Monday, August 29, 2011

Relationships: Year A, Ordinary 23

This Week's Lectionary Texts
Exodus 12:1-14 or Ezekiel 33:1-11
Psalm 149 or Psalm 119:33-40
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

This Week's Reflection
Relationships - can't live with them and can't live without them. Living in community with others can be so difficult. We are reminded on a daily basis (if we are paying attention) that how we treat others matters. Whether we are talking about a spouse or a co-worker or a sales clerk, the way in which we relate can be life-affirming or life-depriving.

It goes without saying that Pharaoh didn't think much of the lives of the Israelites. They were cheap labor to him, pieces of property. In this week's Exodus text, his life-depriving actions come back to haunt him in a most horrific way. As the Israelites prepare themselves for the Passover, he is unknowingly spending his last moments with his first-born son.

There is something happening around these lectionary passages about relationships. Though, as I write that, I wonder if that couldn't be said for most passages of scripture. We are a people of community. God calls us into relationships. God is a relational God. The way we treat others matters. It matters a great deal.

The details of the ways in which that first Passover was to be observed remind me that even these 3000 plus years later, this meal is about relationships. As families and faith communities gather to remember, they are connected to those first families in Egypt, all the families since, and they are connected to the God who gave them this ritual.

But, relationships are hard. When we have a relational God, there can be many questions that arise. What are we to make of the children who were killed not because of their own sin, but because of the sin of those to whom they were related? Relationships are hard. They cause difficult questions and sometimes they lead to difficult answers. Relationships can be life-affirming or life-denying.

As soon as we ask the question of God we are sent into the Ezekiel text that has God replying, "I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked." The Ezekiel passage is a further reminder that we not only live in relationships, but those relationships often do not turn out the way we had hoped.

Matthew gives us a pretty good outline for how to deal with things when they do get all mixed up. Jesus explains the ways in which we should deal when relationships get off track. And, what are those ways? In community, of course. The ways in which we treat others matter. They matter a great deal.

The Romans text supports this fact by reminding us that "love is the fulfilling of the law." With words of warning about guarding against satisfying the flesh, the emphasis is on following Christ's commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves.

There are times in my life when I think it would be a lot easier to live on an island all alone. Maybe I could become a hermit, live in a hut on a mountain where I never had to speak to anyone again. These moments arise when relationships get to be difficult - and they always get to be difficult. Whether it is a silly statement I made that someone else hears in a hurtful way or years of history with my spouse that requires constant navigation or the death of my father or the woman in the check-out line that is so very rude, being in community can be difficult at times. And, at times I wonder if just not being in community would be better. This, of course, is a classic question which leads me to the often quoted Tennyson poem:
"I hold it true, whate'er befall;
I feel it, when I sorrow most;
'Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all."
This is not only true for romantic love, but for all kinds of relationships in our lives. Romans reminds us that love is the main thing. Exodus reminds us of what can happen when we don't love our neighbors as ourselves. Ezekiel reminds us that how we treat others matters a great deal. And, Matthew gives us a guide for dealing with the conflict when it does occur so that relationships have the best chance of being restored.

It isn't a new idea, but it is an important one. We are relational people serving a relational God. Whether we think living on an island alone would be better or not, we are called to live in relation to others serving a Messiah that builds community through the most unlikely of alliances. Christ calls us to be life-affirming in our relationships. I wonder what the world would look like if all life-depriving relationships came to an end. I happen to think it would look a whole lot like heaven.

This Week's Artwork
(in order of appearance in the reflection)
The Space Between by Robin Farbman
Soulmates by Ben Will
Repair by Betony Coons
relationships redux by Alessandro Bonvini
The Insistent Friend by Jesus Mafa
Two Birds by Maria-Thérèse Andersson

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Careful What You Wish For: Year A, Ordinary 22

This Week's Lectionary Texts
Exodus 3:1-15 or Jeremiah 15:15-21
Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45b or Psalm 26:1-8

Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

This Week's Reflection
How many times have we wished to have an experience as dramatic as Moses' with the burning bush? My version is to say, "If only God would email me with clear instructions!" But, Moses got the ancient version of my wish - clear instructions from God that just so happened to come out of the midst of a bush that was on fire.

Jeremiah had a personal dialogue with God too. He had a specific question that he wanted answered, "I've been doing everything right and I still suffer. Why? And, when are you going to do something about it?" And while ultimately God answered to say that Jeremiah will be taken care of, the answer starts with "If you turn back." What? What does Jeremiah need to turn back from? Haven't we just been told that he was doing everything right which is why he wants to know why he must suffer so?

Romans is pretty self-explanatory, unless you have problems loving people who aren't so lovable and doing good when everyone else around you is doing evil.

In the Matthew text, Jesus is explaining how he will suffer, die, and be resurrected. Peter can't handle the truth. Peter, who only verses earlier had declared, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!" Peter now treats Jesus as if he is a child. The text says that he rebukes Jesus as in how we might rebuke our children when they use inappropriate language or tones.

We want clear messages from God. We long for "burning bush moments," but are we truly ready for the message that will come? For Moses the message was, "go back to the place where you are wanted for murder, be a spokesperson even though you are a horrible public speaker, and fight Pharaoh, likely the most powerful man in the world." Jeremiah wanted answers for suffering. Instead, God said, "Get back to what is really important! Stop worrying about self. Do right and I'll take care of you." (Of course, God doesn't promise that this will be a suffering free life.) And Peter wanted to be the Messiah's right hand man, but what he learns that means is that he too must pick up his cross, deny himself, and give up his own life.

We wish for clear messages from God all the time. We long to see God, to know God, to have a moment when a bush blazes in flame and yet does not burn. We seek signs that call our attention to God's messages for us. We long to hear the voice of God speak to us in the deep baritone of Charlton Heston. At least, we say we do. I wonder what I would do if the email actually came. I wonder how I would take the clear instructions from God that call me to give up my life for others. I wonder if my wish came true if I would be sorry I ever asked for such a thing.

Messages from God send us into places that we don't necessarily wish to go. And, there are no promises that going will be a life without suffering. And, even so, we search for the clear instructions of God. We seek God's voice. We seek understanding and truth. And, we receive the messages, though they may not come to us like Moses or Peter. We receive the message and with the Psalmist we sing, "O give thanks to the LORD, call on his name, make known his deeds among the peoples. Sing to him, sing praises to him; tell of all his wonderful works. Glory in his holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the LORD rejoice. Seek the LORD and his strength; seek his presence continually. Remember the wonderful works he has done, his miracles, and the judgments he uttered, O offspring of his servant Abraham, children of Jacob, his chosen ones. Praise the Lord!"

This Week's Artwork
(in order of appearance in the reflection)
Message from God by unknown
The Light of the Bush by Janie Welsh
the burning of the bush by He Qi
moses and the burning bush by Fred Paddock

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Identity Crisis?: Year A, Ordinary 21

This Week's Lectionary Texts
Exodus 1:8-2:10 or Isaiah 51:1-6
Psalm 124 or Psalm 138
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20

This Week's Reflection
In the gospel lesson this week, Jesus asks the disciples, "Who do you say that am?" I'm sure that it is a result of having to face hard questions last week about whether or not Jesus could be wrong, but this conjures up images for me of times in my life when I've felt insecure and unsure of myself. To my closest friends I might ask, "What do you think I'm like, really?" or, more likely, "You don't think I'm crazy, do you?" There are moments in our lives when we just need some extra reassurance that we really are okay.

Is that what was happening with Jesus? I don't think there are any scholars who would go with me on this one. And, to be honest, I'm not real sure I can either. But, I do like the question. I do appreciate considering a time in the life of Jesus when he had to look at Peter and say, "You think I'm doing this right, don't you?" Of course, he began with what all the others had to say about who the "Son of Man" is. But, just as quickly as they answer, he turns it on them, "But what about you?"

Is this a test of their own faith or an identity crisis for which Jesus needs some comfort and reassurance? Whatever it is, Peter is quick to answer. Isn't he always? "You are the Messiah, of course!" And, this seems to do the trick. For whatever it was that Jesus was looking, he got it and turns his attention away from himself and back to his followers - Peter, in particular, the rock.

There is a word for us as well. "Whatever you bind on earth, bound in heaven. Whatever you loose on earth, loose in heaven. Here, take these. They are the keys to the kingdom." And, so our own identity crisis begins.
"How can that be?" "How could God allow that kind of power to rest with humans?" "Who am I to bind or loose anything on earth, much less in heaven?"
In the Romans passage, Paul reminds us of who we are. We are "living sacrifices" with "gifts that differ according to the grace given to us." Just in case you forget who you are or what you are capable of through the power of the Holy Spirit, these new testament texts remind you. Who are you to have that power? Who are you to loose or bind on earth and in heaven? You are the very child of God, disciple of Jesus Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Isaiah reminds us too. "Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug." You are a child of Abraham and Sarah and just in case you have forgotten, just in case you are having an identity crisis, to be a child of those two means you are the child of the very living God.

This Week's Artwork
(in order of appearance in reflection)
Who Do You Say I Am?
Identity Crisis by U'rouge
Lenten Solitude by Jag
Christ Giving the Keys to Peter by Guido Reni
Keys to the Kingdom by Wawi Navarroza
The Rock by Nee Christopher Lagria

Monday, August 8, 2011

Reunited: Year A, Ordinary 20

This Week's Lectionary Texts
Genesis 45:1-15 or Isaiah 56:1, 6-8
Psalm 133 or Psalm 67
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32

Matthew 15:(10-20), 21-28

This Week's Reflection

Oh dear, we find ourselves this week at that gospel text from Matthew when Jesus calls a woman a dog. If you are a regular reader, you will notice that I'm a bit late this week with this reflection. That first sentence is why. Check out all the great resources at The Text This Week for many more scholarly and detailed exegesis of that text. Honestly, it just confuses me. This is a feeling I am becoming more and more comfortable with, by the way, because I feel it quite often.

If you explore those scholars, you will find varying theories of what is happening in the text. It could be that Jesus was acting out his parable on this particular occasion - behaving in such a way as if to say, "Did you see that? Don't do what I just did!" Others will say that Jesus never really called the woman a dog, that it is so uncharacteristic that it was clearly added by someone else along the way to make a point - the point of which seems lost on all of us! Some would say that he was testing her faith, giving her room to prove how much she believed he could help her daughter. And, others will applaud the woman and her boldness saying that Jesus learned a lesson from her, that Jesus was actually wrong and changed his mind because of what she had to say. Oh dear, indeed!

As confused as I am by the actions of Jesus in the Matthew text, I have to be honest and say that Joseph's actions in the Genesis passage confuse me too. It also makes me start singing (only in my head) that 1979 Peaches and Herb song, Reunited. (I feel it important to point out that I was only 7 years old then!) "Reunited and it feels so good . . ." But, why would it feel good to Joseph to be reunited with the brothers who had wanted him dead and sold him into slavery? I get that he wanted to see his father again. I get that their arrival in Egypt gave him hope that Jacob was still living and that he would have a chance to see him again before his father died. But, Joseph actually seems happy to see the brothers too. This confuses me. He weeps as he hugs on them. He invites them to move nearby where he can take care of them. He even takes time to tell them the ways in which God had worked through the pain and heartache of his life to bring about good, in fact, to save others. I can understand most of this, but the way in which he welcomes them back without question, without apologies, without explanations - it just confuses me because I can't imagine being that forgiving.

Joseph was the son of Jacob. Jacob's name was changed to Israel in his encounter at the river in the middle of the night. Upon refusing to help the woman in need, Jesus replies by saying, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." But, Joseph, the son of Israel had reached out to Pharaoh and the Egyptians and through his guidance he was saving them. Jesus points out that what comes out of our mouths is more important than what goes in, but almost immediately slips into name calling when an outsider asks him for help. Whether we choose to believe that it was Jesus or the woman doing the teaching here, what happened was a reunion of sorts. A reunion that, like Joseph's with his brothers, included forgiveness and a bringing together of people from varied backgrounds. "Reunited and it feels so good . . ."

Psalm 33 speaks about living together in unity. Isaiah touches upon salvation and deliverance being offered to all people. Psalm 67 asserts that all people will be judged the same and that God blesses us all. And, then there's Paul.

In Romans 11, Paul throws me for another loop because it seems like he just might be saying that we are sinful people, unable to keep from sinning, so that God has the opportunity to prove how good and forgiving God is. Hold up a minute! I can't quite go there, Paul.

In the same way that I find myself shaky on Joseph's explanation that God had the whole rotten mess of his life up to that point planned out so that he could be brought to the position of power that he finds himself in now, I can't quite fully agree that we are in bondage to sin simply to allow a way for God to show off how forgiving and loving God can be. What I can believe is that God is forgiving and loving and that God works to reunite us with God's self and the community of faith around us.

God transforms horror into honor. God uses forgiveness to create a future. God reunites us with loved ones - and not-so-loved ones - in order to reclaim what was God's all along. "Reunited and it feels so good . . ."

This Week's Artwork
(in order of appearance in reflection)
Divisions by John Shorb
The Canaanite Woman by Jean Colombe
Forgive and Forget by Jim LePage
Joseph Recognized by His Brothers by Peter von Cornelius
Come Together by Cobalt

Just in case you are curious about the song mentioned . . .

Monday, August 1, 2011

There is No Spoon: Proper 14, Year A

This Week's Lectionary Texts
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 or 1 Kings 19:9-18
Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b or Psalm 85:8-13
Romans 10:5-15

Matthew 14:22-33

This Week's Reflection
Okay, there is no way around this. When I read this week's gospel - the well-known story of Jesus walking on the water - I heard in my head, "There is no spoon." The Matrix (the first one) is among my top-five-all-time-favorite movies. Any preacher worth her salt would find all kinds of illustrations within the 136 minute 1999 blockbuster film. However, I don't recall ever making a connection between the main character Neo and Jesus walking on water. And yet, for some reason this one time, today, reading through the passage from Matthew 14, as I read about Jesus walking out toward the boat that had left him behind on the shore, I find myself thinking, "There is no spoon."

You can click here to view a YouTube clip from The Matrix. Basically, the gist is this - Neo has been awakened into the reality that the reality he has always known doesn't even exist. He is being taught by a child in this scene that if you realize there isn't a spoon to begin with, you can bend it, bend your own mind, bend your own existence to do whatever you need to do. If the spoon doesn't even exist, you can make it do whatever you like.

What in the world does this have to do with Jesus walking on the water? That is the question I found myself asking Holy Spirit. Here is what I can make out so far. In some mysterious way that I could never find words to explain, we believers live with one foot in this world and one foot in the Kingdom of God. Some have used the analogy of having bifocals on, able to see both at the same time. C.S. Lewis writes about that Kingdom world being "more real" than this one. Jesus not only teaches us to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, he not only provides the example for living in this world taking care of others and following The Way, but he also shows us what is really real.

There is nothing in the text to suggest that he hesitated for a moment. He didn't stand on the bank trying to figure out the best way to get back to his boys. He just walked on the water. If the turbulent water is part of this world, then Jesus had no doubt of what was real. Walking on the water was no problem - if there is no water, then you can do whatever you need to with it.

Now, before any of you readers start to get into a fit of rage because I seem to be spouting a gnosticistic heresy, let me pull back for just a moment. I do not deny that the water, the lake, the boat, Jesus' feet, clothes, hair, etc. were all very real. I'm only sharing what popped into my head as I read the text, "There is no spoon." There is a reality that is even more real than the waves that washed over Peter and scared him out of his wits. There is a reality that Jesus never questioned, a reality that made it possible for him to see his friends, know he needed to get to them, and not allow even a lake to stop him.

Peter saw that reality for just a moment, but then the thought of something even more real scared him right back into seeing with only one part of those bifocals. It is the fact that Jesus called Peter out of the boat that amazes me. That Jesus knew there was no spoon is all well and good - HE IS JESUS! But, what his invitation to Peter says to me is that each one of us can see both realities at the same time too. We allow the storms on the lake to stop us when we just don't have to, when we could see beyond it, and simply walk right on top of it.

Though this sounds like a call for a simplistic faith, it is not. There is nothing simple about stepping out into the crashing waves and sometimes getting used to those new bifocals can make you feel all kinds of yuck! Following Jesus into a world that is even more real than this one is not simple. His invitation to Peter and Peter's partial success just proves to us that it is possible.

This Week's Art
in order of appearance in the reflection
There is No Spoon, Cherry by Marcus Metropolis
Christ Walking on the Water by Henry O. Tanner
Walking on Water by Paul Hart
bifocals by Kim

Check out the Word Bible Project for more great images to guide your reflections!