's People.
Wednesday, April 3rd
Throughout the year, the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ produces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for April 3rd: 2 Kings 4:1-7; Psalm 53; and Luke 9:10-17. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
Yesterday I posted on the church’s FaceBook page the Daily Devotion offering of Quinn Caldwell. It was a hopeful offering about believing in miracles. This is his closing prayer: “God, your world is full of wonders and mysteries. Let me not be too quick to dismiss them, and let me, at least sometimes, believe them before it’s wise.”
I believe in miracles, but miracles also worry me. Miracles are unexpected and we can even say undeserved. A miracle may be granted to a prophet’s wife as in the 2 Kings selection or to random strangers as in today’s passage from Luke. We can’t pray extra hard to deserve a miracle, but that doesn’t mean that praying for a miracle is without merit. I worry though about miracles because when they are not granted some people may feel abandoned by God, unheard, unrecognized.
Have you ever thought of doing something nice for someone and then thought to yourself that others will feel hurt because you didn’t do it for them? Then, that sort of thinking can stop you from doing anything out-of-the-ordinary nice. Miracles are not supposed to make us resentful when they’re not granted to us. Miracles are supposed to make God’s reality clearer no matter who is so blessed. It may be fairer if miracles ceased, but it would be at the expense of wonder, and that’s just too expensive.
I personally concentrate more on ordinary miracles, but the extraordinary ones that are the typical definition of miracle should not be dismissed automatically as belonging to a more credulous faith. They give God the chance to be extraordinarily nice and that does not seem to be out of character. Wonder is a gift that miracles and miracle stories share evenly, and in our world that is not a bad thing. The harsh reality of life is made quite clear in the fact that not even Jesus could escape the world’s meanness. So thank God for the unexpected and undeserved wonder of those occasional miracles.
Tuesday, April 2nd
Throughout the year, the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ produces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for April 2nd: Leviticus 25:1-19; Psalm 53; and Revelation 19:9-10. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
Wow! Did you take the time to read the Leviticus passage? If you didn’t, please do. I hear so much about churches and people trying to be faithful to Scripture as the litmus test of being faithful at all. This often comes-up in conversations about what we in our church call Open and Affirming. Homosexuality, others argue, is condemned in Scripture and that must be maintained at all costs. There is no right to interpret those passages. The Bible must be followed literally, always. But why is this stance so often limited to arguments against progressive causes such as Open and Affirming? Why is it not invoked when we read wonderful passages such as today’s from Leviticus? The reason seems obvious. We read the Bible literally when it bolsters what we want it to say, and we disregard it when it doesn’t.
For example, the biblical regulation concerning the Sabbatical Year is a statement protecting the environment from being exploited and despoiled. The biblical command about the Year of Jubilee is about economic equality. It is a direct attack on the accumulation of excessive wealth. I’ve never heard these passages touted by anyone professing the faithful to Scripture litmus test.
I am not in favour of a literal reading of the Bible. I think “God is still speaking.” I believe the Spirit is freed from the written word when we let it speak to us and through us (cf 2 Cor. 3:6). The Bible needs to be read thoroughly so that general principles and trends may be discovered. I think being faithful to Scripture is much more than picking and choosing passages to meet our needs. It must allow the arc of revelation to be taken seriously.
There is no way to implement the actual laws of the Sabbatical Year and the Year of Jubilee, but their ideals should be respected by people who take the Bible seriously. Don’t let me or others tell you what the Bible says. Read it. Study it. Join us for Bible study. Listen in church. Ask questions during coffee hour. Take is seriously enough to let it become a part of our conversation and our decision making. Lent is that chance to become reacquainted with the continuing revelation of the Word of God and to make it relevant.
Monday, April 1st
Throughout the year, the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ produces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for April 1st: Leviticus 23:26-41; Psalm 53; and Revelation 19:1-8. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
Today is April Fool’s Day. The story behind April Fool’s is that when New Year’s was moved to January 1st to be closer to the Winter Solstice and the lengthening days there were some people who clung stubbornly to the old New Year’s of April 1st, the Springtime New Year. The ones who refused to change were called “April Fools” for their inflexibility.
In today’s Psalm, we basically hear God’s definition of the fool as the ones who “say in their hearts, ‘There is no God.’” Fool is a harsh word for a person who chooses not to believe in God because there are intelligent, moral people who look at the world and cannot see evidence of the Divine. Some even doubt God because of the way God- fearing people act and talk. But let’s look a bit closer at how the Psalmist defines the fool.
Even thousands of years ago, people concerned about the faith were concerned that few bothered to look for God. The Psalmist expresses this disenchantment as: “God looks down form heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God.” People are called foolish by God because “there is no one who does good, no, not one. Have they no knowledge, those evildoers, who eat up my people as they eat bread …” The fool is not defined only by looking for the unseen God. The fool is the one who cares nothing for his or her fellow human being. They treat them callously and selfishly. The fool is so nonchalant in the mistreatment of others that they eat-up “my people as they eat bread.”
God encourages His followers to treat others with respect and gratitude. Look at the examples shared today from Leviticus of Jewish feast days. They call upon all the people to rest and to share, to celebrate the gifts of life together and with God. The fool is the one who is the opposite, the one defined by greed and consumption.
It has become completely acceptable and in some cases in vogue to discount God, but when God comes to a person, reveals Himself in some way, shows Himself in the good that is accomplished in His holy name, we need not be obstinate in our refusal to believe.
Lent is a time to focus on the message that Jesus not only preached, not only lived, but was willing to die for. When we look at His gospel and compare it to all the ills our world suffers, maybe believing in God and following Christ are not as absurd as some may propose and then hold on to stubbornly. Let us who believe work diligently at demonstrating the reality of Jesus by giving evidence of the reality of His life in our lives and in what we do. In this way, may we help others to believe too.
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