Weekly Introduction to the Readings of the Revised Common Lectionary (Proper 11C / Ordinary 16C)

Amos 8:1-12

Amos is an 8th century prophet from a humble background (he calls himself a “dresser of sycamore trees”).  He prophesies to the northern kingdom about a coming day of the Lord.  Amos continually reminds us of God’s concern for economic justice.  Amos prophesies against merchants who were using unfair scales and balances to rob people in the market place. The end result was that the merchants were “buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals.”  The prophet warns those who do not practice economic justice that God will “never forget any of their deeds.”

Psalm 52

In Psalm 52 the psalmists takes to task the boasting of a powerful enemy.  This enemy takes refuge in riches and wealth.  The Psalmist however takes refuge in the steadfast love of the LORD.  The psalmist declares that God will snatch the bragger from his tent and uproot him from the land of the living.

Luke 10:38-42

Our gospel lection is the story of Mary and Martha entertaining Jesus.  As you likely remember Mary spends the time Jesus is at her home at his feet listening to his teachings.  Martha busies herself with the normal duties of hosting.  Martha becomes indignant with Mary because she does not get up to help.  Jesus, however, commends Mary for choosing the “better part.”  Martha is chastised for being “worried and distracted by many things.”  The story illustrates how easily we set aside the Word of God because of the pace of our frenetic lives.

Celebration of Worship

As you prepare your hearts, minds, prayers, and hymns for Sunday consider the danger of relying on our industry, on our wealth to provide us place in the kingdom of God.  Such scramble for approval puts the temptation of the mistreatment of others before us.  Our call is to trust in God’s steadfast love, and to seek after God’s word above all.

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Weekly Introductions to the Readings of the Revised Common Lectionary (Proper 10C/Ordinary 15C)

Deuteronomy 30:9-14

The book of Deuteronomy sounds a constant theme: If you follow the law of the Lord good things will happen to you!  This Sunday’s reading provides us another telling of that deuteronomistic maxim.  However, in this version of the maxim the author is intent to say that God not only blesses those who follow the law but God also makes the law plain to us and accessible! According to Deuteronomy 30 the Law is not something that God has placed in the heavens or across an ocean but something that God has placed very near (indeed even inside of us) so that we have ready access to it.  The close proximity of the law makes the law easier to make part of our lives and is a grace gift to those who would follow it.

Psalm 25:1-10

Psalm 25 offers a proper response to the Hebrew Bible Lection, and lifts up the importance of the law, in its following phrases…”Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths.  Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long…Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way.  He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way. All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.”

Colossians 1:1-14

Paul in writing to the church in Colossae, a city in Asia Minor, begins his letter by expressing his gratitude in hearing of the Colosssians’ faith.  He then moves to describe the hope he has for them.  Paul writes encouragingly hoping that the Colossians would be “filled with the knowledge of God’s  will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding,  so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.  May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled  you  to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.”  He we see the tender affection that Paul has for the churches, and we see Paul’s understanding of Deuteronomy’s key message about the value of having the “will of God” (i.e. the Law) close and near.

Luke 10:25-37

Our gospel lection contains Luke’s telling of the Lawyer who asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life.  Jesus responds, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”  The lawyer then quotes the Shema from Deuteronomy (“You shall love the Lord your God…”) and the command to love your neighbor from Leviticus.  Jesus is pleased with this answer, but the lawyer is not satisfied.  He turns and asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor.”  It is here in Luke’s gospel that Jesus gives the parable of the good Samaritan.  As you likely know Samaritans and Jews did not get along during Jesus’ day, so the
idea that the Samaritan could be a good neighbor to the man that fell into the hands of the robbers was a pill difficult to swallow by those that heard the parable.  Regardless the lawyer concedes the goodness of the Samaritan’s deeds.  Jesus then admonishes the laywer to be like the Samaritan (“Go and do likewise…”)  Again in our gospel lection, as in our previous letions, we see the importance of the law, but we also see that the law requires certain interpretation (“Who is my neighbor…”) and that by reflecting and interpreting the law we come to know a God who is merciful and just.

Celebration of Worship

As you prepare your hearts, minds, prayers, and hymns for Sunday consider what it means to have the law so close and near to you.  Do you have a positive view of the law or a negative view?  How does the law help us understand who our neighbor is?  How does the life of Jesus, the greatest self revelation of God, inform our interpretation of the law?

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Bottom Dwellers

When we read the story of Namaan the leper we often miss the key characters, which says more about us then the clarity of the narrative:

Bottom Dwellers

 

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Weekly Introdcution to the Readings of the Revised Common Lectionary (Proper 9C / Ordinary 14C)

2 Kings 5:1-14

(An excellent commentary by Steed Davidson on this passage is found here.)

The story of the healing of Naaman the Aramean appears several times in the lectionary cycle and is often paired with a gospel story recording the healing of a leper.  The story of Naaman, however, is less about leprosy and healing than it is about God’s ability to reverse the tables on power.  Naaman, who is leprous, is aided by an Israelite servant girl (likely the spoil of war) who directs Naaman to the Israelite prophet Elisha for healing.  Naaman the “great man” and “commander of the army” and “high in favor” and a “mighty warrior” had never heard of Elisha.  The Israelite servant girl proves more capable of providing help to ‘mighty’ Naaman than all the wise men of Syria.

When Elisha prescribes dipping seven times in the Jordan as the cure for Naaman’s leprosy the nameless servants of Naaman must convince their master to follow through with the treatment.  Naaman’s comments divulge Naaman’s feelings of entitlement, power, and superiority, “I thought that for me he [Elisha] would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” The faith of Naaman’s servants prove critical in Naaman’s healing–without their encouragement the “might warrior” would have succumbed to the horrors of leprosy.

Namaan’s story reminds us that the power of God is often found in places of perceived weakness, and that the least amongst us often are the ones pointing most clearly to God’s healing.

Psalm 30

Rolf Jacobson calls Psalm 30 “the most beautiful lyric in the Psalter.”  Psalm 30 is a psalm of thanksgiving to God for a deliverance from sickness (“O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me”).  It is an appropriate response to both the Hebrew Bible lection and the gospel lection which record healings from leprosy.

The psalmist of Psalm 30 encourages the gathered congregation to praise the God of deliverance who rescues people from Sheol (the pit).  The psalmist recounts how he/she cried out to God in a time of need.  The psalmist explained to God that if the psalmist died then the psalmist would no longer be able to praise God.  This is an interesting (perhaps coercive) argument to make in supplication to the deity.  The psalm does not offer a judgment on the argument (whether or not it is a good tact to take with God or not) but it does indicate the psalmists earnest desire to praise God in life.  When facing our own illnesses we often consider separation from our family and friends, yet seldom do we consider the absence of our life-long praise to God.

Galatians 6:1-16

Our NT epistle lection is the exhortation section of Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia.  The exhortations are short encouragements for the Christian communities to behave in Christian ways.  In Galatians 6 Paul is concerned with working for the “good of all.”  He asks the Christians in Galatia to restore a wayward brother, to bear each other’s excessive burdens while at the same time to pull their own weight.  He asks those who are taught to share with their teachers (presumably the means necessary for survival).  He reminds the Galatians that God can not be mocked, and that Christians can not live by the flesh and expect harmonious life.

At the end of the letter to the Galatians Paul himself (instead of an amenuensis) takes up the physical task of writing (a highly specialized trade in the ancient world).  Paul summarizes the content of the letter (a warning against those that have brought “another gospel” to Galatia in the wake of Paul’s evangelizing).  It could be that Paul was having to finish his letter after his amenuensis was no longer available him.  However, it is also possible and likely that Paul took over the writing of the end of his letter to add emphasis.  Paul is fearful of the Galatian’s future if they should follow the false teachers, and so he writes a personal appeal for them to remain faithful to the gospel he preached.

Luke 10:1-20

Our gospel lection contains what many theologians call the “limited commission” (in comparison to the “great commission” found in Matthew 28).  In the limited commission Jesus sends out seventy disciples to spread news of the imminent kingdom of God to the towns of Galilee.  The disciples are to take little with them, and they are to rely on the hospitality of those they come into contact with on their journey that share their “peace.”  If a town rejects the message of the disciples then in protest they are to shake the dust from their feet as they leave that place.  Jesus instructs that disciples that on “that day” (presumably the “day of judgment”) it will be better for Sodom than for the town that rejects the message of the coming kingdom.

After a time the disciples return to Jesus with a positive report, and are excited that they are able to cast out demons.  Jesus humbles the excited disciples and tells them that it is more important that their names are written in heaven then that they are able to cast out demons.

Celebration of Worship

As you prepare your hearts and minds for worship consider the power of God that is often found in weakness.  The proclamation of the kingdom of God first went out to the small towns of rural Galilee.  There humble homes welcomed in the first missionaries of the kingdom.  As a result God purged them of the demons that sought their destruction.  The disciples in their poverty and weakness were able to cast out these demons in the name of Jesus.  Likewise in our worship, while weak in comparison to the great noise of our dominant culture, is found the heart song of the kingdom.  To God be the glory.

 

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Weekly Introduction to the Readings of the Revised Common Lectionary (Proper 7 / Ordinary 12)

I Kings 19:1-15

Elijah has just put the prophets of Ba’al to the sword and upset the ruling Jezebel.  In retaliation Jezebel sends a death threat to Elijah telling him that she will have him executed in one day’s time.  Elijah reacts with uncharacteristic despair.  Interestingly the text reminds us that Elijah is now in Judah—out of Jezebel’s jurisdiction, but even here Elijah is despondent.  He flees from Jezebel, finds a dessert bush (broom tree), sits underneath it, asks to die, and then falls asleep. While sleeping an angel visits Elijah and offers him bread to eat and water to drink.  Elijah eats and drinks then lies down again.  The angel returns a second time and offers the same nourishment.  Again Elijah eats.  After this second offering Elijah continues on his journey and is strengthened by the food for forty days.

Elijah ends up at “Horeb, the mountain of God.”  Horeb is another name for Sinai.  Just as Moses spent forty days on Sinai, so Elijah will do the same.  At such a sacred place at such a desperate time one might suspect a great theophany to occur.  Elijah finds a cave to rest in.  While in the cave he is indeed visited by the voice of the Lord.  The voice asks Elijah why he is there.  Elijah tells of his troubles.  The voice commands Elijah to go and stand before the mountain and watch as the Lord passes by.  Elijah obeys and is witness to a great wind, and earthquake, and a fire but the Lord is not in any of those things.  Then Elijah is met by sheer silence, and once again the voice returns with the same question, and Elijah responds with the same words.  Elijah is then commissioned to go and name a new king (a very risky business).

Does God prove himself to Elijah?  This is a difficult story to interpret.  The reluctant or despondent prophet is a popular theme in the biblical text (and in our own life).  Upsetting power is a dangerous vocation.  Elijah’s despair is not simply brushed away in this story.  God does not come in grand fashion with a terrific pep-talk.  Despite the ever popular King James Version Elijah does not hear a “still small voice” in which God is found.  Elijah is met with “sheer silence” (NRSV) and must choose to press on with the Lord’s commands.

Psalm 42

Our psalm lection presents us with a lament from someone who is being hard pressed by enemies.  The circumstance of the psalmist lines up well with Elijah’s tenuous situation.  In that respect the psalm provides a worship response to our Hebrew Bible lection.  The psalmist writes “My tears have been my food day and night” and “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I walk about mournfully because the enemy oppresses me?”  Interestingly the Psalmist provides his or her own response to the lament they voiced, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.”  Like Elijah the psalmist is not given a spectacular miracle.  Hope is the fuel that keeps the faith engine turning.

Galatians 3:23-39

Some in Galatia were not aware of the radical nature of the gospel of Christ.  They were teaching that in order to be Christian one must first become a Jew under the Law, and to behave as such.  Paul confronts these false teachers who had come to correct the first gospel that Paul preached.  Paul reminds the Galatians that “as many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

Luke 8

In our gospel lection Jesus casts out many “unclean spirits” (AKA “demons”) from a man and sends them into a herd of swine (after the spirits beg Jesus to not let them go back to the “abyss”).  The casting out of the demons occurs near the city of Gerasa (that is what Luke means when he says “the country of the Gerasenes”).  Gerasa was one of ten cities that made up the decapolis which formed an outpost of Hellenic culture near Samaria and Galilee.  It is no surprise then that the man so troubled by the demons refers to himself as “legion.”  A Roman legion was made up of 6,000 soldiers.  It is also not surprising that the demons found their way into a herd of swine.  Roman might was often symbolized by a very fecund sow who gave birth to thirty piglets, and by the wild boar.  Jesus’ command that the man not cling to him but return to his own and tell them of all the Christ did for him is a missionary strategy.  The good news of Christ goes out to the Hellenistic world that is replete with legions of demons who need to be exorcised.

Celebration of Worship

As you prepare your hearts and minds for worship consider the radical nature of the gospel of Christ.  It goes out to Jew and gentile alike, freeing them from life denying demons.  It allows us to fellowship those that others feel are untouchable and perverse.  It gives us the courage to stand up to oppressive powers and to find the reserves to remain prophetic even in tough times.

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Echoes of Every Footfall

Dear Friends,

I feel I am walking toward a door in a dark and empty room and I can hear the echoes of every footfall.  For fifteen years I have served various congregations in the fellowship of the Churches of Christ as minister.  Presently I pastor the West Islip Church of Christ, a wonderful group of committed Christians with a significant history in our branch of the Christian tree.  Today I announce my departure from that cherished vocation.  I am giving up a calling, a way of life, and in my present circumstance a generous salary complete with a parsonage in a lovely neighborhood nestled on the shore of the Great South Bay.  Needless to say, I am short of breath.

Church is part of me.  I thought I would serve the church forever by answering the call to ministry.  My parents made sure that my earliest and most frequent memories were of time spent with our church family: singing hymns, reading scripture, fervently praying, and breaking bread.  I lived away from my extended family, but that did not matter.  I had the church, and that meant that I had aunts and uncles, cousins, and grandparents aplenty.  I never went without love.  I always knew I belonged.  I was safe there.

When I was eleven my church asked me to participate in a program called “Children’s Worship Training.”  A tiny chapel with shortened pews was set up in the church basement.  I led worship there for energetic toddlers and runny nosed kindergarteners.  I thrived.

When I was 13 I delivered my first sermon to an adult audience.  I had scribbled it out on clean lined notebook paper the Saturday before it was to be preached.  By the time I reached church the next day my nervous hands had reduced the paper to a wrinkled mess.

By the end of my 16th year I was on my way to Harding University, a private Christian school, to earn my academic stripes in their department of Bible and Religion.  Before my 18th birthday I was on staff at the Downtown Church of Christ in Searcy AK serving as the Associate Youth Minister.  Prior to graduating with my B.A. I delivered a departing chapel message to the entire student body.  I received two commendation letters from faculty, one of which read, “This is the finest chapel message we have received in a long, long time.”  I felt the blessing of God on a promising career.

Later I attended New Brunswick Theological Seminary and earned my Masters of Divinity degree (the typical degree that precedes ordination in most denominations).  In each of the final two years of my program I was selected for The Reverend Edward Lodewick Prize for excellence in preaching.  I had come a long way from nervous hands and wrinkled notebook paper.  All my experiences seemed to point to one thing: I was meant to preach and minister. Yet here I am, staring down over the precipice of the mountain that is my entire life, not knowing what lies below, and with a willingness to jump.

You don’t make so radical a change without reasons.  There are reasons.

As you are well aware Shannon and I are very close to our extended family, and our parents have experienced various health concerns of late.  As they grow older we feel a responsibility to be at their side aiding them.  The Lugdon Lodge family business is a demanding one, and Shannon’s vacations are full with the duties of lodge.  She feels guilt that she cannot do more for those she loves.  Shannon’s plans are to help her parents in their business.  She has education and career goals she will pursue.  In addition I have an opportunity to work alongside my sister in some new pursuits she is involved in (I have a super cool sister, so that is easy to get behind).  I hope to do more writing, to embrace a simpler lifestyle, and to work some with my hands.  Manny is transitioning at the end of this school year from Elementary school to Jr. High.  If we were going to make a move, this was a window of opportunity.

In addition to the reasons just described there is a counter narrative to the story of my early church life, and how it set me on a direction.

My home of origin was rich in many things, but lucre was not one of them.  We were a family of meager means, and so we lived a different life.  My father was a high school graduate, my mother was a dropout (she later, through much perseverance, completed her G.E.D).  My father taught me to work with my hands and to love the outdoors.  We ate government food and cashed social security disability checks.  We went fishing and hunting (not for leisure but for meat).  We grew our own food.  My mother canned and made jams, and pickles, and homemade relish.  When we could afford them we drove cars no one else wanted, often we walked.  We lived in a house that had long passed its hundredth birthday, and that would have been an embarrassment to anyone, save for my mother’s careful cleaning and my mother and father’s ingenuity in covering over unseemly things.  This is who I was, and in many ways still am.  So at times I feel a square peg in a round hole walking the halls of academia, holding counsel in my office with towering oak book shelves, and taking my evening runs on the canal streets with houses that stretch up to the sky in opulence, boasting strong collonades, decorative cornices, and large palladian windows.  It is so different here.  I confess there are occasions that I don’t know which way to stand, or how to speak, or how to raise my children in such an alien landscape.

My upbringing was rural, not suburban.  I was happily provincial.  The pace was slow.  The competitive culture found in more populated areas was virtually nonexistent.  I trusted people, and they trusted me.  I am nostalgic for that place now.  I long for it like a life-long sailor yearns for the heave of a ship beneath him after a long furlough deep in the mainland.  I feel a strong need to go back home and remember and reunite with the things that made me Jesse.  I have heard that people change careers.  I know I am not alone.  I have heard that some people return to their roots.  So this is my attempt to do just that.

What I am saying is that for many years I have lived with a foot in two worlds.  My life felt lost in interstitial space.  I do not regret my experiences at all.  I am overjoyed for them.  But I did feel a sense of loss when at the end of the day my body did not smell of sawdust and sweat, and ache from manual labor, and I was unable to walk through a dense stand of pines far from highways and byways.  I feel I have traveled far and wide, and that now I desire home.  No matter where I have lived, I have always thought of Maine as “home.”

I also feel a need to recharge.  Life has a long middle.  I am presently in the thick of it, and I confess that my ministry has suffered.  I grew tired of the many requests of the ministry and my grace with others was waning.  I was hesitant to start new initiatives, and I felt a lack of creative imagination.  The church of God deserves our best, and at times I could have done more and because of that my conscience was violated.  I am encouraged at the thought of new leadership and new ideas and new energy.  I hope they can bless the fellowship that meets at West Islip in every way the Spirit can imagine.

My resignation comes on the cusp of the West Islip Church of Christ’s fiftieth anniversary.  I feel badly about the timing.  It was important to me that the event be used as a time to generate excitement about new arrivals, and different directions.  I am fully committed to the celebration, and can’t wait to see and embrace our many honored visitors.

For those who have interest the itinerary for my family looks like this: Shannon and the kids will leave after the fiftieth anniversary and will return again for Vacation Bible School.  Shannon will then move to Maine and the kids will begin school in Fort Kent.  I will stay through September and move after the congregational retreat.  Life will be different for us there.  We humbly request your prayers.  Thank you for partnering with us in the journey of life.  Thank you for your friendship.

Sincerely,

JP

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Weekly Introduction to the Readings of the Revised Common Lectionary (Proper 5C / Ordinary 10C)

1 Kings 17:8-16 (17-24)
Prior to our Hebrew Bible reading Elijah proclaimed a drought brought on by God because of the sins of Ahab and Jezebel and the Israelites who followed them.   The drought as a punishment and prophetic sign was significant because Ahab and Jezebel championed and worshipped “Baal” who was the god of rain and fertility.  In bringing on the drought YHWH, the God of the Israelites, and Elijah his prophet showed their superiority to Baal and the prophets of Baal.

Because of the drought food is scarce and Elijah is unable to find the sustenance he needs to survive.  God instructs Elijah to travel to Zarephath in Sidon and be fed by a widow.  These are unusual instructions since Zeraphath was in the heartland of Baal worship.  Nevertheless Elijah obeys.  Elijah finds the widow in terrible straights.  Her own food supplies are dangerously low (she only has a handful of meal in a jar and a little oil in a jug and is about ready to prepare her last meal).  To make matters worse her son is deathly ill.  Elijah asks her to have faith that God can provide, and instructs her to first make him a cake from her provisions and only then to make something for herself and her son.  Elijah promises the widow that until the rain comes her jar of meal would not run empty nor her jug of oil.

During Elijah’s stay the widow’s son takes a turn for the worse.  This causes the widow to question the blessings brought on by Elijah’s presence.  She wonders if by allowing Elijah to lodge in her home she has brought about the death of her child.  Elijah assures her that this is not the case by reviving her son who was “without breath.”  In response the widow offers a statement of faith, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.”

Psalm 30

Psalm 30 provides an appropriate response to our Hebrew Bible Leciton.  It is a psalm of thanksgiving, praising God for deliverance from a bad circumstance–“His anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime.”  The condition that the psalmist was delivered from was very dire, similar in seriousness to the condition that plagued the widow’s son, “O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.”  The response to the healing of God is praise.  The psalmist openly confesses that it is easy to praise God in good times, and it is a difficult thing to feel God’s absence and still remain filled with praise.  However, when God answers our cries for help during the hard circumstances of life it brings forth a deep and resounding praise.

Galatians 1:11-24
In our epistle reading Paul instructs the Galatians as to the origin of the gospel he proclaimed to them.  Paul assures his readers that his gospel was not of his own making, nor did it come from another human.  Rather, the gospel that Paul preached came directly from God in the person of Jesus Christ. In particular Paul takes pains to separate himself from Jerusalem’s influence.  Paul is not acting as an envoy for any political body within the newly formed church.  He is not out there risking his life to please an agenda comprised of earthly opinions.
Luke 7:11-17
Jesus is in Nain.  This location is very near where Elijah healed the son of the widow of Zeraphath.  Here Jesus raises the dead son of a widow of Nain.  The parallels are fully intended.  Even some of the wording in Greek found in the gospel of Luke is identical to the wording used in the Septuagint translation of 1 Kings 17.  The story links Jesus with the prophetic ministry of Elijah.  Many expected that in the last days a prophet like Elijah would come to the people.  Jesus fulfills this expectation by doing the same miracle in the same location.  Just as the widow of Zerpaphath identified Elijah as a prophet of God by the miracle he worked, so Jesus is also identified as God’s prophet in Nain.

Celebration of Worship: As you prepare your hearts and minds for worship consider the ability of God to bring to life things that seem lifeless.  There is perhaps no greater fingerprint of God on the cosmos then God’s ability to resurrect that which is dead and gone.  Both the widow of Zeraphath and the widow of Nain agree.

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