12.16.2010

Fourth Sunday in Advent, Year A

Isaiah 7:10-16 •
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 •
Romans 1:1-7 •
Matthew 1:18-25


We are all looking for different things. It seems like we spend a lot of time talking about individual context here......but it is true....we are all looking for different things.

Just ask two other folks you know what they think about God or Jesus and see if you come up with more than three answers among your three opinions.

When we read these four scriptures this week it is easy to see that they were written in four quite distinct contexts. And while there are many commonalities between what each was hoping for and expecting in / from a Savior (a person who Saves), there are some important differences.

The 7th chapter of Isaiah was written at a time when the Kingdom of Judah was caught between and among competing regional powers. Ahaz has made a political choice that threatens his position of power. As he prepares to be deposed by two other Kingdoms, Isaiah tries to reassure him and encourages him to ask God for a sign of deliverance. Ahas was looking for a military leader that would come and Save himself and all of Judah from ppressors. He sought Savior that would arise from within to Save Judah from an outside threat.

In Psalm 80 we also see a writer who is entreating God to Restore and Save the community from their physical and political enemies. The writer of this passage seems to be writing from a place of oppression (at least great distress) and is hoping for an intervention from God to Save them. AND THEN once they are saved "we will never turn back from you; give us life, and we will call on your name."

Interesting.

In the passage we get from the beginning of Paul's letter to the followers of Jesus in Rome, we can see that Paul was looking for something slightly different than his Israelite forebearers. In this passage he does not specifically mention a Savior or Being Saved, but he does give us his understanding of the Christological history up to that point. He understands that it was through Jesus that "we have recieved grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name." In this particular reading at least we seem to find Paul being grateful for Jesus the Savior because he inspired folks to Save the Gentiles.

And then in the passage from the first part of Matthew we find the conversation between Joseph and the Angel of the Lord concerning Mary's miraculous pregnancy. The angel tells Joseph his fiancee "will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will Save his people from their sins."

Notice the difference between the Salvation those in the New Testament readings were looking for? They were not looking for political Salvation or (at least in these passages) Salvation from an oppressor....they are hoping for someone that will Save them from themselves or from their Sins.

And what does that mean--to be Saved from our sins? It seems like a heavy statement. Are our sins the things in life that stand between us and God and Salvation from them will bring us back in to relationship with God? If that is true, then what does it matter if we are oppressed?

Or are our Hebrew friends correct and the primary need to be Saved from oppression because oppressed people cannot appropriately serve and follow God?

Maybe as history unfolds we are all looking to be Saved from different things. Maybe some days we need to be Saved from others and some days we need to be Saved from ourselves.

Yahweh, Creator, Light-bearer,
You know me.
You know my sin.
You know my heart.
Help me see
What you know
and help me look
for Salvation
from all oppression
(My Own and
That which Presses on Me).
Free me for service
to your Kingdom.
Amen.

© matt & laura norvell 2010 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.

12.07.2010

Third Sunday in Advent, Year A



This week NPR reported on the closing of the infamous Cabrini-Green - a Chicago Housing Authority project - a crumbling cluster of high-rise housing that became symbolic of the concentration of poverty amidst a bustling and sometimes affluent city. The unexpected twist to many listeners who grew up with stories of the violence and crime in these "projects" was the grief and resistance expressed by long-time residents.

Rat-infested, crime-riddled...This was home. It has been community for those that had no choice but to live there. And now it is being take away.

Imagine a time when you sat in a committee meeting about a project for which you cared deeply and someone, perhaps new to the project, suggested a change. Did anyone at the table resist, saying, "We've never done it that way?" Or, "We tried that once before and it was a complete failure?" Bumps, warts and all, this beloved project needs protected from a future unseen, yes?

During this season of advent, we find ourselves claiming to wait for God to show up...for the incarnation to take place...for the Kingdom to appear...to take shape. But we wonder, are we really ready for and receptive to whatever actually shows up? Can we let go of our vision of the ideal to receive the reality of Emmanuel?

The prophet Isaiah describes an idyllic scene of dry places set to bloom, infirmity overcome, a clear path to follow. Consider the confusing times from which this writing came. Of course this sounded like a wonderful breakthrough. But did the Israelites experience the described reality? Ever? Or did they perhaps encounter it without recognizing it?

The psalm or the alternate reading from Luke (often called as the Magnificat - Mary's song of praise after the visit from Gabriel) are both joyful, willing and reverent responses to God. Let's spend a little time particularly with Mary's response. She's just been asked to conceive God's son out of wedlock in a society where women are stoned for sexual impropriety. Who will believe this? What does she risk by saying yes? Can she possibly envision what will come next, let alone what will come over thousands of years to follow?

James' epistle urges the community to be patient. Ha! Patient because the Lord is coming near. What does that even look like...patience?

Finally, from the gospel of Matthew, John has sent word to inquire whether this Jesus is really "the one." Now we don't know what John was expecting...but he had to ask clarifying questions. Jesus alludes to the visions of the prophet Isaiah...the blind will receive sight, the lame will walk, the deaf will hear. As they depart, Jesus turns to the gathered crowds and asks them to consider what they expected in the arrival and proclamation of John the Baptist. Did they expect the voice crying out to be clothed in soft robes? Did they expect preparation to be a light task? How willing were they to listen to this messenger and respond in faith? Is their faith colored by their preconceived notions?

In advent, we light one candle after another, watching and waiting. We sing O Come O Come Emmanuel. We remember a story of a precious baby born to a scared young woman in a cold stable. God touched the world in an unexpected way. How can we have any expectation of what happens next? Will we resist what shows up?

Sleepers, awake!

We've quoted Annie Dillard more than once:
"It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews."

Lord,
Prepare our hearts
so that we
are truly able
to prepare the way...
whatever that way
may be.
Amen.

© matt & laura norvell 2010 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.

12.01.2010

Second Sunday of Advent, Year A

Isaiah 11:1-10
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12


In our house, there are at least 5 and sometimes 15 different views of what would be a Perfect Day.

This is true for all of us--if pressed, we would likely all have different ideas of what would make the Perfect Day.

And this is true if we were to poll folks about a Perfect Meal or a Perfect Home or a Perfect Mate or a Perfect President.

We all come to this current moment with different experiences and different preferences and different needs and desires and hopes and dreams. And when faced with the same problem or event we would all likely have at least a slightly different solution or view of what happened.

This week's lectionary passages give us four different views of what a Savior might be or do.

The passage from Isaiah 11 is familiar to most of us. Many are familiar with Edward Hick's painting, "Peaceable Kingdom", that shows the wolf and the lamb and the baby and the snake all playing together. The words of Isaiah are a prophecy spoken / written to an oppressed and defeated people who have primarily known pain and suffering. This passage is written from the perspective of people who are dreaming and hoping about how things might be better one day. Isaiah is drawing a vision of the Perfect Day. And for these Israelites, the hope is that things will be better when one of their own (a shoot from the stump of Jesse) raises up who has all the right looks and knows all the right moves. He will judge against the oppressor, he will be righteous and faithful. And perhaps most importantly, he will bring Peace to the Israelites, to all of nature, and to all nations. When we look at other parts of scripture we are able to piece together that this was their expectation of a Messiah...this was a sketch of their Perfect Savior.

In the section we get from Psalm 72 we see another idyllic vision of a leader. This description is of a King that existed in real time...not the dream of a future leader. Read the passage. It is ideal. It is everything you could want in a King, or a President, or a mate.

In the passage from Matthew we see a different expectation set out by Saint John the Forerunner. Remember, he is under a different set of oppressors than those in Isaiah's day were. And not only was he bothered by Roman occupation and rule, he was obviously also upset by the hypocrisy of the keepers of the Jewish law at that time. As he stood there under the trees baptizing people in the Jordan river, he described a dangerous leader that was coming. John has his own view of what was needed in a Savior. Someone that would bring a kind of other-worldly and fiery judgment. John does not comfort folks with talk of a Bringer of Peace here. John warns them of a Bringer of Judgment.

And then in Romans Paul offers us one more perspective. When he is writing this letter to the followers of Jesus in Rome, Jesus had already lived, taught, been killed, and resurrected. By this time Paul had already been a vehement persecutor of followers of Jesus and then was dramatically converted to being a vehement evangelist in the name of Jesus. Paul had a lot of perspective of what a Savior might be and do. Paul was also among the first to be able to reflect on who Jesus really was and what Jesus really did. And what was his take? In this particular passage he does not focus on the need of the Savior to bring judgment. Paul talks about how Jesus brought reconciliation and Peace. He talks about how Jesus came to serve Jew and Gentile alike. Paul talks about how Jesus...the Savior...came so all might live in harmony.

We all come at this from our own places.

For some of us, our Savior is a long haired blonde man.
For some, our Savior is a diminutive Macedonian woman.
For some, our Savior is a healthy bank account.
For some, our Savior is perfection.
For some, Peace must come through force.
For some, Peace can only come through love.
Dear God, please don't let us choose.
Help us to quiet our judgment-biased and category-creating minds
and seek Peace in any way we can find it.
Amen.



© matt & laura norvell 2010 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.

11.27.2010

First Sunday in Advent, Year A

Isaiah 2:1-5
Psalm 122
Romans 13:11-14
Matthew 24:36-44


It is a dark season. The sun disappears late in the afternoon and even throughout the day, the quality of light is thin and cold. And we have not yet come to the shortest days.

In our shared life of faith, it is a season of waiting. We are moving toward a keystone in the Christian year, but first, the waiting is important. And the gathering darkness reminds us of the work to be done.

The season begins with just one candle, one small light in the darkness and with a vision of gathering light that lies ahead.

The prophet Isaiah speaks of a time when Judah and Israel are gathered together, when many come together as one, and when swords have no purpose. This is a vision of Peace for many.

The psalmist, too, is singing a song about Peace that is hoped for. Praying for the Peace of Jerusalem is important for the greater good.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes to a waiting community. He encourages these people to stop waiting in the dark and instead to move toward light. Focus on the right things - not your material needs, not needs of the flesh. Not food, not sex, not fast cars or big TVs. What then, are the right things?

The passage from Matthew is troublesome. The idea of a thief in the night taking one and not another is hard for us to grasp. But remember that it is a dark season. And this is a warning to be watchful. It is important to note that Jesus uses the Flood story as an anchor and an example. We also know that after the flood, God made a promise that never would God's creation be destroyed again.

Our prayer is to be transformed. To join the gathering light. To be light. God-filled and overflowing with the abundant love of our creator, abundantly able to love creation and to generate more light, to spark light in others. Amen.

© matt & laura norvell 2010 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.

11.18.2010

Reign of Christ (Proper 29), Year C

Leadership is a pretty intense calling.

At some point in our lives, we are all called to take on a mantle of responsibility not only for ourselves, but for others as well.

Slow down and read that again.

We are called to take on a mantle of responsibility not only for ourselves, but for others as well.

Sometimes that leadership role is pretty obvious - we are parents or we are teachers or we are managers or we are group facilitators. Other times it is more elusive - we vote, we spend money, we make consumer choices. We lead by action, by intention and by example.

This is the last Sunday in Ordinary Time, traditionally a time of recognizing the Kingship or Lordship of Christ. In Christ, God chose to take on the mantle of flesh and walk amidst the creation to set an example and show the way...to lead in a new direction and do a new thing.

The prophet Jeremiah points to an image that Jesus understood deeply and used in teaching - the shepherd. The prophet is delivering God's judgment on those called on to shepherd a flock. Over the course of Israel's history, God has provided a changing model of leadership - prophets and judges and kings. David was raised up as God's anointed and promised a secure family line of kings for the future. Here we have the voice of Jeremiah naming and shaming bad leadership while pointing to a day when God will again do a new thing, raise up a new shepherd. Jeremiah wrote from a time when the Kingdom was divided - when Jerusalem and Judah were grappling with neighboring powers for status and influence. God's chosen people didn't seem very attuned to God's leadership through the anointed lines.

Instead of a Psalm, we have a passage from Luke - It is Zechariah's prophecy, spoken as soon as his tongue is freed from the curse he encountered at doubting God, about what is about to unfold in the birth of John the Baptist and the revealed pregnancy of Mary. The story is pointing us toward a new idea of leadership, a new fulfillment of the covenant promises God made to Israel thousands of years earlier.

In Paul's letter to the Colossian church, he frames Christ as the "head" of a body. Now there is a leadership model that we can probably fully understand. But if we know the other ways the "body of Christ" is described in history, we also know that the body is less effective without hands, fingers, elbows, knees, feet and toes. While this passage doesn't quite go this far, it's not really a stretch to say that the head can't lead without the rest of the body.

Finally, there is sort of a chronologically offbeat selection from the Gospel of Luke. In the moments before Advent, we are called into the Easter story. Jesus is on the cross accompanied by other criminals. The crowd and one of the criminals is mocking Jesus, who's cross is labeled "King of the Jews." In some ways, this is a crowd that had hope for the new king they had long been promised. This is not the turn they expected and they are sorely disappointed. This king (Leader) has not achieved success by their understanding. (It's hard to accept that we might not really know how to measure "good" leadership, isn't it?) But Jesus seems to understand this state of confusion..."They do not know what they are doing." Indeed. How often that is the case as our expectation of leadership and the reality of leadership clash.

Leadership is an intense calling. It is not always an easy task. It is not always a rewarded task. It carries with it a weight that is not present for those who are led.

And even though these difficulties are true, sometimes we are called to take on the mantle of responsibility not only for ourselves, but for others as well.

God, I often am not sure I want to follow my own advice
much less to have others looking to me for direction.
I want to be a good leader for others
And I want to follow you
And sometimes those two don't match up.
Guide me as I try to understand how to
follow
and
lead
at
the
same
time.
Amen.

© matt & laura norvell 2010 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.

11.12.2010

Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 28), Year C


What if we have it all wrong?

Not just "we" individuals. What if we, as an American society, have it all wrong?

What if power and wealth do not matter? What if the house you live in and the car you drive and the clothes you wear and the education you attain do not matter? What if the American dream is really a nightmare that is sucking the resources of creation dry? What if our economy is collapsing because of our greed? What if when you were baptized or what creed you say or what cross you wear does not matter?

And what if "we" individuals have to take a stand as we figure that out and comes to grips with it, no matter the social, political, economic, physical or spiritual price in order to set things right? What if the answer is not in a better health care system or a better tax base or a better educational mandate? What if the answer is not simple or easily discerned?

What if the best we can do is love God and love one another and wait for the answer to show up?

What if it all depends upon loving God and loving one another, no matter how counter-cultural that may be? And there is no other way...

The writings we know from the prophet Isaiah actually cover writings from at least three different circumstances. The first part of this week's selected text is actually written by the latest writer. It is written to a community who has returned from exile in Babylon to Judea, only to find that things aren't all that fantastic back in Judea. But like the first writer, the prophet reports a new promise from God on the horizon - a new heaven and a new earth. Instead of a Psalm response to this reading, we get another reading from Isaiah...ironically from the earliest writer - a hymn of praise for God's mercy and for perhaps undeserved salvation.

In the second letter to the church at Thessalonica, the writer is grappling again with dashed expectations. The first letter looks forward to Jesus' immanent return. But this letter seems to be a reminder that lots of things have to happen before that. It encourages patience and warns about false teachers. It seems to have been written in response to a sense that somebody got it wrong.

Finally, in the gospel of Luke, Jesus is suggesting that there will come a time when the temple crumbles, when everything is tossed into chaos by natural disaster and war and conflict and financial collapse. (Hmmm.) He suggests that there will be an opportunity for his followers to testify with their very lives. Jesus promises to give wisdom and words to respond. I wonder if people expected this to all come to be quickly - in months or years? Did they understand every word literally? Do we?

God has hung with creation through aeons of having it all wrong in myriad different ways. And God continues to show up. Are we watching, waiting, listening?

Yahweh,
We raise our weary hands and hearts
and confess that we have had it all wrong
once again
and we need someone
to hit the rest button.
Soon.
Amen.

10.30.2010

All Saints Day, Year C

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18 and Psalm 149 •
Ephesians 1:11-23 •
Luke 6:20-31


All Saints Day is an important one to us in the Christian year.

As we get older and experience more life and have more people who are
important to us die, this day becomes more and more significant.

There are certainly historical underpinnings found in many
denominations of the Christian church. And, while those are important,
they are not as important as the opportunity for personal reflection
it provides.

Unfortunately, as Christians, we don't get a good religious holiday
that sort of orders us to reflect on our year. Our Jewish friends have
the High Holy Days that encourage believers to think through their
last 12 months and remember positive things and repent of negative
things. This is an important practice for us humans.

Of course, there are plenty of opportunities for people to reflect on
their lives. Many do it at / around the New Year, many Covey fans do a
day in review., etc. But there seems to be something important about
doing this review of your life and the ways the important people in it
have influenced you within the frame of a person's spiritual life.

It helps each of us pay attention to where we fit in to the world.
When we remember those we love who have died, we are doing a lot.

We remind ourselves of the fragility of these bodies.
We remember the depths of love.
We remember the ups and downs of relationships.
We remember that love and money can sustain life, but they cannot prevent death.
We find ourselves thinking about how we might fit in to the Big Picture.
We are forced to ask what we really believe about what happens after
our last breath.

All Saints Day really is an important day. If we are willing to engage
in the process of remembering who we have been with and what we can
learn from them, it can be an important day for us.

Have I done enough?
Have I done the right things?
Am I following the right path?
Do I stand on the right side?
How much time do I have left?

All Saints Day provides a chance for some weighty and beneficial
reflective time.

On the average day, questions of Significance and Life and Death are
never too far from the surface.

We believe every story and statement of scripture engages its reader
around these same sorts of questions.

For example this week, we see the prophet Daniel struggling with
visions of life and death for his people and the land he knew. He was
put in a position to offer prophecy against all of the current
inhabiters of the land - all of the controlling kingdoms of the
time....if that does not make you examine your own mortality, nothing
will. His vision foretells the fall of four powers and the rise of s
single power...a single way of life.

Psalm 149 is singing praises to God for a few different stated
reasons, but the underlying one is that The Lord has kept the writer
and his people alive and has punished or killed those who might want
to oppress them. The culture at this time was marked by two ways -
good and bad, right and wrong, allies and enemies, life and death.
There were no shades of gray. The souls of the enemy were not of
great concern.

In the greeting from a letter to the followers of Jesus in Ephesus,
Paul is encouraging his readers to remember that the life and death of
Jesus and the ways they are following / serving God all have bearing
on each individual's possibilities after death.

In the passage from the gospel of Luke we see Jesus teaching the
disciples. He is offering a series of Blessings and Woes.....and the
Blessings and Woes seem to be instructing folks that their actions
today matter and have repercussions. He is encouraging them to think
about the lasting significance of who they are and what they are
doing. He also encourages them to bless those that may hurt them,
that may curse them, that may repress them - to love their enemy as
well as their neighbor, not in the future but right now. Jesus is
encouraging them to live with some shades of gray.

It is fitting that, as the leaves turn from green to red to yellow to
brown and then fall, leaving branches bare, that we consider the
departure of breath...of life as we know it right now. It is a
fitting time to think about the Saints, all the saints, and the ways
that their lives made a difference.

Gracious and mysterious God,
I want to pay attention.
I want to remember.
I want to love and be loved
even when it seems unlikely.
Amen.

10.21.2010

Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 25), Year C

Joel 2:23-32 and Psalm 65
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Luke 18:9-14


Maybe it is just our current station in life-what we bring to the text
often shows up-but it seems we often see in scripture an emphasis
placed on Humility.

Here are some questions that keep rattling around for us:
How is Humility important?
What happens to us when we become 'less Humble'?
What role does Humility play in our relationships? Is it important
there? Why or why not?
Are the Humble somehow rewarded?

Certainly, in this week's scriptures the question is driven by a
fantastic line from the writer of the Gospel of Luke: Jesus also told
this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were
righteous and regarded others with contempt.

We had never noticed that this parable was set up with such a
directive stage setting!

Jesus goes on to talk about the Pharisee (pious religious figure)
patting himself on the back in prayer while the Tax Collector (assumed
social low life) is praying only for the mercy of God. Jesus then
offers the commentary to those "who trusted in themselves that they
were righteous and regarded others with contempt": "All who exalt
themselves will be Humbled, but all who Humble themselves will be
exalted."

That message is a rare one today, isn't it?

Matt just finished an annual performance review and was encouraged by
his supervisor to cut down on Humility some and "advertise himself" a
bit more.

And how do we balance Humility and confidence?

Is the writer of this passage in 2nd Timothy Humble or arrogant? "I
have fought the fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the
faith.....from now on there is reserved for me the crown of
righteousness which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on
that day, and not only to me but to all who have longed for his
appearing." Is he simply confident in his faith, or has he stepped
over a line and is "tooting his own horn"? Or, has the author truly
"poured" himself out and as a result, is claiming righteousness as a
response to his self-sacrifice to this point? Can we be proud of who
we are and how far we have come and how far God has brought us without
becoming arrogant?

And what happens if we do slide over the line and become arrogant?
What happens if we stray from our Humility?

Our guess is that a healthy element of Humility keeps a person
reminded that s/he lives in connection to others and that others are
important to his/her existence. And a derth of Humility puts a person
in a place where s/he is only dependent and trusting in his/her own
abilities.

In the Hebrew culture, there was a prominent tradition of Wisdom. The
culture was underpinned by a notion that there was a right way and a
wrong way. In the passage from Joel, we get the impression that the
people have chosen a right way and will be rewarded in some way. The
Lord is present and vindicating their hardship with early rain, ample
supplies, good health and annointings. It is as if the prophet can
promise these things because of the Humiliating circumstances the
community has endured.

We live in a sharply divided space where we are sometimes convinced
that success is based on our achievement (as defined by our material
culture). But Jesus taught in a world that was much less divided.
Success was interlaced with God and with righteousness and with how
people lived out the covenant of the Israelites. Somehow Humility
seems more palatable when its interlaced in a total package of Life
and Balance and Humanity.

God,
I want to humble myself before you...
to be ok with falling to my knees
to be ok with taking the lesser share
to be ok with pouring myself out
and receiving no notice
no accolade.
Help me taste righteousness
in all its combined flavor
both the sweet and the bitter
balanced -
full.
Amen.


© matt & laura norvell 2010 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.

10.13.2010

Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 24), Year C

Jeremiah 31:27-34 and Psalm 119:97-104
Genesis 32:22-31 and Psalm 121
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Luke 18:1-8



So much of our existence as humans revolves around relationships.

If you are physically and intellectually talented enough to be reading
this on a web page or in an email, you certainly have your fair share
of experience navigating, succeeding, trying, failing, and exploring
relationships with other folks. It is often tough work to be in
relationship with someone else.

Even in situations where you may not have much of a connection with
the other, it can still be difficult for you to express your needs /
feelings / desires and for the other person to express their needs /
feelings / desires and for the both of you to understand one another.
We all show up with our own stuff and experience the world (and other
people) through our own histories.

And in relationships that are important to us, even greater challenges
can show up because we might feel we have something at stake. Maybe
our life depends on getting something from the other person who holds
the power, maybe we need to preserve the relationship because it helps
to give our lives definition, maybe the important relationship helps
to define who we are and without it we would find ourselves
directionless.

Having some skill at being in relationships and preserving them is
important to our survival.

In this week's lectionary selection from Jeremiah we see God reaching
out and re-committing to the relationship with the Israelites. And as
often happens when two parties are re-committing to a relationship
where trust has been broken in the past, some different expectations
are set out this time. God says it will not be like last
time...individuals will have more responsibility for their own
actions. And most importantly in this passage, God forgives the people
so that they can re-enter relationship with one another.

In the short passage we get from Psalm 119 we see the writer
essentially singing a love song to God about how wonderful it is to be
in relationship with God. How wonderful it is to know the law of God
and have insight in to the world because of that relationship.

The alternate reading from the Hebrew scriptures is the familiar story
of Jacob wresting with a stranger that he later recognizes with God at
night in the Wilderness. Our relationship with God isn't always some
corporate thing - God and The People. Sometimes it is deeply
personal, one on one, physical. Wrestling.

In this week's passage from II Timothy we continue to see a writer
whose world has been shaped by faith in the stories of God's actions
in Jesus Christ. From the way he writes, we assume he would resonate
with John Wesley's sentiment about sharing the good news of Jesus: "I
set myself on fire and people come to watch me burn." He wants
everyone to know what he knows about God and he knows that it is
urgent to tell the story because there are others telling a different,
false story. Our telling the story from day to day and generation to
generation really requires that it is Our story - Our relationship
with God that becomes witness to God's grace.

And in Luke's account of the life of Jesus we find Jesus giving us
encouragement about a way to commit ourselves to relationships when
there is something that is vitally important to us. In this story of
the widow incessantly petitioning the unjust judge we find
encouragement to persist even if the relationship is not one that we
want (or need) to be in long term.

We have a choice about engaging in a relationship. And then we have
myriad choices within that relationship about how we will act, how we
will persist, how we will continue. It is overwhelming to count the
relationship we find ourselves in. And yet, just acknowledging that
they exist calls us to a different way of being.

Yahweh,
I am here. I wait for you.
And sometimes, you wait for me.
Thank you for showing up...
for engaging...
for reaching out to me.
I pray that I learn
in relationship to You
how to reach out and engage
with the rest of creation.
Amen.

© matt & laura norvell 2010 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.

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 24), Year C

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 and Psalm 66:1-12 •
2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c and Psalm 111 •
2 Timothy 2:8-15 •
Luke 17:11-19



Once, while in graduate school, while Matt was thrashing around
attempting to dream of a future, he sought council in his friend
Scotty. Matt told Scotty the big dreams he had, he told him the depth
of vagueness he could not see through, and he shared with him a
general hope that somehow by not making a vocational decision
something might just magically 'show up' that was right. Scotty wisely
reflected, "Matt, that all sounds wonderful, but eventually you are
going to have to start chopping wood and carrying water."

Profound.

It is easy for us to all get sucked in to dreams of grandeur. We hope
for the infamous aligning of the planet. We get caught in our own
expectations of how something Should look or how it Ought to be. We
project on to others and other situations what we think they might
want us to do or be.

And often, other solutions show up. Many times less fanfare also
accomplishes the same task. For some reason we like to complicate
things when they do not need to be complicated. We can find ourselves
dreaming of other places and other tasks that are weeks or even years
away from today, and as a result we lose our chance to experience
today.

Think about the refreshing satisfaction that comes from a clean pile
of dishes or a freshly raked yard.

There is healing found in simple acts of obedience in the present.

Jeremiah sends word of behalf of The Lord that the folks who are in
exile in Babylon....a long ways from home....should make the best of
it there in the foreign land. Spend some time with this statement:
"seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and
pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your
welfare." Wow.

Psalm 66 is really full of positive messages expressed through stories
/ memories of painful / frightening days. The writer is praising God
for turning the sea in to dry land...of course this was so they could
escape torment and torture and slavery; the writer praises God for
power and might....within the context of enemies rising and attempting
to overthrow them; the writer praises God for keeping us among the
living, testing us, trying us, bringing us in to the net, letting
people ride over our heads, and taking us through fire and
water....and then bringing us in to a spacious place. This must be one
of the earliest examples of finding the silver lining on a storm
cloud!

In one of the great stories in all of scripture we see Naaman (the
commander of a foreign army who has some sort of skin disease) going
to a foreign land to be healed by someone he does not know. Elisha
offers him a simple solution toward healing, and Naaman refuses to do
it. He wanted it to be more complicated than that. Why is it we want
healing to be more complicated? Why do we try so hard to create a
situation where we must earn healing?

We've struggled with the Timothy text. There is a tone of "Keep it
Simple" to this week's reading. An overarching concern of the author
of this letter is to warn Timothy about "false teachers," those who
were circulating an altered version of Christ's teaching. The writer,
throughout the letter, is warning against being sucked in to things
that aren't true, that do not matter. Here, a portion of a hymn
reminds us that if we believe, we live. If we work, we participate in
God's reign. Even when we can't do what is expected, we are still
loved.

In Luke we see Jesus meeting 10 folks who had been ostracized because
of a skin disease. They seemed to understand how important the present
moment was.....they immediately beg for Jesus to heal them. Jesus does
not bring down a bolt of lightening, he does not use a magical cloth,
he does not even spit in the dirt. He just tells them to go and see
the priest. And they are healed. All they had to do was listen (in the
current moment) and obey his simple direction, and they were healed.

Simple obedience in the present moment. Where is there space for this
simple obedience in our daily lives?

God,
we like to complicate things.
No, really, we do.
We get involved in the process,
in the fanfare,
in the details.
And we don't see what is
right in front of our faces.
Help us to be present
with what shows up
each and every hour
of each and every day.
And help us rejoice
in how Your hand
is at work.
Amen.


© matt & laura norvell 2010 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.

10.02.2010

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 22), Year C

Lamentations 1:1-6 and Lamentations 3:19-26 or Psalm 137 •
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4 and Psalm 37:1-9 •
2 Timothy 1:1-14 •
Luke 17:5-10


So....is Faith a choice? Or could it possibly be a requirement? Is it naturally built in?

Of course, we are limiting the choices here, but when we read the lectionary selections this week we were struck by the different representations of the ways people responded with Faith.

When we look at the two passages from Lamentations, the passage from Habakkuk....even the Psalms...we see people who are at the end of their Israelite ropes; and yet, these folks still are expressing messages of hope and trust in God.

These folks have had their homeland invaded and destroyed, they have been displaced, they have been insulted and beaten and run down.

And yet, they are still talk about their faith in God. They are still in conversation with God about how they can get back on top and how their enemies might be subdued.

We talked recently at KC on a Sunday morning irrational hope in the face of insurmountable situations, and that is what we see here.

But this Faith these folks display.....where does it come from? Do they choose to have it? Are they born with it? Do they have any other choice?

There is a chance there might be some illumination of this question from an unusual passage in Luke. We see Jesus in conversation with the disciples. Just prior to this passage Jesus commands them to always (seventy times seven) forgive folks who sin against them. The disciples response is to ask for more Faith. And then Jesus responds telling them that a person does not need a Great Amount of Faith....just Faith the size of a mustard seed. It is almost as if he is telling them that you either Have Faith or You Don't....it is not an issue of quantity. He goes on to further illustrate this with a story about a servant / slave's responsibilities. As we read this it seems Jesus is saying that a slave / servant does not look for a reward or gratitude for simply doing his job. And it appears Jesus is connecting this to a Duty of each of us to Have Faith. It is not an option, it is not something we should expect an extra reward for, it is something we should Just Do....Have Faith.

And in the 2 Timothy passage, an experienced and faithful voice is giving encouragement to Timothy, reminding Timothy of the faith that has passed on to him by his mother and his grandmother and God's given gift of power and self-discipline. Timothy is being encouraged to weather the hard times by relying on what he knows deeply about his own faith. We sometimes refer to this as cell memory...the stuff deep within us that when we remember it is there, we can rely on in dark moments. A built-in safety net.

We are puzzled and amazed by the Faith we have. And sometimes we are puzzled and amazed by the Faith we do not have. And it is intriguing when we are able to hold someone else up because they cannot hold themselves Up. And when someone's Faith boosts us when we are in the pit.

God,
In my dark nights
be present with me
in ways that I cannot fully understand
or explain
and
in my light days
help me share
those ways with others around me
when they cannot fully understand
or explain.
Amen.

© matt & laura norvell 2010 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.

9.23.2010

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 21), Year C

Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15 and Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16 •
1 Timothy 6:6-19 •
Luke 16:19-31


Depending on how well you know us, this may or may not surprise you: we like having Things.

We enjoy Beautiful Things, Well Made Things, Amusing Things, Things that Provide Security, Things that Provide Sustenance, Frivolous Things, Things that Are Useful, Things that Sit on a Shelf, Big Things, Little Things, and on and on.

The world is full of Wonderful Things for us to possess. And if you were in our home, you would see that we do.

Possession is a tricky thing though. On the most consumeristic end of the spectrum folks believe that we should own any and everything we see--from shoes to forests--and we will make a space in our garage or off-site storage space to keep it. And then on the other end of the spectrum folks believe we should own very little if anything at all. Some orders of monks who sleep in a space that is not their own and wear clothes that are not their own borrow a bowl to acquire anything they might eat in a day.

It seems we all have a drive to possess things. Most of the time it comes from each of us discerning the Things we MUST have to survive, and owning those things and keeping them close. Of course, in our culture there is a pretty wide interpretation to the question of what is necessary to survive.

There is some personal satisfaction that comes from owning something. There is some healthy pride involved in working to earn enough money to buy something that keeps you alive and prospering.

This week's passage from Jeremiah finds Jeremiah in the middle of Jerusalem being seized by Babylon. And in the middle of this fight, surrounded by what we imagine to be high anxiety and stress, God instructs Jeremiah to conduct some Real Estate business. Jeremiah was to gather two land deeds together, and then preserve those deeds so that one day, when Israelites returned to Jerusalem "fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land." This was an issue of the preservation of a people and their history and their land an their Things.

Perhaps the psalmist is hinting at where we should put our faith and our effort? Perhaps the song is one that reminds us that God - not Things - is our comfort and our strength?

In the letter to Timothy we get a couple of popular phrases people use around money and possession of Things. "We brought nothing in to the world, so that we can take nothing out of it." and "The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil." In this passage the writer is encouraging his readers to appreciate the Things that are necessary for life, but to not put too much focus on the Things themselves.....use the Things as tools to help you focus your life on God and on doing good works for others. He is saying that Things are not evil themselves, but focusing too much on those Things will get you off track.

And in the Gospel of Luke, we read another troubling parable about a fine man dressed in purple and Lazarus, the man covered with sores lying at the fine man's gate. After they've both died, the fine man faces Abraham and asks why Lazarus seems so comfortable in the afterlife. He's told that he had his comfort in his earthly life...and now he's condemned to flames. Um....does that mean we have to suffer? Oh dear. Please say that isn't true. Surely there is middle ground.

We have laughed these past weeks about a couple of mishaps in our world. First, pantry moths invaded (INVADED) our stockpiles of flour and grits and oatmeal and beans and pasta (not once, but twice). Yuck. And then, one of our very full closet shelves fell (not once, but twice). And we wonder, is there some reality to the wrongness of having too much? Of storing too many Things. Are we lacking Faith that we will have what we Need when we Need it?

God,
help me to remember
that I am loved
that I am sheltered
that I have hope.
And when I don't
have these Things
help me remember
that You are waiting
to hear my voice.
Amen.

© matt & laura norvell 2010 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.

9.15.2010

17th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 20), Year C

* Jeremiah 8:18-9:1 and Psalm 79:1-9 •
* Amos 8:4-7 and Psalm 113 •
* 1 Timothy 2:1-7 •
* Luke 16:1-13

You are focused on the wrong things.

For the better part of our existence, this is a woeful understatement. Of course we (Matt & Laura) spend a decent amount of time focused on the wrong things. How about you?

Really - it's not a difficult reality to name and to look at. We can all look back on our lives and see spaces where we put all of our energy and all of our time in to exactly the wrong things. We know these things happen, but what do we DO about it?

This week the lectionary readings have us keenly aware of how often we are focused on the wrong things...things that do not matter...things that might provide some comfort, some pleasure, some measure of superiority. But do they make the world a better place? Do they call forward the Kingdom of God into this time and this place among those with whom we interact?

The passage from Jeremiah begins in a dark way. We spent some time really sorting through who was speaking here. We are hearing the divine God through the words of Jeremiah. God is sad and disappointed and weary and frustrated. It isn't often that we attribute these emotions to the Divine. But here, God has tended the people of Israel, he has saved them from captivity, he has set leaders before them time and time again. When judges and priests were not enough, the God of Israel raised up Kings, even though it supplanted God's sovereign power. Now the people are focused less and less on their relationship with God and more and more on their safety, their supremacy, and their political might. How frustrating that must be for the Creator and Liberator who has turned back to these people with mercy and grace time and time again.

In Luke, we are faced with very difficult parable about a wealthy man's business manager who is found lacking. When he realizes that he is going to lose his job, he goes out to the wealthy man's debtors and colludes with them to falsify what they truly owe, endearing himself to these people so that they might be kind to him later when he is without a job. It helps to read the parables and teachings surrounding this one. This parable follows on the heels of the story of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the prodigal son. And it precedes a teaching about the Kingdom of God in which Jesus tells the pharisees that while they justify themselves based on what others think, God knows their hearts and judges them accordingly. There is a warning among these stories...God knows God's creation and will seek after it. Does God know you? How will God find your heart?

1 Timothy is a letter to a community written before the early church sorted out its understanding of the Trinity - the relationship between God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. We were drawn to a few things here. In this translation, the author is pretty clear that Jesus is a mediator of God, the only one mediator, and a human. Let all of those things sink in. The author is also encouraging the community to pray for its Kings (occupying leaders like the Romans and Greeks? neighboring Kings?). So the passage begins encouraging a universalism of sorts - pray for everyone. Then it quickly limits the focus - there is only one mediator of the one God. Ouch. (Go ahead, read further...1 Timothy is also source text for many controversial teachings about women's roles in the church).

Lay all of these things beside one another and the result can be a baffling patchwork - if we're trying to make it all work together.
But that brings us back to our original thought. When we look at all the different things these passages aim toward, how do we know if we are focused on the right things?

God, we hear so many messages
and it is hard to know which one to
listen to.
Even beyond the average voices
that compete for our competition,
it is tough to know
which is the right thing to
focus on.
Guide us.
Help us discern.
Be with us as
we find our way.
Amen.

© matt & laura norvell 2010 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.

9.12.2010

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19), Year C

Preface: This week, we are sending this out late. No excuses. We
could have skipped, but this week's texts are just too meaningful for
us...touched places that are raw and reactive...there is too much here
for us to pass it by. And so, we're at the beach and this is sort of
worshipful engagement - finishing this up over muscadines, tidewater
peaches and a view of the water at Ocracoke Island. Recently, several
folks have asked how "we" (Laura & Matt) do "this" (co-author these
reflections). Generally speaking, we read the text, have a brief
conversation about what we took from the text, and then one of us
(Matt or Laura) writes out of that conversation and personal
meditation. Then the other takes it, tries to complete what was
started, and it's all ready for readers. It's not always that
seamless. But in general, it works. It enriches our lives and helps
us be mindful of how these stories shape our lives and how our lives
shape our understanding of these stories.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable
in your sight, O Lord, for you are my Rock and my Redeemer. (Psalm
19:14, paraphrased)

Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28 and Psalm 14
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15:1-10


Have you ever been the receiver of Mercy?

Have you ever been Forgiven?

Have you ever gone so far afield....done things SO wrong....been SO
off....ventured SO deeply into SUCH darkness that you felt you were
unlovable?

....and then....

you were loved again?

That does not make any sense, does it?

(For the record, Laura can't read these first few sentences without
crying. It is overwhelming and real.)

In the stories we find in scripture we see so many times where the
People of God egregiously transgress and God again and again reminds
them that they are the Loved Creation of God. To the worst offender,
the farthest outcast, the most lost sheep, Mercy is shown and
Forgiveness is offered. Sometimes the transgressor is seeking that
Mercy, and sometimes they are not. And still, time and time again,
God shows up...often in unexpected ways.

The passage from Jeremiah this week is DARK. It talks of devastation
and judgment and about a God who will not relent. And to those who
heard the prophet, this must have been scary indeed. Prophets were
called to name injustice, to envision and describe the results of the
communities action, to foretell destruction. Jeremiah lived in
precarious times - through many kings and the fall of Solomon's Temple
in Jerusalem. Israel has evolved to be much more than a band of
tribes living in covenant. There is great political wrangling among
various Kingdoms. Jeremiah is warning what this build up of power and
tension will bring. The tone and threat are repeated again and again
through the Hebrew scriptures, calling the faithful back to God.
There were lots of dark times in Israel's past. But even as bad times
continue to unfold, Yahweh did relent, time and time again as the
story goes on (right up to now!).

The Psalmist has shared this lived history of dark times followed by
light times. With this experience in the background, the prayer here
is for deliverance - for Mercy.

In Luke's gospel, Jesus shares two parables for the same teaching.
The first is about a Shepherd who, when losing just one of 100 sheep,
will go looking for the One that is Lost. Now we've talked about
sheep before. They are not bright. The are fully dependent upon
their shepherd. And really, 1 in 100 doesn't seem like a terrible
loss. But the shepherd will go looking...that is the shepherd's job.
And the woman with 10 pieces of silver loses one. The one that is
lost has no value until it is found. She goes to great lengths to
find that one lost piece of silver. It is a time of rejoicing - what
was lost is now found. Both parables leave us with questions (which
is what parables do, right?). Does the value of the 99 sheep or the 9
unlost coins change? Are they part of a greater whole that relies on
finding what is lost? What makes the shepherd or the woman go to such
lengths to find what is lost?

The letters of 1 and 2 Timothy are written to be read as if they were
written to Paul. They were probably written later than Paul was
writing and they were probably written at a time when early churches
were really struggling to understand who was teaching "truth,"
understandings of Jesus' life and ministry that were real and
undistorted (sounds familiar?). The writer is grateful to Jesus
Christ for the grace and mercy received through Jesus' life, ministry,
death and resurrection. The bulk of the rest of the letter is
instruction of how the church and its leadership should behave in
response to that Mercy and Grace.

And so we ask the "So what?" We are receivers of Mercy and Grace.
We've experienced being unlovable and finding ourselves loved. What
do we do with that?

It is not just God. Humans appear to have at least SOME capacity to
show Mercy and Forgive. Because we are Forgiven, we are called to be
vessels of Forgiveness. Because we have been shown Mercy, we are
compelled to be Merciful. Because we have experienced Grace, we are
inclined to be vessels of that same Grace extended to others.

Redeeming and Relenting God,
thank you for Grace
for Mercy
for Love where I feel unlovable.
Help me to turn
and embrace others
with your embrace.
Amen.

© matt & laura norvell 2010 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.

9.02.2010

15th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 18), Year C

Jeremiah 18:1-11 and Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
Philemon 1-21
Luke 14:25-33


Is God in charge of All Of This (this world, our daily lives, etc)?

How much control do we have over All Of This?

We don't know about you, but we go back and forth about what we think and what we hope the answer is to these questions.

Because there are times when the ends of the spectrum of possibilities could be comforting. For example, if God is completely in charge of things (read here No Free Will) we would all be able to blame EVERYTHING on God....suspicious moles to hurricanes could all be put on the virtual shoulders of God.

Or

If we are able to act and control things all on our own, then we could really be living out the American (Emersonian) Dream of Self Reliance. We would ultimately get exactly out of life that which we put in to it and that which we earn by the sweat of our own brows. The good and the bad would happen, and it would all be our responsibility-no one else to blame...no one to take the credit other than ourselves.

Our life experience and our reading of scripture tell us neither of these approaches are all that accurate.

This week we see God speaking to the people of Israel through the prophet Jeremiah. They are communicating through the image of a potter working at a potter's wheel. The potter was creating a vessel, it does not work out right, the potter breaks down the clay, and then he makes a new vessel. Now this analogy breaks down a bit because the clay does not have a choice in how it is misshapen in the first place or if it wants to try again. BUT God says to the people that since they have strayed (become a misshapen vessel), if they choose to turn from their evil God will reshape them in to God's people. The people have a choice in turning toward or away from God AND God will then exercise a choice to welcome or turn away from the people. It turns out there must be some sort of interactive relationship present here.

Psalm 139 is one of the greatest examples of a portrait portraying this intimate relationship. This does not speak too much to who is responsible for actions or how decisions are made, but it does point to a human who is ultimately aware of his/her connection to, and dependence on, God as his/her Creator.

In Paul's letter to Philemon we see Paul attempting to model the God / Human relationship. He is reaching out to a slave master named Philemon on behalf of a slave named Onesimus that he has befriended. This letter is modeling the same relationship we see set up in Jeremiah--Paul has chosen to put his faith in Philemon to ask for his help and then it is left up to Philemon to choose how he will respond. The other thing that is significant here is that Paul is appealing to Philemon's common faith in Jesus Christ as a base upon which they can build their relationship. It seems that in most relationships all sides play an important role in how things work out.

I the passage from the gospel of Luke we find Jesus sharing what seems to be some of his 'harshest' teachings. He is encouraging folks to think about themselves and what they might have to give up or sacrifice if they want to follow him. He uses the example of a builder estimating the cost of an entire building before beginning the project so he does not get halfway through and run out of money. Jesus is illustrating that we have a choice to begin something or not....and if we are not prepared to begin it, we should not!
In every situation, from individual relationships to cosmic relationships, all sides have some influence in how things get played out. Of course there are always consequences in all directions, but every time, we make our choice of how we will behave in the situation and then others get to make their choices.

There is a magnificent realization here. We are created for relationships. And we are created by relationships. And we create in relationship.

God,
Here I am.
Thank you for hearing,
responding,
reacting,
loving...
even when I don't like
the response.
Thanks for showing up.
Use me. Hear me.
And send me out
to hear and respond
to react and to love.
Amen.

© matt & laura norvell 2010 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.

8.24.2010

Proper 17 (22) Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Luke 14:1, 7-14

Humility, in theory, is an easy concept to grasp.

It is the act or ability of a person to have a modest opinion of one's own abilities and importance. Being Humble is not synonymous with being self-deprecating. A person who is Humble is aware of her / his abilities and does not attempt to show his / herself to be something s/he is not.

But when we take it a step further and think of how the Humility of one person connects to the rest of the world it seems to be a bit more complicated. It doesn't matter if you call it evolution or nature or nurture, as humans we seem to have a drive built in to each of us where we want to prove our abilities and worth as greater than the next person. It seems we all want to show we are special and unique and often we attempt to do that by finding ways to be stronger, faster, more beautiful, smarter, funnier, more serious, more giving, more industrious, cleaner, more efficient, or more spiritual than the next person. And actually, reflecting on our own experience, we often don't even need another person to compare ourselves against.....we (We) often spend a lot of time imagining ourselves and our abilities to be more than they are....and not in a Positive Self Esteem sort of way.

Most of us have a natural tendency to develop in wonderful ways and then, unfortunately, we somehow cross a line where we lose our place. One of the favorite quotes in our house is "You have obviously forgotten that someone is in charge and it is not you."

Time to time, we all forget that someone is in charge and it is not us. We forget that we did not get to where we are only by our own devices. We forget that where we are today is a product of our families and our friends and the world and God loving us and guiding us and keeping us safe and teaching us and reprimanding us.

Again, call it nature or nurture or evolution or the human condition or sin, but the reality is that it is easy for us to lose our handle on having a Humble view of ourselves and our place in the world.

We are not sure if this is comforting or not, but we can look through scriptures and see examples of folks losing their own grip on Humility and we can see examples of teachers attempting to guide folks in the way of Humility.

In Jeremiah we read one of hundreds of Humility Reminders found given to the people of Israel. Through the mouth / pen of Jeremiah, God mourns that the people have turned their backs on Him even though it was God who brought them to the plentiful land.

It appears a lack of Humility might somehow impede our ability to love those that are important to us. In having too high an esteem of our selves and our abilities, we are actually insulting and hurting those who helped us to get where we are.

In Psalm 81 we read in the words of the Psalmist God again mourning that the the people of Israel would not give themselves over to Him. Instead, God says "I gave them over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their own counsels."

Following our own ways and not allowing ourselves to be in relationship with those that love us appears to do damage to the very ones we love.

In the passage we get from the writer of Hebrews and from the gospel of Luke we get some pretty direct advice and examples on the importance of being Humble.

Of course, the writer of Hebrews appears to simply be talking of love. It almost feels like it is this writer's interpretation of the famous section of Paul's letter to the Corinthians that gets so much play at weddings today. This passage in Hebrews is explaining that readers who follow Jesus should love. And when we look at how it is advising its readers to love, it is hard to not see (if followed) how all of these things help a person to maintain Humility....by loving everyone from the stranger to the prisoner to your leaders to Jesus Christ.

And then we get Jesus Christ himself directly telling folks how to maintain practices that help a person to develop Humility. He says, "For all who exalt themselves will be Humbled, and those who Humble themselves will be exalted." The common theme here? We are all going to be Humble either by our choice or by the actions of others.

We are so driven sometimes to be better, faster, smarter, more righteous. And Jesus' words ring true for Us as well...We've certainly found ourselves Humbled beyond our choice! And we remember that someone is in charge, and it is not Us.

God,
Help me see
the places where
I can love
rather than to see
the places where
I can win.
Amen.

© matt & laura norvell 2010 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.

8.19.2010

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 16), Year C

Jeremiah 1:4-10 and Psalm 71:1-6
Isaiah 58:9b-14 and Psalm 103:1-8
Hebrews 12:18-29
Luke 13:10-17

True confession time.

Writing these reflections each week is tough. Sometimes it is a grind. When we started almost three years ago, we were enthusiastic...we looked weeks ahead. We were often done by Sunday afternoon the week prior. We had robust conversations over the texts at dinner, on walks, before we dozed off. But slowly, life slipped in and it has gotten progressively more difficult to sit down each week and make time for really thinking about how the text speaks to us. Somewhere about Advent during this Year C, we both thought about quitting. But we'd been at it for two years and we wanted to see the three year cycle through to completion.

This summer it has been super hard. Oh, you've noticed. Sometimes you don't get a reflection until Friday! Not so much time for YOU to reflect then, is there? Sometimes you don't get a reflection at all! After our week of vacation, we couldn't muster the strength or discipline for facing the text. We called it a second week of vacation.

But if you've been watching the text over the past several weeks, you also know that we are moving into the calls experienced by the prophets. Somehow, these texts are speaking right to the struggle we're having today with this discipline of writing each week about the text. And in some ways, it is this struggle with call that brings us back each week. And probably for another full three-year lectionary cycle. You see, we feel pretty strongly called to engage these texts from different points in our life. And starting in Advent, we'll be back in Year A - and life for us has changed SIGNIFICANTLY in that time. We've both moved, at least twice. We've changed jobs. We've bought a house and a car. We've gotten married. We've vacationed with the kids as a real family. So there is a pretty good chance that we're bringing new life experience in the Kingdom to these readings for another three years.

So let's dive into the text that helps us recognize that.

The text from Jeremiah is a call story. God calls to Jeremiah and Jeremiah protests that he lacks experience and sophistication to do what he's being asked to do. Now, perhaps you have this experience. God doesn't very easily take NO for an answer once God's called you. Whatever you are called to has this way of continuing to surface. God takes a pretty active role in Jeremiah's decision. Jeremiah tells of the Lord reaching out and touching his mouth...literally putting God's words there for Jeremiah to speak. God goes on to make it very clear that Jeremiah is charged with great responsibility - "I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, and to build and to plant." In some ways, Jeremiah is being called to be part of a new creation.

The accompanying Psalm praises God for protection since birth, and pairs well with the Lord's words to Jeremiah, "Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you..."

Throughout Isaiah 58, the prophet calls the Israelites to authentic service to God rather than ritual. Essentially, the promise is of the Lord's guidance if only we will feed the hungry and tend to the needy. If you look at the prophecy closely, not only does the prophet promise God's protection, but also the restoration of Israel. Responding to our various calls makes the world a better place - but imagine it being even better than better. Better than what we currently envision as "good." Kingdom on earth as in heaven, perhaps.

The accompanying Psalm is a praise Psalm that includes an often quoted revelation about how the psalmist understood God...the Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Now we've read a lot of Hebrew scripture this summer in which God seems pretty angry. But true to the covenant with the Israelites, the Lord keeps returning to them...and expects the people to keep returning to God. Is God patient with our failed recognition or acceptance of the things God calls us too? Given our tendency toward procrastination or cluelessness at times, we sure hope so!

The reading from Hebrews continues from reflections of the faithfulness of Abraham, Isaac, Moses, Sarah, Rahab and many other Israelite "heroes" toward an encouragement to recognize the gift that we receive in God's grace. Christians refer to Jesus' death and resurrection as a sign of a new covenant relationship with God. As in days of old, we are called to keep returning to relationship with God. Life changes. We stumble and stray and make mistakes. But we can return. If we miss a call, perhaps another will surface. God loves us. And it would seem God waits for us. But in recognition of that, this letter encourages the community to give thanks with reverence and awe.

Finally, in Luke's gospel, we read about Jesus healing in the synagogue on the Sabbath. This isn't the first time he's found himself caught up in a controversy with the religious leaders about what he should or should not be doing on the Sabbath. Do you ever find yourself in that spot where there are layers of rules, and what you feel is the right thing to do really is forbidden or not generally acceptable? It sort of reminds us of the conversation we had at KC recently about how to serve our homeless brothers and sisters. I mean, there are social workers telling us not to give the homeless person on the corner money. And sometimes, a few dollars in their pocket will really make the difference. There are all of these shades of gray. Call feels that way sometimes, too. Recently, we've felt pretty called to speak out against the anger and controversy brewing over the construction of a Muslim community center near the site of the World Trade Center attack. There are people who will tell us that by supporting our fellow Muslim citizens in their quest for a community center that we are being insensitive to the families who lost loved ones there. It seems like a personal no-win situation. And sometimes we're called into sticky spots like that. But it's hard to listen when it isn't comfortable. Ugh.

And so...on this journey for us through "Proper 16," it feels all about call. We feel called. It's not always really clear. It's not always really easy. We don't always feel well-equipped. But if we're faithful, we know that God is with us, right? That maybe in our faithful response, we shed a little light on the Kingdom, right?

God,
put your words
into my mouth
that I may speak
your Kingdom
into being...
Amen.

© matt & laura norvell 2010 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.

8.12.2010

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 15), Year C

Isaiah 5:1-7
Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19
Hebrews 11:29-12:2
Luke 12:49-56



Do you have a vision for personal success and achievement that pulls you forward? Maybe you are a goal-setter? A list maker. A caster of vision.

Perhaps you have studied a self-help books - Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, The Purpose Driven Life, A New Earth.

Both of us have lived in spots of time where we were pretty driven to measure life (explicitly OUR life) against a very material ruler - the right job, the right clothes, the right house, the right friends, the right restaurants, the right vodka. And really, those self-help books had some pretty handy tools for getting us to where we wanted to be - good solid guidance.

But over the past few years we had to examine our defined destination. We can't really blame the guidance system for getting us exactly where we wanted to go. But where we were going wasn't really making the universe a better place (even if it was a divine place to be us!).

As we read through the passages for this week, we felt a little tension between expectation and resulting judgment. And that got us thinking - is it possible that our expectations lead us astray? I mean, I suppose we could use those same self-help books for other goals, right? For improving the environment, achieving global peace, eliminating poverty and hunger? Could we use those books very specifically for seeking the Kingdom of God?

The passage from Isaiah is a prophecy of God's judgment of Israel. We were caught by the language of expectancy - God's expectation for Israel - "When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes." It's hard to be disappointed without an expectation. And once we have an expectation, it seems pretty easy to be disappointed. The prophet tells us that where God expected to see justice, instead there was bloodshed; where God expected righteousness, there were cries. [Geek break: Read the language in a good study bible. There is actually a pretty brilliant play on words in Hebrew for those interested - mishpat (justice) and mispach (bloodshed) - tsedaqah (righteousness) and tse' aqah (cry of the oppressed). These writers really worked on this stuff! And we miss some of it in translation.]

The Psalmist is responding to God's judgment with some indignation. Why would God make it possible for others to destroy God's own chosen people? The petition is for restoration - for a return to favor that will save the people of Israel.

Go back to that good study bible and read ALL of Luke 12 as a single unit - and then move into Luke 13. Jesus really gets his preach on in this chapter. He's really working this gathered crowd. Beginning with a teaching on discipleship, he continues to warn against needless worry, moves on to encouraging watchfulness and then frames his own ministry as one of judgement and division. He ends all of this by calling for repentance. Preach it. In the selection for this week, after telling people about how he has been brought to divide, he goes on to say something very interesting. "When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, 'It is going to rain'; and so it happens...You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?" Wow. You've got the ability - why are you misusing it so? Damning, isn't it?

And then, if we finish with the passage from Hebrews, we are encouraged to lay aside every weight that clings to us and to run the race before us with perseverance. Now after reading Isaiah and Luke, we read this with eyes that draw us back to our expectations. Is it possible that our own expectations are the very thing that weighs us down?

Victor Hugo has a great line in Les Miserables where he says sin is like gravity-it is the thing that holds us down. It seems like we could add Misdirected Expectations to that list. Of course if what we have written here is true, it puts a lot of emphasis on discernment, doesn't it? And discernment, while usually a step in the average self-help book, doesn't get a lot of emphasis because it is not the sexy and exciting part of the success formula. And the interesting thing we have learned in our own lives is that discernment of direction may be the most important part of the process.

How do you discern where you are going? What helps you discern your expectations for yourself? How do the communities you are a part of (family, work, church, etc) discern corporate expectations?

This prayer of Thomas Merton never seems to wear out.....

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this, You will lead me by the right road.
Though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me. And you will never leave me to face my struggles alone.


© matt & laura norvell 2010 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

7.23.2010

Ninth Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 12)

So this feels dangerous to ask. In fact, we do not really want to either ask the question or think about the possible answers.....but, unfortunately, we have to bring it up: does God hold an entire group (i.e. nation, state, denomination, church, community, family) on the basis of the actions of it's individual members?

[See? We told you this might be uncomfortable]

This week we get some really charged passages from the Hebrew scriptures. The passage from Hosea offers an awful and definite condemnation on the people of Israel because of their actions...more specifically, "for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the LORD." Now, when we read this passage (which isn't long) we see that this message of punishment is couched in a continued promise of continuance. In the last verse we have here we God saying the people of Israel will still be like the sand of the sea and children of the living God, etc. But that comes after some threats of ALL of the people of Israel being punished.

This question is similarly pursued in the passage from Genesis. It is the story of God planning to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah and Abraham trying to negotiate with God on behalf of the few righteous men that might be present in those towns. It appears that in this instance, two entire towns / cities are going to be destroyed because of their "grave sin." Notice, it does not say that the people of those towns will "get theirs in the end" or that they will have to face their actions on "judgment day". This story shows some people that will be destroyed fairly quickly as a result of their behavior. But then, with Abraham's probing questions, God does seem to relent. If there can be found a "critical mass" of righteousness, the community will be spared.

Were the circumstances different for them since Israel is God's Chosen People? Or might these same circumstances apply to us?

Psalm 85 continues to tell this story in a slightly different way. It remembers how their people were restored and forgiven and pardoned before, but that God is currently "angry" with them right now. There is a lot of faith that God will preserve them again in the future, but that in their current situation all of their people are suffering punishment.

Something interesting happens when we make the shift to the scriptures of the New Testament. Both Paul and Jesus continue to talk to groups of people about their behavior, but a couple of things are different: first, there is not as much emphasis on how all of the people will be destroyed or punished because of the actions of a few, and connected to that idea there seems to be a lot more emphasis on individual responsibility to the message they have received.

For example, Paul continues with his message to the Colossians where he is lining out what it means to live as a follower of Jesus....he offers details on personal conduct and also some greater (more philosophical) instruction of how they should think of themselves and their relationship with God.

And Jesus also points people toward thinking of their individual responsibilities for their relationships to God. This is one of the passages where Jesus teaches the disciples how to pray. We have come today to call this The Lord's Prayer. It was a big deal for him to teach this prayer because it is an unusually personal and direct way for the average person to communicate with God.

And so, what do we do with all of this? Are these stories different? Can we all be individually responsible and also still be corporately responsible? If we are corporately responsible for our actions, what do we do to make sure our entire city is not wiped away because of the actions of others? If we are all individually responsible, to what extent do we need to bother ourselves with the behaviors of others? Even absent God's action, is it possible that the way we live, the choices we make, the lives we live affect those around us in life-altering ways? Good and bad life-altering ways?

God,
we give thanks for our created uniqueness
and as for the wisdom and patience
and grace and mercy
to add our one-ness to the whole
in ways that move your Kingdom
forward, not back.
Amen


© matt & laura norvell 2010 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

7.15.2010

Eighth Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 11), Year C

Amos 8:1-12 and Psalm 52 •
Genesis 18:1-10a and Psalm 15 •
Colossians 1:15-28 •
Luke 10:38-42


It's Complicated.

In the world of Facebook (a social networking tool on the internet where people post information about their lives and keep track of other people they may or may not know), "It's Complicated" is a relationship status. You know, like Married, Single, In An Open Relationship (seriously), and It's Complicated.

There is something to be said for "It's Complicated." It says a lot. It doesn't say too much. It leaves room for speculation and interpretation. Surely each of us has had a relationship best described as "It's Complicated."

And this week, this is our response to the lectionary. It's Complicated - both from a base level reading and integration of the various stories and from the things it says about our relationship with God, with Christ, with the Divine, with one another. It's Complicated. Back in May we talked about God being complicated, but this week, we're feeling it much bigger than that. IT'S Complicated.

This is a week when it pays to remember that we bring our own life experience with us into the reading of any biblical text. Our life, our experience, our witness of God at work in the world will affect the way we read the stories, the way we understand these stories, the way we apply these stories to our current circumstance. For us this week, these readings drew heavily on our experiences with current events - the oil spill in the Gulf, the state of political gridlock our country seems to be finding itself in, the economy, the environment. They also drew heavily on our frantic need to please those around us. And it drew on our sense of being unable to crack some elusive faith code that makes knowing and understanding all things somehow easy.

And running with that chaotic, It's Complicated sense of things, we chose to read both of the Hebrew scriptures for this week. Sometimes we are gluttons. And God spoke to us in both of them. It's Complicated. Right?

The prophet Amos can't see anything but a basket of summer fruit. Isn't that a spectacular sight? Imagine some mangoes and some apricots and some pomegranates and some almonds (we're trying to think Mediterranean). It's a lovely vision. And the Lord responds with a pretty harsh response. He doesn't tell Amos he's wrong, but he does reinterpret what it might symbolize. The Lord is finished with Israel, frustrated by the greed and the lack of care for creation. That basket of summer fruit represents the peak, and it's all downhill from there. Fall and winter, kaput. The Lord describes darkness at noon (uncanny to read during an eclipse week), feasts turned into mourning, sackcloth on every body. Reading this through our lens of experience and understanding today, it's not hard to see some parallels. We are a nation that has been perhaps "fat, dumb and happy." We've been drawing on our summer fruit, plucking it off the trees. And now, we are facing some difficult times. Did God make it so? We don't necessarily believe that - we tend to believe that we as a society have created our own chaos. How does that make us feel? About ourselves? About God? It's Complicated.

In the reading from Genesis, Abraham gathers with three strangers beneath the oaks of Mamre. He hustles to be sure that Sarah is on deck to provide them with a feast. He quickly slaughters the best calf. He quickly (quickly?) processes some fresh milk into curds for their enjoyment. None of this sounds as quick or as easy as a trip to Costco. He's putting some time and resource into providing hospitality for these strangers. Why? Does he think he knows them? Does he expect something from them in return? Well...if he wasn't expecting it, he sure got it. They inquire about Sarah, and then announce that when they return, she will have had a son. This is one of those pivotal stories - Abraham's line is going to continue (legitimately). And it provides the necessary plot twists for "the rest of the story." Now, we don't know that all of Abraham's hospitality was directly related, but we can assume there is a reason the story is told the way that it is. There is some connection between his keen attention to the stranger and the continuation of his blood line. What is it? It's Complicated.

And then, we have the familiar Luke story of Mary and Martha. Mary is sitting and Jesus's feet, deeply engrossed in all that he has to say. Martha was "distracted by many tasks" and comes to Jesus complaining about Mary the slacker. Jesus scolds Martha, telling her she is distracted by the wrong things. He lifts up Mary's choice as the right one. So setting the story from Genesis beside the story from Luke, we're left with the question of how we set priorities. How do we know what to focus our efforts upon. How do we know to choose "the better part?" It's Complicated.

And as if things were not Complicated enough, we get a part of our friend Paul's letter to the followers of Jesus in Colosae that opens with, "He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation;for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers--all things have been created through him and for him." Paul is certainly not cowed by topics that might be Complicated. We see this throughout his writings and especially here. He is jumping off in to an attempt to explain the cosmic and eternal and universal and divine relationship of Jesus the Christ to God the Father. Even today, our best minds and our best explainers end up (after saying a lot on what the Trinity is or might be) saying that while we might have some ideas of how this relationship works, we still have to take it on faith that it does exist and it does work. Paul even says he is attempting to explain "a mystery" that has been hidden to all the prior generations. That Relationship Is Complicated.

This is a week of wrestling with these themes. It seems important to Do the Right Thing at any point in time. Because in some ways, if we don't, we are subject to the vision the Lord shared with Amos. But it seems that sometimes choosing the right thing is slippery. It depends on the circumstances, and how we read them and interpret them and understand them. And that isn't a very accurate science, is it? It's Complicated.


God, for the places in this life
where things are Truly Complicated,
we ask for wisdom
and discernment
and Peace.
For the places in this life
where we
make
things
Complicated,
remind us that
Someone is in charge
and it
is
not
us.
Amen.




© matt & laura norvell 2010 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