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Reflections on the Sunday lectionary readings

Multitasking

1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21 and Psalm 16  •   Galatians 5:1, 13-25  •  Luke 9:51-62

 

    This week's readings include two great stories. In 1 Kings, the reading opens with Elijah throwing his cloak on Elisha: a signal that he, Elijah, has selected Elisha to take his place. We readers don't know the back story of how Elisha was selected – this is his first mention in the scriptures. Somehow his prophetic voice must have already been known in the region and known to Elijah. Asking Elijah's permission to go home and say good-bye to his family, he receives a somewhat cryptic response from Elijah – perhaps a yes, yes, get on with it?

 

    In the gospel story, Jesus has recently chosen his successor, so to speak, in Peter (Luke 9). He and the disciples are in Samaria heading towards Jerusalem, and Jesus is becoming increasingly aware of what this journey will cost him. But people keep wanting to come along, as in the story of the demoniac last week, whom he told to go home and share his good news there, and in the three people today, whom he also declines to take with him. The first was apparently dissuaded by the necessity of leaving the comforts of home, the second by obligations related to his father's death, and the third by the need to say farewell to his family. Jesus is quick to point out to them that their cozy togetherness with family and friends would interfere with following him; and apparently, no one disagrees.

 

    Elisha, on the other hand, quickly says goodbye to his current life by destroying his livelihood - killing the oxen needed to plow the land. Then he throws a party, using the oxen as the main course. The picture of someone at a decision point, choosing what he wants to do next with his life, and celebrating that choice, could not be clearer. In the people feasting with him – who had to be inconvenienced by the loss of oxen! – there is affirmation that what Elisha was going to do made sense for him. It is almost as though Elisha recognized that his current place in the world could be a temptation for him in the future: that he had to find a way to make it difficult to go back.

 

    Indeed, both Elijah and Jesus seemed to be wary of the human desire to go back to the way things used to be. Jesus lets one 'wannabe' know that life with him would be rough. He warns another would-be disciple about the anxious need to please family and/or friends, recognizing that even mourning practices can be ways of seeking the approval of others. An acute observer of human behavior, he notes to a third that those who try to chart a new course while continuing to look back are unsuited for the kingdom of God.  

 

    Although Jesus' pithy comments may seem harsh, they are in a sense quite matter of fact. The challenge of trying to become more of a self, and instead falling back into automatic ways of behaving, is familiar territory for human beings. These automatic behaviors fit into the system one is a part of, and bring the approval of others, but fail to allow a person to become his or her full self. Attending to one's own direction, or lack thereof, is at the core of establishing oneself. Few are called to be Elisha's, but all are called to find and nurture the self we were created to become. It is those with self who are positioned to follow Jesus.

 

For reflection:

Galatians 5:1 For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

 

Morning: Where will I be tempted to give up self to please others today? Where might I pressure others to give up their own thoughts, plans, or principles?

 

Evening: When was I able to focus today? When did I lose my direction?

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Aunt Lucille

1 Kings 19:1-4, (5-7), 8-15a and Psalm 42 and 43 •  Galatians 3:23-29  •  Luke 8:26-39

 

    Most of us have at least one person with demons – a 'demoniac' – in the family. Crazy Aunt Lucille, perhaps. Or goofy cousin Larry. Usually, the family started focusing on these folks pretty early in life. Often, something else had gone wrong: someone had died, or lost a job, or whatever. Everyone is already anxious. And then a person comes along, perhaps with a symptom of some kind, bringing a place to put all that worry. Somehow, focusing on him or her beats dealing with the real problems. And it brings the added benefit of calming everyone down: no one is arguing when everyone is joined in worrying about Larry or Lucille.   The focused-on person alternates between loving and hating her position in the family. There are advantages to everyone thinking one is weak: less responsibility, for one. But there are disadvantages also: less chance to practice the skills leading to competency, less chance to grow up. In the end, the focused-on person loses so much self when with her family that she can only tolerate so much togetherness; at the same time, her lack of maturity gets in the way when she tries to be responsible for herself.

 

    Here enters the demoniac in today's story. In a manner somewhat like today's homeless persons, he has not only his family's focus, but somehow the entire community's attention on him. He wanders naked, living among the tombs. He calls himself as "legion," or "regiment," an apparent ironic reference to the Roman invaders who had oppressed the entire community in a way similar to his own inner submission to an overwhelming loss of self.

 

    Jesus finds the way to his real self, bringing back a clothed and fully restored human being. Unsurprisingly, the man begs to follow Jesus wherever he goes. After all, why would he want to stay there? Memories of wandering the tombs would haunt him. The oppressive presence of Romans soldiers would remain unchanged. His family would continue to focus on him. Under these circumstances, how could Jesus tell him to stay home? But this is precisely what Jesus does tell him to do: with one twist. Go back home, he says, and tell everyone what God has done for you. In other words, go back home, insisting on being your full self. Do not cave under the pressure to once again become someone for others to worry about. Show them who you have become in how you live.

 

    Leaving one's current situation to solve one's problems is familiar territory for many of us. In this story, Jesus insists on the opposite: stay where you are without losing yourself. Perhaps one corollary might be added: stay where you are without requiring others to give up who they are. No easy task, but the story ends with the news that the man did just as Jesus had instructed, going around telling everyone his story. In so doing, he sealed the healing begun that day, for himself and for his family and community as well.

 

For reflection:

Psalm 42:1 As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.

Morning: Where might I have trouble being myself today? Where might I pressure another to think or feel like me?

Evening: Where did I lose myself today? What early signs did I miss?

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Wisdom and her cousin

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31 and Psalm 8  •  Romans 5:1-5  •  John 16:12-15

 

     Wisdom. According to the Proverbs reading, Wisdom was present before the beginning of the earth, suggesting the idea of its existing even before the Big Bang. Wisdom – and who knows what other mysteries, now slightly understood from quantum mechanics, particle physics, general relativity, and so on – might still be present after the conclusion of life here on earth, estimated at 5 billion years from now. In the meantime, though, wouldn't it be nice if we were wiser. As a species, human beings have been given dominion over the world, and yet we lack the wisdom to care for creation. As individuals, each of us has the chance to hear the spirit of truth in our lives, and yet most of the time, most of us lack the ability to attend to the truth. How does one avail oneself of wisdom, apparently standing at the city gates, calling to all?

 

     At least a partial answer to this question may be found in the Romans text. In it, Paul builds a magnificent description of resilience that begins with one word: peace. In an odd way, peace itself is tied back to truth. The more a person can see things for what they are – can see the truth or broaden an understanding of the multiple perspectives pertaining to a situation – the more a person can be at peace. Reasoning may be needed to get at truth. Sometimes, the reasoning is emotional: What is making me so angry? Am I angry or just hungry? Sometimes the reasoning is intellectual: Is it fair to be angry with my colleague, or might she have had problems outside my awareness? Are there other ways of seeing what happened? Do I have all the facts? The more one can engage the capacity for reason, the more one can find truth.

 

     In addition to using one's own faculties of reason, staying connected with others can also help ground a person in truth. Reality comes through knowing others; an inability to consider what another person is saying is a sure sign that one has work to do on both the relationship and one's own inner ability to be curious and detached. Somehow it is easy to lose one's own moorings, like shifting sand under one's feet when the tide goes out. But not attending to the potentially different views of others keeps one imprisoned in a world limited to those who agree: a world of an uneasy truce among the insiders who are always looking for validation for their viewpoint, a world less and less moored to reality. Rather, the way of truth is found in staying connected with others who may think differently without giving up oneself. Think Jesus before Pilate. Jesus was crystal clear about his own principles, while able to remain genuinely interested in what Pilate was up against. What is truth? To live one's life in a way that explores the question is the way of wisdom and her cousin, peace.  

 

For reflection

Proverbs 8:1 Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?

Morning

When will I have a chance to work on detachment today? What is likely to get in my way?

Evening

When was I able to remain detached? What helped?

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Diversity

Genesis 11:1-9  •  Psalm 104:24-34, 35b  •  Acts 2:1-21  •  John 14:8-17, (25-27)

 

    This Sunday's readings have a common thread: tribalism. Humans and many other species evolved as groups. Bees, for instance, live for the hive and will protect it from bees from other hives who may be trying to take honey. Prairie dogs live in huge groups, but within that, each family has its own tunnel system, used only by family members. Most fish swim in schools, decreasing the risk of being eaten and increasing the chance of finding food. People evolved in small tribes consisting of a few family groups, where each member watched for danger, increasing the chances of survival for all living within the protection of the group.

 

    The advantage of tribalism in human beings has been the unique expressions of life coming from the innumerable cultures of various tribes. The disadvantage has been the inability of tribal groups to live and let live, so to speak, with each tribe considering other tribes a threat to resources. Into this predicament come today's readings.

 

    The Genesis reading begins with a story of human beings as one group, united by a common language and purpose. In pre-scientific terms, the story describes how the world came to be such a hodgepodge of people; by the end of the reading, people have gone their separate ways in different tribes. There are advantages to diversity, in the creativity of living beings and the constant opportunities to grow and innovate. Without these various expressions, the world would be a much poorer place.

 

    An opposing view of diversity is found in the Acts reading. Diversity brings problems. People can misunderstand each other. They can mistrust each other. They can side with their own group. All manner of conflict and even world wars are to some extent based in tribalism: what my group needs is all that matters. Tribalism was the process leading to the crucifixion of Jesus, as each political leader saw him as a threat to his group. The irony was that Jesus himself came preaching peace, but his message could not be heard.

 

     Somehow in the Acts story, people could hear each other. In spite of coming from many different tribes, they could connect. I remember a time when I was serving dinner to a group of people from another country. They had limited English, and I had almost no knowledge of their language. Then someone pulled out a phone and began sharing pictures of her family, her home, and her travels. The room became full of energy as everyone started showing pictures. In my kitchen it was no longer awkwardness, but laughter and a sense of joy as so much could now be understood.

 

     Where the Genesis reading encourages diversity through tribalism – speaking different languages, having different goals – the Acts reading encourages connections with others, particularly those from other tribes. Both matter, but the balance can be challenging. Getting to know others and letting them know us, while maintaining one's own individuality and respecting other's, is no simple matter. Not letting our hearts be troubled, nor being afraid, is a beginning point.

 

For reflection

 

Psalm 104:24 O LORD, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.

 

Morning

When might I be with people of different tribes today? How can I notice my own reactivity to them? What can I say or do to connect more clearly?

 

Evening

When did I manage to connect with others today? When was it fun? Joyful?

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