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Reflections on the Sunday lectionary readings

Aw Shucks

Jeremiah 2:4-13 and Psalm 81:1, 10-16  •  Sirach 10:12-18 or Proverbs 25:6-7 and Psalm 112  •  Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16  •  Luke 14:1, 7-14

 

    Once again in Luke, Jesus comes to us as an astute observer of human nature – this time, noticing how people at a party select their seats. He comments that a person should not choose a good seat, but rather the worst seat in the house, and count on the host to intervene. The reader, wondering perhaps about the sudden, inexplicable interest of Jesus in party etiquette, is not disappointed by his quick concluding leap to truth: all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted (v. 6).  

 

    A humble person is hard to find. In our human minds, so bent towards comparing one thing to another, being humble is somehow equated with thinking of oneself as less than others. But how one person compares to another is completely beside the point when it comes to humility. True humility is refusing to compare oneself to others. As Jesus describes it, the person coming to the party is not in a position to see where his seat should be: only the host knows.

 

    Only the host knows. The good news here is that each of us can quit worrying about where we stand. Instead, each of us can try to see the multiple influences on our own life and the lives of others. Rejecting a judgmental attitude, each person can try to understand what everyone else is up against, and one's own contribution to the problems faced by others. Similarly, each of us can try to understand life's successes and the many streams of contributions to it.

 

    The bigger the view, the less one is interested in comparisons. This has some practical ramifications. Putting aside an "aw shucks" false modesty, a person can enjoy something wonderful, regardless of who did it.  Putting aside the need to be perfect, or at least better than others, a person can own her own limitations. For example, responding to a request with a gentle "I can't take that on right now" may involve a humble awareness of one's own capacity rather than an arrogant selfishness. It may require a person to see that others are capable, too, and that each of us may be less important than we think!  Humility is offered in a thousand daily choices, right down to where a person sits at the table.

 

    The Luke reading closes with an additional three verses on another aspect of party etiquette: the invitation list. Jesus recommends inviting the poor, crippled, lame, and blind, adding that the person who does so will be blessed. Earlier in my life, there was a time when I volunteered once a month to serve dinner at a group home for the disabled, about 15-20 folks. It was challenging for me, and I made a lot of mistakes, with meals of varying quality, for sure. But I have never met a more forgiving group. I learned from them what it was like not to expect perfection, to be grateful for what was and to forget the rest. The gentle peace and patience that existed among them was hard-won, born of a lifetime of struggles. These folks were masters of humility. And I was blessed.

 

For reflection:

Morning: Where does my perspective need broadening? What might keep me from a humble posture today?

Evening: What choices did I have today to be humble? When did I confuse humility with false modesty? With arrogance?

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Stooped Over

Jeremiah 1:4-10 and Psalm 71:1-6  •  Isaiah 58:9b-14 and Psalm 103:1-8  •  Hebrews 12:18-29  •  Luke 13:10-17

 

    Plopped down here in the middle of Luke – right after a bunch of stories where Jesus is warning folks of trouble ahead, and before getting on the road to Jerusalem, is the Sabbath day healing of a woman bent over for 18 years. Set here, it is as though it is intended to give us readers a mini-sabbath rest before the journey ahead. The Sabbath, as Jesus said elsewhere, "was made for the sake of people, and not people for the sake of the sabbath" (Mark 2:27). It seems once again that we human beings have got it all wrong. We are not 'supposed to' go to church. Apparently, it does not please the heavens if we do; nor does it displease the heavens if we don't. The commandment to remember the Sabbath day was given for our benefit!

 

    The day of rest began when the Hebrew people were liberated from slavery in Egypt. In the short list of rules for the new community, the requirement to remember the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8-11) has the longest explanation of any of the ten commandments. The way to remember the Sabbath – not to work – was in sharp contrast to their life of slavery in Egypt. One can imagine the joy of the Hebrew people in realizing that they could have a day off: they were free!

 

    Enter today's reading a daughter of Abraham; that is, a person whose lineage had experienced enslavement. She is in bondage to an ailment that has made her stooped over for some 18 years. Jesus heals her, describing the healing itself as setting her free. Those in charge of the synagogue, who had turned the Sabbath into a burden rather than a rest, were irate. Jesus stood his ground, though, and the people celebrated.

 

    Being set free – from an illness, an oppressive job, or any form of cruelty – is worth celebrating. What's interesting, though, is how often the bondage comes from within. Often a person chooses to over-do it, taking on work that more reasonably belongs to another person in the family, or the work setting, or even the church community. A person may think that this is somehow the 'right' thing to do; centuries of a work ethic have made a dent on our souls.

 

    One problem with an over-valuing of hard work is that others who tend to under-do never have the chance to step up – and if they try, the over-doers will quickly step in to show them how they were doing it wrong. This indeed is bondage, but it is bondage from within. Neither the over-doer nor the under-doer can find the way out. Another problem is that we can quickly fall back into the frame of mind that somehow hard work, or just a low-level misery, is automatic: what is required by life. A long morning in church may fit this description, and its apt conclusion of a family devolving in the car on the way home. Was the woman in this story stooped over from over-work? The story does not say. What the story does tell us is that Jesus was interested in human freedom.

 

For reflection:

Morning: What are my responsibilities today? Where do I have choices?

Evening: When did I feel over-worked? Under-used? Resentful? What could I have done differently?

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Families divided

Isaiah 5:1-7 and Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19  •  Jeremiah 23:23-29 and Psalm 82  •  Hebrews 11:29-12:2  •  Luke 12:49-56

 

    This week's reading from Luke, if nothing else, is an inspiring example of brevity as the soul of wit. In a short seven verses, Jesus describes his challenges as redeemer of the cosmos, the conflictual nature of family relationships, and the stunning ability of human beings to attend to changes in the weather while failing to anticipate our own demise. Irony alert: this was 2000 years before climate change became a thing.

 

    Jesus begins, like the best of teachers, with a question: Did you think my purpose was to bring peace? Well, to be honest, yes, right? Peace is a good thing, and disagreements are a bad thing. Since kindergarten we've all been taught to get along. How could it be that Jesus, king of peace, could have come to bring division?

 

     To begin, peace itself can mean a lot of different things. A cozy togetherness is a harmony we may long for, but it can be a fleeting thing. Sometimes it is based in a real joy, but sometimes it is a fake calm, built on the ability of individuals to rein in their own thoughts and feelings. When people start to sacrifice their own selves for a sense of peace in the group, the peace is not lasting. To the extent that persons in a family can be themselves with each other, without fear of judgement or outright ostracism, with freedom to disagree and define oneself differently and respectfully while staying connected with each other, a family has found its way to a true peace.

 

    In the meantime, though, divisions in families are the norm. Coalitions form – three against two, two against three. Parents are pitted against children, and in-laws get a special mention on Jesus' list. The trouble is that these groupings have been going on for a long time. If a mother-in-law was hated by her mother-in-law, the new daughter-in-law may find herself despised (or its opposite, intensely adored) for no apparent reason. If a son was abandoned by his father during the depression, he may have trouble getting along with his own son. And so it goes, until one person decides to go a different direction.  

 

    Anyone in a family can decide to begin connecting more authentically with others. It is not easy work. Some families avoid contact altogether. Many families are accustomed to an arms-length armistice, more or less, with an uneasy truce and little or no factual information from the past. Others spend a great deal of time together, involving elaborate efforts to please others, coalition formations, identification of today's outsiders and little attention to one's inner self. There are endless variations. The person in a family who begins to work towards defining a self while connecting with other family members is on a road with many twists and turns, and untold divisions. The road also leads to a larger perspective, and with that, one can begin to understand the larger truth of one's family story.

 

    With truth also comes freedom and true peace. Still, it is not a simple peace. Family members can disagree profoundly. In Dietrich Bonhoeffer's family, for example, was at least one member who was pro-Nazi, and who refused to attend the wedding of Dietrich's twin sister to a man of Jewish heritage. Dietrich's grandmother, on the other hand, was 90 years old in 1932 when, disregarding Hitler's mandate to refrain from shopping at stores owned by Jews, she put on her best clothes and headed out to her favorite department store. The Nazi guards let her through. The divisions within her family and community did not keep her from doing what she thought best. Her example may have inspired her grandson and other family members to be brave in difficult times. Facing division while remaining oneself – and respecting the dignity of every human being – is hard work. And it begins with one's own next-of-kin.

 

For reflection

Morning: Who in my family do I have trouble being myself with? Who am I interested in knowing better? Where is a place I could start today?

Evening: Who did I get to know better today? What surprised me? How was my perspective broadened?

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Staying up late

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 and Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23  •  Genesis 15:1-6 and Psalm 33:12-22  •  Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16  •  Luke 12:32-40

 

This week's gospel reading from Luke is a bit of a hodgepodge. It begins with a few verses about avoiding fear. Then Jesus continues with a story about a man returning home from a big party, and whether his servants are waiting. Then the story morphs into a really dark one, about the owner of the house and a thief. I'm going to focus now on the middle part of the reading, verses 34-38, beginning with the heart and then the story about the servants waiting.

 

The heart, as it is used in scripture, is more than a Hallmark valentine, more than feelings. It is a person's inner frame of both emotions and thoughts, and as Jesus is describing it here, also the seat of one's motivation. If you could put the things that matter to you in a paper bag, that paper bag is where your heart will be – an inner frame of what you will be thinking about, what you will care about, what you will act on. A person may act on requirements imposed from the outside, but in the end, one's own inner values, or lack of them, will bubble up.

 

And this is where the story of the servants comes in. It's set in a very different culture. Few of us have a staff waiting for us to come home from a party, to take care of us when we arrive, or have been a servant waiting for someone to come home. Many of us, though, have been in the position of needing to stay up late when it was inconvenient to do so.

 

When I was a child, staying up late was an unusual occurrence. The night of the Apollo moon landing, my father invited me to stay up to watch tv. He explained that this was an important night in human history, a major event, and that I would never forget it. Well, I tried. At first, I felt excited and vaguely interested. But after some time of sitting there listening to the mission control folks and the news commentators talking, I got up and said I wanted to go to bed. He encouraged me to stay up; but I was sleepy and went to bed.

 

In my story, my dad could (and did) enjoy the lunar landing without me. In the story Jesus is telling, though, the boss needs the servants to be awake when he gets home. Waiting up for someone to come home is easier if one happens to care about him and his life. A person may try to do something simply because it is a job responsibility, or a cultural or religious expectation.  Usually, though, once the circumstances get the least bit difficult, these half-hearted efforts are doomed to failure.  

 

A pure heart seems to matter a lot to Jesus. He credits us humans with the capacity to develop a pure heart: to notice what is in our paper bag of treasures and begin to attempt to change it. This is the hard part. Letting others regulate our own actions is so automatic for us as humans that it is difficult to think for ourselves. To add to the difficulty, trying to think for oneself can be experienced as "selfish" at first. But living one's life in a constant effort to meet external expectations, when one's heart is not in it, lands one squarely back in the corner of the those who fall asleep when they are needed. Selfish is different from self-aware. Keeping awake to oneself is the beginning of a pure heart.

 

For reflection

Morning: What is in my paper bag of treasures? What really matters to me today?

Evening: When did I live according to my own values?

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