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Reflections on the Sunday lectionary readings

Choices

Acts 16:16-34  •  Psalm 97  •  Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21  •  John 17:20-26

 

The Acts passage in this week's readings has provided another set of very human stories: the slave girl, Lydia; Paul, Silas and the other prisoners; and the jailer. First, Lydia, a God-fearing Gentile drawn to attend Jewish worship on the Sabbath, has her powers of divination stripped by Paul, who then faces the wrath of her owners and finds himself and his companion Silas in stocks in the innermost cell of the local prison. Next, in the night, when he and Silas begin singing, the other prisoners, perhaps some of whom were also unjustly locked up, stay awake to listen. Finally, the jailer, who thought he was running the prison, finds himself asking Paul what he should do.

 

There is much to learn from Lydia. She seems to be what we might call "spiritual," with some level of intuition unavailable to most of us. The intuition, however, is getting in her way. She cannot resist the urge to shout out her own particular awareness of what is happening around her.  In a sense, she cannot separate herself from what she is seeing: an extreme case of the "if you see something, say something" axiom found in public transportation these days. The miracle of her healing is not that her insight was taken from her, but she has been able to separate herself from its power over her.

 

There is much to learn from Paul and Silas. Flogged, locked up, in stocks, and probably too uncomfortable from their wounds to sleep, they begin singing hymns. Here are two people who refuse to accept the narrative that they are powerless and the hopelessness that accompanies that view. Being Roman citizens may have helped them to see their circumstances as less than dire. Moreover, in the act of singing, they guard themselves against succumbing to despair. It seems to affect the other prisoners too, who begin listening, instead of mocking them or drifting off to sleep.

 

There is much to learn from the jailer. He has been told that these prisoners must be kept secure, and does his best to lock them down. Awakening to his worst nightmare – the doors of the prison flung open – he reaches for his sword to kill himself. Here is a person absolutely desperate and afraid. When he realizes that Paul and Silas have remained, in spite of their freedom to go, he rushes into them, eventually calming down enough to ask them what he should do to get out of this mess. At this point, the jailer begins to look like the straight man in a comedy routine, asking the question that sets up the ultimate response: believe in Jesus. Whatever piece of this he was able to apprehend, he had realized that these men were trustworthy, and takes them home with him to care for their wounds. Before the night was over, he and his household were baptized.

 

In all these stories, one consistent theme is that of recognizing one's own choices in being responsible for oneself. Lydia can choose to speak or not. Paul and Silas can choose how they see their imprisonment. The jailer can choose suicide or not. A related theme is the way that one's own choices impacts others. Lydia's openness to being healed sets up the whole sequence of events. Paul and Silas help each other through a long night. Their choice to stay in place after the earthquake, a move related to their own long-term goals, is lifesaving for the jailer. Being true to oneself brings new choices in the lives of others.

 

For reflection:

 

Psalm 97:11 Light dawns for the righteous, and joy for the upright in heart.

 

Morning

What choices do I have today, in terms of responsibility for myself, that might be hard to see?

 

Evening

When did I find new choices in my day?

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Change Happens

Acts 16:9-15  •  Psalm 67  •  Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5  •  John 5:1-9

   

    This week's reading from John 5 is set in the temple in Jerusalem, where a small pool of still water in a side porch is the stage. Occasionally the water in the pool gets stirred up; and in these moments it has healing powers. Around the pool are gathered many invalids, hoping for a chance to get in while the water was agitated. The problem was the capriciousness of the healing moments and the need to move fast once the water was bubbling.

 

    Into this scene enters Jesus, who brings healing powers without caprice. Even Jesus, though, recognizes the limits of a healer. He sees a man who has been waiting poolside for a long time – some versions of the text say 38 years! – to be healed. He asks him a salient question: Do you want to be made well?    

    

    In the story, the sick man tells Jesus that he has no one to put him in the pool. This does not mean that he had no one. Others, probably family members, must have been feeding him and generally caring for him. Over 38 years, though, it seems they had grown tired of the healing-pool routine. Maybe they had needed to go to work instead of continuing to wait for a magic moment. Perhaps they had also begun wondering whether the man wanted to be made well. Whatever their thinking, they were acting in a way that was responsible to him, but not responsible for his getting well.

 

    Jesus' question to the sick man was another way of acknowledging that he was willing to be responsible to, but not for, him. He gave the man his own responsibility for self, telling him in an almost offhanded manner to stand up, pick up his mat, and go on his way. And he does! Perhaps no one was more surprised than he.

 

    Each of us has a responsibility to care for our self, attending to whatever physical and emotional limitations are present within to the best of one's ability, accepting help graciously as needed. It is easy to get discouraged, easy to blame others or circumstances for one's plight. It is not that one wishes to be unwell. But, being unwell has its advantages in coming with less responsibility. Others seem only too happy to take responsibility for a person; and in some strange arrangement, everyone is getting something out of the unwellness. It is as though the unwell person stabilizes the group, giving it something to focus on. Over time, the unwell person may simply quit trying. After all, if the unwell person gets better, then what will the rest of the group do with itself?

 

    Groups do not manage change well, even positive change. None of us do. The bubbling waters in a previously still pool of water are frightening; something is different, and anything different may upset the careful balance of our world. Even when a hoped-for change occurs, before long, things are often soon back to normal – the process has remained the same.

 

    If one is trying to change oneself, it is useful to remember that others may be uncomfortable with any difference in one's functioning. If one is trying to respond to a change in anything at work or at home, it may be useful to pay careful attention to one's own reaction. In either case, staying calm but firm in standing up, picking up one's mat and walking ahead towards one's own future while remaining connected to others is the goal.

 

Reflection

Revelation 21:23 And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.

 

Morning

What am I trying to change in myself today? Where are my chances to practice? Where is change occurring in my world? How can I stay calm when things change around me?

 

Evening

When did I observe change in my world today? What was my part in it?

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Peter Grows Up

Acts 11:1-18  •  Psalm 148  •  Revelation 21:1-6  •  John 13:31-35

 

In this week's Sunday readings, the best story comes from Acts. The Acts 11 reading is based on the longer story in Acts 10. To begin, Peter has a strange dream involving animals in a sheet or net being lowered down to him, along with directions from God to begin eating these creatures. Peter, raised with a specific set of religious dietary rules, is repelled by the thought. All of us, I suppose, have at least one food that fills us with disgust. This was what Peter was feeling, when given these strange directions from God.

 

Previously, in the most recent Sunday reading which included Peter, Peter was confronted with Jesus' question: do you love me? Before that, looking at the bleakness of the world without Jesus, he had decided to go fishing. Before that, early on the day of Jesus' crucifixion, Peter was denying any knowledge of Jesus. Before that, when the Romans come to arrest Jesus, Peter impulsively drew his sword and cut off the ear of a slave involved in the arrest. Jesus quickly stopped his immature retaliatory response.

 

What will Peter do this time, with this strange dream of animals in a sheet lowered to him? Will he succumb to his immediate reaction of disgust at the foods represented in it? Interestingly, he begins by choosing to think about it (Acts 10:19), rather than go with his first impulse. Next, when a Roman military leader shows up at his door, he is accepting and welcoming.

 

The Roman military leader was a centurion of the Italian cohort, suggesting that he was the commander of a large group of soldiers from Italy who were stationed in Caesarea. The tension between the foreign Roman rulers and the Jewish inhabitants could be intense. Peter begins by saying that everyone knows they are not, at least by Jewish standards, supposed to be speaking to each other. Next, he makes an amazing comment: God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.

 

As children, some of us may have had parents who had a rule not to "call names." Others may have been reprimanded for this conduct while at the same time observing that the adults were quick to label others with many negative words. In still other families, there may have been no principle around this behavior. Peter, for his part, apparently has been giving a lot of thought to his reactivity and labelling of 'unclean' foods. He has moved from a limited interpretation of the dream as involving dietary choices to a broader understanding of all that it implied. It was not simply that the all food groups were now open to him, it was that the community of people following Jesus should be open to all.

 

As human beings, we are creatures naturally prone to looking out for our own group. Children often make fun of others, ridiculing and excluding those who fail to fall in line with the group. God, on the other hand, as Peter came to see, shows no partiality (Acts 10:34). Peter, like most of us, took a long time to grow up. Somehow, thinking about it, getting clear about what he was trying to do and what was getting in the way, seemed to help.

 

For reflection

13:35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

Morning

 In what ways do I still need to grow up? What would a more mature self look like?

Evening

Where was I able to be impartial today? When did immaturity rule?

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Good Hearing

Acts 9:36-43  •  Psalm 23  •  Revelation 7:9-17  •  John 10:22-30

 

It is a great thing to have good hearing – physically to be able to hear and understand what is happening around oneself. This Sunday's reading explores good hearing at many levels, beginning with the physical. Sheep, it turns out, have good hearing. They can select their own shepherd's voice from among many, knowing which one to follow.

 

While people are different from sheep, we are perhaps also more like them than we tend to realize. Our capacity to hear and distinguish among sounds is a similarity we share with sheep and many other animals. Voice recognition may have been adaptive to mammalian species; knowing the location of other members of the herd or flock may have been an advantage to both predators and those preyed upon. In this story, Jesus perhaps could tell from the tone of the questions coming to him that he was being preyed upon, and by the story's end (v. 31), his death by stoning was a distinct possibility. 

 

When challenged in the temple, Jesus shifts attention from himself as shepherd to make the point that his sheep are an unusual flock: a flock of those who recognize his voice. Most flocks, in a traditional sense, would consist of family groups of rams, ewes, and lambs. But Jesus here claims that his flock consists of those who can hear in his voice the way they wish to follow.

 

He makes this claim at an interesting place and time. He is in the temple in Jerusalem during what we now call Hanukah. Hanukah celebrates an event that predated Jesus' life by about 160 years – roughly the same amount of time since our own Civil War here in the U.S.  Briefly, the Jewish people, led by Judas Maccabeus, revolted against Roman rule, winning some concessions to their own way of life. In the end, a Roman ruler married a descendant of the Maccabean family to seal the new relationship between the groups.

 

When Jesus makes the comment that his sheep would know his voice, did he mean to imply that his sheep might even include some of the hated Romans? That is mere speculation. What is clear is that he suggests that people have a choice about what voice they hear, attend to, and follow. As humans we do have many choices not available to other mammals. For example, we have the choice of understanding our own history, including both vague scriptural references such as 'The Feast of the Dedication' and our own family's story as well. When following what is an automatic pattern, we have a choice of stopping and listening to our own inner voice, deciding whether what is automatic is still serving us well. When getting upset or reactive to what one is hearing, we have the choice of slowing down and trying to understand more clearly. When getting confused – when feeling blamed, afraid, angry or ashamed – we can stop the cycle of blame and hear the voice of a different shepherd, a voice of comfort and grace, proclaiming a bigger picture: the redemption of our species and indeed all of life.

 

This week's reflections

 

Psalm 23:1-3 The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name's sake.

 

Morning reflection: What do I want to listen for today?

 

Evening reflection: When did I hear more clearly? When did I lose my way?

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