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?

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.

© 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


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
remind us that
Someone is in charge
and it

© 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


Amos 7:7-17
Psalm 82
Colossians 1:1-14


No matter how we try to get away from he or how we try to re-read the scriptures from a different point of view, it appears to be soundly present. And no matter now we try to Judge Not Lest We Be Judged, it always seems to show up in us....how about you?

We want to Judge others, we want to Judge ourselves, we want God to Judge others, we want God to Judge us. We see in scripture the ways God Judges folks and we get excited and scared about it all at the same time. It seems like a natural and built in part of who we are and how we operate. We Judge things. We Judge people. We Judge actions. We Judge intentions.

And what are we craving (or scared of) when Judgment is the question? Do we want to know if we are Good Enough? Do we want to know that we are going to "make it".....and do we maybe even want to be assured that others are not "good enough" or are not going to "make it"?

And there is a lot of Judgment that is good. Judgment keeps us alive. It keeps us healthy.
But the Judgment that we often talk about in religious / spiritual / scriptural settings is not focused on eating more vegetables or crossing the street at the appropriate time. Most of the time in these settings we are talking about Judgment between right and wrong, good and bad, divine and evil.

And it appears that the Judgment found in the scriptures is always pretty polarized....but not necessarily in to what appear to be evenly set up groups. For example, in Psalm 82 there is a question of judgment between the Wicked and the Weak. The Wicked seem to be the ones oppressing the Weak. The Wicked are being Judged on their actions against another group and the Weak are being held up and protected because of their vulnerable state. These two groups are not being Judged on the same criteria, and yet they are Judged in the same breath.

In the story of the prophet Amos we get a good, tangible, physical reference to Judgment-a plumb line. A string with a weight on the end that helps to determine when something is in line with its intended path. We don't know for sure Amos's experience as a carpenter, but we do know he was not a 'professional' prophet (there were some in that day...folks who made careers out of prophesying place to place). He was called out of his place as a herdsman and told to share this message of Judgment from God with the power structure of Israel. They tried to shoo him away and get him to go spread his bad news somewhere else, however that only created a more dramatic response from God to the people of Israel. Amos was sharing with the Israelites that God was displeased with them because they did not 'line up' with the plumb line of God, and because of their behavior (social and religious) their country would be destroyed. [Wow...hopefully this was only true in 8th Century BCE Palestine...it would be terrible today if the personal attitudes and choices and practices of individual citizens might cause an entire government to weaken and fall...we sure are glad this is a 'Bible Story']

The excerpt from Paul's letter to the Colossians is familiar in tone. It is the opening greeting he writes to many of the churches. He praises their work, lifts up their goodness and tells them that he prays for their well-being and fruitfulness. Imagine the pastoral role of caring for these new, delicate communities facing persecution and judgment from the outside. It would be important to protect the spirit of community - to encourage these young churches toward care and keeping of one another. Devolving into Judgy places only destroys the community. Across the Epistles, Paul seems aware and guarding against that - sometimes subtly, sometimes not so much.

In the passage from Luke we see a lawyer wanting to test Jesus a bit about Judgment. He wants Jesus to tell him Exactly what he needs to do to 'inherit eternal life'. When Jesus guides him to the answer that he should love his neighbor, the lawyer (being a good keeper of the law) wanted to parse it out further and know Exactly who his neighbor is. The attempt here seems to be one where the lawyer can know the precise boundaries of his responsibilities so he can 'inherit eternal life' with the greatest efficiency. And so Jesus answers his question with the story of the Samaratian who helped a man beaten half to death by robbers. This story illustrates many things, but it offers less direct Judgment than it seems the lawyer expected. Jesus seems to leave the lawyer with the impression that the only Judgment between people is that there are Those Who Show Mercy and there are Those Who Do Not Show Mercy.


That seems to be an easier way to Judge and to understand Judgment, doesn't it?

How do I Inherit Eternal Life?

Show Mercy.

How do I know I am on the side of God?

Show Mercy.

How do I know right over wrong, good over bad, divine over evil?

Show Mercy.

That is simpler than the systems we often create, isn't it?
the temptation to measure myself
against others is great
and it leads me to judging places.
Help me to remember
that I am created by Your hand
and so is my neighbor
and so is the one I want to name enemy
or nemesis
or rival.
It is easier to judge
than to show mercy, to love the stranger
Help me to soften my gaze
and reach out beyond my safety circle
to show mercy and love
and not to Judge.

© 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