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Reflections on the Sunday lectionary readings

Humble Pie Sunday

Micah 6:1-8  •  Psalm 15  •  1 Corinthians 1:18-31  •  Matthew 5:1-12

 

    The Sunday readings this week have one consistent theme: humility. From Micah's "walk humbly with your God" to the lowly Corinthians to Jesus' good news for the poor in spirit, humility is everywhere. Outside of scripture, I guess all of us can think of the humble people in our own lives, where the beauty of a humble spirit is crystal clear.

 

    What's less clear, at least to me, is how to become one of these humble people. Going back to the Micah reading, it's easy to see what not to do. Even huge financial donations – even the sacrifice of a child, which many of us do by neglecting our children in our drive to help the world and/or make our own fortune and fame – fail to bring a humble spirit. What to do? Where to begin? Turning to the psalm, a beginning answer is found in the advice to avoid taking up a reproach against one's neighbors.

 

    Reproach – and I had to look this up –  is an expression of disapproval or disappointment. While the word reproach is not often used these days, the idea that feelings like disappointment should be expressed is often declared. Here – in stark contrast – we have the psalmist's advice to avoid taking our negative feelings up with our neighbors. Surely, one thinks, this advice is impractical. Surely one is supposed to express one's feelings to one's neighbor, gently of course, but still… surely the advice to avoid reproach against one's fellow human is outdated.

 

    Well, maybe. Then again, let us stop to consider what a humble person would do with a sense of disapproval or disappointment.  Repress the feelings, sit on them? My guess is no. My guess is that if anything, it would be the opposite. The truly humble person (THP) would begin by noticing these judgy feelings, for it would (and here I am just guessing!) be outside of the realm of the usual way a THP would feel or think about others. Next, the THP would take time to re-appraise the whole situation. The THP would consider the situation from all angles, looking for his or her own contribution to the problem. The THP would look broadly at the surrounding circumstances, seeking to understand how they occurred. The THP would let go of any sense of disapproval or disappointment, refusing to take anything personally, and essentially thinking neither better nor worse of the other for whatever had happened. At this point, if there were a situation that needed to be discussed, it could be raised without reproach. It would simply be a fact to be considered without blaming anyone.  

 

    Blaming is a practice first learned at home, a practice content with drawing close to one person at the expense of another. This too would be outside of the consideration of the THP, who would have no need to be on the inside with anyone. If this is so, then the THP must have a solid sense of self – some way to live on his or her own two feet. Somehow, humility is a cousin of integrity. And becoming a THP is a life work that begins with one's family and the multitude of daily opportunities they offer to practice a humble way of life.

 

For reflection:

Morning: Where might blaming or pleasing others get in the way of a humble life today?

Evening: When did I notice a humble person in my life today?

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Timing is Everything

Isaiah 9:1-4  •  Psalm 27:1, 4-9  •  1 Corinthians 1:10-18  •  Matthew 4:12-23

 

    Timing is everything, but especially so when a ruthless dictator with a proclivity towards beheading has just arrested the person who baptized you. Today's gospel story begins with Jesus finding out that John the Baptizer is in prison. When he hears this, he moves away from the immediate vicinity of Herod. Where he moves to is another interesting tale in timing, for the folks in Capernaum had suffered greatly in multiple generations of foreign rule, and their families had survived to see the day when Jesus would live among them. But back to the main point here. Before this, the stories in Matthew were about Jesus being born, tempted, and baptized. Now, he's starting to preach himself. He has fled from Herod not for safety for its own sake, but for safety (at least, temporary safety) to do what matters with his life.

 

    Today's psalm is a lovely example of the experience of being in a safe place – on a rock, as the psalmist puts it – where danger can be seen in advance. It's calming to be on that high rock. Jesus takes this to the next level. He seeks safety not to stay calm, but to have a chance to begin preaching the message that the kingdom of heaven is arriving. He has something he is trying to say and do with his life – and his sense of timing tells him that he had better get going with it.

 

    For those of us wondering what we are to do – or do next – with our own lives, what Jesus has to say may be useful. It's a pretty brief message here in verse 17: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is arriving. Now, repent is often said in a kind of "feel bad about yourself, feel guilty" tone. However, repent means something more along the lines of changing your mind. It's similar to the word metamorphosis, like the caterpillar changing into the butterfly. There's one difference, though. With repent, the change happens not with your body, but with how you think about things and how you redirect yourself accordingly. It's about reason, and sometimes, emotional reason. If you are trapped in a sense of self-importance, asking yourself to use emotional reason to reflect on what you have done and not done may bring some big surprises. It may be that the person you have let down the most is yourself, as you have continually sought the approval or positive regard of others in caring and doing for them. If you are trapped in a sense of your own incompetence, asking yourself to use emotional reason to reflect on what you are capable of may bring some big surprises. It may be that you also have let yourself down – and others, too – as you have continually denied the gifts you have been given. There are a thousand and one opportunities to re-think how one has been understanding life and an equal number of chances to go a different way. Repent is an equal opportunity imperative command for each and every day.

 

    The good news here is that the kingdom of heaven is arriving; the choice is whether to participate in it. Seeing the arrival of a whole other dimension of life in this world, in this time and place, is the invitation. And now we're back to timing and focus on what one is seeking to do with the rest of one's life. For seeing what one is to do with this day allows one to live already secure in the kingdom that's on its way.

   

 

For reflection:

Morning: What do I want to do with this day? What might I need to stop doing, to get on with it?

Evening: Where could I begin to repent? What aspects of my life should I re-think? How could I see things differently?    

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Wilderness

Isaiah 49:1-7  •  Psalm 40:1-11  •  1 Corinthians 1:1-9  •  John 1:29-42

 

This week's readings continue along the theme of servanthood, beginning with the second servant song in Isaiah, continuing with the new servant group of the emerging church in Corinth, and finishing with John the Baptizer's explanation of his servant ministry. Before exploring these passages, let's begin by taking a look at the word servant. It's not a word used much in our culture. The show Downton Abbey, with the castle staff eating their meals together in the kitchen, is a fairly recent effort to portray servanthood - but in a setting 100 years ago.

 

    I guess my closest foray as a staff-servant was years ago, when I spent a winter break clerking at a local department store. I would offer a courteous "May I help you?" Most of the time, though, people would decline my help. They would wander around looking for a long-sleeved blouse, say, when I could have told them right away where they were, which ones were on sale, and so on. The idea of requiring any assistance seemed to involve a threat to their independence, perhaps a deeply instilled sense of not wanting to be a bother, or possibly wanting to distance from others to have more room to think about the purchase. Whatever the source, the discomfort with being waited-upon was almost palpable.

 

    Trust John the Baptizer to begin with our human discomfort! The religious authorities in the John passage come to him, demanding to know who he is. He begins by saying who he is not and next, continues with who he is: a voice crying in the wilderness to make straight the way of the Lord. Anyone who has ever had to clear an overgrown path will immediately understand the many difficulties of the task. For whether it's a clearing a path in the woods, or within the inner wilderness of one's own self or in the wild complexity of human relationships between persons, it's hard work.  

 

    In particular, the wilderness between human beings includes many threats. The allegiance to one's own tribe rather than to all of humanity keeps us from relating to one another fully. The drive to distance from family and friends, rather than maintaining viable (however unpleasant) emotional contact, keeps us from understanding each other. Finally, imagining that one's life is maintained without contributions from others keeps us from the gratitude towards others that a more reality-based view of life would bring.

 

    In a more grounded view of life, the idea in Isaiah that redemption is not just for our own group, but for all nations (Isaiah 49:6) begins to take shape. Following John's example, defining oneself becomes a way of servanthood, for the ongoing effort to be clear about what one is doing while continuing to stay in relationship with others takes real time, real energy. Surprisingly, the energy and effort that are involved become their own reward. The psalmist (40:3) describes it as a "new song." Coming up out of a noisy bog of chaos into more secure footing for oneself and one's relationships with others provides a way through the wilderness.

 

For reflection:

Morning: How do I clear a path between myself and others in my world today? How can I make my own thoughts and positions clearer to others?

Evening: What were the surprises in my day?

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Servant-Leader

Isaiah 42:1-9  •  Psalm 29  •  Acts 10:34-43  •  Matthew 3:13-17

 

    When beginning anything, it is important to think it through. Maybe not to the end. But at least as far as identifying intentions – for they will quickly be tested in the thing one is trying to accomplish. This week's scriptures describe the effort to put intentions into action from three different directions: the selection of a leader in Isaiah; the principles by which the group will operate, in the Cornelius story in Acts; and the manner by which one will operate, in the baptism or Jesus in Matthew.

 

    The Isaiah passage starts off with a big reveal: behold my servant. The writer hastens to add that the servant is the chosen one, but he is described first as a servant. He is, moreover, a gentle sort of a servant, soft-spoken, and not one to cause further injury, even to a bruised plant. Underlying this gentle exterior, though, is an incredible strength. The servant is a leader who will not stop until justice is established on earth.

 

    Peter – and Cornelius, for that matter – show up as leaders in the Acts passage. Cornelius, a Roman centurion with 100 men under him, is an unusual sort, with a daily practice of prayer. Receiving instructions from an angel, he reaches out to Peter. Peter responds by telling Cornelius and his (also Roman) companions the gospel story, beginning with a new insight – that he, Peter, has come to see that God shows no partiality towards any nation or its people. He then wonders, before everyone present, whether it makes sense to baptize these folks, which he proceeds to do. In the story, Peter shows a willingness to re-think his positions; he has no need to defend his earlier views. He shows flexibility in the events unfolding before him, taking a new direction.  The community then begins to find its way beyond the tribalism of a Jewish sect towards a more universal approach.

 

    The final example of leadership comes in the gospel story. In a brief five verses, John baptized Jesus and God indicates approval in a spectacular sign from the clouds. All of this happens, though, only after John asks Jesus whether the whole thing is appropriate. Shouldn't you be baptizing me? (v. 14). Jesus, clear about what the moment requires, reassures John that it is fitting for ritual to seal his purpose, and for John to perform the baptism.

 

    In recognizing his own need to set his intention through public baptism, Jesus begins to remind the reader of the chosen one – the gentle servant – of the Isaiah passage. His decision to be baptized by John is a surprise, somewhat like Peter's baptism of Cornelius must have been. In all three readings, the surprising underlying virtue of the true leader turns out to be humility. The final surprise of the gospel reading is the opening of the heavens, complete with a dove and a voice from the clouds – but perhaps these things are no more surprising than an authentic, humble, servant-leader.

 

For reflection:

Morning: What would be different if I lived today with humility?

Evening: When did I manage to find a humble way of being? When did I lose myself in arrogance or pride?

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