10.29.2009

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?

God,
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.
Amen.

© 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.

10.22.2009

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


Communication.

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?

God
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.
Amen.

© 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.

10.15.2009

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?

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

© 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.

10.08.2009

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?

God,
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.
Amen.

© 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.

10.01.2009

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.
Amen

© 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.