3.29.2011

Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year A

1 Samuel 16:1-13
Psalm 23
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9:1-41


Sometimes it is difficult for us to see the miracles that are in front of us.

Most of us have grown up in a society that trains us to make quick evaluations. Evaluate products quickly. Evaluate situations quickly. Evaluate people quickly.

This is a skill that benefits us as humans and helps us each to survive to live longer and grow older.

We are taught to search for the strongest and smartest people. We are taught to investigate situations to understand why something happened. We are encouraged to find the people, places, and things that help us to become more efficient, more successful, faster, and stronger.

This is also a skill that sometimes blinds us.

This week we see Samuel the prophet receiving instruction from God to stop spending time worrying about Saul and to go find the next King of Israel. Samuel had a list of reasons this would not be smart (among them that Saul might kill him), but eventually he begins his mission. He goes out to meet Jesse and Jesse's plethora of sons. One by one, Samuel looked at the young man in front of him, saw the smartest and strongest and fastest and most successful...and one by one God told him to keep looking. Samuel (a guy who was talking with God, by the way) was caught in the habit of only seeing with his eyes.

In a Psalm that was likely written by David (who was finally the candidate Samuel anointed) we see the words of a man who had been through so much he was obviously no longer only looking at the things he could see with his eyes. This Psalm is often thought of as one of the greatest faithful examples we have in scripture. Faith that believes in things that cannot be seen.

In Paul's letter to the followers of Jesus in Ephesus he takes a slightly more ethereal approach to thinking about being able to see. He is encouraging his readers to understand that before they were followers of Jesus, they were darkness (not they were IN darkness....they WERE darkness) and now in the Lord they are light (not they are IN the light....they ARE light). And since they are now children of light, they should shine their light and awake those that are in darkness.

And finally, in John's gospel, we read about people failing to see a miracle of sight restored as they are busy looking for something else. Here, Jesus heals a man blind since birth. It would have been a common understanding that this man's blindness was punishment for the sins of his parents. First, the surrounding crowd asks how this has happened. Then the Pharisees insist on an explanation. And they pass judgment...who would do this on the Sabbath? Even his own parents can't seem to grasp what has happened. All the while, the man who had been blind knew one thing for sure...now he could see. Everyone else seemed too busy looking for something else to really SEE his restored sight for the miracle that it was.

Perhaps seeing really is believing.

Faithful, creative, patient God,
Bear with me.
Gently remove the log from my eyes.
Gently remove the scales.
Wipe away my blindness and help me to See...
to really SEE
that which is wonderful
that which is amazing
that which is created
that which is Your design.
Amen.

© matt & laura norvell 2011 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.

3.17.2011

Second Sunday in Lent, Year A

Genesis 12:1-4a • Psalm 121 • Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 • John 3:1-17

Some weeks, the lectionary selections offer a slippery slope. It's one of the reasons that really spending time with scripture and with others who spend time with scripture matters. These passages require us to be in dialogue, to keep our minds and our hearts open, to see both the good and the bad of what is written down at a point in time by a human with an agenda. This week is a slippery slope.

You see, it is way too easy to look at what is said across the selected passages and conclude that Jesus arrived on the scene and corrected some religious missteps and replaced a lot of history to become the only path to righteousness and salvation.

We're playing our theological hand here. We're not buying that interpretation. That's not how we understand God. We want to read the text carefully, respectfully, critically and in dialogue with our lived experience of God and of our fellow created humans.

Since creation, God has sought to be in relationship with the created world. God has watched rock erode, seas churn, galaxies collapse. God has watched humankind evolve through time, evolving religion, spirituality, economics, politics, sociology, medicine. The sacred stories of scripture tell the story of God's relationship across thousands of years and countless surprises, successes and disappointments.

This scripture story tells us about a covenant - a mutual promise between God and humankind - that at various times has been honored and destroyed. But what the story also tells is about God's faithful return to relationship with God's creation in myriad ways and forms.

In Genesis, the LORD addresses Abram and makes him a promise - a promise to bless him and and to make of him a great nation. Now the size of your kin was an important economic and social factor in these cultures. And Abram has yet to have any children (and it takes a while if you'll recall). God doesn't ask for much - just that Abram leave his country and his kindred and his father's house to go obediently to a land that God will show him. It's a big risk and a big promise. And Abram goes. He goes. Into the unknown. Now the rest of the story is not marked by unfailing obedience or abundant blessing...but Abram, later Abraham, keeps his promise and so does God. Abram shows faith in what God has promised.

The psalmist expresses a keen faith in the role of the LORD as protector and provider. There is assurance of protection and well-being through time. And as we read these words, it seems a little like the Psalmist might be reminding himself or talking himself in to holding up his end of the covenant relationship with God. We sometimes use this self-talk method when things are difficult: "Where does my help come from? It comes from the Lord."

In the passage from John, we are introduced to the Pharisee named Nicodemus. He shows up a couple of times in John's gospel stories. Here he arrives by night to ask some clarifying questions of this rabbi, Jesus, about his teachings. Specifically, he's curious about this notion of being born of the spirit. Nicodemus can't reframe the concept of being born from his physical understanding. Jesus is trying to explain that there has to be some sort of formation/transformation/birthing process connecting one to a belief in God. If Nicodemus cannot receive their testimony, witness the work of Jesus and the disciples and be changed by it. Nicodemus is pretty sure he cannot wrap his mind around the idea of being born in a spiritual way. Now the rest of this selection includes probably one of the most oft referenced scriptures (perhaps most notably at professional sporting events). "For God so loved the world, He gave his only Son that whoever believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life." This is where the slope gets slippery for some. It's easy to read this selection from John, especially if you go beyond the selected passages through the 21st verse, and use it to beat people over the head with a "turn or burn" message about Jesus being the one way to salvation. But that's not how we've experienced God. It's not how we've seen God work in others. We think maybe it's not quite that easy.

In these selections from Paul's letter to the followers of Jesus in Rome, we find Paul working hard to explain how everything fits together. Paul was the first Christian systematic theologian that we know of, and in all of his writings he makes efforts to give words to the many mysteries of the developing faith. In an effort to underscore the point that a person's salvation or righteousness is found in faith rather than in works he reaches back and uses Abraham as an example. He holds Abraham up as a prime example of salvation and sustenance through faith. He does not re-write the Hebrew story...he takes it and uses it to shine light on the faithfulness of God to the covenant.

There are many days it is hard to believe a promise that sounds too good to believe. It does not make logical sense to think that God will remain faithful to a covenant where we are almost certain to fail at holding up our end. And yet these are the examples we are given and this is what we are called to do.

God, I try so hard to impress you.
I want you to be proud.
I want to be worthy of your love.
I want you to know I am trying.
Because
I am certain there are days
it doesn't look that way.
I am certain there are days
I wonder if I am trying
to hold up my side of the
relationship.
I am grateful beyond words
for your faithfulness.
I am grateful beyond words
for your forgiveness.
I am grateful beyond words
for your generosity.
Thank you, God.
*amen

© matt & laura norvell 2011 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.

3.10.2011

First Sunday in Lent, Year A

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Psalm 32
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11


So let's start with a simplified definition.

Sin = things you think or do (or don't do) that take you further away from being in relationship with God.

Maybe you agree with this definition...maybe you don't. Either way, this is the definition we are working with as we write.

We all sin.

We are 100% certain we do. We are fairly certain you do.

Sometimes we intentionally do it. Sometimes we accidentally do it. Sometimes we actively go out looking to choose against God. Sometimes we close our eyes and try to ignore things and end up choosing against God by not choosing.

It would be easy to be completely intimidated by sin and feel we are totally hemmed in and will never be able to do anything without sinning.

But there is good news. We are never forced to sin.

That is worth repeating.

We are never forced to sin.

Sure, it comes naturally to us all. Many of us are quite good at it. But we are never forced to sin.

We always have a choice.

You might be thinking, "Laura and Matt, do you have any examples of this?"

We are glad you asked. This week's lectionary readings are all about people making choices that take them closer toward and further away from God.

In these passages from Genesis we see the classic concept of sin develop. We see God hanging a 'Do not eat' sign on the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and then we see a talking serpent convincing Eve and then her husband to eating from the forbidden tree. Then 'their eyes were opened, and they knew they were naked.'" Now it is important to note that nowhere here is the word Sin used....neither is the title Satan. Instead, God sets a boundary, the humans transgress that boundary, this transgression breaks trust between God and the humans, and the humans begin moving further away from God.

Bummer.

The writer of Psalm 32 obviously knew this passage from Genesis. Look at the opening line: "Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven." Ain't that the truth. Once we can recognize and admit that when given the choice we are transgressors....when given the choice, we often choose to move further away from God, it is deeply true that the happy people are the ones whose transgressions are forgiven.

In the passage from the gospel of Matthew, we see Jesus facing the choice of staying where he was (we assume that since he was God he was quite close to God) or choosing to put his faith in something else and moving away from God. Jesus was in the wilderness and the Tempter offered him bread and power and safety in exchange for choosing to move further away from God. Jesus, being 100% God in addition to 100% human, chooses to not choose against God.

And in the passage from Paul's letter to the followers of Jesus in Rome, we find what we often find with Paul: he spends a lot of time intellectualizing the situation and trying to systematize what it means to be a being who is prone to turning his back on God and how the insertion of Jesus impacts that system. He is explaining to these new believers the importance of Jesus and the forgiveness that he personified. He's creating a contrast between the fall of one man (Adam) and the ascension of another (Jesus).

So...Sin.

Choices moving us further from God who created us.

We always have a choice. And when we make a bad choice, we have the choice of turning back and restoring the relationship with God.

God,
Here I am...
me and my sometimes good
sometimes neutral
sometimes bad choices.
All of me.
Here I am.
Here with you.
Here we choose to be.
Today.
Amen.

© matt & laura norvell 2011 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.

3.03.2011

Transfiguration Sunday, Year A

* Exodus 24:12-18 •
* Psalm 2 or Psalm 99 •
* 2 Peter 1:16-21 •
* Matthew 17:1-9

Laura writes:
"I stood in chapel this week and recited the Nicene Creed. Now our church community (Kittamaqundi Community Church) is NOT a credal community, meaning we don't as a group subscribe to one creed and share that as a central commitment of membership, participation, and belonging. But at the seminary where I work and attend, creeds are a shared experience of that community. And I was aware that as I read the words, I felt both myself sculpted and molded into the shape of the beliefs I was articulating. And frankly, it was comfortable space. My rational mind can sometimes trip over these words...words like "eternally begotten of the Father" and "he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man." Yes, my rational mind sometimes can't wrap itself around these concepts.

But there in the space of worship, having just heard a powerful message on these very texts, these words and their tradition and comfort was shaping my soul and I was leaning into the sculptor's hands, allowing myself to be shaped. They were warmth and light, infused with the ringing of voices who had spoken the same words over thousands of years, ringing with the spirit of early Christians who chose them so carefully. These words and the emotion and sense of well-being they evoke are a revelation to me of things that I cannot know in my rational mind but of things that my very cells know somehow to be true. They call me back to being God's beloved."



It is "Transfiguration Sunday" on the liturgical calendar - a time when Christians reflect on the visible revelation of Jesus Christ in his lifetime before his disciples Peter, James and John -- Jesus bathed in glittering light, standing alongside Moses, the Lawbearer and Elijah the Prophet as if he were a completion of the two kinds of Godly revelation - the law and the prophets - all in one human divine package. Then clouds gather and a voice emerges, "This is my Son, the beloved..." It is the Sunday that precedes Ash Wednesday and the Descent into 40 days of Lent, a time of reflection, of penance, of awareness of our humanity, our mortality, our sinfulness and our fellowship in that space with every other human on the planet.

But if the journey begins today, it begins in the light of God's revelation to the disciples on that mountainside. And the disciples weren't invited or encouraged to stay there in the light...instead, Jesus sent them back down the mountain to face a lot of hard work, travel, dusty feet, persecution, criticism and self-doubt. In our artful imagination, we are guessing that these disciples needed to face all of what was coming to even begin to understand what they experienced on that mountain. We are so like that...we can't see the gift that life is sometimes except from the depths of pain or unbelievable mistakes...and it is that realization that drags us out of that low place and back to the mountain.

Our texts for this week all tell a story of revelation - of God showing God's self to God's creation. Each revelation, like a creed, is a reminder of who God is.

In the passage from Exodus, Moses heads up on to Mount Sinai which is then covered by a cloud for six days. On the seventh day, God's voice is heard to Moses, and the people that Moses had left at the base of the mountain knew God was there on the mountain because of the spectacular firey vision of the mountain. Moses entered the cloud and then spent 40 days and 40 nights with God. Now beyond this verse, we know that Moses comes down off the mountain with the ten commandments, the laws that were to be central to the Hebrews that had fled Egypt and were moving toward the promised land. God has made a covenant with the people and named the expectations they are to keep in the Law.

We have two different messages from the psalmists. First is a warning - a threat - a reminder that none of this world is wholy ours. The second is a brighter message - a praise psalm for God's revelations to Moses and Aaron and Samuel.

In Matthew's gospel, we have a detailed account of the magnificent transformation of Jesus that Peter, James and John experienced on the mountain side. They want to hold on to the moment, to create a Place for Jesus and Moses and Elijah, to bask in the presence of the light. But Jesus not only sends them all back down the mountain -- he tells them that they cannot tell of their experience until he has been raised from the dead. We can only imagine this must have been a let down. First, they weren't able to share their story and second, they've been told that their first reaction (building a shelter for everyone to hang out in) was inappropriate. Their experience on the mountain certainly was different from that of Moses. However, both experiences offered a chance for them to see their lives and purposes from a different perspective.

In the 2nd epistle of Peter, the disciple is finally able to tell of his mountain experience...and he is less telling of his own experience but of his experience of God. He encourages the early church to be watchful. Prophecy doesn't come out of our human experience, it comes out of our experience of God. We are not telling our own story when we witness, we are telling God's story. And that story is shared by so many others and it echoes through time and space and shapes hearers.

We repeat these stories because they have power. We tell them around dinner tables, we re-read them, we recite them in creeds because they form us. The biblical stories of transformation Transform us.

God, I want to be open to change.
I want to be open to allowing
Your Spirit
to seep in to all of the cracks
and crevices of my life
and direct my steps
and inspire my actions
and redirect my ugliness
and empower me to be
the beacon of Light
You have created me to be.
Amen.

© matt & laura norvell 2011 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.