7.29.2008

Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Thirteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Genesis 32:22-31
Psalm 17:1-7, 15
Romans 9:1-5
Matthew 14:13-21

We don’t know about you, but for each of us, some days it is completely necessary to stop everything that is going on and find a place to be quiet and alone. Sometimes it is because anxiety is high, sometimes it is because the body is weary, sometimes it is because there is too much going on and life is simply confusing.

And the quiet takes different forms. Sometimes the quiet is necessary just to get away from all of the noise, sometimes it is necessary to be able to gather thoughts and make the next decision, sometimes it is needed for rest, and sometimes being alone and being quiet are the necessary conditions for prayer.

Oddly enough, sometimes it is not until we are alone and quiet that we recognize how much we are connected or how much we need to connect.

In this week’s readings, we see both Jacob and Jesus with a need to get away by themselves. They may have even had similar goals, but they were in dramatically different situations.

Since we left Jacob last week a lot has happened. After marrying both Leah and Rachel there were several struggles around which one could have children and which one would have children. In an effort to create some assets for himself that were separate from his father-in-law, he became a world class sheep and goat breeder. Because of some of his material success he made his brothers-in-law angry. Then he receives a vision that he should leave Laban and Laban’s land and go back home to his own family. This was both exciting and anxiety producing for Jacob. He was excited to go home, but he was also anxious because of how he left the relationship with his brother Esau. So (after a few ugly interchanges with Laban on his way out of that land) he plans a rather elaborate return trip that happened in stages so as to test for Esau’s anger. He sent wave after wave of wonderful livestock across the river to Esau and he would be the last one to cross so that if by that time Esau was still angry, at least he would be well fed. And that is where we pick up this week’s story.

Jacob sends everyone else ahead of him and stays by himself for one more night. He had a lot to worry about. Moving is hard—every time. And when he added his worries about how his brother might receive him, he was even more worried. And while he was there alone that night trying to clear his mind a bit a man showed up and wrestled with him until daybreak. This is likely not the relaxed evening he had in mind. As the sun was rising the man wanted to leave, but Jacob had a good hold of him and demanded a blessing for the man’s freedom. The man gave a blessing and gave Jacob a new name. He called him Israel because he “had striven with God and with humans, and had prevailed”.

In Psalm 17 we see another person who is reaching out to be in relationship with God. Again, the Psalms were mostly prayers—some of them were personal and some of them were corporate. This writer is pleading with God to be heard and to be judged as one who has held fast to God even when there were difficult times in his life. It is easy to imagine someone walking around alone in the dark having this conversation with God.

In the passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans, Paul is connecting the tradition of God’s providence as told in the history and scripture of the Jewish people to the man who was Jesus Christ. He’s pointing to all that God has done through the ancestry, the Exodus, the handing down of the Law, and the visions of the prophets. Look at all that God has done…surely God was able to be present with people in the incarnate Christ.

In the passage from Matthew we find Jesus attempting to get away from the crowds for some rest. He had been going from place to place and healing people and teaching, and he was worn down. Also, immediately prior to this passage he received news that his friend and cousin, John the Baptizer, had been beheaded. Jesus was suffering grief and loss. There was a lot weighing on him and he yearned for some time alone.

But unfortunately, being the teacher and healer he was, he was popular and the folks were not up for leaving him alone too long. The people followed him and stayed around until dinner time. And then we find that the disciples suddenly needed some time alone. They saw that they had no way to feed these folks and were trying to get them to leave. But Jesus refuses to turn the crowd away and instead instructs the disciples to gather what food they are able and share it with the crowd. This is one of those stories told across the Gospels--it was important. The five loaves and two fishes fed thousands that day with food to spare. We wonder about how Jesus was prepared to face the crowd and provide for their needs.

Again we see several forms of connection that different folks need in these scriptures. Each person was looking for some way to connect / reconnect with both God and themselves. All of us likely have different ways we connect with God.

  • How do you find ways to connect with God?
  • Do you use silence to be in relationship with God? How?
  • Are there physical needs or requirements for you to connect with God? What are they?

Lord, I have shut the door, speak now the word
which in the din and throng could not be heard.
Hush now my inner heart, whisper thy will,
while I have come apart, while all is still.

In this blest quietness clamorings cease;
here in thy presence dwells infinite peace.
Yonder, the strife and cry, yonder, the sin:
Lord, I have shut the door; thou art within.

Lord, I have shut the door; strengthen my heart.
Yonder awaits the task – I share a part.
Only through grace bestowed may I be true.
Here, while alone with thee, my strength renew.
Amen.

William M. Runyan (1870 – 1957)
Composer & Hymn Text Writer
(taken from This Day: a Wesleyan Way of Prayer, by Dr. Laurence Hull Stookey)

7.22.2008

12th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Genesis 29:15-28
Psalm 105:1-11, 45b

Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

The liturgical calendar is made up of all of the “major” seasons of the church year – and “ordinary time.” It is the stretch between Pentecost and Advent, with a few special Sundays sprinkled in here and there. And the early church leaders structured this “ordinary time” as a time for studying key stories and lessons in the scriptures. It is the “green growing season,” a time for learning new things, thinking new thoughts, examining old understandings. It’s prolonged…with lots of room for wandering through our beliefs and our faith.

And so this week, we found ourselves swimming around in continued contemplation about “expectation.” Do our Expectations shape outcomes? What happens when we give up Expectation? Are we disappointed? Surprised? At peace? It seems that we seek patterns and assign expectation based on what we’ve seen happen in similar situations.

We don’t just have expectations for ourselves. We have them for those around us, and sometimes, even though they are unspoken, we somehow Expect others to know what we want of them. And to add another layer of difficulty, those around us have their own unspoken expectations of us they expect we will fulfill! It is amazing we stay in relationship at all sometimes!

The text from Genesis follows Jacob as he returns to his kin. Remember that Jacob has had a vision and has heard God promise him the land that he had seen. Now he has continued on the journey, seeking out his mother’s brother, Laban. He first finds Laban’s daughter, Rachel, keeping Laban’s flock. Both Rachel and Laban greet Jacob with enthusiasm. Kinship means a lot in this ancient culture. Of course, we can’t overlook the fact that Jacob finds Rachel attractive. Leah is described across various versions as “lovely,” “weak,” or “soft,” while Rachel is described as graceful and beautiful. The description is similar to that of Sarai and of Rebekah.

Jacob asks to take Rachel as a wife, and at first, Laban seems happy to support the idea. But when the chosen night comes (7 years later), Laban slips a veiled Leah into Jacob’s arms instead. When Jacob discovers the truth (too late – he’s consummated this relationship), Laban reminds him that it would be inappropriate to give the younger before the first born. Let’s think about Jacob’s past. He stole his older brother’s birthright and tricked his blind father to receive his blessing. And he’s incensed that Laban has pulled a fast one. But he doesn’t give up (we’re learning this about Jacob). He works another seven years so that he can take Rachel as a wife (read on past the selected text – the justice he is dealt through these women and their reproduction is kind of comical and the result is ultimately the tribes of Israel.)

The psalmist is praising a God who has been faithful to the promises made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Because these believers were faithful in return, God has blessed Israel. (Now do we expect, based on some of their behaviors, these men to receive God’s blessing? Maybe yes – maybe no. They certainly had their share of shady deals.)

The selected text from Paul’s letter to the church at Rome has a couple of oft-quoted nuggets built into it. It’s good stuff. Essentially, Paul asserts that God knows the goodness in a person and is responsive to that goodness through the work of the Spirit. It is God’s understanding of our individual human nature that enables the Spirit to be present for us. And if all of this good is working behind the scenes, what can happen that is not God’s doing? So…we have expectations and they aren’t met. Is that God’s doing? And for what reason? It doesn’t seem like it can all really be for good, can it?

In the passage from Matthew we see Jesus attempting to bridge some of the gap of unspoken expectations. He is talking to a group of followers about the Kingdom of God. Notice, he does not explicitly say, “The Kingdom of God IS: ________”. He says, “The Kingdom of God is like….” and then he gives several examples. He knows is a large group some people will understand seeds, some will understand yeast, and some will understand treasure. Not everyone hears with the same set of experiences. And we can be sure not everyone walked away from this scene with the same image or understanding of the Kingdom of God. Also notice the connection that is here with the story of Jacob and his waiting…the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed…that one must wait on before it grows to maturity…the kingdom of God is like yeast…that one must be patient with to allow it to do its work…the kingdom of God is like a person who sells everything to acquire his treasure…it takes a while to sell all of your possessions and to acquire a piece of land. It seems that the kingdom of God might require some patience and perseverance and some ability to subvert one’s own timeline and expectations. Hmmmm…

Life for us has been a puzzling series of events, of forks in the road where neither path seemed to be the right one. And yet, we keep moving and we keep developing a sense of who we are and what we are called to do in this place. Our Expectations have been shattered, met, or exceeded by turn. And life goes on.

-How do you / we allow for our life working out in ways we do not expect?
-Are there ways you have had to wait for “the answer” to be revealed to you (like Jacob, or the farmer, or the baker)?
-Are you committed to God’s conclusions, or are you committed to your own?

"Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it." - the Talmud

7.15.2008

11th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Genesis 28:10-19

Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24

Romans 8:12-25

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43


Sometimes, we speak in terms of Expectations being met or of Expectations being dashed. But really, are our Expectations ever just “tested?” Are Expectations anything more than our own? Aren’t they interpretations through our own context of cues and clues and markers?

And what are “Expectations” anyway? Some would define an Expectation as something you anticipate (good or bad) that will occur in the future. One of our Buddhist friends says “Expectations are preplanned disappointments.” Usually though, when any of us have an Expectation of some thing or some one we have some knowledge and some reason to believe that some event (or series of events) will occur in the future.

Sometimes we plant seeds Expecting this......












But instead you get this.....












It seems that Expectations are born when we look at our past and current experiences and try to project what might happen tomorrow. We take our understandings of things past and apply them forward to how we Expect things / people / systems to work in the future. But unfortunately we can never control all of the circumstances and assure how things will work out.

We often approach Holy Week through a lens of Expectation. Beginning with the high energy of Palm Sunday, we walk through the changing sea of faces in Jerusalem as the popular tide turns and a frenzy builds around Jesus and his ministry. In our own high moments of life, our Expectations about personal achievement and ability can cloud our view of what is best not for us but for the world.

The lectionary this week examines some different Expectations – specifically Expectations about the Kingdom of God.

In Genesis, Jacob rests his head on a stone to sleep, weary from his travels. In the night, he has a vision. In the vision, the Lord is showing him the land before him, promising that this land will belong to him and his offspring. The Lord promises to be with Jacob until the Lord has done what has been promised. (Hmm…speaking of Expectation, do we ever want to Expect God NOT to be with us?) In recognition of this important vision and promise, Jacob sets a stone in this place, consecrating it with oil, naming the place Bethel (God’s House). In our heads, we sort of imagine that Jacob received this vision with elation – not dread of what it would take to get there or whether the Lord would really always be with him.

The Psalmist talks a little about Expectations he might have for God and Expectations God might have dreamed for the writer. He writes about what he believes to be the nature of God. He works with his culture’s Expectation that God is a combination of ever-present and all-knowing. He dreams of what the creation process looked like for him in particular and how it works for the world in general. The writer of this Psalm paints a picture of the world according to how he understands the nature of God and how he envisions…or Expects the world to work.

In Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome, we see him working with some fairly blatant Expectations. As we have seen prior to this passage he has a definite vision of the purpose of the Law and the purpose of the Spirit and how each of us as Children of God are to interact with the Law and the Spirit and how each of us are to benefit from the Law and the Spirit. He has some clear Expectations of what each individual believer’s responsibilities are and how those responsibilities relate to how the creation will resolve itself. Ask yourself if your Expectations meet Paul’s.

In the Matthew passage, we are introduced to another parable. Jesus is still using a plant metaphor, but this one seems more ominous. He talks about careful planting that is invaded at night by the enemy, who plants weed seeds amidst the good seed. In consideration of the good seed in the field, the Master does not destroy the plants in the field, but lets the good seed grow up beside the weeds, then calls the harvesters to remove the weeds – to be burned – and then to harvest the good grain. Jesus spares no explanation – it is just as it will be at the end of the age, “the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one.” Yikes.

The Bible is a framework on which we attempt to hang our Expectations. In the process, we may alter our understanding or the very meaning of the words that were passed along in these sacred texts. Do we xpect God to be always present? Do we Expect God to destroy weeds and only harvest the “good?” Do we Expect to be free from sin?
  • Do you have Expectations of God?
  • Does God have Expectations of you?
  • Do you have Expectations of yourself?
  • Do you have Expectations of your community?
  • Does your Community of Expectations of you?
“We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aid, but by an infinite Expectation of the dawn.”--Henry David Thoreau

7.08.2008

Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time


Genesis 25:19-34
Psalm 119:105-112
Romans 8:1-11
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23


Hindsight is 20/20, right?

If I’d only known then what I know today…

It’s hard to know from day to day or from one chapter of life to the next which way to turn at “forks in the road.” And life is full of them. We sometimes find ourselves wracked with uncertainty about which choice is “right” and which choice is “wrong.” We judge ourselves. And we sometimes use our context to determine the “rightness” or “wrongness” of the choices others make.

Really, we’ve all made bad choices…but are any of them without some purpose in our lives?
Throughout this season of “Ordinary Time,” it’s difficult to tie the lectionary together in a tidy package. This week is no exception. But we do see some common themes (thanks in part to the work of the Family Worship Team). Starting with the Hebrew scripture account of Jacob and Esau, we wonder about the place our choices have in the Kingdom of God.

It takes Abraham’s son, Isaac, and his wife Rebekah a while to conceive the next generation. And when they finally do, twins are in their future. These twins wrestle mightily in Rebekah’s womb, and like any weary pregnant woman would, she petitions her God asking why she’s subject to this trauma. And the Lord’s answer isn’t very comforting…two nations in her womb, one stronger than the other, and the youngest ruling the eldest. We expect sibling rivalry, but to have it revealed prior to birth in such a dramatic way!

Go ahead and read the entire account in Genesis 25. First, it’s great writing with all sorts of plays on words and built in humor. When the boys arrive, they are indeed very different. One is hairy and red! The youngest is clinging to the firstborn’s heel as they leave the womb. Our selection for this week ends with Esau (the firstborn) trading his birthright for some red lentil stew to his kid-brother Jacob. Sure, hunger is a driving thing sometimes, but give up his birthright? Birthright was everything in this ancient society…it was future economic stability, it was status in the community, it was power and might. And Esau was powerfully hungry. We’re with Jacob and Esau for a couple of weeks now. We’ll get to see how this plays out in weeks to come (but we won’t hold you to task if you plow ahead to read the exciting twists and turns in this story).

In his letter to the church at Rome, Paul continues to struggle with his own history and the good news that he has claimed after his conversion. Paul was a good Jewish man. He was beyond obedient to the law – he was steeped in it. It guided his life. And in Jesus Christ, he’s found new law (notice the language – he clings to the language of “law”…even the Law of Grace). In his new life, free will creates a tension between God’s law and sin. And deep down, he knows that whatever his choice, he is a precious child of God – forgiven, but challenged to live a better way.

In the gospel reading, Jesus is passing on the first of his parables. Read the entire passage (13: 1 – 23) for insight about the parables as a teaching tool and the disciples’ relationship to those parables. In this first instance, we have the benefit of Jesus’ own commentary about the parable told. A sower sows seeds on different kinds of ground. It seems as if they only beneficial planting is in “good soil.” But what about the other plantings? One feeds the birds. Another produces plants that have to contribute to the carbon exchange, right? Is only one outcome good, right, and productive?

The psalmist gives thanks for God’s guidance and petitions the Lord for the strength and ability to hold to the law. This psalm is a gentle reminder that boundaries are something we might actually consider being grateful for…not a common thought in this day and age.

So as we look back over our life and the myriad choices made, certainly there are some that were just plain bad. But we wouldn’t be the people we are in the places we are with the relationships we have and the gifts we have without those decisions. It’s not just that good decisions add to us and bad decisions take away from us. All kinds of choices and decisions leave their mark. On us and on God’s creation.

• Are their choices that you’ve looked back on with regret? Pride?
• Has your assessment of the choices that you have made changed over time? How?
• What is different about your life because of the choices you have made?
• How was God with you in your choices? In spite of your choices?
• What guidance do you offer people facing choices?


I hope you never fear those mountains in the distance
Never settle for the path of least resistance
Living might mean taking chances
But they're worth taking
Lovin' might be a mistake
But it's worth making
Don't let some hell bent heart
Leave you bitter
When you come close to selling out
Reconsider
Give the heavens above
More than just a passing glance

And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance
I hope you dance

I Hope You Dance, lyrics by Lee Ann Womack, 2000

7.02.2008

Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67
Psalm 45:10-17
Romans 7:15-25a
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30


Sometimes, the lectionary gives us a mild headache. Some weeks, you can read all of the readings and emerge with nothing but knitted eyebrows. It’s one of those reading weeks where the Supreme Council of the Lectionary (in all seriousness, check out this to find out a little more about who and how and why the lectionary gets to be) might have just rolled the dice and selected a few random passages connected by some common words in a single Psalm.

It turns out that maybe (just maybe) the Lectionary was put together considering the American holiday calendar. This week we remember where we (as Americans) came from—we remember our Day of Independence. Yes, it is a time for hotdogs and apple pie and fireworks, and it is also a time where we pause to remember where we were, where we came from, and how we got here. And (maybe it is just Firework Fever) when we look at the readings this week we see similar themes in each passage.

In Genesis, Abraham is facing his own mortality. The selected passage is sort of chopped from a bigger story…go ahead and read all of Genesis 24 – you’ll be glad that you did. Abraham has been through a lot. We were with him when he left is family and his kindred and his country to find a new land promised by the Lord. He showed good and bad and good judgment while navigating foreign rulers and infertility and fatherhood. He’s been blessed with a son through Sarah, who is now on her deathbed. And he wants to make sure that the line continues, which means that his son Isaac needs a wife. But not just any wife – Abraham is committed to finding him a wife who is of their “kindred” but willing to live in this new land in Canaan. He’s looking for someone who, like he did, will leave family and kindred and land for promised future generations. He sends his servant off to find the perfect match. And of course, the servant does. Like Abraham, Rebekah chooses to leave what is known behind her for a new promise. She takes nothing with her but her own genetic material and her servant. And she meets with Isaac and Sarah’s approval. Abraham remembers and honors his own history as his family creates new history. He holds his commitment to his country, his commitment to his family, and his commitment to God together.

If we read all of Psalm 45 we continue to see a theme of remembering one’s ancestry as one envisions one’s future. Even though this socio-political setting seems to be fairly far from where we are today, we can still interpret and respect what we see in context. The writer addresses the king (likely referencing God) and affirms the power and might and strength (from the past) that has created the current lineage and national respect and ethos. And then the writer addresses the daughter (likely referencing the individual believer or Israel…or both) and encourages her to not think about anything else except (current and future) duty to the King / God. It closes with another address to the King that emphasizes the continuing power and the length of the rule that the King / God will enjoy as history unfolds.

In his letter to the church at Rome, Paul is wading around in his identity as a human – a human with base desires prone to sin. He’s grappling with how his humanness and sin and the law and God’s grace intersect. Paul was himself a Pharisee. He was steeped deeply in the traditions of the Law and criticized Jesus and his followers for their non-traditional interpretation of the Law. Now he has the perspective of where he was to better understand his own experience of grace and relationship to Christ. Could Paul have thought, understood and taught the things that he did if he hadn’t once been who he once was?

If we back up and read more than just the selected text in Matthew, we understand that John (the Baptist) is in prison, and is desperate to know who this Jesus really is. And so, he asks. Jesus’ response is action based – tell John that the lame walk and the blind see and the deaf hear. In this week’s selected text, Jesus is addressing the crowd immediately following John’s inquiry. He has told them who John was and he is drawing parallels between the way John was received and the way that Jesus is being received. In spite of what they see and hear, the people are not taking these warnings from John and teachings from Jesus to heart. Jesus scolds and warns the crowd. And then he gives thanks to his Father for wise things revealed to infants and children. If only the crowd could remember where they came from – what they learned and new before the complications of life got the better of them.

If our collection of scriptures in the bible is nothing else, it is the rehearsal again and again of who we are and where we are from. From beginning to end we see different characters attempting to balance their own history and their own relationship with God with what they see in front of them and what they feel they are called to do next.

And depending on how far you might want to push this particular way of framing scripture, this can become an important question for us as Christians in America….or American Christians (whichever you identify as you) today. In this election year, with its heated and sometimes ugly campaigns underway, what responsibility do each of us have to our selves, our country, and our God? In a place that seems to be desperate to forget a lot of its own history (eradication of Indigenous Peoples, import and enslavement of folks from other places, “benevolent” military efforts around the world and through the years, etc), how do we hold on to our commitment to God while at the same time remembering and respecting where we came from?

  • ­ Where did you come from?
  • ­ What do you carry with you from that place?
  • ­ What do you try not to carry with you from that place?
  • ­ What has been your experience of being called from your family, your kindred and your country?

My country, 'tis of thee
sweet land of liberty,of thee I sing;
land where myfathers died,
land of the pilgrims' pride,
from every mountainside let freedom ring!

My native country, thee
land of the noble free, thy name I love;
I love thy rocks and rills,
thy woods and templed hills;
my heart with rapture thrills, like that above.

Let music swell the breeze,
and ring from all the trees sweet freedom's song;
let mortal tongues awake;
let all that breathe partake;
let rocks their silence break, the sound prolong.

Our fathers' God, to thee,
author of liberty, to thee we sing;
long may our land be bright
with freedom's holy light;
protect us by thy might, great God, our King.

Samuel F. Smith, 1808-1895