Thursday, December 24, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

"Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way." So begins Matthew's "Christmas story" which doesn't really tell of Jesus' birth at all. Instead it tells of Joseph learning that his betrothed is pregnant, and making plans to quietly divorce her so as not to cause her any public humiliation. Joseph acts as he does because he is "a righteous man."

Because he is a righteous man, a person who lives by God's laws and tries to do what is right, Joseph sets out to interfere with God's plans for salvation. Because he tries to play by the religious rules, Joseph finds himself an impediment to God. Fortunately Joseph pays attention to his dream where an angel of the Lord explains what is going on. Fortunately Joseph is willing to break the rules when doing so ends up helping God.

We know the Christmas story so well that it is hard for it to surprise us. Yet God's new thing arrives by most surprising means. It comes outside regular channels, even outside the rules. Jesus' birth will be known only to angels and outsiders, to country bumpkin shepherds and to Gentile foreigners. None of the local religious folks are invited. Perhaps God knows that they would be too offended by all the broken rules.

We need laws. We need religious rules and doctrines. But all these are only instruments. We do not serve them. We serve God, God who sends a Savior we might well have missed, if we didn't already know the story.

Joy to the world! The Lord is come. A blessed Christmas to all.

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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

In today's gospel, Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, gets his turn to prophesy. His tongue loosed after the naming of John, he utters what is sometimes called the Song of Zechariah, speaking of a Savior, of God's favor that rescues. And all this happens because God "has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham."

In a way, it all comes down to this. Sometimes, when the world seems to be going to pot, it is not so hard to imagine that God has forgotten us, that we are on our own, and whatever happens for good or ill is all up to us. But the biblical story insists that God does not forget. And it insists that God is faithful to God's promises.

I've always thought that the church gets carried away with Christmas, guided more by the culture's fascination with this holiday than by any real religious import. But there is a sense in which Christmas is a confirmation of God's memory, of God's faithfulness. And that certainly
is worth celebrating.

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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Juliet asks, "What's in a name?" in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Today's gospel reading is about a name. After the child who will become John the Baptist is born, those who attend his circumcision assume he will be given a family name. But his mother, Elizabeth, insists that he is to be named John. Zechariah, the boy's father, confirms this, writing it on a tablet. Struck mute by Gabriel for failing to believe the promise of a son, Zechariah's voice now returns as he fulfills Gabriel's command, "You will name him John."

Ancient people tended to think that names had meaning, significance, and power. John's name means "Yahweh has shown favor," and it marks John as one given by God. By following the angel Gabriel's command, Zechariah confirms that this child will be the one God sends him to be, one who will "turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God."

While we may agonize of what to name our children, I think many of us are a bit put off by the notion of naming a child in order to direct her future. We want our children to be able to become whatever they want, and the father who insists his son go into the family business is a stock bad guy in many a TV or movie script. We like to think of ourselves as free and autonomous, and so the naming of John the Baptist is not a practice we'd like to emulate.

Yet one of the basic tenets of Christian faith is that we belong to God, that we are the Lord's. My own Presbyterian tradition has long articulated a strong doctrine of vocation. The term refers not to an occupation but to a calling. We say that God has made or fitted us for certain things and not for others. And we seem to know this intuitively when we ask, "What am I supposed to do with my life?"

When Jesus is born, his name has already been given to Mary and Joseph by an angel. Jesus has a clear calling given him by God, and presumably his parents worked diligently to help Jesus grow into that calling.

When we are baptized, we receive a new name, that of Christian, child of God. In a sense, we share in Jesus' name. But I wonder how often we stop and think what that means, what's in that name.

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Monday, December 21, 2009

Sunday Sermon - "Visualizing God's Future"

Deacons' Christmas Baskets

Each year, the Deacons of our congregation organize a huge effort to provide food and gifts to needy families. This year, boxes filled with food and presents for children were assembled and delivered to 359 families. Thanks to all who helped with this.

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Today's gospel reading from Luke was also the reading for the fourth Sunday in Advent. It tells of Mary's visit to her cousin Elizabeth after the angel Gabriel has enlisted her to be the mother of Jesus. Luke's gospel begins in interesting fashion. The only ones who speak of the wondrous things God is doing are Gabriel and these two women (although I suppose we could say that John gets in a bit of pre-natal prophecy from the womb today). Zechariah, Elizabeth's husband, was struck mute for failing to believe Gabriel, and Joseph never gets to speak in Luke's gospel.

Luke's gospel is quite friendly to women. He will later tell of two sisters, Martha and Mary, who are visited by Jesus. Mary sits at Jesus' feet in the pose of a disciple. Women were not supposed to do such things, but when Martha objects that Mary is not helping her do the work expected of women, Jesus says that Mary has made the correct choice.

Today's reading explicitly states that Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit when she speaks. And Mary's words are clearly prophetic. The announcement of the wonderful things God is doing is made on the lips of a most surprising prophet. The surprising ways of the coming Messiah are already prefigured in the surprising way his arrival is announced. All preconceived notions of how God should act or what channels God must use turn out to be of no interest to God. It seems that the Kingdom has little interest in human doctrines, theologies, and traditions. God will not be bound by our small thinking.

I do not think it is possible to be Christian without having theology and doctrines. We cannot be Christians in any profound sort of way without having doctrines and traditions to guide us. But we should realize that our best attempts to live as Jesus calls us never capture the fullness of all God is up to. God and God's plans are bigger and more wonderful that we can fully conceive. And I think that sums up the wonder of Christmas for me.

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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Visualizing God's Future

In the Magnificat, Mary takes the role of prophet, singing a song that describes the shape of God's coming new day. The song invites us to catch God's vision of the future.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

I've often been perplexed by the parables of judgment Jesus tells. We hear another one today. In some of the last teachings before his death, Jesus speaks of 10 bridesmaids, 5 who are wise and 5 who are foolish. They go to meet the bridegroom, who is delayed for some reason. Falling asleep as they wait well into the night, they awake when the groom finally arrives but only the wise bridesmaids have oil left for their lamps. The foolish ones have to go buy oil and miss the banquet as a result.

The banquet is a common metaphor for the Kingdom, and so the lesson is terribly tragic. Only those who remained ready enter the kingdom. It seems a harsh teaching from one who gives his life for the sake of sinners.

But it may be important to remember that this teaching is done in private. It is for followers
only, for disciples. It is not a warning about those folks outside the church being left out. It is a warning to those inside the church. Jesus' long delay in returning sometimes saps the urgency from the work of the Kingdom, but this parable is a not so subtle reminder to followers who would lose sight of its impending arrival.

When Jesus warns his followers, when he warns me, I don't think he is so much describing future events as he is encouraging a change in behavior. Jesus prods me, prods the Church to stay focused on our work.

Maybe our celebration of Christmas can be of help here. If it helps us once again catch God's dream, God's plan for peace on earth and goodwill to all, then perhaps it can help us to remain alert, awake, and ready for God's glorious new day.

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Today's reading in Matthew has Jesus speaking of the proper pose for his followers until he returns. "Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions." Jesus' use of slaves in this little parable is hardly surprising coming from a time when slavery was ubiquitous, and also not the racially based institution of this country's history. But I think there is still significant offense for modern readers even if allowance is made for Jesus' very different historical context.

Even if we update Jesus' language and have him say "servant" instead of "slave," the parable still makes Jesus the boss and us the servants. It still says that our lives are supposed to be about doing his bidding. Perhaps this is so obvious as not to need saying. Still, I find that few of us are actually interested in a faith where Jesus is truly in charge. We'd like to get God on our side. We'd like to figure out how faith and spirituality can make our lives be more meaningful and fulfilled. But we're not all that interested in being told what to do.

My wife once put a quote on the refrigerator that read something like, "Don't ask God to bless what you are doing. Get involved in what God is doing. It is already blessed." (I believe Bono of U2 quoted these words at a Washington, DC prayer gathering, but I have no idea who originally said it.) Sound advice, but the hardest thing in the world is for me to fully entrust my life to another, even when that other is God. I like being my own boss, my own god too much.

We're about to celebrate the birth of our Savior, King, and Lord. All those titles would suggest doing what Jesus says rather than what we want, but that's hard for many of us. Maybe one reason people so like Christmas with the babe in a manger is because the baby Jesus doesn't say anything, doesn't tell us to do anything.

This Christmas, I'm going to try to let a bit more of Jesus the Lord and King be born into my heart.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Rejoice in the LORD, O you righteous.
Praise befits the upright.

Praise the LORD with the lyre;

make melody to him with the harp of ten strings.
Sing to him a new song;

play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.

On Sunday our choir performed Vivaldi's "Gloria" and performed it marvelously. (You can find video of it on this blog and on YouTube.) I think that some people were pleasantly surprised by how wonderful the music sounded. Like a lot of congregations, we often tend to underestimate our gifts and talents.

In our staff meeting this morning we were talking about risk taking and how to encourage more of it here at Boulevard. The conversation immediately turned to the Vivaldi piece and how it was something of a risk. Doing such a large and difficult selection is a daunting task, and it would have been easy for our music director or for the choir to balk at all the effort required. Thankfully, they didn't.

It is easy to be timid in responding the the call to worship and serve God, to balk because we don't imagine ourselves capable of doing something really big and significant. I'll have to ask the choir members whether or not they thought it was more than they could handle when they first saw the huge score of the Gloria. If so, I'll have to ask what changed their minds.

I wonder what God is calling me to do that I dismiss because it seems to big a task. How about you?

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Monday, December 14, 2009

Vivaldi's Gloria

This clip contains the first five parts of the the cantata "Gloria," by Antonio Vivaldi, performed by the Chancel choir of Boulevard Presbyterian under the direction of Jeremy Roberts. Follow the YouTube link at right to find the rest of this beautiful work.

Sunday Sermon - "Fruitful Lives - New Stories"

A sermon from Luke 3:7-18. Donald Miller writes that the same things that make a movie or story memorable or meaningful also work for our lives. Meaningful lives come from meaningful stories, and John the Baptist tells those who will listen the changes needed to make a good life.

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Today's words from Jesus in Matthew 24 have Jesus speak of two different things that we Christians often ignore. Jesus calls his followers to look for an end and to avoid speculating about its arrival. There is an end, a purpose toward which history is moving. God's full reign will arrive, says Jesus. But he also says to ignore all those who claim to know timetables. When Jesus returns, no one will be able to miss it. "For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man."

It seems to me than many Christians live with no sense that God is up to something within history, at work within history to move creation to God's toward an ultimate destination, nothing short of the redemption of all creation. We often reduce what theologians call "eschatology" to nothing more than a question of what happens to us after we die. Practically speaking, our faith often deals only with the personal. Creation is no longer within God's sphere of influence. Redemption is possible only for individual souls.

But at the very same time, Christian speculation about end times is rampant. The success of the Left Behind series of novels points to this ongoing fascination. Tune in any Christian cable outlet and you won't have to wait long before someone speaks of signs that we are living in "the last days."

If only we could invert these two tendencies. If only we could live with a certainty that God is redeeming and transforming all creation, that nothing is outside the providence and power of God. If only our faith perceived God's sovereign power that dwarfs all the powers and forces we assume control history and destiny. Then perhaps we could live counter-cultural lives, certain that the reality we glimpse by faith is more "real" that all worldly powers. And we could leave the formulas and timetables to the religious hucksters Jesus warns us about.

In the Presbyterian tradition, one of the six "Great Ends" or purposes for which the Church exists is 'the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world." To exhibit something that is not yet here, we must have a clear sense of it. This is not primarily about progress or making the world a little better (not that those are bad things). Rather this is living in ways that befit an "End" that the world cannot see. This is living in ways that are suited to a redeemed creation, ways that do not make sense by the normal ways of the world.

As we draw close to Christmas, we prepare to celebrate the birth of a Savior, to celebrate God's very personal entry into the flow of human history. And this was not simply a one-shot, historic event. It was a beginning of something that is still unfolding, something that can only be glimpsed with the eyes of faith.

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Sunday, December 13, 2009

"Fruitful Lives - New Stories"

Donald Miller writes that the same things that make movies and stories memorable or meaningful also work for our lives. Meaningful lives come from meaningful stories, and John the Baptist tells those who will listen the changes needed to make a good life story.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

As we move through Advent and closer to Christmas, I have to admit that the Daily Lectionary readings' lack of any connection to the season is starting to wear on me. Almost to the third Sunday of Advent and the lectionary passages have the prophet Haggai railing against the people for not rebuilding the Jerusalem Temple and a second straight day of Jesus pronouncing a curse on the scribes and Pharisees.

Fortunately for me, Jesus ends his verbal assault with these words. "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!" It is comforting to know that Jesus' anger toward some religious leaders is not indicative of Jesus' and God's underlying attitude toward humanity. If these words are a glimpse into the heart of God, it seems to contain, not anger, but a longing mixed with sadness.

Christmas is an act of God's longing for us. It is rooted in God's abiding hope that we will turn to God, that we will allow God to gather us in. And so, even though much of the joy and hope of the season is hyped, manufactured, and trivial, at its core, Christmas is all about hope and joy. God is for us. God longs for us. God reaches out to us. God continues to hope and long for reconciliation with all humanity. Could there be any better news?

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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Today's gospel reading features Jesus, in his last public appearance prior to being arrested, condemning the religious leaders. "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel! Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence."

As I read these words, I immediately thought of the gospel reading for this Sunday, the Third Sunday of Advent. In Luke 3:7-18, John the Baptist condemns those who come out to him, demanding that they bear fruit worthy of repentance. When these people ask what they should do, John tells them to do things that are about justice and mercy, that are the opposite of greed and self-indulgence. John and Jesus seem to be in pretty close agreement about what it means to live in ways appropriate for the kingdom of God.

Part of the joy of Christmas is recognizing its promise of hope and something new, a promise of peace, of good news to all but especially to the poor and oppressed. Still, in our troubled world it can be easy to become cynical about such promises. But I want to hold onto those promises because the more I cling to them, the more they sculpt my image of how things will be, the easier it is for me to get ready for that day.

It is hard to get ready for something I cannot imagine. But this season can help provide a jolt for our imaginations, letting us glimpse peace and good will to all. And when we see this hope more clearly, our lives can conform more closely to the new thing God is doing in Christ.

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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

The time is surely coming, says the Lord GOD, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the LORD, but they shall not find it.

These words from the prophet Amos are a dire warning to Israel, but as is so often the case with the prophetic judgment, the sins calling for such punishment are not the sort of things we tend to label "religious." God is angry because of how the poor and needy are treated. It is those with economic power who are in Amos' sights, those who cheat the poor by using false scales who sell the "sweepings of the wheat" as though it was usable grain.

When I was college age, I worked for a very small construction company that
mostly did repairs. One of our customers was a small convenience/grocery store located right next to a low income housing project. It was not part of any chain or franchise but an independent business owned by a man who lived in the most elite part of town. While we were repairing the outside of this building I naturally went inside buy a drink or a snack. I also went into the back of the store to plug in our power tools. And I was horrified by what I saw in both places.

The prices in the store were unbelievably high. But because this was the only store within walking distance of the housing project, residents without cars had no where else to shop. And in the back of the store, I saw the butcher cutting off the spoiled and molded parts of meat and then putting it back in the display case. Surely Amos was talking about people just such as the owner of this store.

This owner was a member at the largest Presbyterian Church in town. I don't know, but I imagine that he pledged and that he brought canned goods to the church's Christmas food drive for the needy.

It was easy for me to look with disgust on this store owner, who so obviously profited from the plight of the poor. But it is also easy for me to take part in the explosion of charity that accompanies Advent and Christmas, and then to go right back to my lifestyle that is made possible by migrant workers who pick my food and poorly paid factory workers who sew my clothes.

We will soon celebrate the birth of a Savior who, in his own words, comes "to bring good news to the poor." And while I know that the boxes of food and gifts our congregation will take to hundreds of needy families are greatly appreciated, I'm pretty sure the good news Jesus is talking about is something bigger and more fundamental than this.

Lord, help us become agents of the Kingdom the child of Bethlehem brings.

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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Sunday Sermon - "Wilderness"

A sermon from Luke 3:1-6. Our culture is well past Thanksgiving and fully immersed into Christmas. But on the Second Sunday in Advent, John the Baptist shows up, and he's got nothing Christmassy to say. Everything about John is surprising. He, and not the long list of important political and religious figures that open this gospel reading, is the one to whom the word of God comes. And if you want to hear this word, you have to leave town and temple, church and shopping mall, and go out into the wilderness where John is.

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

What is the greatest commandment? That is the question asked of Jesus in today's gospel verses. The answer is quite famous, though it is not original to Jesus. It is straight out of the Old Testament. "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."

As we work our way through Advent, drawing ever closer to Christmas, it is worth remembering that Jesus' coming is the beginning of something and not the end. Jesus' coming calls us to new life that is a fulfillment of "the law and the prophets." If God loves us so much that God came to earth in Christ, then it stands to reason that our lives are meaningful to God. One side of that coin is the joy of knowing God's love. But the other side of that coin is the responsibility to live meaningful lives in return, to love God back and to love all those others whom God loves so much. It's interesting to contemplate. If God considers my life worth "saving," then surely God expects my life to mean something.

O God, continue to show me the meaning and the purpose of my life.

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Monday, December 7, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

In today's gospel reading, the Sadducees try to trick Jesus with a question about marriage and resurrection. In the Judaism of Jesus' day, not everyone believed that the dead would one day be raised. This included the Sadducees, who ask Jesus a question about a woman who was married and widowed seven times to seven brothers. (This "Levirate marriage" was an institution designed to protect a man's name and lineage as well as to keep women from becoming destitute in a male dominated culture.) If this woman had been married to all seven brothers, whose wife will she be in the resurrection?

You can almost see the Sadducees snickering as they ask their question, like the old George Carlin comedy routine where he recalls attempts to catch the priests and nuns at his school with questions such as, "If God is all powerful, can he make a rock so big that it's too heavy for him to lift it?" But unlike Carlin's priests, Jesus isn't flustered at all, and his answer speaks of a basic misunderstanding about resurrection. "Jesus answered them, 'You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.' "

Now I'll be the first to admit that I have no idea what it means to say they "are like angels in heaven." But clearly Jesus understand the resurrection to be something of such an entirely different order that none of our current understandings of life and relationships fit. And I'm not sure that we modern day Christians have a much better understanding of resurrection than did those Sadducees. The Church has somehow let resurrection morph into "going to heaven when I die." But for Jesus and the writers of the New Testament, resurrection was a total transformation of human existance that happens when God brings "the Kingdom."

It has been more than 50 years since J. B. Phillips wrote the book, Your God Is Too Small. But its reminder that our images of God, and of what God is up to, often do more to constrain faith than illuminate it are as timely as ever.

O God, save us from our own constricted imaginations.

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Sunday, December 6, 2009

Prepare the way.... Wait a minute, I'm not prepared.

Oops, there's no audio of today's sermon.  On this day when John calls us to "Prepare the way of the Lord," I forgot to prepare the recording device.  But the video is another matter.  It will be posted tomorrow. 

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

In today's gospel verses, Jesus is in the Temple on the week of his arrest, and he tells the religious authorities another parable. This parable of the wicked tenants again emphasizes the need for the faithful to "bear fruit," to live as servants who do God's work. Jesus skillfully gets the religious authorities to condemn the wicked tenants of a vineyard who did not do their master's bidding before they realize that the parable is about them. But when Jesus says, "Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom," they get it.

In Jesus' day, the Jerusalem Temple was a center of religious activity on a scale that would dwarf almost any modern day church. Unlike many churches, where very little goes on most days of the week, the Temple was abuzz with the faithful every single day. But clearly this is not enough for Jesus.

At this time of year, the church I serve becomes a busier place than usual. There are extra choir rehearsals, attendance goes up, and special services are being planned and rehearsed. But there is also another sort of busyness. Food items are piling up in the Fellowship Hall and donated toys are being wrapped for needy children. In the midst of all the religious pomp that this time of year brings, we remember that Jesus calls us to bear fruit.

Lord, help us to remember this all year long.

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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

In today's reading from Matthew, Jesus is teaching in the temple just prior to his arrest. Religious authorities confront him, but Jesus does not take their bait. Instead he tells them a story.

"What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, 'Son, go and work in the vineyard today.' He answered, 'I will not'; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, 'I go, sir'; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?" They said, "The first." Jesus said to them, "Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you."

This contrast between words and actions struck me in this Advent season. We've entered into that annual season of people expressing outrage over whether retailers print "Happy Holidays" or "Merry Christmas" on their stores' banners. Every year, people get all worked up over whether or not the word "Christmas" gets applied to a shopping season which has little, if anything, to do with following Jesus.

Words versus actions. As today's reading from Amos makes clear, God is far more concerned about whether the poor and needy are cared for than God is about words or worship services or well crafted religiousness.

Words versus actions. Our culture pays a lot of lip service to God, but how often do we do the will of God?

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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals,
in whom there is no help.

When their breath departs, they return to the earth;

on that very day their plans perish.

Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,

whose hope is in the LORD their God.

So goes a portion of Psalm 146, words that jar me a bit on the day that President Obama will formally announce a troop increase in Afghanistan. Over the centuries, Christians have struggled to define when it is appropriate to resort to military force. Some traditions are pacifist, but my own has tended to embrace military action within the limits of so-call "just war" theology. But though I am theologically comfortable with the notion of a "just war," I struggle with how we are to know when to trust God, and when to take action ourselves.

One of those quotes from the Bible that isn't actually in the Bible goes, "God helps those who help themselves." But still the Bible does present us with a tension between dependence on God alongside personal responsibility. When are we to act, and when should we patiently wait, placing all trust in God? And especially when it comes to killing people and sending our soldiers to be killed, what would God have us do?

Whether or not a country goes to war is as political a decision as one can find. But for people of faith, it is surely as spiritual a decison one can imagine. When does trusting God above all, when does loving God and loving neighbor, call us to kill?

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