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Reflections on the Sunday lectionary readings

Sheep flu pandemic (Palm Sunday)

Isaiah 50:4-9a  •  Psalm 31:9-16  •  Philippians 2:5-11  •  Matthew 21:1-11 •  Matthew 26:14-27:66

   A lot of territory is covered in the Matthew readings this week: from Jesus entering Jerusalem to his death on the cross. It's a long story, though, for a church service! For me, sitting down with it in a comfortable chair in a quiet hour at home made the whole picture come alive.

    The crowd's excited response to Jesus, laying palms on the path of the donkey carrying him, was a mirror image of their negative reaction later. It is almost as though a virus spread among the people. Viruses have no real life of their own. They lay dormant until they can attach to a host, and then they can multiply, spreading quickly within a host and looking for the next one, too. In these readings, a virus – let's call it the sheep flu – seems to be active in at least two ways:  

  • First, like sheep, following the flock right off of a cliff, people lost the ability to think for themselves as a powerful desire to be part of the group took over.
  • Second, like sheep, people looked for someone to follow, someone who would meet their needs, rather than being responsible for themselves.

    As Jesus entered Jerusalem, the people were excited to see the leader they were looking for, the one who was going to take care of them. They had seen him heal the sick, for heaven's sake, this man was like a walking hospital. He had stood up to the Scribes and the Pharisees, too, and goodness knows, everyone was sick of them. And maybe he was the Messiah, and the Romans would go away, too. This guy will take care of everything! Life is good! Problems solved!

    The sheep flu spread its sickness both within people and between people. The trouble with the sheep flu, though, is that it did not have the ability to live within these hosts without also damaging the host organisms. Judas was the first to regress, going to the leaders to ask for money in exchange for betraying Jesus and later killing himself.

    A whole series of betrayals follow. The disciples flee at his arrest. Peter denies him three times. False witnesses come to testify against him. The religious rulers plot against him. The crowds scream for his death. Pilate sits perplexed, caving to political pressures but washing his hands of it in front of the crowd. The soldiers torture him, ridiculing while they beat him. The sheep flu has rendered its hosts incapable of any emotional reason.

    Only Jesus, the good shepherd, is able to think his way out of this. In the garden of Gethsemane, he is agitated. He takes time to pray, three times, wrestling with what is to come. He seeks the companionship of the other disciples, but they let him down, sleeping while he prays. In this hour, all alone, Jesus regains his ability to be himself, to face what is ahead. By accepting his responsibility for himself, the sheep flu could not attach to him, even in the most virus-friendly conditions of stress, pressure, anxiety and fear.

    Jesus warned the disciples in the garden that prayer was needed, that "the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak." When anxious, some of us pray and others sleep; few, however, manage what Jesus did that night: to accept the reality he found himself in and choose to be his best, calmest, most mature self in it.  In contrast, our immature selves want others to fix it for us, while at the same time, blaming them for our plight. We are easy targets for the sheep flu.

    None of us are called to be the good shepherd; that's on Jesus. All of us are called to engage our our best thinking as the challenges ahead unfold. In the middle of the coronavirus, this can mean everything from the mundane to the sublime to the difficult – from taking time for a walk to playing music for reflective listening to dealing with the many unimagined challenges suddenly a part of life. The good news is that unlike the coronavirus, when it comes to the sheep flu, each of us has a choice about whether or not to become infected.

For reflection

Morning: How shall I order my day? What are my options?  

Evening: Where did I find myself infected by the anxiety of the group?

Psalm 31:16 Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love.

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Coronavirus, anxiety, and scripture (Lent 5)

Ezekiel 37:1-14  •  Psalm 130  •  Romans 8:6-11  •  John 11:1-45

 

    Today's blogpost, half again as long as usual, is brought to you by the novel coronavirus. The readings have so much to say about the virus. Both Ezekiel and John bring stories about death. Over the weekend, the number of COVID-19 deaths has more than doubled somewhere. I forget where. But I remember the fact, the reality, that some of us are not going to be alive when this is over. And yet people aren't talking about dying or specifics like wills or medical powers of attorney. The challenge of leaving this world with one's affairs in order - including one's relationships and the repairing and restoring of connections with others – is a high bar.  

    Instead of talking about what is painfully obvious, people have dropped back to what comes most naturally: blaming one another. Like Martha and Mary, who both blamed Jesus for the death of their brother, all of us are seeking someone to blame. Daily, the news coverage looks for people to blame for the disease outbreak and for problems with the response. It's fair enough, in my view, to learn what we can. But the constant blaming locks in the anxiety and keeps us from learning.

    The situation reminds me of a time when my father was hospitalized, close to death and in a lot of pain, but pain meds were not coming on time. A family member absolutely chewed out a nurse. The nurse finally looked at him and said, tears in her eyes, "I can't think when someone is yelling at me." So true, and the corollary is this: "I can't think when I'm yelling at someone else."

    In or out of a hospital, people need to remain calm in order to fully engage a problem. Anxiety, and the fear underneath it, get in the way of thoughtful problem-solving. The delightful moment in the John story – verse 39 - where Martha warns that there will be a smell when the tomb of Lazarus is opened, is a great example. There's Martha, poor thing, the unwitting example of how not to live for countless humans over the last 2000 years, once again is displaying her anxious self for all of us to see. While everyone else is following Jesus to the tomb lost in their own grief, she is alert to danger, this time the danger of a bad smell. She's right of course, there could have been quite a smell in a hot climate, four days after a death. As it turns out, there is no smell! She was alert to something that did not turn out to be a problem at all.

    This is exactly the situation we find ourselves in, related to the virus. We cannot get tested – we have no idea whether we are transmitting the virus or whether it's being transmitted to us, whether we are sick or well, whether our family members are safe or not. Like Martha, many of us are on high alert, vigilant to threats – from a doorknob not wiped down, to any dry cough, to no ventilator available – take your pick or add your own! There's plenty to keep one up at night.

    At the other extreme, some of us, who are accustomed to other people doing the worrying, are on spring break at the beach or otherwise ignoring the problem entirely. For human beings to survive, a certain amount of anxiety is necessary. A person doing no worrying, for instance, may fail to wash his hands: a simple responsibility both for self and to others.  

    When anxiety gets distributed unevenly – when one person does all the worrying, and others do none – immaturity thrives. In the story, the possibility of a bad smell crosses Martha's mind. She has experience. As was the tradition in her culture, she has washed the bodies of the dead, as soon as possible, early in the cool morning air. She knows the smell of death. Unable to contain her own anxiety, she tells her worry to Jesus. Overheard, it might have spread like a contagious virus among the crowd, with a very different ending to the story. Instead, the crowd either didn't hear her at all or discounted her anxious voice, following a true leader: Jesus.

    By the time Martha had the thought that the body might smell, she also had felt the emotion of fear and a visceral response of disgust related to the smell. The brain has ways of remembering and tying physical senses to emotions to thoughts, all occurring before reaching one's conscious awareness. Once there, it takes time to think rather than react. For Martha, reflecting on how she's feeling might start something like this: What is this fear, rising within me? Oh yes, it is awful, that smell of death and decay. And yet, here is Jesus, saying to move the stone. From here, it would be a quick hop to an exploration of a sense of responsibility for the smell, for others, and a sense of shame – all, upon reflection, determined to be emotionally unreasonable. In the end, some synthesis of her thoughts and feelings occurs, with more freedom to manage herself, informed by the integration of reason and emotion.

    In the story, Martha does come to her senses, eventually, opening her mind to enormous possibilities she had never considered before. Similarly, Ezekiel offers a new way of thinking to his people, exiled in Babylon and bereft of any hope. He describes a vision made popular in a spiritual song, dem bones.  The song gives the picture of the bones of one skeleton rising up, forming skin and sinews, and coming back to life. The passage gives even more – a whole people rise up together, with renewed purpose for their lives.

    We are so similar to the people in the Babylonian captivity of 580 BCE. We are more or less captives in our own homes. Anxiety seizes us and spreads through our families and communities. We don't know what's going to happen, when or how this is going to end or at least, lessen. It is a unique global opportunity for each of us to observe a time of self-reflection regarding the management of our own anxiety and our connections with others. The wisdom of the Ezekiel passage is that none of us are in this alone. Picture the bones of the dead in every nation rising up, becoming whole, and forming a new and profound sense of our responsibilities to one another as members of the human species.

 

For reflection:

Morning: To what extent does the coronavirus challenge me to get my affairs in order? What relationships do I want to work on today?

Evening: How does worry spread around my family and friends? What is my part in it?

Psalm 130:6 My soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.

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Nobody's fault (March 22- Lent 4)

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

    This week's readings offer stories of two very different people. The first, a youngest son of seven brothers, becomes a king. The second, a man born blind, gains his sight. In both stories, it's what happens between thing one and thing two that's interesting.

    David is a teenage boy, stuck keeping the sheep while his father and brothers entertain a special guest: Samuel. The prophet Samuel was on a mission – looking for the next king of Israel. He's been told he'd find the person in Bethlehem, among the sons of Jesse. But looking carefully at each of the first six, he does not see what he's looking for, finally asking the father if he has any more sons, to which the father replies, "oh yeah, the kid, he's keeping the sheep." Once Samuel sees him, he's sure he's the right choice: handsome, beautiful eyes and ruddy - a healthy, reddish glow to his complexion – the resilient young man the kingdom needed.

    For David, what happened between thing 1, his birth, and thing 2, his kingship, were years of being ignored and discounted by his family. Being neglected had an upside for him, though. Being the youngest came with a certain freedom, a chance to build his own character and increase his competency in everything from caring for animals, playing music on a lyre, and using a sling shot, skills that would come in handy later.

    The blind-from-birth man in John 9 is never given a name – so let's just call him BB. As the story opens, Jesus has noticed BB. His disciples wondered why this man had been born blind; whose fault was it, the man's, or his parents? Jesus is very clear – this is nobody's fault. No one is to blame. For us in the 21st century, it's clear that in a universe governed by evolution, endless variations occur, including blindness. In BB's time, many believed that suffering reflected sinfulness: BB's blindness was due to some wrong action of BB or his family in the past. Even today, we humans are quick to blame someone, something, or even God – rather than understanding a more realistic, more complicated, bigger picture.       

    Jesus saw life more clearly. When Jesus declared that the man's blindness was no one's fault, BB was already being healed. As the story unfolds, we learn more about him, a person of insight and courage: one who can talk with the learned Pharisees, sticking to the facts, neither overstating what happened nor backing down. My guess is that those years of simply listening gave him an increased capacity to observe himself and others, sharpening his ability to think clearly, logically, and neutrally.

    For BB, from thing one, being born blind, to thing two, being healed, was a long road of preparation that would come in handy right away, as he was quickly thrown out of the congregation by the Pharisees. Jesus, hearing what happened, went to find BB. This is where BB asks Jesus a question, "The son of man – who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him."

    It is the perfect question. Tell me what is true, so that I may orient my life to the truth. BB and David both seemed to have faced hard realities, and had practiced orienting their lives according to the facts.  Many of us, getting stuck in a resentful, blaming stew, wishing to be someone or someplace else, limit our capacity to grow up.  Somehow, emotions can keep us from seeing how things really are. The ability to be thoughtful about how one is feeling, to use emotional reason, and to find the energy to face what one is up against, is the work of a lifetime. Attending to reality, gaining more perspective on one's world, and living according to the way things really are, is the chance of a lifetime.

 

For reflection:

Morning: What's a reality that I might wish to avoid, or avoid thinking about, today? What do I not know that I could get curious about?

Evening: When did I fall into blaming others? How can I see a bigger picture?

Psalm 23:1: The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

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Grace

Exodus 17:1-7  •  Psalm 95  •  Romans 5:1-11  •  John 4:5-42

    The readings this week are all over the place, and yet (spoiler alert), all about the same thing: grace. In Exodus, the Hebrew people are wandering around in the wilderness, thirsty and mad about it. In John, Jesus is thirsty and dealing with it through a most unusual character. In Romans, the apostle Paul is knee-deep in theological distinctions.  

    So! Let's begin with Romans, and "justification by faith," a term suggesting that people are justified – that is, in the right – not because of what they've done but because of what they know: grace. Knowing grace means an awareness of every minute of life as a gift: something one did not have to earn. Justification by faith takes the pressure off of us hapless human creatures, stumbling around thirsty but demanding, and moves us towards a humble, grace-filled posture more appropriate to our relative place in the universe.  Justification by faith keeps us paying attention to the grace in life instead of trying to justify ourselves, always trying to prove – to ourselves and others – that we are in the right.

    Proving one is right, blameless, or faultless is closely tied to worrying about what others think. The opinion of others, as a way of deciding how to behave, is deep within us as human beings. From our earliest years in life, we begin to notice whether others approve or not and to modify our own behavior accordingly. This has adaptive value. Think for instance of the child who starts to run into the street, stopping when his parents cry out. Or the adult who stands up in front of the room to speak, waiting for the group to quiet itself quickly. A human community could not survive without some ability to co-regulate.

    The problem, though, is that in the end, being regulated by others doesn't work very well. Using what others think to guide how one will behave leads to an endless cycle of trying harder and failing more. Here we come to Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well: two people who are relatively uninterested in what others think. The Samaritan woman, with five previous husbands and unmarried in her sixth relationship, is operating outside of her community's mores. To be sure, she's aware and sensitive to criticism, going to the well at the hottest part of the day to avoid others; still, her behavior reflects a willingness to flout conventions. Jesus, exhausted from his travels, is breaking several societal norms, including talking to a woman alone and drinking water provided by a Samaritan. Their conversation is a free-ranging discussion, with a sort of SNL vibe to it, apparently one they were both enjoying so thoroughly that Jesus opens himself up to a pretty big truth he's never said out loud before: I am he, the messiah.

    Next, the Samaritan woman literally takes this information and runs with it. Leaving her water jug and returning to the village, she tells everyone about Jesus, making herself, at least temporarily, the village heroine.  Perhaps the lack of judgement from Jesus had set her free to bridge the cutoff between herself and others. Moral judgement separates people from one another; both the judger and the judged are equally lessened in the process. The alternative is living by grace.

    The person who lives by grace spends no energy on judging others, nor on meeting the rules or expectations of others. Instead, she is developing and following her own inner compass while remaining in relationship with others. Within herself, she is finding a strength unavailable to her when her attention was focused outward; surprisingly, both the interest and the capacity to serve others are increased now that she is less dependent on their approval.

    The free grace of life is available to anyone willing to stop trying to be right in the eyes of the world. Living fully and freely is the result.

 

Reflection

Morning: Where, today, can I care a little less about what others think?

Evening: When did I fall into judging, criticizing, or blaming others?

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