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Reflections on the Sunday readings

Slow Dawning

Isaiah 65:17-25  •  Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24  •  1 Corinthians 15:19-26 or Acts 10:34-43  •  Luke 24:1-12

 

The women in today's reading face a series of unfortunate events. The death of a loved one occurred right before the Sabbath, so that they had spent the day of rest thinking of him and his horrible death, which they had just witnessed. Additionally, the rules of the Sabbath required them to postpone attending to his body an entire 24-hour period: a long time for a decomposing body which would begin to smell soon. Although grieving and sleep-deprived, they were already at the tomb early the following morning with their oils and spices, before the heat of the day.

 

    As soon as they get there, they are confused. The stone in front of the tomb is rolled back. Gathering up their courage – is a robber inside? – they go in. But no one is inside, dead or alive. Jesus' body is not there. While chattering to each other and trying to figure out what is going on, two men in shining clothes appear and (apologies to the angels) mansplain to them what has happened. They return home, telling the disciples about it, and are dismissed outright as foolish women. Peter gets curious, though, and going out to take a look, returns perplexed and wondering about what has happened.

 

    The story reminds me of an inverse optical illusion, where a picture can be seen as one thing, but also as its opposite, if one can train one's eyes to look at it differently. It's hard to do – what the eye is expecting, apparently, is what the eye sees. Only with time and refocusing can one see what is really there.

 

    Easter is an invitation to see life differently, instead of continuing to operate from automatic responses. One may first need to put oneself in the position of being challenged. One might first have to lose something held as important, before finding that it has been found and brought back ten-fold, in a way one had not even imagined.

 

    While Easter is indeed an invitation to see life differently, to refuse to continue to operate out of anxiety and thoughtlessness, it is not an invitation to be glib. There is suffering, pain, and death. Jesus did not avoid it; neither can we. What we can avoid is the temptation to blame life for suffering. Somehow, evolution was the chosen mechanism through which we and all living things are created. Within that understanding, life is a package deal, containing both pain and joy, particularly in exactly those creatures which have evolved with a capacity for self-awareness. Increased self-awareness, when tied to responsibility for self, promotes growth and maturity. As with the women on Easter morning, Easter is about finding a way out of automatic fears and confusion into an increasing recognition of a much larger reality of life.

 

    This week's reflection:

    Psalm 118:24 This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

    Morning: How do I see the day ahead? What is a different way of looking at it?

    Evening: When did I keep a larger perspective? When did I lose it?

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How Does Growth Happen?

Isaiah 50:4-9a  •  Psalm 31:9-16  •  Philippians 2:5-11  •  Luke 19:21-46, 22:14-23:56

 

A lot can happen between a Sunday and a Thursday. Palm Sunday, where this week's story begins, is a festive parade-like affair. Everyone (except a few grumbling Pharisees, worried as always about what the Romans would think) is enjoying the day. Jesus is riding a donkey, and the crowds are celebrating while they follow him into Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover.

 

By Thursday, Jesus and his small group of loyal disciples are in hiding to observe the Passover. Gone are the crowds and gone are the accolades. Jesus remains firm, however, in his loyalty both to God and to his disciples. He says that he has been looking forward to sharing this meal with them, ending the meal by telling them to remember him whenever they eat together.

 

All of us who have experienced the loss of a loved one may know the feeling of loss that can come at the holidays, and particularly at a holiday meal. All of us may also know the feeling of gratitude and closeness that one may feel at these times, towards the person who has died, and also towards everyone gathered in the room. In some way, it is almost as though the loved one, or his or her spirit, is somehow captured in the room, and is still part of the group.

 

These two days, the one involving crowds at a parade and the other involving an intimate group of friends gathered for a holiday meal, are two different sides of what happens when human beings get together. The parade is somewhat like spectators at a sporting event, with everyone joining in the fun and chaos of cheering for their team and jeering at the opposing side, without having to be there in any way for each other after the event is over. The groupthink of a parade or a sporting event does little to stir individual growth.  The holiday meal is very different: an intimate setting of people who know each other well and are responsible to one another.

 

In an intimate setting, each person has a chance to know the others and to be known by the others. It is in this setting that Jesus remains calm and clear about who he is, and what he is going to do. For any of us, it is only in relationships that we can come to know ourselves and what we stand for.  The one constant in the story from Palm Sunday to Maundy Thursday is Jesus, firm in his resolve to be true to himself and his beliefs, come what may.

 

Jesus died for being himself. He died for his loyalty to God, which led him to taking a principled stand on many issues. He would not keep silent when religious leaders put heavy loads on the people, claiming it to be God's rule. He would heal on the Sabbath. He would not condone an armed insurrection against the civil authorities, instead preaching a message of peace on earth. He insisted on love for God and for one's neighbor – a radical idea, then and now.

 

Peter, on the other hand, while declaring his loyalty to Jesus, is unable to act on the idea, denying him three times. It is hard to fault him, with the chance of his own crucifixion possibly on his mind. Under the smallest of pressures to conform to the group, it is easy to lose one's supposed principles. Consistently taking a position within one's family or community can help to deeply and thoroughly embed one's best thinking into one's self.

 

This week's reflection:

 

Luke 22:26-27 But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.

 

Morning: What are the principles I wish to live out today? How are they different from the world's expectations? From the way the world, or my friends, family, and colleagues, may see things? How can I stay connected to them while operating from my own principles?

 

Evening: How did my principles show up in my life today? What difficulties did I have in staying true to myself?

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Trouble Ahead

Isaiah 43:16-21  •  Psalm 126  •  Philippians 3:4b-14  •  John 12:1-8

 

The first time we met Mary and Martha (Luke 10), it was already a familiar story. Martha is cooking, Mary is listening to Jesus' stories, and next, Martha fusses at Mary. Probably most of us have seen or been a part of similar domestic scenes. Although there is tension between the sisters, the context is more or less a happy one, with a relaxed air of friends gathered in a home, and a great storyteller in the room.

 

Not so with today's story. This time, serious tension is in the air. In the verses right before, Jewish leadership has been talking about Jesus' popularity with the people. Misconstruing his motivation as a desire to lead a rebellion against the government, they discussed the need for him to die to avoid any dangerous complications with the Roman authorities. Separately, Jesus himself has been talking about his death as coming soon. Everyone knows that in Jerusalem, trouble is ahead.

 

And everyone deals with the troubling thoughts in different ways. Martha is back in the kitchen again, cooking and serving food. Anxious Judas starts counting costs, figuring out how to feed the poor, and possibly himself, once Jesus is gone. And Mary takes a pound of nard, a perfumed oil, possibly bought to use after Jesus' impending death, and begins to use her hair to wash his feet with it, in a scene that seems odd to us now and apparently was quite inappropriate then.

 

These three examples tell us much about human beings under pressure. Martha distances physically, losing herself in her work in the kitchen. Judas distances emotionally, adding numbers and criticizing others. Mary, overcome with feeling, acts without much thought. No one in the room, apparently, is acting thoughtfully about the principle that had led them to this place: loyalty to Jesus. If anyone had been able to think about the principle, perhaps the anxiety might have been addressed. Perhaps someone would have said, simply, that they were afraid of losing their master. That they would miss him. That they wanted to know how to best serve him in the days ahead.

 

Anxiety keeps all of us from stating the obvious, from facing the reality of the situation, from staying calm, and from asking the questions that would move the group forward. We all tend to lose perspective, focusing our attention on some aspect of a situation that meets our own needs, rather than those of the situation at hand.  Under the slightest bit of increased pressure, humans tend to lose the capacity to think clearly about what is actually happening in the moment, diverting our attention to something more manageable, and making even our own principles unavailable to us. Jesus, as always it seems, sides with Mary. Her actions, odd as they might have been, were at least related to the true source of the worry. Somehow, the way out of an anxious moment is to face the truth it is telling us, rather than continually act on ways to avoid it.

 

This week's reflection:

Philippians 3:8 More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.

 

Morning: What might increase my anxiety today? What are my principles around the situation?

 

Evening: What made me anxious today? To what extent did I respond like Marth? Judas? Mary? What part of myself was quickly lost? How do I replace it with something more substantial?

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Tales as Old as Time

Joshua 5:9-12  •  Psalm 32  •  2 Corinthians 5:16-21  •  Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

 

The story of the Prodigal Son is a story of two brothers, equally wounded. The younger brother is stuck in a position of dependency. He was apparently a spoiled youngest and has not learned to fend for himself. Returning to his father, he practices the lines that he hopes will put him back in his family's good graces enough to continue to be cared for. The older brother is stuck in a position of pleasing others. He was apparently a do-gooder oldest and has spent his life pleasing others as a way to get attention. Finding his father, he declares his outrage in finding that once again, his brother is getting attention when he has been the one doing all the work.

 

While the younger brother is the classic under-functioner, busy finding ways to get others to be responsible for him, the older brother is the classic over-functioner, busy finding ways to do things for others. Who knows how often the older brother functioned for the younger brother, feeding into the same pattern over and over again. Each is totally stuck in his own learned approach to life, an approach missing one thing: responsibility for self.

 

It is easy to see the lack of responsibility for self in the younger brother, busy partying and not working. What is harder to see, but equally the case, is the lack of responsibility for self in the older brother, busy doing everyone else's work but neglectful of himself. One reason this story may resonate so deeply with us (everyone knows this one!) is that it clearly outlines sin as a lack of responsibility for self. Sin is ultimately an inattention to oneself and the challenge to become one's most mature self, which can only be accomplished in relationships. In relationships with people and with God, a lack of responsibility for self leads to the blaming of the other. For example, in another story that most of us know, Adam and Eve begin by blaming each other for the problem of the apple, and ultimately also blame God.

 

Even the Church has contributed to this problem. Often misinterpreting the command to love others as the command to do for others, it simultaneously 'blesses' the over-functioner who is neglecting his or her own life to do the latest church project, providing that opportunity to please others which the over-functioner craves and propping up the under-functioner yet again. In no way does this diminish one's responsibility to the poor, but that is different from one's responsibility for the poor. More generally, a responsibility to another and a responsibility for another are hugely different.

  

It's a tale as old as time: older brother against younger brother. And it's astonishing how long the story lasts. Not just in childhood. Not just as adults, as the story of the Prodigal Son portrays. But right up to and beyond the death of the latter of the two parents of the children to die. In the sorting of that last will and testament, sibling rivalry may again erupt, in an amazingly accurate recapitulation of the entire felt experience of each person, who is channeling his or her immature seven-year-old self. Each of us has a chance to change the story, every day: becoming a new creation as our efforts towards becoming responsible for self in relationship with others leads to more maturity, not only in ourselves, but in the systems we are a part of.  

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