Archive for June, 2012

Sunday, July 1st

Pentecost 5

Lamentations 3:22-33
Psalm 30 (1)
2 Corinthians 8:7-15
Mark 5:21-43

Greetings everyone and welcome to Pentecost 5. I will not be preaching on these texts this Sunday. I will be at a family gathering with my wife and children up at the Mohonk Mountain House over the weekend. The Rev. Dr. Carol Brighton will be preaching on Sunday, July 1st. Nevertheless, I cannot help peeking at the texts for Sunday and thinking about how I might speak of them. Here are my thoughts. I welcome yours.

Lamentations 3:22-33 http://www.workingpreacher.org/bible_passage.aspx?reading_id=1285&cmpgn=5244

A word or two about the book of Lamentations is in order. It is not a book that we hear from very often in the ordinary course of our Sunday readings. Because it does not contain any stories, it does not often find its way into our Sunday School curriculum. It is a short book that you can easily overlook when casually paging though the Bible. So it is entirely possible that you have never heard of Lamentations.

As the name suggests, the book is a collection of laments, that is, prayers in which the Jewish people pour out their sorrow and pain to God. There are many such prayers found in the Psalms as well. The laments in Lamentations express the grief of the Jewish people over the Babylonian invasion of Judah in 587 B.C.E. which resulted in the sack of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple and the deportation of a substantial number of Jews to Babylon. It is hard for me to get my head around the scope of that catastrophe and what it meant to Israel. I suspect that the Somali refugees struggling to survive in refugee camps throughout the Horn of Africa could probably relate better to the following:

My eyes will flow without ceasing,
without respite,
50 until the Lord from heaven
looks down and sees.
51 My eyes cause me grief
at the fate of all the young women in my city.

5Those who were my enemies without cause
have hunted me like a bird;
53 they flung me alive into a pit
and hurled stones on me;
54 water closed over my head;
I said, ‘I am lost.’

Lamentations 3:40-54

Lamenting or giving expression to grief is not part of my northern European constitution. I come from a community in which grief was met with stoic aplomb. My childhood memories of funerals I attended with my folks include hearing remarks such as “She is so brave!” or “He is holding up so well” spoken with admiration and respect. Of course, we were understanding when a widower got a little choked up at the wake and we were forgiving when a widow got a little teary at the last closing of the casket. But bursting into tears, whaling and lamenting would definitely have been considered to be in poor taste. Worse, it would have been interpreted as a lack of faith in the promise of the resurrection. Look, I don’t suggest for a minute that this is a healthy way to approach grief. But healthy or not, it is the way in which I was acculturated.

The particular lesson for this Sunday is a profession of confidence in God’s goodness and compassion against the backdrop of a tragedy few of us in this country can begin to imagine. Yet perhaps there have been personal tragedies so deep, so painful and so life altering that it seems there is no way back. The loss of a loved one comes to mind. When someone who has been a pivotal influence in your day to day life is suddenly gone, you know there is no going back. You know things will never be the same. You don’t know when the raw pain will end or when life will get back to normal or even what normal will look like should you ever get there. It is at times like these that I turn to the biblical prayers of lament. When I cannot pray, I just read the psalms-the same ones that the dispossessed Jews prayed, generations of believers have prayed and Jesus himself prayed. I read these psalms and rely on the communion of saints to do the praying for me. I get the feeling that the author of this text is doing much the same thing. He or she is reciting a tried and true confession of God’s faithfulness even though he or she not entirely convinced by it. But the question is not whether you believe or not. The question is whether you want to believe. And if you want to believe God’s promises, then the best thing you can do is “go through the motions,” act as though you actually do believe. Pull yourself out of bed and drag yourself to church even though you don’t feel like singing, praying, making conversation with anyone or, worst of all, listening to another sermon. When church is the last place you want to be, that is probably when you need it most.

Psalm 30 http://www.workingpreacher.org/bible_passage.aspx?reading_id=1284&cmpgn=5244

This psalm is a striking contrast to the lament in Lamentations. Here we have a person who has come up from the depths, out of the quagmire of despair and back into the light. It is not altogether clear whether the psalmist was experiencing threats from his enemies, sickness or perhaps both. In any case, whatever the problem, it is now behind the psalmist who recognizes in this resolution the saving hand of God. Verses 4-5 are remarkably similar to Lamentations 3:31-33. Both psalms emphasize that, in the long run, God can be trusted; that however dark your situation may be, God’s salvation ultimately will see you through. But the circumstances are wildly different. The author of the Lament prays these words in hope while surrounded by impenetrable darkness. The psalmist prays in the confidence of having seen these affirmations of faith prove true in his own life experience. I have been in both places and everywhere inbetween. That is why the psalms form such a large part of my devotional life. They speak from so many different levels of human experience that there is bound to be one that fits me.

II Corinthians 8:7-15 http://www.workingpreacher.org/bible_passage.aspx?reading_id=1286&cmpgn=5244

I often ask myself “what were they thinking?” when trying to figure out how the folks who put together our readings decided to begin and end where they do. What is this “gracious work” Paul is referring too in vs. 7? It is clear that Paul is taking up a collection from the Corinthian church. Most likely, this refers to the offering for the churches in Judea experiencing economic difficulties. (Gal. 2:1-10; I Cor. 16:1-4; Rom. 15:25-27).  This passage reflects the catholicity of the early church-a community that transcends cultural, regional and national borders. It is this catholicity that made the church such a fearful enemy of the Roman Empire and to all nation states that find any group of people who have a loyalty higher than the nation to be inconvenient at best and dangerous at worst. A disciple of Jesus cannot be on board with an “America First” policy. A disciple must always “seek first the Kingdom of God” and the well being of its citizens, whatever nation state they may be living in.

In the same manner, congregations, such as the church in Corinth, cannot adopt a parochial view of ministry. The whole church is one body and all parts either flourish or fail together. Thus, the Corinthian church, which is evidently a wealthier congregation, must, for its own well being and that of the whole church, use its surplus to meet the needs of the churches experiencing privation.

To get the full gist of what St. Paul is saying, you really need to read Chapters 8 and 9 in their entirety.

Mark 5:21-43 http://www.workingpreacher.org/bible_passage.aspx?reading_id=1287&cmpgn=5244

This is an aggravating story. Jairus’ daughter is at the point of death. This is a 911 call and Jesus is treating it like an open house. There is no need for him to terry on the way. The woman with a discharge of blood had already been healed and was on her merry way. Why waste precious time stopping to call her out, publically embarrass her and so further endanger the life of Jarius’ daughter? I suppose that raising a dead child is more impressive than healing a sick one. But since Jesus ultimately kept the whole affair a secret, that motivation does not seem likely.

I am only guessing here, but perhaps there is some significance to the fact that Jesus addresses this woman as his “daughter.” Jarius was, after all, the president of the synagogue. His responsibility, if any, for enforcing laws of ritual purity is not altogether clear to me. But I think he would probably take a dim view of a woman, who is perpetually unclean by virtue of her constant menstrual bleeding, being out and about in crowded public places. He surely would not approve of her grabbing the clothing of a strange man. That might have been why this woman was operating so furtively. In any event, it may well be that by addressing the woman as “daughter” Jesus was sending a message to Jarius. “Look man. I am about to give you back your daughter. Only you know what a precious gift that is. In return, I expect you to understand that my daughter is precious too. You had jolly well better treat her with the mercy and compassion I am showing you.”

Again, that is my own take on this. I have never seen another commentary that agrees with me. But I think we can say with confidence that Jesus is demonstrating here that he is not impressed by high titles and credentials; that the daughter of the president of the synagogue is no more or less important than the daughter of the streets.

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Sunday, June 24th

Greetings everyone! These are my thoughts in this Sunday’s Lessons, the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost. I welcome your comments and thoughts on the texts!  Pastor Olsen

Job: 38:1-11 http://www.workingpreacher.org/bible_passage.aspx?reading_id=1280&cmpgn=5244

Last week began with my stepping into a foot of liquid sewerage at the foot of the stairs leading to the basement of the parish house in which I have my office. “Why God?” I asked. “Don’t you understand that this house is being readied to shelter a homeless family? Don’t you understand that this disaster you allowed to occur is going to set me back on the visits I have to make, the cards I need to write and the worship services for which I must prepare? Whose side are you on, God? And if this flood of sewerage had to occur for the sake of some greater good beyond my limited mortal comprehension, was it really essential to that greater good that I step in it? Couldn’t you have spared me at least that?”

Of course, a sewer back up is small potatoes when compared to a real tragedy, such as the loss of one’s home through foreclosure. That, too, is insignificant when placed next to a parent’s loss of a child. It is also worth remembering that for families eking out an existence in the refugee camps located in the Horn of Africa, the loss of a child is a common place event. Indeed, a refugee is counted lucky if he or she has even one child of many surviving to provide care and comfort in old age. That doesn’t answer my “why” questions, but at least it puts them in perspective.

God’s answer to Job’s “why” is less an answer than a barrage of rhetorical questions. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” “Who stretched the line to measure it?” “Who shut in the sea with doors” Job cannot possibly answer these questions and he knows it. The universe is a bigger, wilder and more terrifying place than he can imagine or understand. It is not for Job to suggest that God might have made a safer, calmer and more predictable world. Much less should he be telling God how to run the world that God has created.

This answer might suffice for me if I had not read the story from the beginning. In fact, God is not coming clean with Job. The reason for his suffering is not grounded in the humanly unfathomable mysteries of the universe. Job is suffering because the devil baited God into testing Job’s loyalty. “Does Job fear God for nought?” he says to the Lord. “You made him healthy, wealthy and well regarded. Why shouldn’t he serve you? Job’s loyalty is no more than patronage. Take away the salary and benefits and he will spit in your face.” This story is strikingly similar to the temptation of Eve in the third chapter of Genesis. Only this time the tempter is not tempting humans to distrust God, but is testing God’s confidence in Job. It seems that God cannot resist the forbidden fruit anymore than could Eve. God must prove Job’s faithfulness-even if it means ruining his life with tragedy and sickness. Most of us would not treat a dog in this fashion.

So what are we to make of this text? I must confess that I can make peace with the book of Job only by viewing it as a satire from beginning to end. I believe that the story as a whole illustrates what happens when your religion insists that you believe in a world where righteousness is always rewarded and wickedness is always punished by a good God who presides over a universe that runs like a Swiss watch. On a purely theoretical plane, such religion seems to make sense. But when you take it off the blackboard and apply it to everyday life, it falls apart like a cheap shirt. The first time you step into a puddle of sewerage, you are cursing God because a good God presiding over a good world should not be letting stuff like this happen. Or, on the other hand, you can wind up making excuses for God, blaming the devil or concocting some outlandish theory to explain why sewerage in the basement or starvation in the Horn of Africa are really good things. Worse yet, you can wind up insisting to sufferers that their suffering is their own fault and that if they cannot understand what they have done to deserve their fate, well they just need to dig deeper into their consciences.

In sum, the text from Job, like the entire narrative, challenges us to accept a more nuanced and complex God whose interactions with an equally complex creation do not fit neatly into our theories of cause and effect.

Psalm 107:1-3;23-32  http://www.workingpreacher.org/bible_passage.aspx?reading_id=1279&cmpgn=5244

Here is a psalm that reflects the kind of faith that, if taken to simplistic extremes, brings us into the conundrum addressed by the book of Job. The psalm tells the stories of groups of persons, possibly pilgrims on their way to worship at Jerusalem, who encounter various dangers from which God delivers them. The people featured in this week’s reading are sailors caught in a terrible storm. Nearly wrecked upon the waves of the sea, they cry out to the Lord for deliverance. The Lord stills the storm and brings them safely to land.

These stories are inspiring as far as they go. God does intervene to save. God does deliver people from danger. People have experienced God’s intervention in their lives in some very graphic and dramatic ways. But, as the book of Job would have us remember, God does not always intervene in ways that look like deliverance. God did not intervene to save Jesus from the cross. Consequently, any religion teaching that faith in God guarantees safety, happiness and escape from all injury is not consistent with what the Bible teaches us. God’s acts of deliverance are never ends in themselves. The sailors in today’s psalm are rescued from the sea so that they can “extol [God] in the congregation of the people, and praise [God] in the assembly of the elders.” The people of Israel are rescued from Egypt that they might become a blessing to all people and a light to the world. It is pointless, then, to ask why God saves some and not others. God chooses to bless certain individuals and groups, to be sure. But God blesses them that they might be a blessing to all. Thus, salvation is not a matter of God exercising favoritism by exalting some over others. It is rather God’s choosing certain people to be God’s representatives and servants to all people and for the good of all people.

2 Corinthians 6:1-13 http://www.workingpreacher.org/bible_passage.aspx?reading_id=1281&cmpgn=5244

This reading is a section of a much larger discussion Paul has been developing since the beginning of the book. It is evident that the congregation in Corinth that had been founded through Paul’s work was being influenced by Christian teachers who had taken up residence in town since Paul departed. These teachers claim to be “apostles” and appear to be discrediting Paul and his associates. The mark of true apostleship, Paul argues, is conduct, not mere words. Paul’s persistent faithfulness in spite of persecution and trials demonstrate his apostolic commitment. Paul does not merely travel to existing congregations to teach and preach. He has made a life of bringing the gospel to places where it has never been proclaimed. Paul repeatedly puts his life on the line to expand the ministry of the gospel. Can his opponents make the same claim?

It might appear that Paul is bragging here. Perhaps he is. Yet I believe he is making a deeper argument that perhaps touches on issues raised in the Job lesson. Suffering is not evidence of failure and rejection by God-anymore than ease, comfort and wealth are signs of God’s approval. In fact, if one is to be a faithful disciple of Jesus, one can expect to suffer.

I think we need to treat this text with some caution because we do not want to suggest that suffering in itself is a good thing. God does not want anyone to suffer, but God recognizes that nothing worthwhile is achieved without it. All of us who have chosen to have children know (particularly mothers) that having children invites all sorts of pain. From the very get go, it means surrendering the freedom to sleep in (often to sleep at all!), go out to a movie on a whim, or take a week of vacation without taking school, summer camp and babysitting into account. That, of course, is hardly worth mentioning when you consider the pain that comes from seeing your children struggle through adolescence, making bad decisions that will cause them pain and perhaps even suffering tragedy. Yet we have been having children since our species began and continue to do so. I can only assume that we do it because we believe it to be worth the risk. The rewards outweigh the sorrows.

One could say that God feels the same about the world. Yes, it is broken and filled with tragedy and suffering. But it is also filled with incredible joy, beauty and potential for realization of God’s love in our hearts. The cross and resurrection is God’s way of letting us know that, from God’s standpoint, creation was worth it. God is not giving up on it. God loves it enough to suffer with it and for it. All who are called children of God are privileged to do the same.

Mark 4:35-41 http://www.workingpreacher.org/bible_passage.aspx?reading_id=1282&cmpgn=5244

This story continues pressing the $64,000 question: “Who is Jesus?” Of course, those of us reading the gospel already know who Jesus is because the gospel begins in Mark 1:1 by telling us that this is the story of Jesus, the Son of God, the Messiah. Jesus knows who he is because the voice from heaven spoke to him at his baptism saying, “You are my beloved Son.” The demons know that Jesus is the Son of God and Jesus has to tell them to keep quiet about his identity. The only people who don’t seem to be getting it are the disciples.

It is tempting to criticize the disciples for being such dolts. Particularly after they make the remark, “Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Unwittingly perhaps, they are practically quoting from this week’s psalm. Had they realized what they were saying, they would not have had to ask their question. Yet the problem here is deeper than mere failure to connect the scriptural dots. Surely the people to whom Mark’s gospel is addressed, like us, know that Jesus is the Son of God. The question is, does that knowledge make any difference to them or us? Though we confess that Jesus is the Son of God, is he the first one to whom we turn in the midst of a raging storm? Or do we call out to him only when our strength, our wits and our resources have all failed us and the boat is half swamped? In these troubled and fearful times, we can still hear Jesus speaking to us, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?”

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