Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 21), Year A

Authority is a slippery thing.

We almost said Authority and Power are slippery things, but that is too much to think about at once.

This week many folks in this country have openly struggled with (or firmly stood on one side or the other) the question of a judicial system having the Authority to kill a man who may or may not have taken the Authority upon himself to kill another man several years ago. And so many questioned the Authority of local Georgia courts, they questioned the Authority of federal courts, and on and on.

We are all under many levels of Authority. Some we choose, some are chosen for us, some are given to us, some are imposed on us.

But it seems we have always had a notion as humans that we can question Authority.

Even those of us who are obviously not as experienced or educated as those in Authority over us....even we feel we have the right to question an Authority. Reason is not necessarily applicable.

When put in a tight spot, we question the Authority of our leaders.

Moses was leading the descendants of Israel away from Egypt and slavery as God had instructed. In fact, at the beginning, most folks seemed to be in favor of not being slaves in Egypt any more. But things got hard...they got thirsty...and they questioned the Authority of Moses to be leading them. All that questioning got Moses worked up to make him question what God would have him do.

Again in Psalm 78 we see the revised and glossed over version of that situation. Years later the Psalmist is remembering what happened as God opened doors and rivers to keep the people of Israel safe and alive. The Psalmist doesn't mention all of the questions that came up, but since we can read the first part of the story we know what happened.

Paul pretty consistently is dealing with questions / issues around Authority. In this passage from his letter to the followers of Jesus in Philippi he encourages his readers to honor the Authority Christ has over them, he reminds them of the Authority he has as their mentor and teacher, and he helps them think about the Authority each of the people might have over his or her own thoughts and actions.

In this week's passage from Matthew we see the the Authority of Jesus being questioned. He counters with a question about the Authority of John the Forerunner. And then, while the chief priests and elders were contemplating that, he tells a parable of two sons who say one thing to their father and then do another (obviously respecting their father's Authority in different ways).

Authority is slippery. When do we honor it? When do we question it? When do we subvert it? When do we build it up?

God of Creation and Covenant
Help me to recognize
Authority that matters
and to Question
the Justice
the Mercy
the Validity
of the authority
that arises from Murkier Places
and overshadows You.

© 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.


Proper 20 (25) Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost Year A

* Exodus 16:2-15 and Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45 •
* Jonah 3:10-4:11 and Psalm 145:1-8 •
* Philippians 1:21-30 •
* Matthew 20:1-16

Both of us work in institutions surrounded by people at the top of the academic world. We work with people who revere knowledge. And not just any old knowledge, but logical, rational, provable, cite-able, repeatable knowledge.

In general our society holds on to the idea that the best information is backed up by facts. Success is identified most of the time by the accumulation of 'things' we can point to. In the order of the world, everyone has someone above them and someone below them. Social order is one of the ways we can Prove who we are and what we have accomplished.

We (the bigger, close to universal 'We') are people who appreciate Proof.

Even the Pre-Enlightenment folks of the Hebrew and early Christian world struggled with needing Proof.

In this week's passage from Exodus we see an example of God looking for Proof of commitment from the Israelites and the Israelites looking for Proof of commitment from God. The people of Israel had been wandering around in the wilderness for a while (little did they know how long this would last!) and they were COMPLAINING...lack of food, lack of water, lack of safe and dry places to sleep...of course, it had slipped their minds that there was also a lack of Egyptian slave holders. They were unconvinced that this trip to the desert was God's work and they needed Proof Moses was the right guy to follow. And in turn, God told Moses that every morning there would be bread on the ground and every evening there would be quail on the ground and all they had to do was Prove that they could follow instructions and only take as much as they needed for the day. Both sides were testing the relationship.

Psalm 105 is the beautiful, lyrical, revisionist history version of the story of the Exodus. Go read it. It describes the story in an almost completely positive tone without remembering the dirty and hard parts. It is sort of like us singing patriotic songs of American wars without recounting or remembering the sweat, blood, and death that occurred.

In this week's passage from Paul's letter to the followers of Jesus in Phillipi, we see some interesting stuff from Paul. At the beginning of this passage he talks about the struggle he is having between wanting to 'go' and be with Christ and needing to stay and be a leader to others. Today, Paul would get admitted for a psychiatric work-up the way he is talking about possibly wanting to die to achieve a goal. But then he goes on to emphasize what a good thing it is for him to live and how important it is for these new followers of Jesus to live fully because that will continue the witness of Jesus. And then, as he does in many other places throughout his letters, Paul talks about how suffering in this life is Proof of salvation and Proof that an individual is on the right path. This is a message that many still carry today--if you are a follower of Jesus, a life of suffering if Proof you are on the right track. Of course, there is also a popular notion today that if you are a follower of Jesus you will be prosperous and not have a care in the world. Feel free to reconcile these things on your own. : )

The passage from Matthew this week gives us a parable from Jesus. You all know it. A landowner hired laborers to work for him at four different times throughout the day and at the end of the day he paid them all the same. The guys (we assume they were guys...maybe not) hired first were angry that the ones hired last were paid the same amount but did not work the same amount. Evidently the guys hired last had nothing to say on the matter.

But why were the first set of workers upset? They got paid what they expected to be paid at the beginning of the day. Our suspicion (based on personal experience) is that they wanted Proof that their extra effort had more value. They needed Proof...they needed validation that their work was appreciated more than the workers who did not break a sweat.

And the landowner / Jesus ties it up with "So the last will be first and the first will be last."

That is not all that satisfying for folks who need Proof, is it?

But Jesus is saying that there is Proof enough to go around. The last person is loved and valued as much as the first person...equal...no divisions...no preference based on preference, size, shape, color, or hours worked.


Is that Proof enough for you?

God, help me to stop worrying about
who is above me
who is below me.
Remove the desire for rankings
and competitions
from my heart.
Be with me as I attempt to be at
with who
I am
and the knowledge
that who
I am

© 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.


PROPER 19 (24) Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost Year A

Exodus 14:19-31 and Psalm 114
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

We live in a "post-9/11 world." In the United States, there is no way
to escape that chronological designation...9/11/01 marked the end of
an era and the beginning of a new era. But how the new era is defined
is still within our influence. It could be an era marked by
polarization, by conflict, by pointing to our differences. It could
also be an era marked by grace, mercy, reconciliation, drawing the
circle wide. We have the opportunity to remember and in remembering,
remold ourselves within our human family - to find the new shapes and
attitudes and behaviors that bring us closer together instead of
further apart.

"Where were you when..." is a common refrain right now. But today
we're wondering, "Where are we now?" How have we been shaped and
changed? How have others been shaped and changed?

The lectionary texts for this week are the very same texts that
followed September 11, 2001. Uncanny? Yes, especially when you read
them. Go do it. We've got time.

In Exodus, we read the account of Moses parting the Red Sea and
leading the Israelites across. As the Egyptians follow, the sea
closes back over them, consuming them. The Israelites still had a long
journey ahead of them, but they were finally rid of the Egyptians. We
know that in the wilderness, there came a time when those Israelites
thought it might be better to return as slaves to Pharaoh. They must
have been shaped by the experience of slavery, by the Exodus, and by
their encounters with the living God. It changed their behavior
(sometimes only temporarily), their traditions, their loyalty. The
dramatic events of the Exodus reordered their lives. And what about
the Egyptians who lost all of their first born children? Whose
husbands and sons drowned as the sea closed in? Were they reformed?

The psalmist recounts the mighty acts of God in the Exodus. If God
can do these things to free his beloved people, how much more can God
do? The psalms are full of acts of worship that recall specific
life-altering things, good and bad.

Paul's letter to the church at Rome is a reflection on judging others.
Simply put, he asks that his readers not do it. God is the only
judge. He also suggests that intention is more important than the act
in some cases. Some choose to eat a certain thing to honor God.
Others choose to abstain from eating to honor God. What is important
is the intention to honor God. As we approach September 11, the word
"judge" makes us squirm just a bit. We've heard/seen/participated in
some "judgment" around the events of 9/11. Has our judgment of other
cultures, of our political system, of our safety nets, of our economy,
of our neighbors changed in that passage of time?

Perhaps this week's reading from Matthew is most haunting. Peter has
asked some tough questions about forgiveness. And Jesus' teaching is
every bit as tough. Do it again and again, without condition and
without end. Loving one another is an exercise in forgiving - all the
time, every time. Who's mastered that? And since 9/11, how many
times have we been challenged to forgive someone or some idea or some

Where are the places that you've struggled to forgive
since that day? Has your struggle to forgive reformed you? Are there
things/people/ideas that you've packed away rather than do the work to

God, we are caught with such short vision.
We only see the injury or wrong that was
just done
to us.
We preach forgiveness
during times of peace.
When pressed, we often to not respond
or gently
or with forgiveness.
Help us as we attempt to
as we have been
Help us as we attempt to
as we have been

© 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.


Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 18), Year A

Exodus 12:1-14 and Psalm 149
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

"I am sitting here wanting memories to teach me
to see the beauty in the world through my own eyes.
I thought that you were gone, but now I know you're with me.
You are the voice that whispers all I need to hear."
(from CROSSINGS by Y.M. Barnwell (c)1992) Recorded by Sweet Honey in the Rock

What are the memories and rituals and rules and laws that guide your
daily actions? We're not talking about the progression through a
four-way stop here - we're talking about root values (and maybe that
means we are talking about a four-way stop afterall). What governs the
way that you understand your relationship with family, with
co-workers, with neighbors nearby and across the globe?

Our scriptures for this week include stories and instruction intended
to guide us in a right way. But they caused us to wonder about
different types of instruction and how it shapes us not just our
behavior, but who we are in the deepest parts of our soul from
generation to generation.

The book of Exodus is the story of the Israelites flight from Egypt
and their time in the wilderness under Moses' leadership. (We're
really fond of this story. We have a dog named Moses and he's
currently leading us through wilderness. He's not handy with the water
from a rock trick yet, however.) Anyway... We're reading a dramatic
moment here. The plagues to this point have had little affect on
Pharoah, and God has decided that something drastic must be done. He's
giving instructions for how the Israelites should sacrifice and
prepare their homes so that they are "passed over" by the final plague
- the death of the firstborns. By marking their doorposts with blood,
they can be assured that the Lord will pass over their homes and leave
their firstborns unharmed. In order to remember all that the Lord has
done, faithful Jews today observe many of the ritual suggested in this
passage in their Passover seder. They remember by doing and in doing
they are shaped. And their shape should affect the way they make daily
choices about their life.

The psalms is praising the Lord's action and remembering how the
people are saved by such actions. The psalms were written as acts of
worship - praise, petition, lament - so that the community could
remember and attribute to God the appropriate response at similar

In the passage from Matthew's gospel, Jesus has come down from the mountain after
the transfiguration and has been teaching lessons that clarify or cast
question on the Law and how it is enacted and what it really means.
In the verses read this week, Jesus is teaching the proper ways to
handle conflict among the disciples. He recognizes this is bound to
happen. We don't know about your life, but there are about 15
practical applications of this teaching in our life DAILY. Imagine
reviewing this prior to staff meetings or visiting it at a family
dinner once a week. These are practical guidelines - especially for
groups working together in love. If we truly are living out the
command to love one another, doesn't this set of guidelines help us

And finally, in Paul's letter to the church at Rome, Paul has been
teaching about authority and has turned to Love - not the love of self
but a guiding love of "other," of the neighbor, that he understands
should permeate our lives. He's providing guidance - the commandments
he references all come down specifically to loving with selfless care
and concern another person.

We are where we are today because of the places from which we have come and the rituals and practices that have shaped us.

God, help us as we attempt to
focus our energies
on loving
and respecting
each other
while we
the ways
we have been

© 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.