12.31.2008

Epiphany

Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12


Here we are again, on the edge of a new year, revisiting a story that we as Christians revisit year after year after year. But, as often happens, our context today is different from year before, and the year before that, and the year before that. We do not stand still. Our lives continue to change and evolve. The philosopher Heraclitus said, "On those stepping into rivers the same, other and other waters flow." We have more experiences, more joys and more hurts under our belt each time we revisit the coming of Emmanuel. Life can have that strange sense of deja vu...mostly because we probably have, indeed, been in a place similar to this before.

This week, the lectionary gives us glimpses of the Prophets and the Seekers. And we also glimpse the Unaware between the two. And the question that we have this week is simple – where are we on this spectrum? Are we Prophets? Seekers? Unaware?

The prophet Isaiah is speaking of the prophet's own time, of political events unfurling in the context of the people's return to Judah after the Babylonian exile. These are people who have seen hardship and are envisioning a new future. Historically, the rebuilding of the Temple has begun. There are visible signs of hope and stability. Arise, shine, for your light has come... And in the context of the history of Israel, this moment will be repeated again and again. And if you pause to think about it, there have probably been these moments in your life as well – times after a storm when there seems to be a return to stability, a return to comfort and a return to the familiar. Maybe you have heard the Prophets yourself and are now Seeking the peace you have longed for.

The psalm this week is a petition for the justice, stability and righteousness of a new king. It's a little uncanny to read right now, because it is set here in the lectionary cycle because it eludes to a new reign, much like the birth of Christ was heralded as a new era. But we also notice the strange resonance with the changing of the political scene here in the US. This is a prayer that could be offered up for a new administration. Many feel a great deal of hope today for a changed landscape at the hands of a new group of leaders. Perhaps those seeking thousands of years ago were similarly hopeful when they saw a star rising in the eastern sky.

In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he is speaking as a Prophet, sharing vision and revelation with a community that he hopes will Seek as a result of what they hear. He is expanding the audience - casting a broader net and extending Jesus’ message into a broader community. What do you suppose it takes to move a community from Unaware to Seeking?

The passage from Matthew shows us a full range of Prophets, Seekers, and Unaware. These mysterious men (Seekers) from the East come following a star and a message they heard from Prophets. We cannot be 100% sure of their motivation--they were from “the east” and we have no evidence they were Jewish --all we know is that they came to worship and pay homage to a new king. And in the process they expose and stir up some folks who are Unaware. We see how King Herod and his trusted advisors are caught Unaware that the birth of anyone touted as a New King had happened. But this new information then turns them in to Seekers themselves.

And the question that we have this week is simple – where are we on this spectrum? Are we Prophets? Seekers? Unaware?




Across the vein of night
There cuts a path of searing light
Burning like a beacon
On the edges of our sight
At the point of total darkness
And the lights divine divide
A soul can let its shadow
Stretch and land on either side.

Wealthy the spirit that knows its own flight
Stealthy the hunter who slays his own fright
Blessed the traveler who journeys
the length of the light.

In a spiral never-ending
Are we drawn towards the source
Spinning at the mercy of an
unrelenting force
So we stare into the emptiness
and fall beneath the weight
Circling the Nexus in a
fevered dance with fate --

Wealthy the spirit that knows its own flight
Stealthy the hunter who slays his own fright
Blessed the traveler who journeys
the length of the light.

The Nexus, Dan Fogelberg

12.17.2008

4th Sunday in Advent

2 Samuel 7:1 - 11, 16
Luke 1:46b - 55
Romans 16: 25 - 27
Luke 1: 26 - 38

Have you ever been listening to a very small child - one who is trying really hard to find the right words to tell you the perfect story, stumbling and sputtering and dragging on - and found that it is really hard for you as the adult to listen and not finish their sentences? You try and you try, but eventually you offer the word that you would use, or you complete their thought or sentence...maybe putting a question mark at the end, as if you are just checking in. Right?

Or maybe you've been in a conversation with an adult who has problems speaking. Perhaps they stutter or have had a stroke. While they physically reach for the words they want to say, you find yourself nodding encouragement or even leaning forward and eventually helpfully filling in for them.

Some of us even are just such fast thinkers (and are so confident in our interpersonal skills) and talkers that we rather regularly end sentences for others, assuming we know where the story/question/explanation is going and go right ahead and respond out of our own expectation of what will be said.

We have all heard it, but it is true again and again, we have to listen as much (maybe more) than we speak to be in relationship with others. To really respect and love the other, we have to listen and hear their needs.

This week, our scripture readings draw attention to our tendency to do this – to assume that we know what comes next in the conversation and to finish it based on what we think we know, which comes out of our experiences, our life, our thinking and our words. We see David (and Nathan) learning that lesson. And we see Mary learning that lesson...actually, maybe she is teaching the class.

In the passage from 2 Samuel, we see David, who has built himself a grand home of cedar, is inspired to next build one to house the Ark of the Covenant, which has traveled with the tribes in a tent for lo these many years. Israel's God needs a dignified dwelling place, right? Well, the Lord has a different perspective. God speaks to the prophet Nathan, instructing him to rebuke David – are YOU the one to build me a house? All of these years God has been out ahead of the people. And God's indignation is pretty clear – I will find a place for the people, NOT vice versa. But really, David didn't mean any harm...he liked having a spot. God would probably like a spot too, right?

The passage from Romans is really a benediction – To God be the glory – the God of all the ages, through the telling of the prophets, the revelations of the gospels, through Paul's own ministry, knows how this story goes and who should put the period on the sentences.

Let's look at the Luke readings together, although the Song of Mary, or "the Magnificat" as it is also commonly known, is really offered as an alternate psalm. Reading the two selections together, we witness Mary hearing unbelievable news from the angel Gabriel. And the news is really incomplete. Mary, a virgin, is going to give birth. When she asks how, she doesn't get a really comprehensible answer...the spirit of the Lord will come upon you. Hmm. How about that? But she does not stumble or assume or interrupt. She listens and praises. Let it be with me according to your will. My soul magnifies the Lord. With humility, with passion, with grace, Mary listens and then lives out what she has heard and understood. Not easy to do, is it?

Are there places in your life where you are more like David--making assumptions and "finishing the sentence" for God?
Are there times in your life where you are able to sit and listen when you are confronted with surprising circumstances by God?
How do we balance asserting with listening and waiting?

I have traveled many moonless nights,
Cold and weary with a babe inside,
And i wonder what i've done.
Holy father you have come,
And chosen me now to carry your son.

I am waiting in a silent prayer.
I am frightened by the load i bear.
In a world as cold as stone,
Must i walk this path alone?
Be with me now.
Be with me now.

Breath of Heaven, Amy Grant, 1992

12.10.2008

3rd Sunday in Advent

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126
1 Thessalonians 5: 16 - 24
John 1: 6 - 8, 19 - 28

"Who are you?"

Don't we, as humans, project our own hopes, dreams and desires upon the future? Don't we shape our hopes based on where we are and where we've been more often than on what is realistic and possible? Our expectations of a newly elected president come to mind. Can this man possibly accomplish all that we have hoped he will accomplish?

Christmas is coming. Those words probably inspire some reaction from you, don't they? What is the reaction? What hope does it create for you ("that it will blow quickly by" is an acceptable answer)? It might be a mix of joy and anxiety and anticipation. Or it might be a dull ache or dread.

In this, the third week of Advent, we are still waiting. There are no bucolic readings about shepherds yet. There are no stories of scandal, surprise and recovery about a young, engaged couple. No. We are still waiting – and for what we do not know. But our hopes are shaped by our lives and our experience, just like Israel's were.

This week's readings focus largely on that for which the people awaited thousands of years ago. Their waiting was grounded in their past and their present experience. In truth they did not know what they waited for…but they waited for a Messiah, a Savior, one who would set things right somehow. The prophet writing in Isaiah is remembering the good that God has done and anticipating the arrival of the next great thing. Well, not just "the next" great thing – The Thing. The Messiah. You have to sort of wade into this reading and pay attention to who is speaking at any given time. Sometimes it's God, sometimes it's the prophet. The prophet sees a future of comfort for those who mourn, righteousness and praise springing up before all the nations.

The Psalmist also writes in an "in between" time. The praise psalm remembers better days and petitions for a return of comfort, fortune and rejoicing.

Let's read a little out of sequence and head to the passage from John. Did you realize that so much of advent focused on John the Baptist? On the voice of one crying out in the wilderness? So, here we have John, called up by the Levites and Priests to be grilled with a really profound question – Who are you? John precedes in telling them who he is not – The Messiah. And he Is the voice of one crying out in the wilderness. So one question that comes to mind is how the priests grilling John perceived their own circumstances. Were they in the wilderness from which John called? If so or if not, how did that shape what they expected from the Messiah whom John announced?

In Paul's letter to the church at Thessalonica, he provides some very practical advise for waiting. These early churches, like the ancient Israelites, had experienced some amazing things. Many in these churches would have known by first-hand account about the teaching, crucifixion and resurrection of this teacher, man and Messiah--Jesus Christ. And deep in their heritage, they would have been watching for One who would restore righteousness. A society oppressed by Rome and her foreign ways, these early followers were hopeful for liberation, and their hope rested in the return of the Messiah. They waited for Jesus to walk back into their midst and right the toppled reality in which they lived. Paul's advice would be hard to swallow – rejoice always, pray without ceasing and give thanks for everything that comes your way, regardless of how you perceive it as good or bad. Waiting will make you ready for what comes next.

We each have our own vision of what a coming Messiah might mean to us today. But is our vision what matters? Do we share vision with others?

But really, do we know what we wait for?

Will we know?

"Who" are you waiting for?

O come, Thou Root of Jesse's tree,
An ensign of Thy people be;
Before Thee rulers silent fall;
All peoples on Thy mercy call.
Rejoice, rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee,
O Israel.

12.03.2008

2nd Sunday in Advent


Isaiah 40:1-11

Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

....so we are still waiting. And this week there is a bit of focus on the preparation we can do while we are waiting.
There is a really interesting textual question found in this week's lectionary reading (at least we find it interesting): In Isaiah 40.3 the text reads "A voice cries out: 'In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God'" and in Mark 1.1-8 the text reads "I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of hte Lord, make his paths straight.'"

This is a moment where having English degrees is frustrating. Look at how the quotation changes. Isaiah implies that we should prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness and Mark implies that the voice is crying out in the wilderness that the way of the Lord should be prepared, while at the same time, preparing the way for "you" (us?). Sure, we could read Isaiah as assume that the voice is crying out while in the wilderness, but that is not exactly what it says. And the reality is that in the land of Palestine that surrounds Jerusalem the difference between the protection of the city and the wilds of the wilderness is sometimes just a couple of miles.

Now what difference might this make?

This portion of Isaiah is written to the Israelites that are in exile in Babylon in about 550 BCE. They have been defeated and exiled and that is interpreted to have happened because of their disobedience to God. These are people who are wondering if God is going to leave them out to dry where they are or if they will be able to gain some power in the world (and their homeland) again. These are people that understand the wilderness as a part of their national history and as a part of their recent history of having to make the march from Jerusalem to Babylon. And this passage offers a lot of hope there will be a chance of better days to come. It seems that hope comes as a result of the preparation that was put upon them in their defeat and exile.


The passage in Mark is written primarily to a newly forming Christian community around 60-90 CE who may or may not have witnessed the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem (it depends on which historical placement you give to the authorship of Mark). Either way, they are living in a time and place where Jews / Israelites were not totally free to be themselves, and followers of Jesus were certainly not totally free to be themselves (at this point they were not even really sure what that meant). And all of these folks are living with a more distant memory of their people living in the desert. Of course, they are still geographically quite close to the wilderness, but Jerusalem itself had further developed and there were officially "city dwellers" that had little concept of the wilderness.

Both of these passages have in common a yearning for someone to somehow create a safe enviornment where they can live. Both of these messages are written to people who are hurting and scared and not sure who to trust any more and not sure what is safe any more. And God speaks through both Isaiah and John the Baptizer to bring some comfort and encouragement to the people. And in both passages there is a requirement put on the people of what their role is / has been in preparing for the whole situation--Isaiah tells them that their defeat and exile has been their recompensing punishment, and John tells folks that it is their responsibility to repent...to turn away from their old ways...so they will be prepared for the coming of the One that will baptize with the Holy Spirit.

Both the 2 Peter reading and the Psalm continue with the theme of preparation. The Psalm is both a praise and a petition - a hopeful interpretation of a return of good fortune and petitions for continued good circumstances. In order to continue in God's favor, the people should be prepared for his intervention.

The writer of the Peter passage spends some time with some philosophical conjecture and then heads right toward the practical advice: "while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish." This is clearly a reinforcement of last week's lesson from Mark...it is our job as Christians to "keep awake," but not in a fretful, anxious way. Be ready but also be present.
Are we preparing for a New Day? How so?
Are we watching for God in our midst?
Will we recognize when we are prepared?

"People Get Ready" -Curtis Mayfield

People get ready
There's a train a comin'
You don't need no baggage you just get on board
All you need is faith
To hear the diesel comin'
Don't need no ticket you just thank the Lord

People get ready
For the train to Jordan
Picking up passengers from coast to coast
Faith is key
Open up the doors and board them
There's hope for all among the love the most

There ain't no room for the hopeless sinner
Who would hurt all mankind just to save his own
Have pity on those whose choices grow thinner
There ain't no hiding place from the Kingdom's throne

People get ready
There's a train a comin'
You don't need no baggage you just get on board
All you need is faith
To hear the diesel comin'
Don't need no ticket you just thank the Lord

I believe, I believe, I do believe
I believe, I believe, I do believe.

11.25.2008

First Sunday of Advent

...Into the unknown...

The weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas fly by many of us as a blur. It is a season of lists and deadlines and expectations and waiting. But what do we expect? For what are we waiting on pins and needles? Do we really know?

A Christ child - but what is that? What does it mean to us, really, today, to expect God with us - our own Emmanuel?

Are we looking to be liberated from oppressors as Israel was? Who are our oppressors--are they literal or figurative? Political? Social? And, if so, to what are we hoping to be liberated?

...into the unknown...

Isaiah 64: 1- 9

What we know today as the "book" of Isaiah was believed to actually be a prophecy written in three parts, by different authors at three different points in Israel's troubled history. This selection is from the third set of writings, after the return to Judah from the Babylonian exile. The community has returned, after bitter trial, and recognized that God is present and able. The author offers up a confession...we know what this God is capable of, and we remember this God as our Father - please do not be angry. We know what your presence meant in ages past, both good and bad. You are the potter and we, the clay - we are the work of your hand. God, this is your creation, is it not?

...into the unknown...

Psalm 80: 1 - 7; 17 - 19
"Give us life, and we will call on your name." This is a petition for delivery. It is full of the desperate promises of a society sorely afraid - afraid of where they had been and not really sure of what was next.

...into the unknown...

1 Corinthians 1: 3 - 9
This greeting from Paul's first letter to the church of Corinth is full of hope and addressed to a waiting community - a community who knows of Christ's death and resurrection, but anxiously awaiting his return as they understood the promises of generations. Waiting. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of His Son.

...into the unknown...

Mark 13: 24 - 37
This reading from the Gospel of Mark reflects Jesus' teaching even as the plot to kill him is taking shape. His words are reminiscent of the greatest Hebrew prophets and reflect dark images of dark time. There is mystery, and imagine what it must have felt like, not quite understanding this man who taught with such wisdom and had gathered such a committed following and gave hope for the least and the lost. They are tossed into the unknown, and must
have wondered what was meant, "But about that day or hour no one knows....Keep awake."

...into the unknown...

Like generation upon generation over thousands of years we enter this season of watching and waiting. We may think we know for what we are waiting. But really, can we know? God with us? What does that mean today?

And so we wait.

11.18.2008

Reign of Christ Sunday

Ezekiel 34.11-24
Psalm 100
Ephesians 1.15-23
Matthew 25.31-46

So this Sunday is referred to in the lectionary cycle as "Christ the King" or "The Reign Of Christ" Sunday. With that in mind and looking at this week's scriptures, there are three things we feel are important to think about: How this Sunday fits in to the Liturgical year; The relationship between Sheep and Shepherd; And what does it mean to be subject to a King?

Christ the King Sunday is the very last Sunday of the Liturgical year. The next Sunday marks the beginning of Advent and a change in the tone and direction of our reading and our attention. This Sunday celebrates the role of Christ as the ultimate ruler. If you think about where we have come, both in terms of the Hebrew scriptures and the teachings and miracles and parables of Jesus throughout the gospel of Matthew read throughout ordinary time, we've learned a lot about leadership. Along the way, we've learned a lot about who the ancestors were as human beings, and we can probably draw some conclusions about who we are as well. And, even in our popular political culture, we've just spent a full year trying to determine what makes a good leader. We've got definite ideas of what works and what doesn't...and perhaps of the limitations of our humanness to lead, to reign, to be supreme. Christ the King Sunday is a reminder that no human leader draws near the divinity or supremacy God's incarnate Son. This is a bridge Sunday – the bridge between our Ordinary time journey through history and teachings to a season where we watch and wait for incarnation...for God with us.

Important to gaining insight to the Ezekiel passage is understanding the relationship between Sheep and Shepherd. Because of the inherent natures of sheep and humans, this is not a democratic relationship. Sheep, while possessing many endearing qualities, are not "smart" (at least according to traditional human standards). They are almost completely defenseless (they can jump, but they have no upper teeth), they are prone to disease and infection, they do not have a good sense of direction, and they cannot even lay down on their sides and get back up again easily (they mostly crouch down). Especially in the arena of sheep being domesticated by humans for their wool and meat, sheep are heavily dependant on human care and intervention. Sheep need someone to look out for them and help them find food, water, and a safe place to rest. When they are given a Shepherd, Sheep loyally respond and follow; but without one, they often find themselves lost and unsafe.

With all of this in mind, read the description Ezekiel offers of how God will be a Shepherd for God's people--God's sheep. It reads like a paternalistic love story. Ezekiel is writing to the Israelites as they are in exile in Babylon. He is reminding them God will not leave them lost and on their own, but will search them out and offer protection. However this will evidently not be blindly offered because there will be a judgment between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. This likely refers to the folks who, as they were conquered by Babylon, chose to side with the Babylonians and prospered while the bulk of Israel went in to exile.

In the Matthew passage we get more sheep references, but this time to being separated from the goats in a time of judgment. We are told that one of the primary reasons this division falls along these lines is because of the willingness to follow found in sheep. Now part of this has also to do with the greater intelligence (and as a result, greater stubbornness) of goats. Another way to read the passage is, "those who heard my voice and followed me will be at my right hand, and those who heard my voice and did not follow me and chose to go their own way will be at my left hand."

Another important part to understanding this passage is the power / dominance / authority / judgment offered by a King. We do not have much experience with Kings / Queens / Ultimate Authorities in our day. It is hard to imagine (for most of us) what it is like to be completely under the power of someone who can decide if we live or die. Jesus was sharing this teaching in a time and place where folks understood what it meant to be under an authority (the Romans) and their families had recent histories of what it meant to be under the authority of a King. The deeper explanation of this judgment that we get from the mouth of Jesus does not need much interpretation--the ones who fed the hungry, gave water to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, and visited the imprisoned will be blessed by the Father and inherit the Kingdom; those that offered no food, no water, no welcome, no clothing, and no visitation will be sent into the eternal fire.

Are we willing to be subjects? Are we willing to let a Shepherd guard the flock to which we belong?
This week, how do these readings and their topics / concepts / ideas work together? What do they tell us?
Do you feel the changing of the season? What are you anticipating?
What potential will rest under the surface until a warmer day?


Psalm 100
Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth.
Worship the LORD with gladness;
come into his presence with singing.
Know that the LORD is God.
It is he that made us, and we are his;
we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
and his courts with praise.
Give thanks to him, bless his name.
For the LORD is good;
his steadfast love endures forever,
and his faithfulness to all generations.

11.12.2008

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Judges 4: 1 – 7
Psalm 123 1
Thessalonians 5: 1 – 11
Matthew 25: 14 - 30

Obedience.
Readiness.
Preparation.
Responsibility.

The themes that come up this week are fairly closely connected to those from last week's readings. As we near the end of the liturgical year there is a definite looking ahead to what might be next and a flurry of scriptures that encourage us to reflect on our roles in the future.

First we find the the book of Judges an example of the Disobedience--Punishment--Repentance--Forgiveness--Obedience--Disobedience cycle that we see throughout human history and specifically replayed over and over again with the people of Israel. The really interesting thing in this passage is the way God speaks through the current Judge of Israel--Deborah--and tells the country to prepare for battle to liberate themselves from the oppression of the Canaanites. An interesting note on this text is that the place Deborah directs the Israelites to gather to meet their oppressors in war is one of the most fought on pieces of property in all of history--The Valley of Megiddo (same site as the proposed end battle of Armageddon). Mount Tabor overlooks the valley which is the main flat thoroughfare from the Mediterranean Sea over in to the resource-rich lands further east (modern day Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia). It is an immense plain surrounded by mountains on both sides that was hotly contested because it was a primary transit / trade route from the Sea to points East and whomever controlled that valley controlled a lot of resources. Following the direction of God through Deborah put the Israelites in the best position to try and take their freedom back. Be Obedient to God and you will be Liberated.

Psalm 123 is a prayer for help by the whole community. While the first stanza is written in the first person point of view, the second stanza focuses on the need of the community, asking for God's mercy on "us." It refers to a collective soul – a whole comprised of many parts. Not only is the community asking for help; it is also asking for dependence upon the Lord. Obviously, they have a deep desire to be Obedient, and at the same time they recognize their own anxiety and temptation to be Disobedient.

Paul continues his counsel to the Followers in Thessalonica as to how they are to live to "Be Prepared" for the Day of the Lord. His words echo the words of Jesus found in other spots in Matthew of That Day coming like a thief in the night, not knowing the day or hour, and to Stay Awake. Also in Paul's encouragement he gives a shorter version of the dressing instructions found in Ephesians (Full Armor of God). He is telling these folks that they need to continue on as they are doing so that as the Day of the Lord will come unexpectedly they will always be prepared. A constant state of readiness. Hyper-vigilant. You are responsible for keeping yourself and your community prepared for the day to come.


The words of Jesus found in Matthew can be read as quite harsh. His take-home message here seems to be "don't be lazy or stupid"...and "to all those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away." Jesus has been accused of being a socialist, but this does not seem to match up! Actually, this story comes in the middle of several parables and sayings describing the End of Days / the Day of the Lord / etc. It does not seem wise to take these words as literally speaking to those in our society who do not have many resources and those that do. It appears he is attempting to make a point similar to the one Paul makes in Thessalonians--you must be responsible for yourself and know that your actions today may / can / will have consequences in the future. In order to be Prepared to be Judged, you must take Responsibility for yourself and choose to either Obey or Disobey God.

So it feels like this week it is even somehow more important to ask What Are We To Do With These Scriptures? A quick answer can be that we should make sure we are Obedient to God today because we have no idea when the next Tomorrow will be our last one. But even so, what does Obedience to God look like for you? Is it strict adherence to laws? Is it living in to the spirit of the teachings of Jesus? How are we to be Responsible with who we are and what we have?

Things to Do in the Belly of the Whale

by Dan Albergotti

Measure the walls. Count the ribs. Notch the long days.
Look up for blue sky through the spout. Make small fires
with the broken hulls of fishing boats. Practice smoke signals.
Call old friends, and listen for echoes of distant voices.
Organize your calendar. Dream of the beach. Look each way
for the dim glow of light. Work on your reports. Review
each of your life's ten million choices. Endure moments
of self-loathing. Find the evidence of those before you.
Destroy it. Try to be very quiet, and listen for the sound
of gears and moving water. Listen for the sound of your heart.
Be thankful that you are here, swallowed with all hope,
where you can rest and wait. Be nostalgic. Think of all
the things you did and could have done. Remember
treading water in the center of the still night sea, your toes
pointing again and again down, down into the black depths.

11.04.2008

Twenty Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Joshua 24: 1 - 3a, 14 - 25
Psalm 78: 1 - 7 1
Thessalonians 4: 13 - 18
Matthew 25: 1 – 13


As we write today (Tuesday) we are well aware that record numbers (we hope) of voters have stepped up to a voting machine and cast a vote – a vote that represents their hope and their commitment to something or someone or some way, a way that is different from the way that we are currently living and working and chasing. In our position as casual observers, we feel like there is a different charge in the air, a critical mass, a Tipping Point.

Do we really know what life will look like under whatever new leader is elected? Do we know that the economy will improve, that energy prices will fall, that global warming will be reversed, that wars will end and that the US will begin to reach across the oceans and mend broken fences with new humility (ok, certainly that list of desires is rife with our own opinions, but we're tapping the keys). And really, if we are all being very honest with one another, any change will not depend wholly on any vote cast or majorities won, but it will depend upon people who continue to care with the passion that they have mustered for this particular election. If we all go back to business as usual tomorrow or whenever the outcome is known, we will not find our lives or world any more peaceful and compassionate.

There is some prophetic wisdom for today in our readings this week. Through the lens of right now, each writer has something for us to think about.

In the Hebrew scriptures, Joshua has finally led the tribes of Israel to the Promised Land. We're wrapping up this "exodus" story very quickly at this point. Joshua is basically closing his term, and he is reminding the people of all that Yahweh has done and been for them. He challenges them to set aside the many gods of their collective past and to choose to Serve this One God, Yahweh. There is almost a call and response pattern, and Joshua doesn't seem altogether satisfied with their initial commitment. And so, he rebukes them. He reminds them that this God is powerful and capable of great harm. Notice how many times either Joshua or the People use the word "Serve". They are not just committing because of what God has done; they are committing to a life of service, changed by what God has done. As the story continues these people suffer tumultuous times again and again. And always, there seems to be a question of whether the people fulfill their part of the Covenant with God. Do you think they had any concept of what they were committing to at the time?

The Psalmist speaks a bit about teaching, about passing things from generation to generation so that children might know their story and tell it to their own children, and thereby continue to know and relate to Yahweh, keeping the commandments and beholding the mighty works. The two of us have spent a lot of time discussing "our times" this season with three bright and young minds that roam through our home. Their questions are difficult, and force us to examine our own understanding of our country, our leadership, our allegiances, our values and our resulting actions. In telling, we are also told and in telling we shape the future.

Paul's continuing letter to the church at Thessalonica is full of comfort and encouragement. Remember that this is an early letter – perhaps the earliest written. This community is living in a time not terribly far past (perhaps 20-30 years) the teaching, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This church was established amidst protest from the Jewish community. It is believed that Paul actually fled Thessalonica because he had stirred such a controversy within the Jewish community. He is reassuring these people about Christ's return – about Jesus' role as Messiah. People patiently waited for Jesus' return and the fulfillment of the messianic promise, but with each passing year, their hopes must have waned. He is reminding the community of the stories they know (the very stories that they heard read in the Psalms), and he is encouraging them to comfort one another with their faith and their hope for what the faithful God has done in the past and will do again in days to come. Again, he is encouraging them to commit themselves to a hopeful and encouraging worldview.

Finally, in Matthew, Jesus is teaching about a difficult topic – the end times – the time when God appears and whisks away the "saved" and leaves behind the heathen. Now, frankly, this idea of the end of time makes us a little uncomfortable. There has been a lot done with these images of being "left behind" to create fear and affect obedience. But really, is that where great behavior comes from? Fear? Jesus isn't necessarily suggesting that people be fearful, but rather that they be "awake." This theme of wakefulness runs through the previous parable and continues into the garden at Gethsemane, where Jesus is struck by his disciples inability to keep awake to watch and pray with him in his final hours. Being Awake can mean so much. We're well aware that the body’s depressed response is to sleep – to retreat from the present moment into a suspended state. But Jesus teaches that we must keep awake. It seems to us that maybe it is important to look at crises and impending doom (global warming, for example; economic tumult, for example) and not to turn away and curl up in a ball of denial but to "keep awake."

Tonight, we will sit, with millions of Americans (and citizens of the world, from the sound of things) and watch in awe and wonder as history is made, as change is sought, as people act out of their place of passion, of vision, of hope. It has been our experience that some disagreements about our current societal state have been ugly, unyielding, unChristian. What do we know that we can hold on to in the midst of all of this? What we can share with our neighbors, in spite of differing views, to keep our vision set on a better world?

It is easy right now to be wrapped up in this election, but our allegiance is to God and that requires more of us than just civic responsibility. Hmmm. We're called to be in service to a hurting world – one that will not be fixed by our elections – only by our actions. May we all be walking with a wakeful Kingdom vision. And may our footsteps continue even after the election is complete.

Source of all we hope or dread
Sheepdog, jackal, rattler, swan
We hunt your face and long to trust
That your hid mouth will say again
Let there be light
A clear new day

But when we thirst in this dry night
We drink from hot wells poisoned with the blood of children
And when we strain to hear a steady homing beam
Our ears are balked by stifled moans
And howls of desolation from the throats of sisters, brothers, wild men
Clawing at the gates for bread

Even our own feeble hands
Ache to seize the crown you wear
And work our private havoc through
The known and unknown lands of space

Absolute in flame beyond us
Seed and source of Dark and Day
Maker whom we beg to be
Our mother father comrade mate

'Til our few atoms blow to dust
Or form again in wiser lives
Or find your face and hear our name
In your calm voice the end of night
If dark may end
Wellspring goal of Dark and Day

Be here
Be now

James Taylor, New Hymn

10.29.2008

Twenty Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Joshua 3: 7 - 17
Psalm 107: 1 - 7; 33 - 37
1 Thessalonians 2: 9 - 13
Matthew 23: 1 - 12

It seems like this summer and fall we have been writing a lot about obedience...and this week is no different. Why is the bible full of stories that set meaning, that prescribe how we are to behave and how we are to be in relationship with others and with God. Does anyone think this notion of obedience might be an important theme for us to pay attention to?

We begin this week seeing Joshua receiving his Leadership Orientation from God as the people of Israel are preparing to pass over in to the Promised Land. God continues to be quite directive and detailed about how and what Joshua should do and what he should have those with him do. AND God explains the things God will do. We hope we can say this without too much disrespect: it seems a little like the child's game "Simon Says". God gives them (literally) step by step instructions as to where to stand and when to walk and who should go first and later on God explains who should pick up a stone and where they should stack them and why they are doing all of this. It almost feels as if God did not trust the people to do their own meaning making....it is almost as if God does not trust them to understand what is happening to and around them on their own. Granted, the people have not demonstrated a great grasp of the concept of obedience or meaning-making to this point. Are we nearly at a breakthrough here? At what point does Israel finally begin to understand? (Hmm...we think Isaiah has things to say about this, too.)
And this certainly makes sense as the nation of Israel continues to develop and recall their own history as they live in to the future.

In so many Psalms (including 107 for this week) the writer relives what had happened to the people and how when they had obeyed they found themselves in the loving care of God and when they had disobeyed they found themselves either left out of the favor of God or directly incurring the wrath of God.

This form of believing and following is reinforced in Paul's letter to the Thessalonians in a variety of ways. Paul's letter to the church in Thessalonica is believed to be the oldest of his letters. At this point, the community is only about twenty years past the stunning events of the crucifixion and resurrection. It was probably a largely gentile community. Paul is sort of recounting his visit and the things that he taught, and correcting some misunderstandings while, like any good teacher, reinforcing good behavior on the part of the community. He points out to them that his conduct was blameless....his conduct was obedient to God and therefore should be imitated by newer Christians as the way to live. He also praises this community for hearing God's word through Paul and Timothy and accepting it, not as human word, but as the word of God...somehow different, somehow more profound.

And then in the words of Jesus as recorded by Matthew we see a different view. Jesus makes explicit what everyone always sort of hints around at....he holds the scribes and Pharisees up as examples of excellent teachers of the law and really poor obeyers of the law. It is almost as if they have taken what they were originally given and over-read it and over-manipulated it and over thought it to where it no longer follows the initial intention. Somehow, the scrupulous attention to the law has brought them to a place where they have lost an understanding of why they are doing what they are doing. Perhaps Jesus didn't see in them a true understanding of these laws handed down by God to Moses as part of a deep relationship between God and creation.

Sometimes we lose ourselves in a rational, heady space. And sometimes we resist "direction" that seems too explicit or that we don't fully understand. But there were really important reasons for God helping the Israelites to set meaning. There were reasons that young Christian communities needed to be encouraged and applauded for heeding God's word (c'mon, they were reeling...waiting for Jesus to return and for all the dead to be resurrected..and for the Roman Empire to fall, to boot). In that rational, heady space, we can explain things away, claim a lack of "relevance" to our modern world.

But somehow, we are here, listening and reading and hoping to see meaning for our lives - recognizing that there is more to this than we can know, or we would be on to something else by now. These readings work on us. These ancient traditions and stories and laws and warnings still trigger something within us.

I am the maker of the Heavens
I am the bright and morning star
I am the breath of all Creation
Who always was
And is to come

I am the One who walked on water
I am the One who calmed the seas
I am the miracles and wonders
So come and see
And follow me
You will know

I am the fount of living water
The risen Son of man
The healer of the broken
And when you cry
I am your savior and redeemer
Who bore the sins of man
The author and perfecter
Beginning and the end
I am

I am the spirit deep inside you
I am the word upon your heart
I am the One who even knew you
Before your birth
Before you were

Mark Schultz - I Am

10.22.2008

Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Deuteronomy 34: 1 - 12
Psalm 90: 1 - 6; 13 - 17
1 Thessalonians 1: 1 - 10
Matthew 22: 34 -36


In a recent episode of NPR's "Speaking of Faith" Eckhart Tolle (author of A New Earth and The Power of Now) said stress is created when you are not content where you are and are wishing you were somewhere else. His primary purpose is to help folks live for right Now (as can be seen in one of his recent books).

And it seems to us this is likely true--whether it is a willful personal choice or the circumstances dictate it, when you are not able to appreciate where you are, life is more difficult.

We wonder if Moses was under stress. Unfortunately, this week, we lose Moses. We really lose Moses. And now after all he has been through we see him as he looks out over the Promised Land and he receives some difficult news from the One he has been following--he will not set foot in this place, this magnificent Promised Land to which he has led the murmuring crowd. No - instead he dies alone on a mountain and is mourned for 30 days by Israel. He is praised as a holy man and a great prophet. In fact the reading says there has been no such prophet since. Think about all the psalms we have read through this recent lectionary cycle. So many of them celebrate Moses' actions very specifically. He was a great man. And the Israelites, in spite of their history of grumbling at him, knew this. After all he has experienced in his life, he made it to the mountain overlooking the promised fertile plain, and he went no further. After all the dreams of the Promised Land, he only looked in at it from the edge. We really hope there was already a bumper sticker in existence that said "Life is about the journey, not the destination."

In the Psalm this week there is lots of "time" language where it seems the writer is longing for the days gone by and longing for the days to come, but does not spend any time talking about the satisfaction of the present moment. It must be tough to live that way.

Paul's letter to the Christians in Thessalonica seems to be a fairly good example of someone who is attempting to live in the present moment in as stress-free a way as possible. In fact, it reads as a letter of deep friendship or a love letter affirming how wonderful it is to be in relationship with them today. The author acknowledges that the message that they brought to Thessalonica was not popular – not the toast of the town – but they loved well and did good work and consider this to be beloved community.

In Matthew we find the not often quoted second half of the "Greatest Commandment" conversation where Jesus turns the tables and asks the Pharisees a question about the Messiah. The text of the Gospel of Matthew was written to a Jewish community. With that in mind, the dialogue that Jesus has with the Pharisees becomes a little clearer. Using references that would be clear to every person sitting in the room, Jesus asserts his divinity. He is not just David’s ‘son,’ but he is the Son of Man. The messiah is the fulfillment of God's long-standing covenant with the people of Israel, and Jesus asserts that the Messiah is the son of God. And the interesting thing here (to us) is that the very concept of the Messiah is an idea where folks were looking to the future for someone to come and save / restore them from the current difficult situation they were living in. The idea of a Messiah had developed as the Jews were living under oppressive rulers and watching their homes and holy places being destroyed. And so it is interesting how Jesus spends this time trying to tease out their understanding / expectation of who the Messiah would be and what the Messiah might bring. How ironic that he lived in their midst, awaited and expected and somehow not quite recognized.

It is hard to be present. It is hard to have a rough day and know that it is only one and to regard it as God’s magnificent gift, warts and all. It is hard not to project the angst of today on to tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. Similarly, it is difficult not to look past what we have hoping for something more. And yet, this day and all that it is is gift. The ones in our midst are gift. The kingdom is at hand.

What are ways that you overlook the present?
Are you more apt to look ahead, look behind or look to the present moment?
What is it about the present that we cannot bear?
How can we become friendly with each day as it happens?


Blessed One, Mother-protector and Father-provider,
in each one but also everywhere.
May your name frame our lives and tame our world!
Only in such a Divine reign will the embrace of earth and heaven be realized.
In the interim time, give the poor enough to eat and adequate clean water to drink;
and save the rich from trusting in overfilled barns and overstocked vintage wines.
Transfer your strength to assist us to forgive friends and even enemies;
may this be our gift-offering in gratitude for divine amnesty.
Help us not to be overcome by temptation;
But when in the pit of alienation and self-indulgence reach down and free us.
Help us never to lose hope that your power to transform our petty kingdoms
into your glorious dominion will in the end prevail. Amen.

Contextual rendition of the Lord’s Prayer by Sathianathan Clarke, Wesley Theological Seminary

10.15.2008

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time



Do you ever find you have been paying attention to the wrong thing?  You know, you put a lot of energy and work and focus and worry and anxiety in to one particular issue, and something happens that broadens your vision or gives you a different understanding of the situation and you suddenly understand your focus was too narrow or possibly even misplaced.  A light example might be worrying about scratches on a car whose engine is about to seize up or whose brakes are failing or that won't even start.

We imagine that in the scene related to us by Matthew this week, Jesus is shaking his head in disbelief and frustration.  He has found himself in another debate with some fellow keepers / interpreters of the law, and they are actually trying to find a way to "trap" him in to saying something that will cause his downfall when he transgresses either the Mosaic law or the Roman law....they had gotten to the point where they did not care which system they tripped him up in, they were just focused on tripping Jesus up.  In this case they were attempting to get him on both accounts to a certain extent.  If he gave an enthusiastic "Yes" toward paying taxes to the emperor, that would raise eyebrows among the Jews because that would mean he was excited / affirming paying taxes to the people they felt were illegally ruling over them.  If he gave an emphatic "No" toward paying taxes to the emperor, that would raise Roman eyebrows because he would be encouraging disobedience to the civil authority (and we all know that it is always a small step from civil disobedience to toppeling a governing authority!).  But Jesus was not drawn in.  In fact, he attempts to show them what a misplaced focus they were bringing up...he reminds them to offer back to the emperor what the emperor gave them--that is such a small portion of life; and offer back to God what God gave them--life itself.  There is no comparison between the two.  Why try?

In Paul, Silvanus and Timothy's letter to the church in Thessalonica we see an example of how folks had changed their focus from things of less consequence to more consequence and this letter was a bit of encouragement and affirmation.  Evidently, when the message of Jesus first came to that area, they were putting all of their faith in, and worship toward, idols; and through the Good News that was shared they turned toward God.  And that Refocusing they went through (which we also read was inspired / sustained / supported by the Holy Spirit) had changed the way they welcomed and interacted with visitors from all over the region.  Because they were aimed in the appropriate direction and focused on the right thing, their whole personality and reputation seems to have changed.

There is an interesting dialogue between Moses and Yahweh, with Moses insisting on seeing God we see a mature, dependent Moses who understood the importance of being in relationship with God.  When we read the whole 33rd chapter of Exodus we see a beautiful example of Moses and God working out their relationship and both of them discerning / discovering what is important to them.  The Exodus passage contains three key words – see, face and know.  See and sight are repeated over and over...it seems that Moses is seeking proof.  And Yahweh isn't offering proof; I am who I am, I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, you have found favor in my sight.  It's as if God has lost patience and is offended by Moses’ need for assurance, for proof.  And we also see that, in the end, God relents and (as best as we can interpret from the text) seems to soften and recognize Moses' need for himself and his people to have a more present, more visible, more tangible connection to being the people of God.  Again, from our interpretation, it seems both have recognized the need to not focus on what one thinks the other needs, but instead to listen to what the other actually needs.  It turns out both God and Moses needed to have some commitment shown by the other party involved.  This seems to be a much different relationship with God than we have today....what do you think has changed?

The Psalm is one of focus as well.  It is a praise psalm, honoring God’s mighty power and justice.  It acknowledges God’s faithfulness to Moses and Aaron and Jacob, and recognizes his corrective actions when followers go astray.  It is a psalm that seems to be written by the victor, and the words are ripe with praise for the authority of God’s “kingship,” which may or may not be something we recognize or celebrate today.  It repeatedly calls worshippers to praise a righteous and holy God.

It is hard, we think, to let go of things once they seize our imagination or understanding.  But we also recognize as we read these verses that we are awfully good at missing the point while diligently attending to the Wrong Thing.  Sometimes it is as simple for us as focusing on the low moments of the day instead of the gift of life and the beauty of creation.  Sometimes it is a deep focus on a dividing issue instead of a uniting bond.  If only we could always know when we were headed astray...

  • How do you check in with yourself about your relationship with God, with others, with society, with creation?
  • How are the “right things” revealed to you?
  • What is the focus of your relationship with God?  


Neither Out Far Nor In Deep 
Robert Frost

The people along the sand
All turn and look one way.
They turn their back on the land.
They look at the sea all day.

As long as it takes to pass
A ship keeps raising its hull;
The wetter ground like glass
Reflects a standing gull.

The land may vary more;
But wherever the truth may be?
The water comes ashore,
And the people look at the sea.

They cannot look out far. 
They cannot look in deep.
But when was that ever a bar
To any watch they keep? 

10.08.2008

Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Exodus 32:1-14
Psalm 106:1-6, 19 - 23
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14


This week's readings have us wondering – what does God really expect from us? We sort of like the Micah response...do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God. Got it. Check it off the list. Can do. And then, what's in it for us. (Did we say that out loud? Really?)

In Exodus, we see our current hero, Moses, on top of the mountain in the wilderness receiving commandments....instructions....from God. God is explaining to the people through Moses what is expected of how they are to live so that they will be able to be in right relationship with God. Meanwhile, down at the bottom of the mountain, Aaron and the rest of these liberated slaves and current wilderness wanderers have lost their patience with Moses and God and whatever is happening on top of the mountain. They haven't seen Moses for a few days and they have written him off and want some thing and some one else to follow. These are certainly people who want to be committed to something....at least they want to take direction from someone....they need someone to tell them where to go and how to live. And so Aaron has a brilliant idea to make a god...an idol for the people to worship and follow. This brings God in to a quick and deep anger. It seems God has lost all patience and is ready to completely wipe out these folks who continue to complain and whose faith continues to regress at the slightest bump in the desert path. It seems like at this moment, both sides of this relationship have failed a bit.....certainly God knew these folks were easily scared and needed some pretty constant attention.....and certainly these folks knew God had delivered them and provided for them and protected them up to this point. What do you think the people really expected of God? As we have followed them during this lectionary cycle, it seems they have been fairly consistently disappointed in how (and at what speed) their needs were met.

In the Psalm as excerpted for this week, we get the viewpoint of a person who is obviously in a different place in life. This writer is able to look back at those same wilderness wanderers and the history that surrounded them and see God's faithfulness and power and protection in a different way than they were able to see. He has a great line in there: "They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass." How often do we do this? Exchanging the relationship we have with God for the image of something pale by honest and thoughtful comparison? It certainly is easier to look back through the lens of history and experience at someone else who obviously failed to see the works of God around them. Read the entire Psalm – it's long. And it is largely a history of Israel's experience of failing to be faithful and experiencing dire consequences. Was Israel's suffering a result of some punishment? Or did their actions set in motion reactions that resulted in crisis? It's hard to know where cause and effect lie.

There is no question that Paul understood / taught / deeply believed we must be faithful to God for God to be faithful to us. This passage from his letter to the Christians in Philippi reads like an elementary school worksheet about "if-then" statements. He encourages his readers / hearers to live in upright ways and then they will receive the Peace of God. Another reading of this is that the Peace of God shows up as we live faithfully.....somehow through the very actions of obedience we are living out / performing. Again, we wonder how does this work? How do our actions and our choices affect us and our relationship with God? And does God respond? Or do we live with consequences we create?

And in the parable Jesus tells us we see another illustration of how this relationship between humans and God works. A king invites all of the best and brightest to his son's wedding banquet, and none of them show up. Hmmm. We'd be a little offended, wouldn't we? The king must have really offended these folks at some point. Not one to waste a good spread, nor one to fail his son and daughter-in-law by not hosting a proper banquet, he turns his servants out to invite the entire community...the dregs of local society. And they come, with joy (and we're guessing a little trepidation). But evidently, these folks knew the local custom and all but one managed to wear the appropriate clothes (show the appropriate respect) for the banquet. Woe to the one who did not. We see that obedience is required and expected against the penalty of death and banishment. If asked to come to the wedding banquet, it seems the thing to do is to put on your best wedding robe and show up....immediately if not sooner.

All of these stories seem a bit like the wool sweater worn on a day that is just a little too warm. They are uncomfortable. They are chafing. The difficulty for us with all of these examples is that they all seem to lack the Grace we prefer to read in to the scriptures. Maybe we have a wishful and inappropriate reading of the gospel story, but it seems that when we read the full scope of the story we find more of an allowance for mistakes. And yet, we live in a world full of sad stories and uncomfortable circumstances. What role do we have in creating it, and if we are faithful – really outrageously faithful – can we change it?

What is your gut level response to the readings for this week?
What is your response telling you about yourself? About your relationship with God?
Is covenant a reciprocating relationship, or simply a faithful relationship? What is the difference between those things?

The Kaddish
Let us magnify and let us sanctify the great name of God in the world which He created according to His will. May His kingdom come in your lifetime, and in your days, and in the lifetime of the family of Israel--quickly and speedily may it come. Amen.
May the greatness of His being be blessed from eternity to eternity.
Let us bless and let us extol, let us tell aloud and let us raise aloft, let us set on high and let us honour, let us exalt and let us raise the Holy One--blessed be He!--though He is far beyond any blessing or song, any honour or any consolation that can be spoken of in this world. Amen.
May great peace from heaven adn the gift of life be granted to us and to all the family of Israel. Amen.
May He who makes peace in the highest bring this peace upon us and upon all Israel. Amen.

9.30.2008

Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Exodus 20: 1 – 4, 7 – 9, 12 – 20
Psalm 19
Philippians 3: 4b – 14
Matthew 21: 33 – 46


It feels a little bit like we need to remember that all of the lectionary passages in this season of the year aren’t intended to be read together. At the beginning of Ordinary Time, we made a choice to follow the “historic” selection of Hebrew texts, those that would tell the story of the creation, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the tribes of Israel, Moses and the Exodus. And yet, we do find that the reading do somehow “hang together.” This was sort of one of those weeks - “sort of”...

There is no doubt that as you study the Bible, you will see God at work in the world through amazing actions and through the voice of others. Certainly, the greatest of these actions in the Christian tradition is God's unbelievable act of love, incarnation and resurrection. But part of the reason that the biblical narrative is chocked full of these stories is because time and time again, humanity missed the point. The fall, the flood, the wilderness...right up and through a key piece of our lectionary this week, Jesus' parables about the Kingdom of God. Do we "get it" now?

It is difficult to write to any audience with relevance this week and skip talking about the tense environment in which we currently reside. By all accounts, we are in a financial tailspin that will affect the entire global economy. And to some extent, that tailspin is a product of a growing concern for our individual well-being at the expense of others well-being. (Ouch, that hurts, doesn't it?) Several weeks ago on the heels of the early news about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann preached a sermon at Mars Hill, an emergent congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he drew parallels between the economic disaster we are facing and the fall of the Temple in Jerusalem. And much has transpired since then. It really does call the question, what happens when we fail to be obedient and true?

The Hebrew scripture reading continues the Wilderness adventures of the Israelites. Moses is on Mount Sinai, and God is giving him the commandments. The people waiting below quake with fear and trembling because God's presence is visible to them in smoke and thunder on the mountainside. It is interesting to note that this is a "scissors and paste" version of the commandments as selected. Read the entire text and note what is missing from the lectionary..."You shall not bow down and worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments." Whew, harsh injunctions...and worth asking why it was cut from the selection. What do we do with that? This is a list of rules, and one would assume that breaking them comes with consequence. If you look at this text and set it in the context of the past three weeks and the next week's texts, it becomes even more overwhelming...one of the first things they Israelites do next is create an idol for worship!

Psalm 19 is another praise Psalm, this one with an intercession as well. The psalmist affirms the Law and its place in the world, but also acknowledges how hard it is to do right and asks for help in staying true.

We continue our reading in Philippians, a letter written by Paul from prison. Remember that Paul is writing to early Christian communities prior to the writing of the gospel texts. He was a Jewish leader - a Pharisee converted in a famous conversion encounter. He has shed the fetters of strict observance of Law that were not truly based in concern for the other to follow the new Law, or the restated Law, in Jesus Christ. Through Christ's resurrection, the Law has been reframed, and the greatest commandment is an interpretation of the base intention of the law as it was delivered to Moses - to love one another. Paul looking back at where he has been and knows that there are miles to go before he is finished...and he has confidence that he will end in the right place.

The passage from Matthew is the second of a series of three parables that attack the religious leadership in Jerusalem. At the time, Jesus has entered Jerusalem to the cheers of many, has driven merchants and money changers out of the temple, has had his authority questioned by the Pharisees and is aggressively responding with sharp criticism not of all of Israel, but of the leadership that has misinterpreted the law for their own gain and built a "castle in the air" of power and privilege at the expense of many. This particular parable points to the rejection of the prophets who have warned of misdirection in centuries past. He quotes Psalm 118, referring to himself as the cornerstone that is being rejected. And he condemns the leaders, reminding them that they will be broken to pieces. Harsh words, harsh judgment. They've missed the clues time and again, sought their own gain and this is the price they will pay. It is easy to understand their desire to kill him--they had control of religious life in Jerusalem (which was the center of the universe in Judaism), and this was a young man who was threatening their power by publicly calling their commitment and their leadership in to question.

This is a difficult week in the lectionary, juxtaposed against the pain that we find ourselves in right now. We are a nation divided politically and financially. And we wonder, have we forgotten to love one another along the way? Is it too late?

God is faithful. He turns back to his covenant people again and again.

What is our role in this relationship?
What do we need to do to respond faithfully?
How do we deal with authority and commandments in a time of chaos?

We didn't start the fire
It was always burning since the world's been turning
We didn't start the fire
No, we didn't light it
But we tried to fight it

“We Didn’t Start the Fire,” Billy Joel, 1989

9.23.2008

Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time

Exodus 17: 1 – 17
Psalm 78: 1 – 4; 12 – 16
Philippians 2: 1 – 13
Matthew 21: 23 – 32


[Disclaimer: Normally, Matt and I strive to be “one voice,” as we write these lectionary reflections, carefully referring to “our” thinking and what “we” have pondered. This week, I (Laura) need to deviate a bit from that style…it’s part of the framework! WE still share this work!]

Life is a little crazy for us these days. Collectively in our household this fall, four returned to work as one took a new job. Oh, and Matt was preparing for a trip to Israel in the midst of it all. In a good week prior to September 1, we Try to think and talk about the lectionary reflections for a solid 5 days before we start writing, and we strive to post by Tuesday night...

That was Before September (commonly referred to as B.S.). Lately, the lectionary reflection has been a bit more of a Discipline. I have class on Monday afternoons and Tuesday nights. And generally speaking, I have 250-300 pages of reading to do weekly. And that mostly happens on the weekends. So interpreting the lectionary passages on top of all that, plus our jobs, has put us on sort of “RUSH” mode. Oh, and did we mention that Matt’s cutting his teeth on his New Job?

And yesterday, Matt left for 12 days in Israel. And we sort of had time to talk about the lectionary. Sort of. A little bit.

And packing is hard. And travel stress is hard. And this weekend it seemed the kids were all over the map. And the laundry needed done. And the dog needed fed. Oh, yeah…so did the kids. And the grass was tall. And on and on and On.

So Monday, I opened the email that Matt sent moments before he left for the airport that afternoon, sharing some words for our Lectionary Reflection. And they are Good Words – words to be shared later. But Monday night is a blur of getting home from class, gathering the kids from their respective schools, putting some semblance of a meal on the table, hastily blessing it and devouring it, then racing Brook 22 miles across the county to Scouts. Then home to oversee baths and bedtime for the girls, decompress over dishes and laundry, debrief with Brook upon his return, and collapse into a sleeping heap.

And then Tuesday comes. And the day is piled up with a backlog of work, followed again by gathering everyone up from school, throwing something like dinner before them and then racing off to class, where I field emails and texts about their Wellbeing.

Tonight, as I was gathering with classmates I posted this to my Facebook status:
“Laura is murmuring about the lectionary blog. Maybe if I hit my laptop with a staff, words will come out…”

And So it Goes.

This week in the Hebrew scriptures, we see our friends the Israelites continuing to wander around the wilderness following the direction of Yahweh through Moses. A quick recap....they were slaves, became unhappy, God provided their release; they became hungry in the wilderness, they complained against God and Moses, God provided food for them; and now we see that they have come to a place where they are desperate for water. It is interesting to note the language in this (and the last few chapters also) passage. They complain specifically about why things have been done to them...it is all in the passive voice...the way they speak it is as if they had no choice in the matter....I wonder if this was actually true. They had been brought this far and they were still complaining against Moses and God because they feel they have been snookered in to being out in the wilderness without any food or water. Moses, like many leaders, takes these criticisms to heart. He is personally hurt. He cares for these folks and they are complaining and he feels responsible. And it appears Yahweh has basically the same response when Moses takes the new complaint to him. An interesting question (we will not know the answer to on this side of the Veil) is how does God respond when folks complain and threaten God because they believe they (the humans) know more than God does. Hmmmm.....

The Psalm this week is once again one of Thanksgiving, recounting how God met the Israelites need for water in the desert. What more does one need? Water, cool and fresh, in a dry time. The Psalm doesn’t, however, say anything about the people Complaining. In fact, the Psalmist declares that “we” will tell of the “glorious deeds.” Hmm. Yes, glorious at what point? When did “we” decide the deeds were “glorious.” In the wilderness, everyone seemed pretty set on Grumbling.

Paul’s letter to the community at Philippi is written from prison, and it is a letter that addresses concerns and conflicts that the church was experiencing in the broader community (persecution, false prophets, differing interpretations of teaching, etc., etc.) and inside the church community (some falling out between leaders). The chosen text calls the community back to Christ’s example of humility. Jesus, in the face of persecution, humbles himself on a cross in death. The end of the chosen text is interesting – “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you…” Ah, is that the Discomfort they are feeling? The Unsettled space they find themselves in? God at work within them?

Finally, and perhaps most Perplexingly, Jesus is in the Temple, teaching. He’s been approached by elders and priests who are questioning his authority to do this. These priests and elders are Murmuring, and Jesus reminds them that it is their actions and not their Words that will make a difference. And he responds with a parable – as he so often does – a story that Does Not Sink In Right Away. Go ahead. Read it again and again and again. Kind of frustrating? This is not just a simple story. It has to work on you a bit. And even after it has, you will probably continue to find meaning or perhaps confusion in it each time you visit.

Throughout the wilderness story, the word “murmur” is used to describe this perpetual complaining. Murmur. It just sounds unsettled, doesn’t it? In Paul’s letter to Phillipi, the first verse past this weeks selections advises “do all things without murmuring and arguing…”

But are we capable of that?
And when we do, do we Grow or Change or Experience God?
Where are you murmuring in life right now?
How do you sense God’s grace present in response to your murmuring?


You can look to the stars in search of the answers
Look for God and life on distant planets
Have your faith in the ever after
While each of us holds inside the map to the labyrinth
And heaven's here on earth

We are the spirit the collective conscience
We create the pain and the suffering and the beauty in this world
Heaven's here on earth

In our faith in humankind
In our respect for what is earthly
In our unfaltering belief in peace and love and understanding

Heaven’s in our heart

Heaven’s Here On Earth, Tracy Chapman

9.17.2008

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Exodus 16: 2 – 15
Psalm 105: 1 – 6; 37 – 45
Philippians 1: 21 – 30
Matthew 20: 1 – 16

I can't get no satisfaction...

When we join up with the Israelites this week, they are grouchy, hungry, scared and just convinced that they have been led astray. They are nagging Moses and Aaron. They even suggest that maybe it would have been better to stay in Egypt. At least there they had food, even as they sat in the shadow and under the whip of Pharaoh. Yahweh tells Moses that he'll handle it. It seems Yahweh intends to test them...to see if they will follow directions. Moses and Aaron remind the Israelites that their complaining is not against them...it is against the Lord. Just as their safe passage to this point is not because of Moses and Aaron, but instead, because of the Lord. To make a point, Yahweh even appears (the glory of the Lord) in a cloud. Aaron delivers Yahweh's direction, and in the evening, quail cover the camp, and in the morning, manna covers the ground. If you read on through the chapter, you'll find that the Israelites are given very specific instructions, and that no matter how much or how little they collect, each has enough. It's amazing really – in spite of their muttering and grumbling, Yahweh gives them what they need.

The selections from the Psalm offers thanksgiving for Yahweh's provision for the children of Abraham and Jacob. It celebrations the amazing course of events that have shaped the lives of the Israelites. Remember that it is believed that the Psalms were gathered and recorded during the Jewish diaspora that followed the fall of the Temple. In retrospect, in an effort to "rally the troops" who were scattered by persecution, this hymn of thanksgiving gathers together the high and low points of history and sculpts them into an epic tale with God as the hero.

Paul's letter to the church at Phillipi was written from prison. He seems to be balancing the hardship of being persecuted with the joy of knowing that people are learning and sharing and spreading the good news of Jesus Christ. It seems as though he knows that an option for him is death, and in that option he would find comfort; but he also knows that his time on earth is for the good of the growing church. His hardships are resulting in change – in new communities and new believers. He encourages this community to live "in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ" and to be strong in the face of opposition. At the end of all of that there will be reward. Somehow gain comes only with struggle.

Jesus' teaching through parables continues in Matthew. Jesus tells another parable about the kingdom of heaven, comparing it to the landowner who sets out to hire vineyard workers at several times during the day. At the end of the day, regardless of the length of time each worked, they all receive the same reward. This creates a little stir among the workers, who fail to see the justice in that (and who seem to expect to change something with their grumbling). Instead, the landowner affirms his right to choose what he will do with his money, and he chooses to be generous with those who have worked less. "So the last will be first, and the first will be last."

Do these stories stir your sense of justice in any way? It seems that we have a pretty keen sense of what is right or wrong when it pertains to us. But is our judgment solid? God was responsive to whiny, sulky Israelites in the wilderness. Was it because they were whiny, or because they had needs? (Hmm. We are so reminded of parenthood here...the hungry toddler who is beyond reasoning...a handful of cheerios and a glass of milk works far better than a time out at that point.) Paul seems caught up in a related but different question. He knows that his life is unpleasant on earth doing the hard work of teaching and preaching and healing. He's knocked around and threatened and imprisoned. And he knows deep in his soul that in death he will find great peace in Christ. But he can't just walk away from his work among the people. He can't give into his own "murmuring." In the parable of the landowner and the vineyard workers, the workers have a deep sense that those who work harder deserve more. And the landowner, giving out of his abundance, chooses to treat each worker equally.

It seems to come back to perspective again.

Can one person's complaining be another's heartfelt prayer?
Does God "test" us to see if we are honest and true?
Is my feeling of being treated unfairly necessarily mean I have been treated unfairly? Conversely, does justice / equality for all necessarily mean justice and equality for each individual?
What is each of our responsibility to respond when we feel we have been wronged by another or by God? Complain? Listen? Accept? Something else???

Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be.
Whisper words of wisdom, let it be.

And when the broken hearted people living in the world agree,
there will be an answer, let it be.
For though they may be parted
there is still a chance that they will see,
there will be an answer.
let it be.

Let It Be, Paul McCartney

9.09.2008

The 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time

During worship at KC the last few weeks we have been thinking together about what it means to be a community and how we are able to build better communities that are centered around Christ. One of the qualities of community that has been mentioned a couple of times but has not been directly discussed recently is the concept of Forgiveness.

We don't know about you, but this is not an easy topic for us. The more we think about it the more we recognize how much emotion and life and reality is tied up in the actions of Forgiving and Being Forgiven. To Forgive someone, you have to have been wronged in some way....someone has to have wronged you. To Be Forgiven you have to have wronged someone somehow. None of those are pleasant options. Then there is the added stickiness of perspective. I might feel you have wronged me, but you do not...and I expect you to ask for Forgiveness. Or you might feel you have wronged me, but I don't see it that way and you feel the need to be Forgiven, but I do not. The perspective and judgment of at least two individuals are necessary for Forgiveness to be expected or offered. Emotional and Complicated this Forgiveness is.

While Forgiveness may be a component of how we are best able to function as a community, the reality is that our ability to forgive and be forgiven seems to be a deeply Personal, Unknowable thing. We are even a little Uncomfortable when we think about talking intimately about Forgiveness in the community that so desperately needs us to be Forgiven and Forgiving.

In this week's readings we find Jesus and Peter speaking openly about Forgiveness. Peter wants to know how many times he should Forgive someone, and Jesus answers with a story about how the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. Jesus tells this parable of a man who was Forgiven a HUGE debt and then later this same man would not Forgive another person a much smaller debt. The parable ends with the king torturing this fellow until he paid his entire HUGE debt. Now there is certainly a lot to say about class and wealth and power within this example of how and why and when one should forgive, but let's just think for a moment about what we learn it takes to forgive from this parable. In many ways, the initial huge debt is like the grace are granted Daily (ney, hourly) by God, evidenced by the sacrifice of Jesus at the Crucifixion. Certainly in our petty moments, we fail to forgive those around us, forgetting that we are not perfect and therefore in need of forgiveness ourselves. There is some of Jesus' "twinkling eye" story-telling here. How Ironic that in the name of Forgiveness, anyone would be Tortured? It raised a question, too - is torture literal? Or could we be self-tortured when we fail to forgive authentically? Is it critical to our ability to forgive to remember that we are forgiven? Or that we are debtors as well? Or both?

Paul speaks about Forgiveness from a different angle. He asks how and why we form opinions of one another and pass judgment on one another in the first place. He appears to be speaking to some of the more pious....at least "observant" followers of Christ in this community. Remember, Paul was writing as a quite recently VERY observant, VERY committed follower of the Torah.....knowing the law and passing judgments and knowing when someone could / should be reconciled or Forgiven...that was all his business.

The Psalmist rights a hymn of praise that reflects upon a God who pushed back the Sea of Reeds and the mighty Jordan River to let the Israelites pass after the Hebrews left the wilderness to enter the promise land. Those two events framed the time spent wandering and murmuring. While in the wilderness, Yahweh time and time again showed patience and Forgiveness for the people of Israel.

And then there is the story we find in Exodus. We left this one until the end because it fits with some of the same "difficult passages" we mentioned last week. It is the story of the Israelites running from the Egyptians and Moses ( +Yahweh of course) holding back the waters of the Sea of Reeds long enough for the Israelites to pass through, but not long enough for the Egyptians. It is hard to think about where Forgiveness fits in to this story. We have spent some time wondering if there was any possibility for Forgiveness in this story. Was there any other way this could have worked out? Is this what the Egyptians "deserve" because they would not let the children of Israel go (and likely ruin their economy)? Could the children of Israel have interceded between Yahweh and the Egyptians and forgiven the Egyptians and somehow made it okay for them to stay enslaved in Egypt? Did it have to work out where untold hundreds of Egyptian soldiers were drowned?

And thinking about something like the idea of Forgiveness and Egyptians and the Israelites brings our minds to the 7th anniversary of the events of We do not dare attempt to draw any direct parallels between the biblical scene (Egypt, Israel, and Yahweh) and the players in our scene (the US, Taliban terrorists, and the Gods of Fundamentalism and Freedom), but one could certainly find some common themes in these two situations we think. But our question for this discussion is whether or not we as victims (at least we often see ourselves as victims here) have the ability or responsibility to Forgive the people and systems that wronged us. Is there any way that the people and systems that we feel wronged us could have looked at us in a different way and offered us Forgiveness? In a situation like this (or like between Israel and Egypt) where the two sides are so desperately opposed, what does Forgiveness look like?

Forgiveness is a tough topic. It is fairly easy to grasp as a theoretical concept, but it is often quite difficult to implement.

  • Does real forgiveness require real sacrifice?
  • Do we love ourselves as forgiven people so that we can love and forgive others? What is difficult about that for you? How could your community help you in that endeavor?
  • How do you / we reconcile the Exodus story with the passages from Romans and Matthew? Should we try to hold these together? Is it possible? Is it necessary?

"Without Forgiveness, there is no future." -Archbishop Desmond Tutu

9.03.2008

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Exodus 12:1-14
Psalm 149
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

We don't know about you, but the circles we tend to hang out in are not folks that are really comfortable with the hard line Christians that want to follow all the rules in scripture as they are written. And we also do not often hang out with folks that credit God with killing our enemies and such. We tend to spend time with folks that talk a lot about reading these instances of scripture through the lens of culture and context. Certainly we are not attempting to explain away all rules or all of the ugly parts of scripture, but we are attempting (we think) to be faithful to the time, place, culture, and context in which the people lived that wrote the stories / laws / poetry / history / etc that we hold so dear.

And no matter how much we might want to ignore or explain away difficult moments in the scriptural story or the hard to follow rules and guidelines, that does not stop them from being there. We still need to look at them and struggle with them and find out what it is they say to us and how they move and motivate our lives. This week's lectionary readings are full of these "uncomfortable" pieces of scripture.

We start with the story of the first Passover. Today we (especially we Christians that celebrate this day) have adapted it and made it in to a fairly distant remembrance. The initiating event was actually the 10th plague visited on the Egyptians in an attempt to get the Israelites released from the land of Egypt. After polluted rivers, frogs, mosquitoes, flies, dying cattle, festering boils, damaging hail, locusts, and dense darkness, the Egyptians still needed some "persuading" and so God (Yahweh) said that the first born of every family (that was not on the side of the Israelites) would be killed. In the section we read for this week, we find some fairly explicit directions for what Moses and his people were to do to avoid being effected by this plague. There is so much detail and importance here they are almost like directions for building a bomb. These are directions / rules / guidelines these folks followed to the letter. And this was necessary so God would not kill the first born in each of their families. Again, it was not simply by virtue of these folks being children of Israel that they were spared the damage of this final plague, it was dependant on them following the guidelines and rules God set out for them.

Next we find the Psalm of praise (149) that begins with some of the normal praising of God and reveling in the relationship of God to the people and the protection by God of the people. Then there is a dramatic turn in verse 6. "Let the high praises of God be in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands, to execute vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples, to bind their kings with fetters and their nobles with chains of iron, to execute on them the judgement decreed. This is glory for all his faithful ones." Do you know anyone who sings this type of song in their Sunday morning worship today? What did this mean to those who first sang these songs? One of the purposes of the written Psalms was to create unifying worship for Jews scattered after the Babylonian exile. These words may have been a great comfort to people beleaguered and oppressed and scattered through the lands given their recent history and experience.

Then in Paul's letter to the church in Rome, we find more and more instruction that may or may not be comfortable for any of us to follow. In the first part of chapter 13 Paul explains what each follower's responsibility is to the State or Civil authorities. This is certainly something for us as followers of Christ to grapple with as we head toward election season this November. But that is not this week's reading. This week he focuses on how each of us can completely fulfill all of the law by following the command to "Love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law." This is another specific injunction that we find in the scripture and it seems to be a message that runs counter to the one we find in Exodus. How do we reconcile a situation like this? Is it our responsibility to love our neighbor and God will punish or exile or kill those God finds deserving?

One might think that is true, but we see in the Matthew passage that we (at least it was true for the disciples....does that mean it is true for us?) are to tell someone when they have done wrong and confront them and "bind" or "loose" (also translated as "forbid" and "permit") certain things here on this earth. This passage is in a series of sayings on humility and forgiveness that Jesus was offering to the disciples. Right after this particular passage about binding and loosing we find Peter asking Jesus how often we should forgive someone. There is a difference between forbidding something (creating a "law") and then forgiving a transgression once the law has been broken and based on this passage, both are recommended by Jesus to the disciples.

We got just a little haunted as we read these passages. In each instance, why were the rules written down, and by whom? If the Bible is the inerrant word of God (and we are not arguing for or against this), why were there so many variations in the rules? It is possible that each of these writings was really one person's (perhaps inspired) description of the history that brought them to the point at which they began recording. It was possibly their way of interpreting what had happened or what was happening around them, certainly with an eye toward survival or growth or justification. But that doesn't mean that we get to throw them out as "a point in time." We have to grapple with what they mean to us today and how we live within our own set of "rules" or guidelines for behavior and survival and growth and success. As followers of Christ that sometimes refer to ourselves as "people of the Book", how do we orient ourselves to these laws?

As humans, we need boundaries and we want to see lots of black and white. But surely God isn't that limited? And yet, we can't be a ruleless society. We can't succumb to the idea of relativism or lack of truth, can we? But if we were to follow all the laws found in scripture most of us would have been stoned to death by now. It brings us to a tough spot about our humanness and God's divinity that is difficult to grasp. And yet, we can pray for guidance and inspiration and truth. And then be available to discern God's direction for the next step in our lives and live into that.

+Where do rules come from in our current context?
+What rules are timeless? Why? How are they communicated in our community? in our families?

There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens.
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant.
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to tear down, and a time to build.
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.
A time to scatter stones, and a time to gather them; a time to embrace, and a time to be far from embraces.
A time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away.
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to be silent, and a time to speak.
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.
What advantage has the worker from his toil?
I have considered the task which God has appointed for men to be busied about.
He has made everything appropriate to its time, and has put the timeless into their hearts, without men's ever discovering, from beginning to end, the work which God has done.
I recognized that there is nothing better than to be glad and to do well during life.
For every man, moreover, to eat and drink and enjoy the fruit of all his labor is a gift of God.
I recognized that whatever God does will endure forever; there is no adding to it, or taking from it. Thus has God done that he may be revered.
What now is has already been; what is to be, already is; and God restores what would otherwise be displaced.
And still under the sun in the judgment place I saw wickedness, and in the seat of justice, iniquity.
And I said to myself, both the just and the wicked God will judge, since there is a time for every affair and on every work a judgment.
I said to myself: As for the children of men, it is God's way of testing them and of showing that they are in themselves like beasts.
For the lot of man and of beast is one lot; the one dies as well as the other. Both have the same life-breath, and man has no advantage over the beast; but all is vanity.
Both go to the same place; both were made from the dust, and to the dust they both return.
Who knows if the life-breath of the children of men goes upward and the life-breath of beasts goes earthward?
And I saw that there is nothing better for a man than to rejoice in his work; for this is his lot. Who will let him see what is to come after him?


-Ecclesiastes 3