Epiphany, Year C

Isaiah 60.1-6
Psalm 72.1-7, 10-14
Ephesians 3.1-12
Matthew 2.1-12

Epiphany is a wonderful and exciting time of hope. While Advent is full of expectation about the coming birth and the Potential of a Messiah , Epiphany is the next step...it is the time of the liturgical year when we point to the young child that is actually here and dream the dreams of who he will grow up to be and what he might do and how he might do it.

It is interesting to read these scripture selections together trying to think about how they might fit in to today's context. All of them were looking toward how a Messiah, a King, a Saviour might look and act and conduct himself. These were dreams of how he would rule, who he would protect, how he would enter the scene, etc. And when we look at the characteristics they were hoping for, they are not far off from the high expecations we have for our leaders today. Without intending any diminishment to the Messiah or to Boy Souts of America, it is almost like they (and we) were hoping for the ideal Boy Scout - trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.....of course, the Israelites (and we) would also like to add Just, Strong, Brave, Wise, Unfailing, Omnipotent, Omnipresent, and Omniscient.

As you read the passage from Isaiah, you likely recognize that the gospel writers also read (and used parts of) this passage from Isaiah. The writer was speaking to some folks that were living through a dark time themselves. Oppression, confusion, loss of home. And he was dreaming with them that a better day is on the horizon.

Psalm 72 is a beautiful entreaty of God about the hoped-for attributes of their king. There is a hope and dream for the perfect leader.

In this week's selection of Paul's letter to the followers of Jesus in Ephesus he is using he own experience to talk about some of the wonders of the Messiah. Many times prior to this, folks have talked about how a Messiah will bring hope or peace to all the nations, and Paul is giving a concrete example. He talks about how Jesus came not only for the Jews, but also for the Gentiles (i.e. the rest of the world.....for this audience and at the time, folks were either Jews or Gentiles...no third option).

And in the passage from Matthew's gospel we get the classic Epiphany scene. It is the story of the wise men, magi, philosophers, astrologers coming from the east to visit the "King of the Jews". Now there is plenty of political background that is illustrated in this little visit...think about the ramifications of this visit. These were folks that literally followed the universe to Jerusalem and then to Bethelem to find the new King. There was a universal appeal to the hope that was envisioned beneath this star.

Visions of the future are often shaped by present circumstance. We project our hopes on leaders and events and opportunities. But we (not just leaders and events and opportunties) probably play an important role in how visions are fulfilled as well. As people of God, we recognize that we do not fulfill visions alone...we recognize that we cannot completely change the world...but we can change the future in community, listening for God. And the vision of hope cast 2000 years ago still takes shape (or falls apart) in the wake of our actions. Hope expressed accomplishes far less than hope enacted.

We have asked a version of this question a lot in the last few weeks, and it still seems important. What were these folks hoping for and expecting of a Messiah? What are we hoping for and expecting from how God is present in our lives today? And how do we act on our hope and bring light into the world?

Seed us with hope
and empower us to be
and love
for the birth
of your Kingdom.

© matt & laura norvell 2009 www.settingourstones.org
we want to share this with you and hope you'll share with the world; we simply ask that you let people know where you found these words. May Grace & Peace be with you.


First Sunday after Christmas Day, Year C

Spoiler warning: This week we are reading past Christmas! So if you don't want to move past the birth narrative, set this one aside until late Christmas night! But in some ways, this is also a good lens through which to consider Jesus' human reality.

1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26
Psalm 148
Colossians 3:12-17
Luke 2:41-52

It is a heavy responsibility to raise up a child. And it is a responsibility that exists beyond parenthood. In our own slice of the world, kids are shaped by teachers, neighbors, church members, Sunday School teachers, coaches, band directors, Scout leaders, pastors. Television, radio, the internet. Every soul is being shaped by every moment by every thing / person / sight / sound it encounters.

The lives we touch have potential - untapped and potentially intense future impact. This isn't a new phenomenon. Here in the wake of Christmas, we pause to consider some of the adults in Jesus' childhood world - aunts, uncles, parents, rabbis, neighbors, friends. They didn't know they were shaping the living God - or did they? They didn't know that heaven was touching earth in their midst - or did they? They probably couldn't imagine the future of this mere boy. Now Mary and Joseph knew that something was afoot...and so did the extended family (Elizabeth and Zechariah, for example). But did that change the way they interacted with this boy? Did it change the way he was taught? The games he played? The friends he had? The chores he did?

In the reading from 1 Samuel, we get a little insight into the way young Samuel's mother, father and the priest Eli honored his special existence. Remember that Hannah was barren and promised that if God would only grant her a son, she would raise him up for the priesthood. Here in four verses, we see Hannah preparing wee priestly robes annually for the family's visit to sacrifice at the Temple. We imagine this set them apart somehow...and especially Samuel. He received "special" treatment and preparation. What was Hannah's hope?

The Psalmist sings a song of praise which can also be read as a teaching / shaping psalm. We assume these words were not intended only for the writer and God. Like so many of our modern hymns, the words are intended for the singer, the Reciepient (God), and also as an educational tool. To have someone with the experience of Praising God share that experience with folks who have not, provides an educational opportunity for the less experienced.

In Paul's letter to the Colossians, he is advising them, as God's chosen ones, to adopt a spirit of love toward those around them. He uses the metaphor of "clothing oneself" to recommend their approach to others. He specifically advises that they are "clothed" in compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. And we wonder, what do the children in our midst understand and take away from the way we approach one another - the attitudes we project. Based on dinner time dialogue with our own crew, we know that kids are always paying attention and very little escapes their observations. Paul's teaching is an underpinning of our modern understanding of a "golden rule." What do we remember from our own childhood of how adults in our lives treated others? Does that shape our current approach to others?

Finally, in Luke's gospel, we experience some of the panic that Mary and Joseph must have felt as they departed from their annual celebrations in Jerusalem and traveled a full day only to discover that their adolescent boy Jesus was not among the pilgrims. We can imagine a range of emotions - panic, outrage, anger, grief, terror, anxiety. And they retrace their steps and after three days (THREE DAYS!), they find Jesus sitting among the teachers in the temple. And Jesus seems to calmly say (of course, it could have been in an snarky, adolescent tone also), "what were you worried about...of course I would be in my Father's house." Do you suppose Mary clocked him for being surly? But here he is, mounting a non-aggressive challenge to the role these caregivers have played. He is in his Father's house. How did Joseph feel hearing that? And yet, there is something akin to this moment in each of our adolescent history, isn't there? Don't you know who I am? Or whose I am? What was our parent's response? What was our parental response?

Each of is someone's child. Each of is a child of God. Each of us, whether we signed up for the task or not, influences a next generation - perhaps Nobel prize winners, pastors, world leaders. Contained in a single person, shaped by the world.

God, help us to be open to being shaped.
Help us as we consiously and unconsciously shape others.
Help us open ourselves to being shaped.
Help us be responsible as we shape others.
Help us to be shaped.
Help us as we shape others.
God, help us.

© matt & laura norvell 2009 www.settingourstones.org
we want to share this with you and hope you'll share with the world; we simply ask that you let people know where you found these words. May Grace & Peace be with you.


The Limits of Incarnation - Reflections on Advent While "Stuck" in the Snow

Outside the window, the sky is breathtaking blue and the world is glittering in a blanket of snow 18 - 22 inches deep that stretches as far as the eye can see. The wind is shaking the branches clean and it rustles through all of the nearby pine needles with telltale whispers. This is a quiet and reflective world...perfect for a different kind of worship today, worship that will not happen in traditional ways because the churches are closed.

And so, as I shoveled this morning, I was struck by how such a natural occurrence - a record-breaking snow storm - the right combination of high and low pressure mixed with cold air and moisture - forces many of us into mandatory respite. It closes the door on our "obligations," and forces us to accept limitations that we normally avoid confessing. I recognize that there are some who MUST find a way out of their driveways in this snow because lives literally depend on it. But for most of us, that is NOT the case - not in any stretch of our imagination. The world will go on just fine without us and without whatever we normally contribute to the workings of the world. Most of what we do is NOT mission critical.

That is humbling. The force of creation stirs and down falls inch upon inch of beautiful snow. And our incarnate selves are limited. It's counter-intuitive to my well-equipped and entitled way of thinking. And somehow, here on the fourth Sunday of Advent, it is a very, very important reminder.

Our very bodies are limited. We assume our importance and along with that assume our infallibility. (I know that I have, on more than one occasion, sniffed with contempt at the way the East Coast tends to "shut down" in foul winter weather, but really, that is about me somehow, about being superior.) We impose ourselves on the created world. And it would seem that imposition is the source of much groaning. We grab at natural resources because we can. We drive fast or far or often or at all because we can. We buy much because we can. We consume resources like things and time and one another...because we can.

But the truth of the matter is that we are not, most of us, "mission critical" beyond others' need for our love, care and relationship to them. And today, I recognize that this was one gift of God's incarnation in Jesus Christ - a living, breathing example of relationship to others with limitations of human frailty.

Here we are, a little bit trapped and a lot humbled by the weather, aware that there are forces greater than us. And the priorities seem to fall into place...good conversation, literature, warm bread made by someone you love, cocoa and whipped cream, warmth, safety, humility, prayer.

Be still and know that I am God
Be still and know that I am
Be still and know that I
Be still and know that
Be still and know
Be still and
Be still


4th Sunday in Advent, Year C

Micah 5:2-5a
Psalm 80:1-7
Hebrews 10:5-10
Luke 1:39-45, (46-55)

Do you ever read the Preface to a book?

You know...the little preamble that a writer often gives us (the reader) before the book really Starts. Now we are not talking about the Foreword. The Foreword is often written by someone else other than that book's writer....usually talking about how this book or this writer is breaking new ground and finding new horizons, etc.

The Preface can be such a wonderful warm up to the book itself. Sure, sometimes it is a drag, but so many times we get the chance to sort of step in to the writer's head a little. We get an understanding of the intention of what the purpose of the book is and how it is arranged and how it is intended to develop. Sometimes the Preface is the most coherent part of a book!

We see the season of Advent as something of a Preface. Especially the writings that are chosen for the Advent lectionary cycles. The writings of the prophets and the writings of the gospels are all attempting to set the stage for the purpose, intention, and scope of the life of Christ.

This week in particular, the selected scriptures read like the Preface to the story of Jesus that is about to begin.

First, in Micah we hear the words of a prophet who was hoping and expecting a difference to occur. In a day when most of the other prophets (he was writing in about the same time as Isaiah) were singing the praises of Jerusalem / Mount Zion, he singled out Bethlehem as the place from which the Messiah would come. He was looking toward how things would be different one day when the fortunes of Israel changed again.

The next bit of Hopeful Preface we receive comes from the Psalmist. He prays, as he does so often, that there might be restoration. He prays for a future that will be better and different from the anger, tears, scorn, and derision his people are currently experiencing.

In the passage from Hebrews the writer imagines what sort of conversation Jesus might have had....sort of what Jesus might have written as his own Preface before coming in to the world. The purpose of the passage is to help further explain the purpose and intention of the coming of Christ. Now remember that this passage is written to an early Christian community AFTER Christ's ministry, death and resurrection. We as readers are invited to read this as preface, but in reality it was a bit of an epilogue.

And finally we have the beautiful story of Mary (the mother of Jesus) visiting her cousin Elizabeth. At this point, we know that Mary knows Who / What she was carrying, and we know that her Older (barren) cousin Elizabeth had been graced to give birth to John (later to become John the Baptist / John the Baptizer / Saint John the Forerunner). And when Mary walks in, Elizabeth calls out, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord." Then Mary goes on to give a bit of a Preface to the life she was carrying in her womb.

Have you ever thought of your life as a Preface to something to come?
Is there any chance that you are being prepared for some great work to come?
How are we invited during advent to use the season as Preface to something that is next?
Are you familiar with the phrase, "The past as Preface?" What of our shared past as children of Abraham and/or as Christians may be Preface?

My soul magnifies your work
and my spirit rejoices in you.
Let my life be preface and testament
To the birth of a New Kingdom
Where peace and love reign.
Let me be an instrument of mercy
and justice and kindness
according to Your will.

© matt & laura norvell 2009 www.settingourstones.org
we want to share this with you and hope you'll share with the world; we simply ask that you let people know where you found these words. May Grace & Peace be with you.


3rd Sunday in Advent, Year C

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Isaiah 12:2-6
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:7-18

Where Does Our Help Come From?

This is a question that many have taken and repeated from the writer of Psalm 121. It is our guess that he borrowed the question from someone else too.
It is such an important question in so many different ways and from so many different perspectives.

As we read this week's lectionary readings, this Eternal Question popped up in a slightly different way: Where does our Salvation / Restoration come from?

As any of us read through the Hebrew scriptures we can see a hundred different ways that the followers of Yahweh found themselves in a tight spot and looked at each other or to the Heavens and asked--Where Will Our Help Come From? This doesn't change much when we look at the Christian scriptures. The circumstances are a bit different--the rulers are Romans rather than Egyptians--but the question is motivated from a similar place: we are in desperate straits, our future is bleak, we are oppressed, we are persecuted....Where Will Our Help Come From?

The scripture readings this week offer two different types of answers. Now, we do not think we can take these four passages and make a generalization that these are the only two types of responses found in scripture, but it is true that these two are pretty popular.

The first type of answer to the question is represented by two passages from the Hebrew scriptures. The first is from the prophet Zephaniah and the second from the prophet Isaiah. You should read the passages. Both of them portray that Salvation / Restoration is something that will come / has come to the people from Outside of them somewhere. Yahweh will take away judgements, provide victory, renew his love, remove disaster, deal with oppressors, save the lame and outcast, bring you home, and restore your fortunes. God does these things for you and your response is to be grateful and love and praise and rejoice.

Now in the passages we find in Philippians and Luke, we find a second type of answer. As Paul describes to the church in Philipi, it is the responsibility of the individual to first rejoice, be gentle, prayerfully make your thanksgivings known, And Then the Peace of God will come upon you and guard you.

And also in Luke, we see Saint John the Forerunner yelling and spitting at people who have come out to be baptized by him. Now we are not 100% certain why folks were streaming (get it? streaming) to John to be baptized. In fact, John was not certain--he asks, "You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" And as we see him sharing some less aggressive teaching time with them, we see him encouraging folks to get their own invdividual selves in order--bear worthy fruits, share your stuff, share your food, don't cheat people. And then we see that John is encouraging folks to change their ways because when the Messiah comes, the Messiah will bring judgment. He talks like there might not be a chance to get things straight once the Messiah got there.

As we prepare to celebrate the coming of the Messiah, we should spend some time asking what that might mean.

What sort of Messiah did Isaiah and Sephaniah expect? What sort of Messiah did the people of their day need?
What sort of Messiah did John the Baptizer expect? What sort of Messiah did the people of his day need?
What sort of Messiah do we expect? What sort of Messiah do we need today?
What sort of Salvation / Restoration do you need?
Where will you help come from?

Oh Lord,
we wait with expectation
sometimes with a clear understanding
of what we need...
And other times, not so much.
Be with us in our expectancy
and open our eyes and our ears and our souls
to understand your presence
in our lives.

© matt & laura norvell 2009 www.settingourstones.org
we want to share this with you and hope you'll share with the world; we simply ask that you let people know where you found these words. May Grace & Peace be with you.


2nd Sunday in Advent, Year C

Throughout this season of waiting, we are struck by the reality that this pilgrimage we find ourselves on has neither an exact beginning nor an exact end. It is neither all about darkness nor light. It is not all about the world being bad or good. We are journeying toward something that we cannot completely know. In particular, this week, we find ourselves caught in the tension of a spectrum that lies between Destruction and Restoration.

During Advent, as we read the lectionary passages, we remember that we are observing history and living into the present and anticipating the future. And as holy scripture, we believe these selected texts speak in all of these places and times. The Hebrew scriptures shed light on the prophetic tradition of Israel, of the Jewish hope in a Messiah. In the gospel texts, we experience first hand accounts of how early followers interpreted and understood the birth of Christ looking back from his resurrection. And in the epistles, we consider how the earliest churches were interpreting their experience in light of recent history - the destruction of the Temple, the reality that no life altering second coming had occurred, and the tenacious belief that there was still hope.

Early on in the Hebrew scriptures, prophets speak of a coming power - understood to be sent, ordained or empowered by God - who would once again redeem the lives of the Israelites. This is no rosy picture - as Malachi prophesies, this is a refining force, one that will remold and remake the people, purifying them. The result will be a return to relationship "as in the days of old and as in the former years." The prophet speaks of a return to a previous order and understanding.

Instead of the typical Psalm, our lectionary readings include the Canticle of Zechariah, a praise text from the gospel of Luke, spoken by Zechariah upon the birth of a miraculous son - born to an old couple who has lost hope. The couple awaits the birth of John - who will be known as John the Baptizer or John the Forerunner...Already they know that his birth foretells the coming of a much awaited force for the Jewish people. And we can't overlook an important role reserved for John - he has the unique task of bringing people to repentance of their sins, "to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace." Hmm. None of that task is particularly finite...it's a step in a new direction. The way of peace is a path that people will find themselves traveling.

In Paul's letter to the church at Phillipi, we read a fairly traditional greeting that establishes Paul's relationship with the community. This is a time of persecution, and this community shares with Paul a commitment to the teachings of Jesus Christ, and awaits the time when all will be restored. Of particular note is Paul's prayer that this community's love may overflow with knowledge and insight so that they will know what is "best." Not what is absolute. What is best...lying on a spectrum without beginning and end.

Finally, in Luke's gospel, we hear of John's call - in the wilderness he is called to prepare the way. The text sets a political stage as well, establishing the prevalence of foreign rule and control. John sets forth in an occupied land to speak of a new "Lord" who is not the emperor, not Caesar, not Roman. The text points very intentionally back to the prophet Isaiah. John's actions are fulfillment of an expectation now hundreds of years old.

And so, as we are looking back at the ancient and less ancient Israelite / Jewish hopes and expectations and understandings of Destruction and Restoration, what do you imagine they were dreaming toward? Were they hoping for a return to the way things were before? Were they hoping for a new and different Kingdom where they replaced the rulers of the day?

What about today? Are you afraid we are headed toward Destruction? What would you expect Restoration to look like? Do you / we have any role or responsibility in either the Destruction or Restoration?

God we dream of Restoration and we fear Change and Destruction.
We desperately desire things to be Just As We Plan.
We often do not appreciate the things we do not know.
Help us to find a way to be comfortable with the Unfathomable.

© matt & laura norvell 2009 www.settingourstones.org
we want to share this with you and hope you'll share with the world; we simply ask that you let people know where you found these words. May Grace & Peace be with you.


Reign of Christ - 34th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 29), Year B

2 Samuel 23:1-7
Psalm 132:1-12, (13-18)
Revelation 1:4b-8
John 18:33-37

(A note about this day in the lectionary year: This Sunday, the last Sunday of the Christian Year, is often called the feast of Christ the King, or a celebration of the Reign of Christ. It was intended originally to be a feast recognizing Christ's supremacy, and the lectionary passages point to the notion of "kingship." In recent years, gender-specific terms, particularly those that reinforce male dominance, have been removed from hymns and liturgy, making "Reign of Christ" a more appealing name. There are also those for whom the image of a ruler is not in keeping with their understanding of Christ. And so, in some circles, people have adopted the language of "the KINship of Christ" which highlights our common relationship with Christ in shared humanity rather than Christ's supremacy over anything.)

We have spent a lot of time thinking about this and there is something that no matter how strongly we exercise our imaginations we cannot grasp: What must it be like to be a King?

We Americans have not officially had a King since we were officially Americans. Of course, there are a few Kings here and there alive and employed in the world today. We can read about Kings that have existed in different lands and in different times. But first person experience with Kingship is limited.

Between the two of us, we have met lots of people that have fulfilled a wide variety of jobs, but never a King.

In the movies Kings are portrayed as having a plush lifestyle--golden toothbrushes and velvet tissues and such. But it cannot be all good, right?

Think of the pressure of being a King.

And usually, a King does not answer to anyone else.

But in our scriptures this week we get an interesting perspective of Kings whose lives are not all milk baths and windows made of diamonds. These scriptures show us Kings who are subject to a higher power.

In the passage from 2 Samuel we get to listen in to the last words of King David. He is reflecting on how great things go with those who rule over their people justly and rule in the fear of God...and how things can go poorly for the godless rulers. He is aware of being in service to God and he is aware of the ways (both positively and negatively) his service might be rewarded. There seems to be an awareness of the weighty-ness of his position. There is a burden in his accountability and relationship to Yahweh similar to that expressed by Moses. David was the first Jewish King...and his authority was given to him as he was anointed by Samuel. And Samuel's power to anoint a king also came from God.

In Psalm 132 we see again some of the internal struggle of a King as he attempts to do what he can to serve God. And it seems to be real labor, not a life of ease and luxury. And there seems to be an exchange. God has chosen Zion and has anointed a King and when that King is loyal, his heirs are assured the throne. The psalmist is regaling the hearer with God's promise to Israel to remain with them in the land while they are loyal. It is a burdensome mutual accountability, in some ways.

We (Matt and Laura) often want to compare a King to our President. But that breaks down in a bunch of ways....especially when we are thinking of a President of a democracy such as ours. Our President (as least on paper) serves / owes allegiance to We The People....and to no other. And as we understand a King as found in these passages, it seems that the King also found himself saddled with the responsibility of owing allegiance to God - perhaps in spite of the people at times. (Flash back to Moses - those Israelites were a complaining bunch who wouldn't have willingly guided Moses to the same conclusions that Yahweh did.)

In Revelation we find Jesus being praised as the ruler of the Kings of the earth....and yet, even he is subject to his God and Father.

In John we find Jesus and Pilate engaged in what turns out to be a bit of a philosophical conversation. Pilate begins by trying to understand why Jesus has been brought before him. However, in their dialogue it seems Jesus pushes past the questions of earthly Kingship and a worry about who "rules" over any one group of people. His statement seems to close down that line of questioning: Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice. Now this answer is so far beyond what Pilate was living into. Pilate was a politician. He was doing all he could to stay in right graces with the Roman powers that were gripping the area. He was a few rungs down on the ladder, too. And here is Jesus standing before him responding in what must have seemed an answer from another galaxy - my Kingdom is not of this world.

It is mind-boggling to consider where our understandings come from. In many ways, the kingships of the early and middle-ages were based on a biblical notion that authority came from God. But the human addiction to and misuse of authority eventually altered the notion kings, kingdoms and rule and our reaction to them. When we peel back the layers and get back to the biblical concept of kingship and authority, its a mind-blowing responsibility...and reminds us of our prayers for those "burdened with power."

Was David a just King? What were the benefits of his position? Drawbacks?
What human needs have changed our understanding of authority? of kingship?
What titles do you have for Jesus? Do you perceive Jesus as an authority? A comforter? A shepherd?

God of Power and Might,
Humble us to recognize the burden of authority
and help us to temper our understanding of authority
in recognition that we are stewards of your gifts
to be used for your Kingdom.

© matt & laura norvell 2009 www.settingourstones.org
we want to share this with you and hope you'll share with the world; we simply ask that you let people know where you found these words. May Grace & Peace be with you.


33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 28), Year B

From where does authority come? What power does authority possess? Are their indicators of authority?

In the readings this week, we see a number of different approaches to God -- through various chanels of perceived authority. It just has us wondering how we shape our approach to God based on how we understand the authority of God and of others who claim authority related to God. Is God found in a specific place, or is our approach more likely to be noted and get results in a certain place? Are there people through whom our petitions move faster and with greater urgency? Hmmm. And what authority do we have and from where does it come? Our actions, our station in life, our faith?

This week, we have an extended reading from 1 Samuel. The first tells a story somewhat familiar in Hebrew scripture. Hannah is the second wife to Elkanah, and she has not been able to conceive. She enters the temple and offers her prayers, and she commits that if the Lord will bless her with a son, he will be raised in the purest ways and prepared for service to God. (Specifically, Hannah commits to raising her son as a nazarite, see Numbers 6:8). Eli, the priest in the Temple at the time, observes Hannah's troubled behavior and accuses her of being drunk. But Hannah doesn't back down, she explains her petition to Eli. And his response is promising. He assures her that the Lord will hear and grant her petition. Now, Hannah chose to go to the Lord in prayer, and it seems odd that it was Eli that responded...but Hagar's story about praying for Ishmael's safety in the wilderness is similar - the Lord responds to the child, not to Hagar. This is a time and place where women have little authority, and their direct approach was met with indirect response. Now this promised son is Samuel, who will be last judge in the era of Judges among the Israelites. Judges represented the various tribes in a loose confederacy that was Israel at the time. Samuel will also annoint the first two Kings - heralding a central strong authority among all of the tribes, and Kings are something promised by God way, way back in the journey to the promised land. As a prophet, he heralds a new era of authority among the Isralites. In some ways, the Lord's response is not specifically to Hannah, but to the Israelites as a whole. God's hand is very directly involved in the new direction of authority on the ground - or is it?

Instead of a selection from the book of Psalms, the next reading is a continuation from 1 Samuel, Hannah's song of praise in response to the good news she receives. And she isn't just praising God for her own good fortune. Her psalm of praise is full of signs of the Lord's righteousness. And she offers it with such joy and passion. Now she didn't go back to Eli to thank him, or to ask him to offer thanks on her behalf...she again goes right to God in prayer. She is full of hope - and it is as if she sees the potential big picture - a time of righteousness reigning over the land where the poor are raised up.

In our continued reading of Hebrews, we read a pretty great insight about community and authority. The writer describes a host of priests who offer sacrifices for the forgiveness of sins, but there attempts are futile compared to what is accomplished in the singular sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Sometimes, we have a hard time wrapping ourselves around that language - especially in this day and age. But the people hearing this message had been deeply entrenched in a sacrificial system and they understood a certain hierarchy of petition, thanksgiving and related sacrifices. The author of Hebrews is helping them to see Jesus' death as the final sacrifice needed. And with that sacrifice, all are clean, all are forgiven, and all are empowered. And now their job seems to be to empower one another as community - provoking one another to good deeds. Now there is a turn of terms - provoking goodness. You are forgiven and as such you should go encourage everyone to goodness. The people are being given back a lot of authority, it would seem.

Finally in the reading from Mark's Gospel, Jesus predicts the destruction of the temple, and also warns the disciples that in the aftermath of such change, there will be false prophets and teachers and preachers about which to worry. And he really saddles them with responsibility for discerning truth. So the temple, a clear symbol of authority and power in their culture, would be destroyed. But that wouldn't mean an authority vacuum. People would have to discern where authority existed, where it was authentic. (A passing thought - given that dialogue, how do you suppose that they discerned Paul's eventual authority?)

The changing landscape of authority is a consistent theme across the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament. What would writers say today about where God's authority resides?

How do you approach God? Are there different "channels" of approach for you?
Where do you see shifts in authority occurring in the world around you?
Who do you see having no authority? What does scripture have to say about that?

Here I am.
Make me. Mold me. Use me.
Open my eyes and ears
So that I may discern
Where I have authority
To evoke your Kingdom
In this world.

© matt & laura norvell 2009 www.settingourstones.org
we want to share this with you and hope you'll share with the world; we simply ask that you let people know where you found these words. May Grace & Peace be with you.


32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 28), Year B

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17
Psalm 127
Hebrews 9:24-28
Mark 12:38-44

So, the Scriptures are ancient texts written in another time and place with a context that is often really difficult for us to grasp in our present lives. And so we try to remember to ask ourselves early and often what these texts might be saying to us today. It's important to recognize when and where and why a text was written so that we are better able to identify our own response to it. And we still probably need to ask, even if we can point to context and say - wow things were different then - why we get bugged by certain things.

The texts this week sort of fit into the category of contexts to which we have difficulty relating.

The reading from Ruth gives us sort of a snapshot contextual snapshot of how two widows - a mother and her daughter-in-law - manage to survive the harsh realities of their society. It's hard to imagine the fate that Ruth and Naomi encountered when their spouses died. Naomi has left her roots behind in Bethlehem to follow her husband and sons. When they die, Ruth promises to stay with Naomi and leaves her own homeland to become a stranger in a strange land - to enter Israel with Naomi. In turn, Naomi helps Ruth to attract the attention and affection of wealthy landowner Boaz, effectively bonding Ruth to the Israelites. In the selection for this week, we are entering sort of an awkward point of the story by our societal standards. Naomi has basically instructed Ruth to go lay with Boaz on the threshing floor. Then we flash forward through the text to the point at which it is revealed that Ruth has conceived, she and Boaz have married and somehow Naomi ends up with the baby - a boy - to nurse. Ruth has provided Naomi with something none of her seven sons were able to provide - economic security in their society. Now, this is a tough story for us to wrap our 21st century norms around...and yet, it has stood the test of time, made it into the cannon and continues to be read. What does this story - named for Ruth but as much about Naomi - say to us today? For one, there are some interesting questions to be asked about immigrants. Ruth is an immigrant who completely adopts her new culture and invests herself in it for survival and out of loyalty to Naomi. Does Ruth give up anything in the process?

The psalmist is echoing some of the themes about the importance of family and of sons in particular that we find in Ruth. Also, the psalmist is naming the importance of keeping the Lord central to our comings and our goings. Now all of this talk about "sons" as opposed to daughters is very particular to the culture in which this psalm was written. Is it easy to substitute sons and daughters? Are there other things that could replace "sons" in this text for today?

In the selection from Hebrews, the writer is establishing Jesus' death on the cross as the atoning sacrifice that wipes away all of our sins. Now most of us cannot really grasp the importance of these passages referencing the High Priest entering the Holy Place or about Jesus entering the Sanctuary. Even the High-est Church Folks of us today do not have the social / religious / personal reverence for the Sacred Places that the Jews of that time had. It is so hard for us to grasp the comparisons that are being made in this passage. Also (we....Laura and Matt) do not and cannot understand the importance and depth of the references to sacrifice here and how they connect to the Jewish expectations of the day. Sacrifice was so much more real and meant so much more in that space. Also, the writer of Hebrews is attempting to do something quite important here. He is attempting to show a Jewish audience that the sacrifice of Jesus and by Jesus was an ultimate sacrifice for sins as opposed to the constant and consistent sacrifices for sins that were performed by the priests in the Temple. Context is so important.

In the passage from Mark, the context is quite different, but it is fairly easy for us to relate to it we believe. He was teaching the disciples about personal / social / financial responsibility using examples from what they saw around them. It appears they are standing outside of the synagogue and he goes after the scribes (the folks who were responsible for literally keeping the law alive through repeating and recording) as models for how one ought NOT behave. He was encouraging the disciples to not let power and authority and control go to their heads....to not let their job titles or the color of their robes determine how they should behave. This example was immediately juxaposed against a poor widow who gave as all she had to support the synagogue...she was held up as the example of giving all to God. Of course it is easy to draw our own contextual parallels to today. You can choose your favorite: corporate leaders, government leaders, religious leaders, etc.

Do you have the same cultural curiosity and respect for the scriptures as you might have for a new friend from another country?
How do you take the stories and messages you find in scripture and apply them to your personal journey here in 2009 America?
How does a cultural awareness impact how you behave and respond to the world around you?

God, help us see how you continue to speak.
It is so tempting for me to believe you Have Spoken...
....and that is it.
But I know you continue to speak.
It is easier to believe you Have Spoken...
....that makes it eaiser for me...
....I could just study the scriptures thoroughly....
....and I would Know.
But realistically, I know you continue to speak.
You spoke to the darkness and the light.
You spoke to Moses.
You spoke to Mary.
You spoke to Martin Luther.
You speak to Me.
You continue to speak.
Help me to listen.


All Saints Day

Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9
Psalm 24
Revelation 21:1-6a
John 11:32-44

It would seem that this year for us is permeated by the end of life. Perhaps it is something that happens as we approach what we sincerely hope is "EARLY middle-age." Matt works day after day with families who are walking through the long journey that is the death of a child. And this year, Laura's dad received a terminal diagnosis after surviving a grim diagnosis 25 years ago. Around us our community and our friends and co-workers are experiencing the loss of loved ones. We spend a lot of time considering this space. Of course we do. Death has certainty.

One certainty of death is the physical body of a person that used to mysteriously work on its own no longer does. Whatever it was that started the heart to beat has stopped.

And then what?

Then Faith, Hope, and Love.

We do not know for certain what happens to the individual...to the Spirit, the Soul when the body stops working.

We have Belief and Faith and Hope based on our experiences and our faith tradition and on the Beliefs and Faiths and Hopes of many who have lived before us.

This week we celebrate the feast of All Saints. Now for those of us who grew up in protestant churches, dialogues about saints were pretty rare. Those of us who grew up in Catholic churches might have found ourselves overwhelmed the the numbers of saints, their stories and their legacy. The feast of All Saints evolved as the Christian churches response to an early world view that as the nights lengthened and the cold strengthened, evil walked the earth seeking destruction and havoc. Halloween traditions are deeply rooted in this understanding. But Christian communities believed that they had power over evil, that Jesus' resurrection was a triumph over death, and that each person was called to live in peace and love with their neighbor to ward off evil. And so, All Saints Day evolved as a celebration of those Christian martyrs that had died defending the faith. Over time and through the reformation, there was growing recognition that a "saint" was not a perfect or special person - that each of us as God's creation has the capacity to be a saint. And today, All Saints Day can be a time to remember those whose physical bodies have stopped working, but whose time with others permanently marked the face of creation. (And some believe that the best way to live out all that is encompassed in All Saints Day requires recognizing and celebrating some root traditions of Halloween [scary costumes and jack-o-lanterns], followed in quick succession by the celebration of the saints. So...maybe all of that Halloween stuff has its place. OK, commentary over.)

So the readings for this week explore some really different views of what might happen when the heart beats its last.

The Wisdom of Solomon is actually a "deuterocanonical text" - a fancy word for an ancient writing that was accepted later than most of the rest by the councils that decided these things so many hundreds of years ago and as such is a bit of a rarity in the Lectionary cycle. It is part of a body of writing in the Hebrew scriptures that begins to articulate an emerging Jewish understandings of life and death and afterlife that would have shaped the culture into which Jesus was born and taught. The section prior to the selected passage describes some "wicked" folks who were plotting to see if a righteous person would really see the protection of God (interesting in light of the past few weeks spent reading Job). They were planning to hurt the righteous man. However the response of the writer here (2:21 - 24) says,
"Thus they (the wicked) reasoned, but they were led astray,
for their wickedness blinded them,
and they did not know the secret purposes of God,
nor hoped for the wages of holiness,
nor discerned the prize for blameless souls;
for God created us for incorruption,
and made us in the image of his own eternity,
but through the devil’s envy death entered the world,
and those who belong to his company experience it. "
This sets up a pretty clear understanding that death is the product of evil, and its experience is limited to those in the company of evil. But everybody knew that people's bodies stopped working, right? So the writer goes on to explain that righteous souls are in the hand of God, not to be tormented in death. Somehow they have been tested and punished in some way, but they continue on and at some point (in the time of their visitation) they will "shine forth." So those who are righteous and faithful will receive grace and mercy. It all sounds kind of familiar, eh?

The writer of the psalm seems to have a good grasp that death is a part of life and so he is working with how to best prepare for whatever is next. He asks, "who shall ascend to the hill of the LORD?" "Those who have clean hands and pure hearts" "They will receive blessing from the LORD". He does not talk much in this passage what "the blessing of the LORD" might be, but he does know it is something he wants to strive toward.

In John's Revelation we see a different hope / dream of how things work out after the last heart beat. As John recounts his vision, he describes a new heaven and a new earth that is unlike the present reality where death does not exist and Jerusalem is adorned and elevated. "First things" have passed away. In this, there is some hope that all of this mixed up crazy conflict driven-reality is just one creation. There is something that happens "next." If you spend time in a study bible examining this text, you will appreciate the multiple allusions the writer is making to core texts in the Jewish tradition. In particular, the writer is drawing heavily from Isaiah and the hope of a restored Israel. This is a text borne out of the deep teachings and traditions of the Jewish community and casting hope for an early Christian community that was caught in the chaos of Roman domination and the destruction of the roots of their ancient culture and beliefs.

In the Gospel of John we see the example of what so many hope for in the face of death, that it can be physically overcome and avoided today. And we witness the complication of human relationship as we face death. Jesus has chosen to delay his return to Lazarus, knowing that he is ill. When he arrives, he is told it is too late - Lazarus has already died. Mary chides him - if you had only done something sooner. We also see here that Jesus is really sad about the loss of his friend. Was he disappointed that he had not come sooner? Did he know what he would do once he arrived? If so, why the tears? Jesus has left an audience that rejected him pretty soundly. In the preceding verses, he has claimed that those who know him will never perish. And so, in some ways, as readers of the story, we kind of expect Jesus to do something dramatic for Lazarus. And he does. He calls Lazarus from the tomb, and Lazarus comes. Amazing. Breathtaking. Expected?

Our understanding of death is shaped by our experience and our Belief and Faith and Hope. And our understanding of death shapes how we here Jesus' command, "Lazarus, come out!"

What has been your experience of death? In what way has that experience shaped your Belief, Faith and Hope?

Creator, Sustainer, Comforter,
keep us from grasping for immortality out of fear
and enable us to grasp instead for today
that we are unbound and let go
for your work in the world.

© matt & laura norvell 2009 www.settingourstones.org
we want to share this with you and hope you'll share with the world; we simply ask that you let people know where you found these words. May Grace & Peace be with you.


30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 24), Year B

Job 42.1-6, 10-17
Psalm 34.1-8
Hebrews 7.23-28
Mark 10. 46-52


Verbal. Non-verbal. Direct. Indirect.

In one way or another we get our messages across. And most of the time, we do not communicate in just one form and none of us communicate in a vacuum. For example, IF WE BEGAN TO TYPE IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS YOU MIGHT ASSUME WE ARE 'yelling' THESE WORDS. But why? Well, because you have a historical experience that tells you ALL CAPITALS means excitement or louder voice or some such thing.

When you are talking with someone, you hear the actual words, you hear the way the words are being said, you hear the excitement or boredom or anger or interest in their voice, you often can see the accompanying facial expressions or other body postures that are involved.

Context is often important too. If standing in the shade of a tree on a pleasant fall afternoon your friend says, "please get me some water" you might assume they want a glass of water to drink. And if the same friend said the same thing while standing next to a burning car, you might assume something different.

And when you meet someone new, there is often a period (sometimes short and sometimes long) when you have to learn a bit about their habits or style of communication before you feel like you can really count on good, solid, healthy communication with that person.

This week's scriptures give us some good examples of different forms of communication to learn from.

In this final installment from the story of Job, Job gets to speak again. Remember that so far we heard of Job's great life, the discussion between God and the Tempter, how Job's life gets really difficult, how Job's wife and friends search to find fault with Job's life or with God (fault MUST lie somewhere, right?), Job's direct inquisition of God, God's fairly direct (yet indirect) response to Job, and then we get this last bit where Job realizes he had stepped out of his bounds and should not have questioned God the way he did. If this were a movie, we imagine Job would be holding his hat in his hands and looking at the ground as he said, "God, I am sorry. I forgot the cardinal rule--someone is in charge and it is not me." Job had yelled out to God not really expecting that he was directly communicating with God....at least he was not expecting a direct answer, and God communicated Directly back to Job, and Job realized that his approach to communicating with God did not show the appropriate respect it should have--and he repented. Hmmm....Job was able to find his humble place in the Creation and he realized that God wasn't beyond direct communication, and his life got better again....we wonder if that means anything.

The Psalmist is praising the Lord and along the way, making some statements about being in direct relationship. Beginning with praise continually in the speaker's mouth, inviting others to join the exaltation, seeking the Lord and being answered, this is a person who is engaged in some sort of regular dialogue - communication - with God. And this person is pretty sure that there is deliverance in that dialogue.

In Hebrews, our writer is probably drawing on what a Jewish community would understand about the priesthood and along the way making some metaphorical statements about Jesus priesthood. Of particular interest to us in our reading is this notion of the priestly role of intercessor. Now, there is a lot of mixed trinitarian opinion about how God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit interact with one another and with creation, but our writer is suggesting that Jesus is the ultimately priestly intercessor, and that his single sacrifice in dying on a cross is enough sacrifice for all of us for the rest of time - no need to sustain blood sacrifices while the priests are praying on behalf of the people. Now we've all learned about some risks of triangulated communication - but perhaps with Jesus as our intercessor, it really has more to do with how we relate to the trinity as we pray for things. Do we need one part of the trinity to be more "approachable" or easier to talk with?

Finally, in Mark's gospel, we see another healing act of Jesus. Entering Jericho, Jesus encounters a man at some distance yelling for Jesus to have mercy on him. The man is blind. Jesus sends his disciples over to get the man and Jesus asks him - what do you really want? And the man answers that he wants his sight restored. Jesus tells him that by his faith he has been healed. Now, perhaps it was not clear at a distance what the man might "want" in asking for mercy. But we also wonder - what is Jesus teaching about naming needs. How many times do you mutter something like God, help me instead of speaking very specifically - God, I need sleep. Help me to relax into a sleep that will restore my patience for the work that is ahead of me. Or Jesus, I am afraid that I cannot deliver on the promises I have made to other people. Help me find the strength to approach them with honesty and discuss what I can and cannot realistically do right now. Big difference, eh?

The very basis of our faith is a covenant between God and creation. Covenant is about relationship. It's not a simple promise, it is two parties turning time and time again toward one another. We suppose, deep down, that requires that we show up in relationship - that we communicate. That we listen actively, seek understanding, name our feelings, state our needs, test our understanding once again, and test consensus. It's what we're called to do and how we're called to be - communicators.

How do you communicate with God? with Jesus? with the Spirit?
How is your communication with others different from that? Should it be?
Is communication hard? Why? or Why not? When? With whom?

Here I am.
Today, I want to engage with you.
I want to share with you
my day and my joy and my fear
and my wonder and my anger
and my laughter and my tears.
I want to show up.
Hear me and open my ears
so that I hear and listen
to the cadence of your voice
in my life.

© matt & laura norvell 2009 www.settingourstones.org
we want to share this with you and hope you'll share with the world; we simply ask that you let people know where you found these words. May Grace & Peace be with you.


29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 24), Year B

Job 38:1-7, (34-41)
Psalm 104:1-9, 24, 35c
Hebrews 5:1-10
Mark 10:35-45

There are days when it is awfully difficult to be, well, Human. We work hard, play hard, spend hard, live hard and then hope to sleep hard. We seem driven to suck the marrow from life - ours and everyone else's sometimes. The bottom line is that we simply cannot do it all. We are not SUPERHEROES. Or are we?

Enter God. It seems we find lots of examples in scripture where the attributes, strengths, glory and majesty of God are laid out and remembered.

And, it seems, most times those things are recited in response to a Human failure to be more than Human. But in response to mere Humanness? Not so much.

For example, this week we read a bit of the last main section of the story of Job. After Job and his friends and family have spent a significant time lamenting and questioning God because of the suffering Job is experiencing, God offers a response. Job's life has changed significantly and he seems to feel he has a right to know why and he demands an answer. And in God's response it is evident there are some things that are simply not meant for humans to know. There are some things that are the domain of God and God alone. And God seems a little miffed that Job would even dare to ask why.

The psalmist seems to find some solace in imagining the strength and breadth and depth of God's power and purview. Underlying this psalm of praise (and many like it) is a message of comfort: "I don't have to be in charge of the wind and the mountains and the water...God is in charges of those things." Obviously (when we read other psalms) we know this confidence is not always present or always comforting, but we do know that it often is.

In the letter to the Hebrews, the author is speaking about Humans called to the priesthood. Priests were important people throughout the bible. Here, the writer is sharing that part of the priests work is to be able to empathize with their fellow humans as they are also human and therefore subject to sin. And like these priests, part of Jesus' power was in his experience as a human. Had he not been walking among the common man, had he not suffered and died, his impact would not be felt in the same way. It is almost as if the author of Hebrews is lifting up our "mere Humanity."

And finally, in Mark's gospel, James and John approach Jesus and ask for the privilege of sitting at his right and left - positions of honor. But Jesus says these honors are not his to bestow. And in a permutation of the first becoming last, he tells them that in order to be first, they must become a slave to many. Hmmm. Much like Jesus himself, they must give up their power and autonomy and dignity and live to serve. And in that they might find glory.

We are struck by what we cannot do as Humans. And it would seem that in letting ourselves be "just Human," we gain so much too. Too often we are striving for powers and vision and understanding that is above our pay-grade. And it is exhausting, isn't it?

How much time do you spend (or have you spent) wanting to know the answer to a question that maybe it is not yours to know?

How often do you intensify suffering or even create new suffering attempting to know the mind of God and the logic of the universe?

What would happen if we were all to embrace our Human-ness? What if we were to accept who we are today....and then if that changes tomorrow, we embrace that change then?

Unthinkable, unimaginable, incomprehensible,
Expansive You,
Help us to embrace your infinity
And our finitude
As gifts.

© matt & laura norvell 2009 www.settingourstones.orgwe want to share this with you and hope you'll share with the world; we simply ask that you let people know where you found these words. May Grace & Peace be with you.


The 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 23), Year B

Job 23:1-9, 16-17
Psalm 22:1-15
Hebrews 4:12-16
Mark 10:17-31

Sometimes we hear someone referred to as the kind of person who "goes looking for trouble." But really, have you ever known anyone who actually goes out and looks for trouble?

Not to cause trouble...but to be In Trouble.

Trouble. Say it out loud. It is a Troubling word all by itself.

It conjures up images of pain and discomfort and distress. It makes us think of being alone and shut out or singled out. Being In Trouble sounds like something to be avoided.

From our experience, Troubling Times or being In Trouble or running in to Trouble are all things we hope will not be a part of our average days.

Do we have any control over Trouble? What is an appropriate response to Trouble when it shows up or you find yourself in It?

As usual, our scriptures this week show us a couple of different possibilities.

We get to see another important part of the story of Job this week. He is in Trouble. Everything he had (except his life) is gone and he is surrounded by some friends that are badgering him and attempting to convince him that all of this calimity is his fault. And at this point he has begun to question things for himself. A modern psychiatrist might diagnose him as depressed and possibly suicidal. Trouble has swallowed him and he is caught deep inside it.

The Psalmist writing in Psalm 22 has also found herself deep in Trouble. It seem that all of the possible Light of life has been sucked from the world. She continues to cry out to God, but she is questioning where God has gone and left her "in the dust of death." What should she do in this situation? Have you ever found yourself laid this low? What do you do?

The writer of Hebrews seems to be offering some encouragement in these types of difficult times. He is encouraging the followers of Jesus to take heart in difficult times because the one they are following understands the difficulty they are experiencing because he "has in every respect been tested as we are." An important question (for us at least)--how does knowing Jesus endured similar difficulties of the human experience help you to face the suffering / difficulties of life?

And then in Mark we are presented with some of Jesus' most difficult teachings. First, he is approached by a righteous rich young ruler who wants to know how he can enter the Kingdom of God. Jesus' answer is not easy to swallow. The rich, young ruller finds himself in Trouble. In order to enter the Kingdom of God, he must get rid of all of his possessions, give his treasure to the poor. And he turns away, never found in the Gospel again. That was a reality he could not accept. Then the disciples, that quarrelsome lot, who had overheard all of this were perplexed. How could this be? (We presume they were somehow convicted by this teaching.) They ask, haven't we given up enough? Jesus paints a picture of Trouble to come - persecution aplenty. Trouble with a capital T, followed by some sort of peace and plenty. But Trouble. Somehow the Trouble of today is going to become bigger Trouble tomorrow.

And we wonder, what Trouble do we have today that has to get bigger before it ends? We know we are pretty convicted by the story of the rich young ruler. We have a LOT of things - treasure that we store up. And it's certainly not protecting us from anything.

How do you know when you are facing Trouble? How do you respond?
How do you reach out to others in Trouble?
Are their Troubles looming? What are they? How are you prepared?

Keeper, Creator,
Keep us from the time of trouble.
Keep us from creating times of trouble.
Keep us from overlooking others' trouble.
And keep us in our times of trouble.

© matt & laura norvell 2009 www.settingourstones.org
we want to share this with you and hope you'll share with the world; we simply ask that you let people know where you found these words. May Grace & Peace be with you.


27th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 22), Year B

Job 1:1, 2:1-10
Psalm 26
Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12
Mark 10:2-16

It is really hard to remain blameless and upright and full of integrity.

Or so we are told.

Both of us have had periods in our lives where we worked hard to be blameless and upright and full of integrity. And when that didn't work out we both worked hard to at least APPEAR blameless and upright and full of integrity. In that process (looking in the rear-view mirror) we can see we were working toward the acceptance and approval of others and we were WORKING toward the External acceptance and approval of God. When all of that didn't work out we have finally found some ways to accept the reality of being flawed humans who are (even in all our humanness) loved and forgiven and accepted by God.

In this week's readings we see folks who are struggling with these issues and ideals of perfection and flaws. We see folks struggling with what it means to follow the rules. And we see folks struggling with what it means when following the rules does not suddenly create a life free from suffering.

Job is a classic story. The story and troubles of Job get quoted by people who have never even read the story in the bible. Most folks know his story - trouble upon trouble is heaped upon him and in his misery and his confusion, he remains faithful to God. And there really never is a good answer to why Job suffers the way that he does. Good things happen and bad things happen, and still there is God. Being upright and full of integrity didn't serve Job particularly well...at least it didn't keep him from suffering. But that is not to say that turning his back on God would serve him better. Life is hard that way. All of Job's good works could not move God from what God would do. What motivated Job's faithfulness? Is it possible that his motivation was really the source of his troubles? That seems a lesson learned the hard way (and aren't the best all learned the hard way?).

In Psalm 26 we find someone who is so confident in God and in his ability to be faithful to God and he is asking for the type of tests Job was put through. And something we wonder is whether anyone is capable of really trusting God's power until they have been through a time of trial, a time when they seemed to be experiencing one tragedy after another, when they have truly had to rely on the fabric of God's love as their only cover.

In the passages from Hebrews the writer is describing and admiring the perfection of Jesus and the cosmic work of salvation that came in and through Jesus, and specifically through Jesus' suffering. It is no wonder, when reading outtakes like this, that much of mainline Christianity has regarded Jesus' suffering as some of his most important work...and somehow that got skewed over time as an endorsement of a certain level of pain and suffering to achieve salvation. But in total, Hebrews encourages covenant faithfulness in God, following Jesus' example even in persecution. And at the time it was written, Christians were really struggling to shape there identity and to be accepted. These words were written to people facing very real persecution - persecution because of their desire to be faithful followers in Jesus' example. We wonder what we are really called to suffer today, and whether perhaps the act of trying to be righteous for the purpose of finding love and acceptance that is already ours doesn't sometimes create more suffering than peace.

And in Mark we see a conversation between Jesus, the Pharisees, the disciples of Jesus, and Moses (sort of). They are talking about divorce and adultery. This is another in a string of situations where Jesus is taking the questions of behavior and rule-following and elevating them to the ultimate level (remember poking your eye out and cutting your hand off?). When the Pharisees were trying to catch Jesus in a trap by asking him about a question of adherence to religious law, convention, and culture he responded by reminding them that what they were looking at was also a spiritual question. They were asking what was Permissible and Jesus was telling them what it took to be Blameless. Next, Jesus is scooping up children that the disciples would keep from him. Children by nature are better able to see true good (until they achieve some age...we're still investigating when that begins and ends in our house) and true evil as opposed to the permissive space that the Pharisees were examining. Have you ever felt like a child could see right through a situation?

We've been reading a LOT about Works and Grace over the past few weeks. This weeks readings have us reflecting and remembering that we are beloved and it is from that place that we can reach out into the world and BE.

How hard to you work to be blameless, upright and full of integrity? How is that working for you?
What does it mean for you to be flawed? How do you value yourself as a flawed human?
What are the benefits of knowing your flaws?

Grace-filled and loving God -
Spirit, Breath and Presence...
Help us to settle into our own imperfection
and to understand the gift
that is in that settled space
and then to turn that gift loose
to Love others
without Condition
or Judgment.

© matt & laura norvell 2009 www.settingourstones.org
we want to share this with you and hope you'll share with the world; we simply ask that you let people know where you found these words. May Grace & Peace be with you.


26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 21), Year B

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
Psalm 124
James 5:13-20
Mark 9:38-50

Do you ever feel like there are so many choices that the right choice is simply out of reach? At the very least, the "absolute" right choice isn't "absolutely" clear. For example, most of us have multiple career options. It's not as though anyone measures us, sniffs authoritatively and assigns us a lifetime career from which we have no escape. And what about our relationships? Most of us are blessed with multiple communities...our work, our church, our neighborhood. No one is really telling us who the right people are. Perhaps this is most notable in our choice of life partner. How do we know when we've found "the one." There are so many options. How do we choose? And is there really a right "one," a single right answer, a right career, direction, path, fork in the road. And really, what is our primary indicator of what is a "right" choice? Doesn't it usually have something to do with how we benefit?

This week's texts take a very specific look at some of the choices we face - specifically our choices made for the benefit of others. Whoa. Now take a look at some of those examples above - what would it mean to choose our career for the benefit of the good (and some do). What about choosing to live in a specific spot - say in a specific country or neighborhood because our gifts and abilities are desperately needed in that space. What about choosing to live a specific way - with little garbage, lots of recycling, lots of locally grown foods, because we want to treat the earth well for a next generation?

Queen Esther's plight is pretty well known in popular literature. In order to save the Jews from slavery and servitude, she positions herself to marry the King and then further works her magic and favor with the King to reveal how Haman has plotted and positioned to guide the King's policies and destroy the Jews. As a result of Esther's work, Haman is hanged (on the very gallows he was preparing for Mordecai) and Mordecai, Esther's uncle, sends word to the Jews far and near to establish a day or remembering - Purim. Now Esther made some pretty tough choices. She essentially wooed the King with her feminine wiles and it is hard to know whether this was initially for personal gain or for the benefit of her people. Somewhere along the way, Mordecai convinced her that she could do a great thing with the favor she found in the king. But what if she had chosen something else? Was there another way? And what could Mordecai have done differently? One of the the things he does is leads the newly liberated Jews on a rampage of pillage.

The psalmist is raising praises for the Lord who has saved the Israelites from the enemy time and time again. And we wonder what role the Israelites play in their own saving each time? As we look at their history (and this psalm as one little window in the middle of it) we can see again and again how there were moments they made the choice to follow God and there were times they did not make the choice to follow God. And how did they find themselves in each pickle? It seems like we are always making choices....even when we are not actively choosing.

James is challenging the community to ask for what they need and to give thanks for what they have and to aid one another with prayer. This writer is encouraging his audience to make a choice toward God in every aspect of their lives. And it could be true that his underlying premise here is "you will certainly not find God on your side if you to not reach out to God, but by reaching toward God with your whole life you increase your chances." Of course, the writer of James is operating with a bit more confidence than that. He is certainly a "If A = B, B = C, then certainly and without a doubt A = C". It is an over simplification to say th writer of James is encouraging folks to view God as a cosmic vending machine....put in a prayer and you will get what you want.....but then again, maybe it is not an oversimplification.

Now in the gospel of Mark, Jesus is helping the disciples to understand how they can lead and relate. He encourages them not to stand in the way of people who are trying to know Jesus and his teachings. "Those who are not against us are for us." Wow. Jesus is reminding the disciples of an important choice...they can draw the circle large or make it very narrow. But to make it narrow is not what Jesus is recommending. Here is one of those great pieces of quoted text that is so often taken out of context - if your hand, foot or eye causes you to stumble, get rid of it! But in the context of this story, Jesus is specifically referencing actions in which the disciples choose to keep people out of ministry. He's pointing out how actions can draw the circle smaller and keep people out. He's warning them that they need to choose to be inclusive for the movement to work.

God of so many things...
Sometimes I am certain Free Choice is a bad idea.
Many days I would prefer to not have an option.
I would often trade in my humanness to be
a God-loving, Law-abiding robot.
It is too hard to always Choose the Good.
It is too much to look at all the available options
and find the Right One.
My only hope is that what Saint Merton said is true:
Hopefully my desire to make Good Choices
counts for something.
Hopefully my intentions to follow You
can balance my inability to always see The Right Way.
Hopefully my dream of servanthood
will keep me moving toward You
even when I don't know where I am
or where You are.

© matt & laura norvell 2009 www.settingourstones.org
we want to share this you and hope you'll share with the world; we simply ask that you let people know where you found these words. May Grace & Peace be with you.


25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 20), Year B

Proverbs 31.10-31
Psalm 1
James 3.13-4.3, 7-8a
Mark 9.30-37

We don't know about you, but in the circles we run in (both in and out of work) there are lots of conversations about how we should all be striving for some sort of Balance in our lives. Usually (the best we can tell), people are talking about some sort of Balance between doing the things that take away your energy (physical, emotional, social, spiritual) and things that restore your energy. Of course, often the people that are talking about how we should work toward Balance in our lives are also the people who are asking us to take on more tasks, or they are the people who are running so fast and so hard all the time there is no opportunity for them to think private thoughts....much less achieve Balance.

We bring up the question of Balance this week because there are so many references in scripture about what else we are supposed to Do for other people. We have all heard the aphorism, "Don't just Do something, stand there!" But even for the several places we are told we are loved by God simply for Being Us, there are 100 times more places we find messages to serve others. The formula often looks like, "Because you have been loved, so you should love one another."

We once heard in a stewardship plea this story: "We were discussing in Sunday School this morning whether we are saved by Grace or by Works. There were some folks that believed it is Grace and some believed it is Works. I suggest you hedge your bets and give more money to the church."

Now this would be cool and easy if loving and serving others was always easy and did not drain our physical, emotional, social, and spiritual energy. Let's be honest, even with people we like, it is not always restorative to love them. In this week's readings we have a few examples.

Remember that Proverbs is a wisdom book that is chocked full of very "sensible" things. It is the source of many commonly used pieces of practical wisdom. In this selection, the author is describing the good and righteous wife - a practical woman, a loving woman, a charitable woman - a woman who seems to do it ALL really well. We thought these high expectations were a modern sociological phenomena. Evidentally NOT. And we wonder, was there balance in this woman's life? Was her joy in all she did enough? Or did she need a good stiff martini and a Gucci or Coach handbag to make her feel better every now and again?

Now the Psalmist writes that those who are happy meditate upon the Law day and night without Sin. Hmm. Again, we find ourselves wondering if there is balance in that? Perhaps - especially if Sin is anything that keeps you from being who God created you to be (in which case, for at least one of us, Sin would involve trying to build spreadsheets full of brilliant, logical equations...or Sin would involve trying to be Mary Poppins - practically perfect in every way). James reminds us that the restless, generally misdirected longings of our heart lead us down a path of jealousy, covetousness, lust and therefore, sin. He's calling for a certain centeredness in love of God out of which balance will flow. There is such a resonance in this passage for today - for a society that has become so consumerist. What does it mean to look at our longings critically, to discern what is true and good and righteous and to act accordingly?

Finally in Mark we read about the disciples bickering among themselves about who is the best and Jesus challenging them about their understanding of "first" and "last." He tells them that we must be able to receive everyone, putting themselves last in order to receive Jesus. Now what if we didn't worry about whether we had a big enough house and instead worried about whether the whole world was housed - warm and dry and safe? Is there more breathing space in letting go of our own expectations and just "being" the hands and feet of Jesus to the whole world?

Maybe this passage in James is right. Maybe we are just too corrupt and too much of this earth to constantly receive Love and Peace from attempting to love God and others with our lives. We know this is true of us: "Where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind." At least for us, it is tough to live in this world without envy and selfish ambition. It is tough.

How do we find and achieve and maintain Balance in our lives when there is (in general) so far for each of us to journey?

I need your patient love right now -
because I have little patience myself.
I am buried in my own needs,
in my own aches and pains
in my own wounds and wars
to be fully present in your Kingdom
and to reach out to the weak
and the poor and the powerless.
Be patient with me
but help me move forward,
away from my own stuff -
away from my priorities.
And help me to focus
on You...
Help me to breathe again.

© matt & laura norvell 2009 www.settingourstones.org
we want to share this you and hope you'll share with the world; we simply ask that you let people know where you found these words. May Grace & Peace be with you.


24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Proverbs 1.20-33
Psalm 19
James 3.1-12
Mark 8.27-38

Wisdom.....hmmm....is being Wise the same thing as being a person that makes good choices?

If a person is Wise, does that mean s/he is a good rule follower? Does it mean s/he is able to intuitively pay attention to life experience really well? Is it a combination of both?

This week the different texts that make up our Lectionary reading all sort of dance around the ideas of listening to the advice of authority, following laws, fulfilling your true nature, and making tough choices to follow a Higher Calling.

Gratefully, we get another reading from the book of Proverbs this week. And this passage really points to the part of the book that is interesting. It is a personification of Wisdom that speaks out as woman. Many scholars believe that this woman Wisdom is speaking out the words and guidance of Solomon. But basically we see Her (Wisdom) standing at the gate of the city telling people if they don't follow her guidance, she will turn her back on them and allow them to be overtaken by disaster and calamity. Hmmmm.... (Feeling like a lectionary geek? Check out the alternate reading - Wisdom of Solomon 7:26 - 8:1 - another beautiful personification of lady Wisdom!)

Many of us know the last line of Psalm 19: "Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer." These are intimate words of a prayer spoken from a person who is devoted to following the law of the Lord, and they are a great way for us to humbly ground ourselves every morning and before every conversation we have in a day. However, we would encourage you to look at the other 13 verses of this Psalm. These words come from a person who is desperately committed to being in some sort of relationship with the Lord and is desperately attempting to appreciate and follow the Law of the Lord. But the psalmist knows that even knowing and consciously following the law does not keep a person free of sin. How are we responsible for what we do not actively know?

The message that comes to us from the writer of James reminds us about how our mistakes (bad choices) are a part of who we are. The reading begins with a warning that not too many can become teachers! Ah...knowledge has limits. And our tongues get us in trouble...as if we needed James to tell us that!

And in the gospel according to Mark we see Jesus and Peter in a bit of a conflict because of the choice (was Jesus making a choice?) Jesus was making and the choice Peter wanted Jesus to make. Jesus ended up inviting the disciples and the crowds to choose against the easy option and follow him. And the easy option is the one that is easy survival - easy living. And so, at some level, what comes easiest and most instinctive is NOT the way Jesus hopes his followers will choose.

It seems to us that we are expected to be more than just instinctive creatures reacting from our knowledge base and our biological response. We sense a higher call -- an expectation that we will seek a right way in relationship with God.

How do you understand wisdom? Is it something different from knowledge? Is it gained by your own work, or is it a gift of grace? Something else?
What do you do with the knowledge that you have? the Wisdom?

Spirit of Wisdom
Lift us out of our faith in ourselves, in what we know.
And light on our heart
Granting us insight and understanding
So that we may exercise Your Wisdom
to light the world.


23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 18), Year B

Does justice work in two directions? What we mean is, if we are supposed to serve the poor, comfort the widow, shelter the stranger, then do they in turn have an obligation to ask for the help that they need? Or, do the widow and the orphan and the resident alien have something to give in the process as well? Our readings today have us thinking whether justice is just something that rolls down or is it somehow something different...a meeting of the minds where we all have power and responsibility in the equation?

Proverbs is a book of wisdom teachings - it is full of things that are simply common sense. The selection this week is a teaching about justice. It's sort of an interesting order of things presented here. First, there is the advice that a good name or favor is better than riches. Then there is a reminder that God is creator of both the rich and the poor. Then there is advice that those who are unjust will fail and those who are generous will be blessed. All of this is because the Lord is watching out for the poor specifically.

The psalmist writes an appeal that the Lord stand by those who are righteous. They are like Mount Zion, immovable and unchanging. Given the eventual fall of the empire, did Israel remain righteous? What was the Lord's role?

The letter from James continues the theme established so far...the poor, the meek, the forgotten need our attention. There is no redemption in favoring the rich. There is a great line to open this chapter: "My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?" It appears that passive aggressive sarcasm was present even 1900 years ago! This is a passage that often good Puritans use to "work their way in to heaven".....it is in verse 17: "So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead." This writer is pushing toward making sure justice is done.

The story in Mark is an unusual one. The gospel of Mark is full of people arguing directly with Jesus or specifically going and doing something he has told them not to do. But the Syrophonecian woman is the one person in this gospel text who argues with Jesus and essentially wins her argument. There is some political code language going on here. First, this is a woman approaching a man. When Jesus denies her request, she plays point and counterpoint. But beyond that, she is at a socio-political disadvantage. She's a gentile...not from Israel, not Jewish...why has she approached Jesus? He must be wondering the same thing. Her witty response stops him and moves him and somewhere, he does "the right thing," healing her daughter. A lot of writers focus on what Jesus must have learned in this passage. But we wonder, how hard was it for this woman to approach him and then to stand her ground? Did she believe that Jesus was changed by the exchange?

What are the places where you make sure justice is done....you know, the smaller-scale places?
Are there ways you have found that help you be more aware of these types of needs?
Have you ever been turning away from helping someone, only to be challenged by your decision to do that?
What have you learned or gained from the widow, the orphan, the resident alien?
What have you learned as the widow, the orphan, the resident alien?

We pray that we are challenged daily
...moment by moment
to see all people
as beloved community
to see all people
as worthy of our attention
our advocacy
our thoughts
our prayers.
Help us engage with one another
outside of our comfort zone,
and stretch us
for your work
in this world.

© matt & laura norvell 2009 www.settingourstones.org
we want to share this you and hope you'll share with the world; we simply ask that you let people know where you found these words. May Grace & Peace be with you.


22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 17), Year B

Song of Solomon 2:8-13
or Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
Psalm 45:1-2, 6-9
Psalm 15
James 1:17-27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

(A Note about this Week's Lectionary Readings: This is one of those weeks when something sort of extraordinary happens in the lectionary - the primary reading from Hebrew scripture is from Song of Solomon...a "wisdom" book that only appears once in the three year cycle (it is the alternate text two or three other times). Perhaps you are familiar with Song of Solomon because it has been read frequently at weddings... It's an interesting book - a collection of love poems of sorts, written in images that could be very suggestive. It is a celebration, pure and simple, of physical forms and of the energy and attraction generated between physical forms. The Rabbis treated it as an allegory about God's love (reverence) for Israel. It was a hotly contested inclusion in the Christian canon (the books that the church recognized as "holy" and "inspired" - books to be revered - that were voted on and affirmed finally and completely (after hundreds of years of use, debate, councils, etc.) by the Council of Trent in 1546 but it had been established as an important work in the Hebrew canon (which, by the way was not established in a way nearly so formal as the Christian canon. The Hebrew canon was arrived at by use - that is, books that were used regularly in worship over tens and hundreds of years were eventually recognized as "canon" for the reason that they had been heavily used (and revered) in worship and daily life).)

We came home after last Sunday's worship service with a few questions (eg. did Clowns REALLY serve communion?), but the primary question was this: "What do we really revere?"

Do you have anything that you hold in deep reverence?

If the answer there is yes, can you explain why that is true?

What does it mean for you (not other people - YOU) to revere something?

Our suspicion is that can take different forms for different people, but it can also take many forms even for one person. We might hold special our marriage relationship in a different way than we revere the holy space of the National Cathedral and that might be different than our reverence for free elections and a free market economy which might be different than how we revere peach cobbler.

There are many situations throughout history and today in our society where one person / group attempts to impose / mandate what others should hold as holy and how. People on both sides of the abortion debate, for example, revere something. Many forms of religion dictate who should believe what and how. In families, parents sometimes strive to dictate what their children will believe, understand and think.

That should be okay, right? How else do we pass on our beliefs?

This week's readings show us some different ways that folks expressed the things they revered and how they hoped others might accept those things.

We've looked at both the primary and alternate readings from Hebrew scripture this week because both illustrate behavior that reflects someone's reverence. In the Song of Solomon, we watch lovers (God and Israel) address one another with terms of affection and endearment, one calling the other to follow in a season of goodness. In Deuteronomy, Moses is addressing the Israelites, explaining that it is the faithful observance of the law he is teaching that will ensure their safe passage into the promised land. But he's not just offering them a safeguard, but he's also suggesting that their obedience should be a grateful response for what has already been done in their lives.

The psalmist provides a couple of models here for reverence. In Psalm 45, the psalmist is overflowing with praise that he/she addresses directly. It's as if this person is overjoyed and knows that the way to exercise that joy is to honor the one who has created it. In Psalm 15, obedience seems to be the avenue. Those who want to dwell in the tent of God will behave in just ways.

The letter of James was attributed early on to James, the brother of Jesus. There is not proof of this, but this is a letter that seems rooted in allegiance to Torah. The letter is largely advice to a community about how to behave. And the particular reading for this week is a reminder that right behavior is a key to God's righteous treatment. The advice is sort of in conflict with Paul's theory that people are justified by their faith alone. James seems to advocate that good works help the process along - but not good works for the sake of gaining something. Rather, he is talking about behaving out of recognition for God's goodness and thereby receiving further goodness.

This week's reading from Mark is a great story about the Pharisees observing the disciples and commenting on their failure to wash before eating. Now...try sharing this with kids. They get that, right? But in the tradition of the Pharisees, there was a lot of ritual - ritual based on Torah - to the everyday things of life, including eating. Food and bodies had to be ritually pure. And it was the observation of the Pharisees that these disciples of Jesus were not keeping the Law in this way. Jesus comes right back at them by quoting Isaiah and names their behavior a keeping of human tradition rather than the Law of God. Now, in all fairness to those Pharisees, we think that they were probably trying really hard to do the right thing -- they are trying to show reverence in their own way -- except that according to Jesus, their way might not be honoring God. And he uses a very vivid image - it's not what is outside of us that makes us dirty, rather it is the things that we choose to do and the behaviors that we choose that are really filthy. Hmmm.

We feel a little bit like we (matt and laura) don't really hold anything in reverence like Moses intended the Law to be kept. And that has us wondering - are we missing out? What do we need to stay true to what we feel called?

Holy One whose name we dare not say out loud because we are not Holy ourselves...
Help us to take something seriously today.
Help us to believe You are worth honoring.
Help us to believe Others are precious and lovely and worth our reverence and respect.
Help us to believe we are your Special Creations that should be treated as such.
Help us to do more than believe these things.
Help us to live as if all of the things and people and special places in our lives were created to honor You.
Help us to take something seriously today...in your Holy Name.

© matt & laura norvell 2009 www.settingourstones.org
we want to share this you and hope you'll share with the world; we simply ask that you let people know where you found these words. May Grace & Peace be with you.