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.