Thursday, February 24, 2011

Lectionary Ruminations for Sunday, February 27, 2011, the Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A)

Posted each Thursday, Lectionary Ruminations focuses on the Scripture Readings, taken from the New Revised Standard Version, for the following Sunday per the Revised Common Lectionary. Comments and questions are intended to encourage reflection for readers preparing to teach, preach, or hear the Word. Reader comments are invited and encouraged. All lectionary links are to the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible via the PC(USA) Devotions and Readings website, but if you prefer another translation, feel free to use that instead. (Other references are linked to the NRSV via the oremus Bible Browser.) Lectionary Ruminations is also cross posted on my personal blog, Summit to Shore.

Isaiah 49:8-16a
v. 8 “Thus says the Lord” certainly leaves no doubt about whom Isaiah claims is speaking here. What is the “time of favor” and “day of salvation” being referred to? What does it mean that God has “kept” us and “given” us as a covenant to the people?

v. 9 What prisoners are being referred to? Are “the prisoners” the same as “those who are in darkness”? How can bare heights be anyone’s or anything’s pasture if it is bare?

v. 10 Is this a reference to only physical hunger and thirst? Who is the one having pity? How can springs of water serve as a guide?

v. 11 This is not mountain top removal mining being referred to here. Might this same thought be expressed by a phrase such as “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.” (See Isaiah 40:3-4)

v. 12 Why might the north and south be mentioned, but not the poetic parallel east and west? Is there anything special about the land of Syene?

v. 13 How do the heavens sing and how does the earth exult? How do mountains sing? Why would the heavens and mountains sing and the earth exult because the LORD has (note the tense) comforted the LORD’s people and will have (note the tense) compassion on the Lord’sSuffering ones?

v. 14 Have you ever felt like Zion?

v. 15This is one of my favorite passages in Isaiah, alluded to by A Brief Statement of Faith line 49. What does it mean that God cannot forget us?

v. 16 So God has my name tattooed in the palms of God’s holy hands? How special!

Psalm 131
I think this might be the shortest psalm in the Psalter!

v. 1 The first two lines sound to me like a lament, but the third and fourth lines sounds more like confessions of a follow of Scottish Common Sense Philosophy.

v.2 In light of Isaiah 49:15, I cannot but help envision myself as a nursing child at the breast of a maternal God.

v. 3 What does it mean to “hope in the Lord”? (See Psalm 130:7)

1 Corinthians 4:1-5
v. 1 Who is the “us”? What does it mean to be “stewards of God’s mysteries”? What are “God’s mysteries”?

v. 2 What does it mean to “be found trustworthy?”

v. 3 Who is judging and who is being judged and for what?

v. 4 In other words, we have all committed sins we are not even aware of committing?

v. 5 So if we expect the Lord to be our judge, we should refrain from judging one another until Jesus returns and then truly allow him to be our judge? For PC(USA) Presbyterians, what does this say about the Rules of Discipline in the Book of Order?

Matthew 6:24-34
v. 24 What does this verse tell us about any Pastor trying to serve yoked churches? Oh, this is not about churches but God and wealth. Most of the wee-kirks I have served have not had much wealth, nevertheless, I think it is just as easy to worship the wealth they do not have as much as the wealth they might have.

v. 25 According to the rules of logic and rhetoric, how does “Therefore” follow from the verse preceding it? Who is speaking here? I am sorry Jesus, but in this post recessionary period of high unemployment, it is very difficult not to worry just a little. Yes, life is more than and clothing, but according to Maslow, until theses basic needs are met, it is difficult to focus on needs further up the hierarchy.

v.26 Yes, I think that to God I am more valuable than a bird, but as a teenager I also read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Quoting from THE SPARROW “Not a sparrow falls to the ground without your heavenly father’s knowledge; but the sparrow still falls.” (See Luke 10:29-30)

v. 27 Most Medical Doctors and Psychologists would probably argue that we actually subtract hours from our life by excessive worrying.

v. 28 But I and the people I am responsible for are not lilies.

v. 29 True, lilies in the field appear more glorious than Solomon or any fashion model, but Solomon could afford a great wardrobe and fashion models can afford Botox, cosmetic surgery, personal trainers, and to afford a wardrobe most of us could never hope to afford.

v. 30 I am glad St. Patrick’s Day is not too far away, because it sounds like I am going to be wearing green.

v. 33 If I strive first for the kingdom of God, can I still strive second for these other things?

v.34 Perhaps the Lord’s Prayer “give us this day our daily bread” and the story about daily manna can be instructive here. Frankly, today’s troubles are more than enough for today. I would like to put off some of them until tomorrow so that I do not have to worry about them until tomorrow.

I have specifically invited the congregation I serve at North Church Queens to read these ruminations before worship, as they may form the bulk of my Sermon, entitled “Lectionary Ruminations”. I will copy these ruminations and distribute them to worshipers before worship.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Grounded Scriptures: Waiting for due season

Strawberries are coming into season. At least in the warmer parts of California. As of this week, they are showing up at my farmer’s market, which is enough for me to say FAIR GAME! Of course I write this here with great trepidation, because my kind readers, being from all over the country, may hurl spite and jealousy in my general direction. But just think of what you can look forward to.
Strawberries from the grocery store just don’t do it for me. The white and mealy insides, the lack of juicyness, their ridiculous size – they smack of unnaturalness. The worst are the strawberries you buy in November. They’ve been flown from Chile or somewhere, and aborted prematurely off their vine so they can survive the flight before ripening (and rotting). But a local, fresh strawberry is something else entirely. Red all the way through, ripened thoroughly on the vine, intoxicating in their sweetness, and so delicate they will bruise in a minute, if you don’t eat them – nevermind flying them to another country. They are truly worth waiting for.

The Bible verse that most immediately comes to mind is Ps 104:27. “[all creatures] look to you to give them their food in due season; you open wide your hand and satisfy the needs of every living creature.”
The proper course of things, the rightness of seasonal changes, the appropriate time to receive and to eat – the goodness of waiting!

But a more ominous verse comes to mind as well. This is from the wilderness wanderings, Numbers 11:4-6: “The rabble among them had a strong craving; and the Israelites also wept again, and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”’
The truth is, we can get our cucumbers and melons any season of the year, but we get it at a price. We can have raspberries on our Christmas desserts, flown on little petrochemical wings from faraway lands, to save us from the boring manna diet of what CAN be grown (or stored) locally in the winter. We get it at a price: pollution across our skies, insecurity for our own local farmers, and mealy white strawberries.
The Israelites got access to their wonderful, Nile-irrigated vegetables while they were in Egypt, and got it at a price: their freedom. It is useless to pretend we do not also give up our freedom when we allow Dole and other multinational corporations to feed us, hook us in, teach us the attitude of entitlement that keeps the dollars flowing and the strawberries flying.

Barbara Kingsolver writes in vivid terms about our lack of (gastronomic) patience, which may be said to have negative effects on other realms of society. Patience and restraint, great virtues, are only applied selectively in our culture: “…browbeating our teenagers with the message that they should wait for sex, for example. Only if they wait to experience intercourse under the ideal circumstances (the story goes), will they know its true value. “Blah, blah, blah,” hears the teenager: words issuing from a mouth that can’t even wait for the right time to eat tomatoes, but instead consumes tasteless ones all winter to satisfy a craving for everything now. We’re raising our children on the definition of promiscuity if we feed them a casual, indiscriminate mingling of foods from every season plucked from the supermarket, ignoring how our sustenance is cheapened by wholesale desires.” (Barbara Kingsolver, “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.” page 31).

Dare to cut loose and be free. Cut loose from Pharaoh’s addictive provisions of food-with-a-price, and wait for the Real Deal. I promise (though I have perhaps not waited as long as you in colder climes will) that the strawberries will taste way better.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Presidents' Day

A couple of years ago, after a national election, the Sunday morning pastoral prayer at my church included mention of our newly elected national and local leaders. One young member stood up immediately, walked out of the sanctuary, and confronted the pastor afterward: asking how he could violate church and state by praying for the President. 

I think perhaps this individual missed the point. As Christians, isn't it our duty to pray for our communities and our leaders?  Isn't prayer part of discernment about the paths we choose to take?  Personally, I am uncomfortable with the idea of churches controlling governments (directly or indirectly) but am quite comfortable with churches lobbying for funding addressing issues they find important (e.g. poverty, hunger, AIDS, etc.)

It's one thing for a church to tell parishioners how to vote.  It's quite another to pray for our country and its leaders.

A few thoughts about Church and State:
U.S. Constitution .net (Jefferson's Wall of Separation Letter and the The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment)
And, of course, there's always Wikipedia (Separation of church and state and Separation of church and state in the United States)

Friday, February 18, 2011

Go Fish!: The Heart of the Matter

Missional author Reggie McNeal talks a lot about the need for churches to have an external focus, rather than an internal one. We as church folks need to turn our focus out into the communities around us.

The best reason we need to shift our focus: God cares about the people who live around us. What's on their hearts is on God's heart. And so it should be in ours.

Do you know what's on the hearts of your neighbors? Truly on their hearts. Are they worried about how to support their families? Stressed by caring for older parents? Struggling in relationships with loved ones? Passionate about education?

And this is key: are you guessing, or do you really know? Have you asked them?

You could ask your congregation what they think is on the hearts of their neighbors, but resist that temptation. Your results may come back skewed. We're on the inside looking out, our neighbors are on the outside looking in (if they're even looking inside of where we are in the church). We in the church need an outsider's opinion.

There are a number of ways to seek that opinion. Here's a few suggestions:
  • Meet with the police chief, or some police officers in your community; what do they see as the main needs of the people they serve? What do they as officers care about? Is there any support the church could offer them?
  • Sit down with some of the executive directors of your community's social service agencies and non-profits. What do they see happening in the lives of "the least of these"? Where could church members make the most difference?
  • Talk to the principals of your local schools. What do kids and youth need most in your community? What's on the principals' wish lists for materials or services?
  • Start frequenting your local shops and restaurants; get to know owners and workers and ask them what they've noticed in the community.
You could probably come up with more ideas. These information-gathering techniques needn't be formal or organized. Making it a priority to talk with people, asking them what's important to them, and then really listening to them, that's all that's needed. In fact, don't even get into problem solving mode with them; save that for another time.

Ask God to give you new eyes to see what he sees, and new ears to hear what he hears. Most of all, ask God to give you a new heart that opens wide to include the people who are on God's heart.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Lectionary Ruminations for Sunday, February 20, 2011, the Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A)

Posted each Thursday, Lectionary Ruminations focuses on the Scripture Readings, taken from the New Revised Standard Version, for the following Sunday per the Revised Common Lectionary. Comments and questions are intended to encourage reflection for readers preparing to teach, preach, or hear the Word. Reader comments are invited and encouraged. All lectionary links are to the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible via the PC(USA) Devotions and Readings website, but if you prefer another translation, feel free to use that instead. (Other references are linked to the NRSV via the oremus Bible Browser.) Lectionary Ruminations is also cross posted on my personal blog, Summit to Shore.

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
v. 2 Why should the people of Israel (and us by extension) be holy?

vs. 9-10 What do you know about gleaning? In addition to this being a form of social welfare, it probably also is good ecology.

vs. 11-12 So, contrary to last week’s Gospel Reading, it is ok to swear by the name of God as long as one swears truthfully?

v. 13 Let’s put these word on display on Wall Street and in the lobby of America’s mortgage lenders.

v. 14 Praise God for the ADA. I sometimes wonder what was going through the minds of people who designed and built church buildings before ADA. I fear we are now paying the price for their lackof awareness and foresight.

v. 15 As the economic disparity in America approaches levels that have not been seen since just before the Great Depression, this verse becomes ever more poignant.

v. 16 Good for kin and neighbor, but what about the stranger?

v. 18 The first part of his verse points toward the Gospel reading. The second part of this verse informs Jesus’ answer to the questions “Which is the greatest commandment?”

vs. 8, 10, 12, 14, 15, 17 Is the repetition of “I am the LORD” merely a literary device or does it suggest that these verse may have been used liturgically in a responsive fashion? Might the repetition of “I am the LORD” also serve a theological function?

Psalm 119:33-40
Do not forget that this is the second week in a row the Psalm has been an excerpt from Psalm 119, an acrostic.

v. 33 How does the LORD teach? Note that “way” is singular.

v. 34 Does understanding precede the keep of God’s law?

v. 35 Note that “path”, as “”way” in verse 33, is singular.

vs. 36-37 What is God’s responsibility and what is our responsibility for turning the heart?

v. 38 What is the “promise”? What does it mean to “fear”God?

v. 39 What disgrace does the Psalmist dread?

v. 40 Hey, God. Look at me. Look at me? I might not have kept all your decrees, but I wanted to. Give me life just for trying.

1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
v. 10 If Paul laid the foundation, who is now building on that foundation? How many ways are there to build on an already established foundation?

v. 16 What is the foundation of “God’s Temple”?

v. 17 Is Paul talking about self-destruction, or destroying the temple of another?

v. 18 Paul again writes about being “wise” and becoming “fools”. But become fools in order to become wise? What is Paul doing with these word games and twists of logic?

v. 19 And where is this so written? Perhaps Job 5:13? If so, I find it ironic that Job is traditionally classified as “Wisdom Literature”.

v. 20 Again, perhaps Psalm 94:11?

v. 21 All things are yours? What is Paul talking about?

v. 22 So, in the end, all things are God’s?

Matthew 5:38-48
v. 38 And how many times have we not only heard this said, but cited out of context?

v. 39 It sounds as though Jesus is asserting his own authority over the law. What do you know about “turning cheeks”?

v. 40 Did Jesus live in a litigious society?

v. 41 Why would someone force you to go a mile?

v. 42 Give? How much? Loan? With our without interest?

v. 43 I have not heard this one very often, if at all.

v. 44 I actually find it easier to pray for those who persecute me than to love my enemies.

v. 45 True.

v. 46 Does Jesus mean to suggest that the only reason to love is to be rewarded?

v. 48 Is human perfection really a reachable goal?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Monday Blog Club - Valentine's Day!

  1. PCMK Interim Blog: light for the journey. The Presbyterian Church of Mount Kisco in ministry with Interim Pastor Jack Lohr. Recent posts include View from Session and Doing Demographics in addition to notes about upcoming programming, e.g. the Lenten "Supper and Study."
  2. Peaceworks: Thoughts about what it means to pursue a life that includes faith, justice, peace, coherence, integrity, and sustainability. Recent posts include The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Speaks to Egyptian Protesters, This Is My Commandment (love one another), and Do You Know Who You Are? (a short, funny anecdote about humility).
  3. Prayers4Today: Welcome to prayers4today, a place of silence, prayer, and solitude. These prayers may be used in worship settings or newsletters, with attribution please. Recent prayers (poems!) follow Matthew 4 and 5, including wordswordswords, halite, and baditudes.

This week in our adult Sunday School class we talked about how much pressure we (as individuals in our society) tend to place on VALENTINE'S DAY and how putting so much emphasis on one day sets us up for disappointment and our loved ones up for failure. We set forth this week in a spirit of loving compassion, dedicated to sharing patience and kindness with those closest to us (the same ones who frequently bear the brunt of our short tempers and outside frustrations).

Happy Valentine's Day to you and yours, and a special thank you to all of our bloggers!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Lectionary Ruminations for Sunday, February 13, 2011, the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A)

Posted each Thursday, Lectionary Ruminations focuses on the Scripture Readings, taken from the New Revised Standard Version, for the following Sunday per the Revised Common Lectionary. Comments and questions are intended to encourage reflection for readers preparing to teach, preach, or hear the Word. Reader comments are invited and encouraged. All lectionary links are to the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible via the PC(USA) Devotions and Readings website, but if you prefer another translation, feel free to use that instead. (Other references are linked to the NRSV via the oremus Bible Browser.) Lectionary Ruminations is also cross posted on my personal blog, Summit to Shore.

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
v. 15 Life is paired with prosperity. Death is paired with adversity. How much is this a linguistic construction and how much is it a theological construction?

v. 16 Is this, by any chance, one of the longer passages in the Hebrew Scriptures? Are commandments, decrees, and ordinances synonyms used for emphasis or does each term refer to something different?

v. 17 Is the “not hearing” an allusion to the Deuteronomy 6:4?

v. 18 I find it interesting that while death will come quickly, the people will still enter and possess the land.

v. 19 Who can dispute with witnesses like heaven and earth? In verse 15, the pairing was life/prosperity and death/adversity. Now it is life/blessings and death curses. In verse 15 the scheme was A and A’, B and B’. Here, it is A and B, A’ and B’.

v. 20 Can we remain faithful to the text while adding Sarah, Leah, Rachel, Zilpah, Bilhah, and Rachel?

Psalm 119:1-8
v.1 The First Reading establishes the choice. The Psalm outlines the rewards or affects of the better choice.

vs 1-8 Note the synonyms: (1) law, (2) decrees, (3) ways, (4) precepts, (5) statutes, (6) commandments, (7) ordinances, and (8) statutes (again). What can teachers and preachers learn from the Psalmist’s literary creativity in addition to the Psalmist’s theology? And I have not even mentioned that this Psalm is an alphabetical acrostic. Ah, but can dudes even feign great hyperbole? I judge keeping lovely muses nasty. Oh, please, quit reading sarcastic tomes. Unveil virtuous workers. Xanex yields zero.

1 Corinthians 3:1-9
v. 1 Picking up where we left off last week . . . are you a spiritual person or are you an infant in Christ? What about most of the people in the Christian community in which you find yourself?

v. 2 As a preacher or teacher, do you serve milk, a Gerber’s Gospel, or a meat and potatoes Gospel?

v. 3 How much jealousy and quarreling exist in your congregation?

v. 4 To whom do you belong? Who are the Paul and the Apollos in the communities we know?

v. 5 Not that Paul, in this verse, sets himself on equal footing with Apollos.

v. 6 Are you a planter or a waterer?

vs. 6-7 God may give the growth, but who is the reaper?

v. 8 What wages are appropriate?

v. 9 Note the “we/you” language. Where do you fall in this dichotomy?

Matthew 5:21-37
v. 21 “It was said to those of ancient times” sounds like something in the past that has no or little influence in the present.

v. 22 Judgment, the council, the hell of fire. This sounds like increasing levels of punishment.

vs. 23-26 I think I might skip over these verses during the stewardship drive.

v. 27 This is beginning to sound formulaic (see v. 21).

n. 28 No comment. Instead, I refer you to former President Jimmy Carter.

v. 29-30 If we do not take this literally, then what is the meaning of the figurative language?

v. 31-32 Note the slight change in the formulaic introduction. Why do conservatives, evangelicals, and literalists tend to overlook this passage when it comes to G-6.0106b?

v. 33 More formulaic introduction.

vs. 34-37 How do we interpret this verse when we are required to take a civil oath, as in an oath of office or court of law.


Tomorrow, February 11, 2011, marks the one-year anniversary of my contributing Lectionary Ruminations to Presbyterian Bloggers. Two previous contributors authored this blog column before I volunteered to pick up the reigns after they had laid them down. I find it hard to believe that a full year has passed since then. A year of Lectionary Ruminations translates into fifty-two blog posts, or ruminations on 204 passages of Scripture. More recently, I have been cross posting Lectionary Ruminations on my personal blog, Summit to Shore. Summit to Shore is a rather eclectic blog through which I offer Theological and philosophical reflections on everything between summit to shore, including kayaking, climbing, religion, philosophy, theology, politics, culture, travel, The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), New York City and the Queens neighborhood of Ridgewood by a progressive New York City Presbyterian Pastor.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Grounded Scriptures: created in God's image

There's something difficult in the word "dominion" which the humans are commanded to exercise in most translations of the Bible: "have dominion over the fish and the birds and the animals." It should be translated somewhere on the fine line between "stewardship" and "domination," because its meaning is about midway between, but the problem is that the word resembles one much more than the other. So I take Ellen Davis' recommendation to call it "skilled mastery" (from her full article which you can download right here) which indicates that our rule is not arbitrary or forceful. In order to take good care of it, we must have knowledge and respect for it.
Also, the "be fruitful and multiply" is mostly quoted with reference to humans, but the fish & birds & all are also commanded to be fruitful and multiply. Let us not forget our kinship.

A reading modified from Gen 1:26-28

God said, “let us create humankind in our image, according to our likeness, and let them exercise skill and mastery over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
So God created humankind, Adam, (earthling), in God’s image.
In the image of God,
God created him,
Male and female,
God created them.
In much the same way God had already blessed the animals, God now blessed humankind, and God said, “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it, and exercise skilled mastery over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

Great God, you have created us in your image,
and imprinted upon us your attributes.
You have created us to be creators,
you have created us to be creative.
Deep in our souls is imprinted
your limitless vision of this world’s fertility and abundance;
sharp on our hearts is your call
to exercise good stewardship and loving care over what is entrusted to us.
We feel the true goodness of the world you have created
And the particular goodness of our little corner of the world.
We are standing on holy ground; ought we to have removed our shoes?
Great God,
Into your servants breathe the inspiration of your holy spirit,
Scrub away whatever is covering your image hidden inside.
Allow us to pray and to think and to speak from that place of creativity, of wisdom, of love and tender care.
Be in our work, and in our play. Be love in our hearts today.
In the strong name of Jesus Christ we pray, Amen.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Monday Blog Club

Welcome to a new meeting of the Monday Blog Club! Today's three blog highlights are:

  1. Occasional Sightings of the Gospel by Thom M. Shuman with "quirky, sometimes irreverent, hopefully relevant reflections on where God is working in the world and in our lives. has published "The Jesse Tree" (Advent devotions) and has published "Cradled in God's Grace", liturgies for Year A in the Revised Common Lectionary. I post liturgies @ & prayers @"
  2. Onesimus Online: history, theology, culture, the church, and other dangerous stuff by Joseph Black. "I'm presently a lecturer at Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology (part of Africa International University), and a member of the Theological Studies Department, of which I am the Acting Head of Department. I've studied history at Duke University, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and the University of Cambridge. But for some reason the powers that be have me teaching theology. Go figure. My spiritual journey has taken me from the American dream to Presbyterianism to Charismatic Presbyterianism to really Reformed Presbyterianism to irenic Evangelicalism to the edge of the abyss. I am now a member of the Alexandrian Orthodox cathedral Church of Sts Cosmas and Damien in Nairobi, Kenya."
  3. Pastor James: Thoughts on faith, musings on Scripture, plus audios and videos of sermons from Boulevard Presbyterian in Grandview Heights, an older suburb just a couple miles from downtown Columbus, OH. Add your two cents to the mix. By James Sledge, "the pastor of Boulevard Presbyterian in the Grandview Heights suburb of Columbus, Ohio. Before going to seminary in my mid-thirties, I was a corporate pilot."

We are indeed an interesting, varied bunch. Have a wonderful (and warm) week!

Friday, February 04, 2011

Chimps and Humans

What is it that makes us human? If you ask people that question, often their answer describes ways they believe we are different than animals. We have language, we use tools, we have culture, we transmit knowledge from one person to another, we are self aware, we have souls. Until fairly recently scientists would have given similar responses to that question as would theologians.

Every now and again one runs across something that makes one wonder about the differences between humans and other animals. Consider this report in Science Daily about the actions of a group of chimpanzees toward a dying member of their group.

In the days leading up to the chimp's death, the group was very quiet and paid close attention to her, the researchers report. Immediately before she died, she received much grooming and caressing from the others, who appeared to test her for signs of life as she died. They left her soon after, but her adult daughter returned and remained by her mother all night. When keepers removed the mother's body the next day, the chimpanzees remained calm and subdued. For several days they avoided sleeping on the platform where the female had died, even though it was normally a favored sleeping spot, and remained subdued for some time after the death.

This week Science Daily published another story describing observations about the actions of mother chimpanzees after the deaths of their infants. While many animals recognize that a dead animal is different than an alive animal, the reactions described in these two articles describes something more. They describe the recognition of the death of a particular individual and what appears to be a sense of loss or mourning.

James Anderson, one of the researchers whose work is described in the article has this to say about his observations.

"Several phenomena have at one time or another been considered as setting humans apart from other species: reasoning ability, language ability, tool use, cultural variation, and self-awareness, for example, but science has provided strong evidence that the boundaries between us and other species are nowhere near to being as clearly defined as many people used to think,"..."The awareness of death is another such psychological phenomenon. The findings we've described, along with other observations of how chimpanzees respond to dead and dying companions, indicate that their awareness of death is probably more highly developed than is often suggested. It may be related to their sense of self-awareness, shown through phenomena such as self-recognition and empathy towards others."

The previously sharp distinctions between other animals and humans are blurring as we learn more about other animals.
The knowledge we have gained about the complexity of animals' lives is fascinating and gives us much to think about as we ponder who we are as human beings and what our relationship with other animals ought to be.
What makes us human?
What I want to suggest today, is that what makes us human is not our biological uniqueness. What makes humans distinct from other animals is our particular vocation, our calling to care for other animals and God's creation. As Christians we are called to love God and to love our neighbor. Who is our neighbor? The answer to that question may cross species lines.
There is, of course, much more to be said about all this- too much for one blog posting. But lets talk about it via the comments.

This is an area that is of interest to me. I have written several posts about these ideas on my blog, if you would like to read more.

And an apology: For some reason, the block quote tool and I have "issues" and the formatting after the block quotes doesn't return to normal. I was able to make a distinction in font and font size that I hope makes it clear where the block quotes begin and end and my comments begin.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Lectionary Ruminations for Sunday, February 6, 2011, the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A)

Posted each Thursday, Lectionary Ruminations focuses on the Scripture Readings, taken from the New Revised Standard Version, for the following Sunday per the Revised Common Lectionary. Comments and questions are intended to encourage reflection for readers preparing to teach, preach, or hear the Word. Reader comments are invited and encouraged. All lectionary links are to the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible via the PC(USA) Devotions and Readings website, but if you prefer another translation, feel free to use that instead. (Other references are linked to the NRSV via the oremus Bible Browser.)  I also cross post Lectionary Ruminations on my personal blog, Summit to Shore.

Isaiah 58:1-9a (9b-12)
v. 1 Last week, we shouted out to the mountains. This week we are shouting out to people. This is not the sort of shout out people want to hear, however.

v. 2 I think the two most important words in this verse are “as if”. I think I detect some sarcasm on God’s part. What place might sarcasm have in teaching and preaching?

v. 3 Note a shift in perspective, and then a shift back again. How much do we serve our own interests rather than God’s interests on our Sabbath (Saturday or Sunday)?

v. 4 I can think of a few churches this verse would fit.

vs. 5-7 I am hearing echoes of last week’s “what does the Lord require?”

v. 8 What is a “rear guard”?

v. 9 Preconditions for the LORD hearing our prayer? What is “the pointing of the finger”?

vs. 10-11 These verses read likme a restatement of verses 5-8.

v. 12 How might this promise of restoration serve as a vision of church renewal, revitalization and transformation?

Psalm 112:1-9 (10)
v. 1 This verse reads like the antithesis of the Isaiah Reading.

v 2. the reward goes to the next generation.

v. 3 Can we read in this verse the seeds of a health and wealth gospel?

v. 4 I want to correlate the light of this verse with Isaiah 58:8 and 10

v. 5 I assume the lending in this verse is a lending without interest.

vs. 6-8 How many such righteous people do you know?

v. 9 Based on this verse, this Psalm, and the First reading, how might we define “righteousness”?

v. 10 If this were only true in this life.

1 Corinthians 2:1-12 (13-16)
v. 1 As an amateur philosopher who used to teach Introduction to Philosophy at the undergraduate level, I am getting tired of Paul bad mouthing “lofty words” and “wisdom”. On the other hand, I like that he employs “the mystery of God”. I think we need more mystery in our churches and in our lives. What do you think?

v. 3 What weakness, fear and trembling does Paul refer to?

v. 4 Can a person not teach or preach with plausible words of wisdom as well as a demonstration of Spirit and power?

v. 5 What about Anselm’s “faith seeking understanding”? Can our faith not rest on both human wisdom AND on the power of God?

v. 6-7 Now Paul changes his tune! If I did not know better, I might think he is referring to esoteric and perhaps even Gnostic teachings. I think I smell the beginnings of a conspiracy theory novel here: secret and hidden teachings of Paul recently discovered and revealed! Dan Brown, are you reading this?

v. 8 Absolutely. When was the last time any ruler of any age got it right? They Crucified Jesus. They condemned Socrates.

v. 9 And what is Paul quoting? Isaiah 64:4 perhaps? Do you think Paul was quoting from memory, or from a text before his eyes?

v. 10 Does God reveal through the Spirit today or did all revelation cease with the end of the New Testament era?

v. 11 Paul is starting to sound like a psychologist.

v. 12 Shall we compare and contrast the spirit of the world and the Spirit that is from God? It might not preach, but it might serve as a good Ph.D. thesis. What gifts does God bestow?

v. 13 This sounds like a little Orwellian doublespeak, sort of hard to defend against let alone interpret. Or maybe Paul is just being “spiritual” but not religious.

v. 14 Now here is a topic for a Sunday School Lesson, Discussion, or Sermon: “Spiritual Discernment”.

v. 15 I have spiritually discerned everything I write here, therefore I am not subject to your’s or anyone else’s scrutiny!

v. 16 Who has known the mind of the Lord? Christ, maybe? Since we have the mind of Christ, we know the mind of God. Stay tuned. Next week I will tell you what God has in mind!

Matthew 5:13-20
vs. 13-16 Have we heard these verse so many times, together and in tandem, that we cannot hear afresh? What more can be said about salt and light? Do these first century metaphors still speak to us today or do we to translate them into new metaphors?

v. 17-20 The usual formula is “the Law, the Prophets and the Writings”. What are the Writings not mentioned here? What does this and the following verses have to do with the verses that preceded it. Do you sense there is no thematic unity? What “law” or “commandments” might Jesus have had in mind? Only the Torah? All the Levitical laws?

v. 20 Do you think Jesus (and/or the early church) though the scribes and Pharisees were a little lacking when it came to righteousness. Speaking of righteousness, you might want to revisit the First Reading and the Psalm and bring them into conversation with Matthew 5:17-20.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Grounded Scriptures: the Dandelion Tree

It's hard to understand about 80% of the Bible if you don't live in an agricultural society, and do at least a little bit of growing things. And sometimes even the Bible makes it hard to understand what's going on.

Take Matthew 13:31-32: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the
air come and make nests in its branches.”

Right. Great story. The Kingdom (or the realm of God, as I like to say) is a thing that grows. When we tell it in Godly Play with the kids, we roll up a piece of cloth and hide it in our hands and unroll it - it's shaped like a tree. The kingdom is like something small becoming big.
uh-uh. We're missing a major part of the story, because, well, have you ever seen a mustard tree? GUESS WHAT - mustard is a weed. A shrub, maybe a bush at best. Mainly, a weed. It spreads ferociously. And when the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches, I'm slightly concerned given that earlier in the chapter, the story of the "sower and the seed" was told, and the birds' role in that was to eat the seeds on the path. Birds aren't necessarily great for your seed-sowing endeavors. So the story could be re-told....
The Realm of God is like a dandelion, which is a small seed when blowing on the wind - it is too small to catch, even, or to keep off your lawn - but when it grows it becomes a TREE, full of pigeons and crows and rats and squirrels.
(not as pleasant).

The thing with trees, is that trees and especially the "greatest" trees, the majestic cedars, were often compared to the house of Israel. It's not just about size, it's about your past as well. YHWH has a long history of planting and uprooting that house - that tree. Ezekiel prophesied that a cedar tree would be planted on mount Zion, and that all kinds of birds would come to roost in it. And now there's another plant, a lowly shrub, which will take its place and shelter its birds. Ezekiel said "all the trees of the forest will know that I the LORD bring down the tall tree and make the low tree grow tall. I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish." .... but he may not have imagined that the "low tree" and the "dry tree" wouldn't even be a tree, but a weed. If cedar trees are majestic institutions, mustard plants and dandelions are subversive movements. And Jesus has deliberately mixed these images, creating a mustard plant which does what cedar trees do.

What are we? As followers of the parable-telling Christ, are we planting cedar trees, pruning rosebushes, training topiaries in a good-looking, majestic church? Or are we tossing dandelion seed to the wind like playful children, spreading mustard seed in the dry and rocky ground where it can dig its tenacious roots in?

Here's the other beautifully disorienting thing. Mustard is an annual. It does NOT grow bigger and bigger as time goes on; it dies every year and grows again from the seed it has spread abroad. So if we and all the nations of the earth are to come like birds and roost in the shade of the mustard plant, we will not be guaranteed that there even IS a particular mustard plant in the same place it was last year. The Realm of God shifts and grows and changes. Notably UNLIKE cedar trees. Do we shift and grow and change?

The kingdom of God is like a dandelion tree. May it be so. Amen.