Saturday, 26 October 2013

Active Confession!

Lectionary Readings for Nov. 3. Isaiah 1:10-22, Ps 32:1-7, 2 Thess. 1:1-4, 11-12, Luke 19:1-10
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

The passages for November 3 carry a strong theme of forgiveness, but this isn't cheap forgiveness. It's not enough to say "I'm sorry." This is forgiveness after long struggles. The psalmist says: "when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was upon me." He is being eaten from the inside out by guilt. If the psalmist is indeed David, he's got a lot to confess. He's responsible for many deaths and there's the Bathsheba situation-wrong on so many different levels. The surprising thing is that for a long time David resists, he stays quiet, he does everything in his power to keep from confessing. Finally, he lets go of his feelings of self-importance and opens up to God, and that's when he is at peace. (I always marvel that this deeply flawed, and in many ways terrible, man was "after God's own heart. David must have possessed an incredible ability to self-reflect, realize his sin and actually hand himself over to God.)

Isaiah rails against meaningless offerings that people use to 'buy' cheap forgiveness. God clearly does not want their gold or incense or animals because the people are not sincerely offering their lives. The prophet addresses his audience as "rulers of Sodom and Gomorrah", peoples notorious for ignoring justice and the rights of the poor (not primarily for sexual practices as the stereotype goes!) Isaiah's people are going through all the outward motions of faith, assuming that is all that is required. It is cheap forgiveness if all it takes is an appearance/performance at the temple. What is required is much harder. "Stop doing wrong, learn to do right. Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow." v. 17

Ps 32 and Isaiah 1, when read with the story of Zacchaeus, shine a light onto verses 8-10. This is where Zacchaeus"confesses" with his actions. He gives half of his possessions to the poor and he pays back, with 400% interest, the people he has cheated. Jesus tells the crowd, (many of whom do all the right things according to their religious laws) that this tax collector has received salvation. It certainly didn't come cheap!

Showing up for services, and dropping money into an offering plate, are meaningless things if there is no sincere confession, like David's, or no action for others like Isaiah asks for and Zacchaeus does. These stories of forgiveness are stories of a lived faith, they challenge us to think about what it is we are doing to"confess with our actions!"

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Simple but challenging!

Lectionary Readings for Oct. 27. Psalm 84, Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22, 2 Tim 4:6-8, Luke 18:9-14
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

The story Jesus tells about the Pharisee and the tax collector is short and simple. Our thinking about it should not be. It's tempting to say this is easy to understand and that it clearly divides people into "be like this" and "don't be like this."  The message, however, is much more challenging if we let it soak in to our hearts and minds.

In Jesus' day, the Pharisees were looked up to as examples of how to live. Everything the Pharisee says in his prayer is true. He does fast and pray, he is a good person, he is fortunate not to be in a position where he is pushed into desperate living, such as the thieves and rogues he mentions. What is offensive, is that he thinks this makes him more worthy of God's love, than anyone else.

The tax collector held a job that left him despised by the populace. He took their money for the government, and even if he did this honestly, he would not be liked. (Tax collectors had a reputation for padding their incomes by overcharging, which certainly did not endear them to society.) When he prays, he doesn't compare himself to anyone else, he simply asks God for mercy. 

(I wonder what comparable vocations would be used to tell this story today? Maybe Bible bookstore owner or pastor and a used car salesperson? We certainly are not free of stereotyping people according to their jobs!)

As a kid, I always thought the Pharisee was bragging loudly and the tax collector was quiet. Nope. The Pharisee may have been loud, but verse 11 states that he was standing by himself. He wasn't doing anything very unusual. The tax collector was further away, but was certainly not quiet at all and was not acting normally. He was "beating his breast"-an action that would draw attention. (One commentator even says this action was more common to grieving women than it was to men. The tax collector certainly wasn't trying to hide! He was a bit of a spectacle!)

At our Bible study/preparation meeting for the Oct. 27 service, the leader handed out a bit of commentary about this parable. I'm going to quote it here-it's good stuff. Sorry, I don't have the author's name. (if anyone needs that information, let me know and I'll track it down)

"Two basic truths underlie the meaning of this story.: God loves us and we are all sinners. The Pharisee understands only one of them-God loves me. He sees only his strengths and good deeds and tells God all about them. It is a one sided conversation. The tax-collector however understands both of them. He is well aware of his weaknesses and sins. (Lots of people point them out to him regularly.) If that was all he knew, he wouldn't be at the Temple at all. But he also knows that God loves him in spite of this sins. So he comes to God to confess and leaves OK with God."

This is a simple parable,but it's challenges are significant. We are challenged to accept that God loves us, no matter how we compare to others. (Hard for those with low opinions of themselves.) We are challenged to be humble and not think of ourselves as better than others, even when society gives us that message. (Hard for those with high opinions of themselves.) We are challenged to openly confess. (Difficult for everyone.) There is some of the Pharisee and tax-collector in each of us, and we are encouraged to bring ourselves to God.

In 2 Timothy, Paul believes he has done the best he can. He doesn't fault others for their lack of support when he is brought to the judgement of the authorities. He relies on God for true judgement and says; "to him be the glory forever and ever." Today's scriptures encourage and challenge us to find that place of feeling good about ourselves, not condemning others, and surrendering control and judgement into God's hands.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Wrestling all Night.

Lectionary readings for Oct 20. Genesis 32:22-31, Ps 121, 2 Tim. 3:14-4:5, Luke 18:1-8
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

The idea of wrestling all night isn't completely strange. It is at night, when bodies are still and distractions have quieted, that our minds conjure up adversaries. The worries and conflicts of the day have louder voices at night and the resultant inner struggle keeps us from sleep. Jacob is scheduled to face his estranged and powerful brother Esau the next day and he knows he's the one in the wrong. No wonder he's up all night wrestling!

A mysterious man wrestles with him, a man whose identity is never revealed. Both commentaries I looked at say this story remains unclear and open to interpretation. Perhaps that is why it so powerfully captures our imaginations. It doesn't quite satisfy. It is a lot like the things we struggle with, we sometimes aren't quite able to name what is wrong, or who the adversary is. All we know is that we struggle. There isn't a clear line between victory and hurt. For Jacob, his refusal to quit struggling results in both blessing and curse. He is blessed by the stranger and given the name 'Israel' which means something like 'God preserves.' He is also permanently crippled by his struggles. He limps for the rest of his life.

So many of life's wrestlings produce mixed results. Like Jacob, we often don't see God in it all, until the dust clears a bit. At the end of this little story, Jacob says he has seen God face to face and yet "my life is preserved." I have to wonder if he fought too hard. If Jacob had given in and spoken to the stranger earlier, could he have been blessed and avoided the injury? Why did it have to come to a fight? I've always kind of assumed (and heard) that Jacob's refusal to give up here was admirable, but I question that.  If Jacob hadn't always been fighting and taking the best for himself, he may not have had enemies in the first place. He may not have needed the poke in the hip to put him in his rightful place. Then again, there is value in struggle too. When something is important, a "stick to it" ethic allows us to fight through to eventually find answers and perhaps keeps us looking for God.

How does this story speak to you?

Friday, 4 October 2013

Contrasts and Parallels, A Remarkable Story!

Lectionary Passages for Oct. 13, Thanksgiving Sunday.  2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c, Psalm 111, 2 Tim. 2:8-15, Luke 17:11-19
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

Who would ever, in reading 'Goldilocks and the Three Bears' to children, stop at the part where Goldilocks happily settles into a soft bed? The story isn't over! We need to find out how the bears react, and what Goldilocks does/learns. So why do we quit reading the story of Naaman at the point where he is healed? The story isn't over at all, there's still a reconciliation, a conversion, greed, and betrayal yet to come.

This story of healing is remarkably complex and well told. It kicks off with the striking contrast between Naaman, the mighty warrior who has the direct ear of King Aram and the little girl taken from defeated Israel and slave to Naaman's wife. The slave girl is as unimportant as a person can be, yet she knows how to solve something that stymies "all the kings horses and all the kings men". Even more remarkably, she cares enough to offer her knowledge. Naaman, like many with incurable disease, is willing to try anything, even listening to a slave girls advice.

Naaman is desperate, but still rather full of himself, his position, and the assumed superiority of his people. He shows up at Elisha's with a full military escort, expecting to be treated like the royalty he is. Elisha doesn't even come out of the house, and insultingly, sends Naaman to wash in the muddy Jordan as if Israel's water is better than that of the foreigners. Of course, Naaman is enraged. (I wonder how scared Elisha's messenger was when he/she delivered the news? This could have ended very badly for everyone!)

In a parallel to the slave girls advice, Naaman's servants (not his advisors!) urge him to follow the simple, if humiliating, advice. Remarkably, maybe out of desperation, he listens and is healed. Now the story gets even more interesting! Naaman's rage evaporates, replaced by deep gratitude and reverence for the God of Israel. Naaman's conceit is gone, and he is reconciled to Elisha. He offers gifts, which Elisha refuses. (A commentator, Richard Nelson, makes a neat observation; saying that as Naaman stand in humility before Elisha, so Elisha stands in humility before God, refusing to take payment for something that is God's doing). In another fun parallel, Naaman's humble request for two mule-loads of dirt stands in beautiful contrast to his earlier disgust with the muddy Jordan. The dirt allows him to bring a bit of Israel's land home to Syria-that he might worship the God of that land.

Finally, there is a little parallel story about one of Elisha's servants. While Naaman's servants are portrayed as honourable and helpful, Elisha's servant, Gehazi, is devious and greedy. He goes behind Elisha's back to take the gifts Elisha refused. Why this little postscript of a story?  I can't help but think it's there to guard against Elisha's people claiming any sort of superiority for themselves. Naaman was brought "down to earth", and God's people are supposed to stay firmly planted on earth as well. They are not to take on airs of superiority or claim they are any better than their enemies. Wherever there are people, there are temptations, problems, and dysfunction. No group of people is exempt from humanities struggles.

Thanksgiving day. How do the lectionary passages tie in to our celebration of Thanksgiving? The Luke piece, about the ten healed lepers where only one comes back to say thank you, is obvious, likely many preachers are going to go for this scripture for Thanksgiving Sunday. In a neat parallel to the Naaman story, however, it is again the outsider who "gets it" and responds with gratitude. Perhaps there is something here for us regarding humility. Are we truly grateful for what we have or do we think we are deserving? Like Elisha, we might have to be careful of the attitudes we carry within our own houses!

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Viewing from the Ramparts

Lectionary Passages for Oct 6. Habakkuk 1:1-4. 2:1-4, Psalm 37:1-9, 2 Timothy 1:1-14, Luke 17:5-10
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

The week has gotten away with me, I'm sorry I'm so slow getting to the lectionary blog!

Habakkuk is not common reading, but it's message has common resonance for anyone who has an ear to world news. The prophet is distraught over violence indiscriminately perpetrated by the uncaring powerful against good people. The law seems "paralyzed and justice never prevails."

I've heard this lament taken up as reason to stop believing in God. After all, how can a loving God not intervene and stop human madness? It's impossible, if we only read the lectionary verses, to see where Habakkuk goes with this. The book is only a few pages long, so I read the whole thing.

In verse 5, the Lord is portrayed as answering the prophet, saying the Babylonians will be sent in as a violent, conquering people in order to get rid of the violent, law-defying people. Habakkuk replies in the rest of the chapter by challenging the idea that more violence is a solution. The Lord replies again in chapter 2, urging Habakkuk to wait and watch, that someday the Lord will set matters right and the evil ways of people will stop. "Woe to him who builds a city with bloodshed and  establishes a town by crime."  And Habakkuk waits. Chapter 3 has him praising God, and asking God to intervene by renewing God's deeds of old. It's quite clear that Habakkuk believes God will eventually do something. He fully knows that the violence and force of human ways is not the way to lasting peace and justice. He lays aside his distress and takes up hope in the midst of brokenness.He rejoices in the strength God provides for him to make it through each day.

3:17-18 are poignant. "though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord."

A postscript: My husband and son recently went on a mountain hike in which they walked over many false summits before finally reaching a viewpoint. From there, they could see the whole landscape, all the way down to the highway. The distance gave them a vastly wider perspective than what they had at the start, beside the highway. At the highway's edge, the rushing traffic overwhelms one's senses. At the summit, things fall into perspective and the cars are small and far away. This is a great image for me when I read Habakkuk 2:1. Habakkuk stations himself on the ramparts where he can see, where he can get a wider perspective and perhaps understand what God wants. Habakkuk removes himself from the overwhelming rush of the immediate traffic of issues to listen for God. Sometime he will have to go back down, back to everyday life, and maybe back to dodging cars. However, his glimpse of the wider sweep of God's domain gives him hope, patience, and even joy to take back into that life.