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Reflections on the Sunday lectionary readings

No Martha Stewart

Amos 8:1-12 and Psalm 52  •  Genesis 18:1-10a and Psalm 15  •  Colossians 1:15-28  •  Luke 10:38-42

    Several years ago, there was a popular saying: What Would Jesus Do? WWJD for short, the expression suggested that one can quickly ascertain what Jesus would do – the kind thing, the gracious thing, surely – and that the difficulty would be in doing what Jesus would do. But the difficulty is more than that. Often it is hard to know what Jesus would do.

    As the Luke story opens, Jesus and 12 of his closest friends, presumably, have shown up at the home of Mary and Martha. Martha is frantically preparing food, while Mary listens to Jesus, sitting at his feet. Martha interrupts the conversation, confronting Jesus, asking him whether he cares that she is doing all the work, all by herself. Martha, it seems, is pretty sure she knows what Jesus will do. She's thinking, "he's a nice guy, a fair guy, right? Surely he will send Mary back to help me out." Jesus first responds by acknowledging that she is worried and distracted by many things. But then, he lets Martha know that how she is managing these worries and distractions are precisely the problem – her problem, and a problem which Mary will not be required to take on for her.

    Clearly, this was not the answer Martha was looking for, nor the nice answer she expected to hear. In the long run, though, perhaps it was the kindest thing anyone ever said to her, or to many of us, who are also worried and distracted – pulled apart, almost – by many things.  Stress, as it is commonly called these days, shows up all the time in the experience of having more than one "can say grace over," as the saying used to go. What is Jesus saying to all of us in the Martha boat?

    To begin, Martha (and us) must let go of the need to be the favorite. Noticing her sister Mary seated at Jesus feet, she probably felt left out. Like a grandchild asking which one the grandmother loved best, Martha was trying to assure that Jesus loved her just as much, or maybe just a tad more, based on her doing all the work. Like the grandmother, though, Jesus' love was unlimited.

    Second, Martha was challenged to reconsider how she was framing the problem: a person left to do all the work by herself.  To see this differently, Martha would need to think about the other people who could help, to whom she was connected over many years in the same village. It would require her to ask for their help, a humble position she may not have been accustomed to. It would require her to have stayed connected with them over time, so that mutual cooperation in times of need was already in place. In short, it would require her to be a full member of her community. When guests are arriving and one comes up against the reality that she is no Martha Stewart, it is good to have friends.

    Finally, Martha also has to let go of the need to be the perfect hostess. While trying to do everything just so can create a nice party atmosphere, it is often inspired by the desire to have others think well of oneself. When the need to serve the perfect meal is motivated by the worry of what others will think, it is an expression of anxiety. Martha is worried about many things, focusing on pleasing others to shore up her own lack of self.

    Jesus had little interest in pleasing others or making them feel better. WWJD? begins with another question – what would Jesus think? Put more broadly, what is the truth here? Mary, sitting at Jesus' feet, was pursuing truth, and the self she was becoming could not be taken from her. Those with more solid self are better positioned to hear truth, and to act accordingly. They are also positioned to hear another's worry without taking it on. In highly functioning groups, each member avoids absorbing the anxiety of others, trusting that each can manage her own troubles and will grow through the process.          

For reflection:

Colossians 1:28 It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ.


What is important to me about this day? Where might I be tempted to take more on than I can do? Where might I lean on others to do what is on me to do? 


When did I feel overwhelmed today? Where did I see a larger truth than I had known before?

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The Good Question

Amos 7:7-17 and Psalm 82  •  Colossians 1:1-14  •  Luke 10:25-37


    Ah, lawyers! Can't live with them, can't live without them – at least that seems to have been the case for the last 2000 years or so. Say what you will, though, about their overall character and suitability for inclusion as part of the human species, they do have one admirable strength: the ability to ask good questions.


    In today's Luke reading, the question "who is my neighbor?" generated one of the most important stories of all religious literature. The text provides many angles on what it means to be human. The pitfalls of leadership are revealed, as both the Luke and the Amos readings contain religious authorities more interested in preserving the status quo and observing details of the law than in loyalty to the underlying principles of their faith. The assumptions of the comfortable are quickly turned around, as the lawyer finds himself responding to Jesus' final question (v. 36) from the point of view of a powerless person who needs others. In addition, the challenges of tribalism are on full display, as the despised Samaritan (an enmity generated over hundreds of years before the common era and continuing in new forms today) turns out to be the neighbor.


    The neighbor – the one who showed mercy – provides a template for what it means to have a solid self. Note what he does. He approaches a badly hurt and possibly dead person on a road where a person needs to hurry, lest he too be attacked. Perhaps cringing (? the story does not say) from the sight of the injuries, he calms himself, cares for the wounds, gets the person to a safe place, and nurses him through the night. The next day, he goes on his way to his responsibilities elsewhere, after assuring that the man will be cared for until his return.


    Being responsible to others involves strength of character. While it does not mean giving up oneself and responsibilities for self – the good person continues his own journey the next day – it does mean living according to one's own principles at all times and in all places.  Paradoxically, more solid self provides more flexible self: the good person has enough inner clarity and calmness to see and choose a course of action among a broad array of options. Even when fears are stirred, as can happen on a dark mountain road when coming upon someone lying half-dead in a ditch, the good person can use emotional reason to think through a response consistent with his or her own best self.


    Even though the situation was frightening, the Good Samaritan had it easy in a way. It was easy to recognize the person in the ditch as one needing mercy to be shown. What is harder is to be the good person in the ordinary wear and tear of life. That person at work – the one with the annoying habits – may need mercy, even though her arrogance makes it hard to see. Understanding that the person is wounded (who isn't?) is a beginning. Trying to see what he or she is up against can be useful. Being kind, rather than judgy, may open up different brain pathways within oneself for approaching her without antagonism. Avoiding a sense of responsibility for the colleague keeps one from interfering with that person's own emerging self; recognizing one's responsibility to the colleague keeps one true to self. Practicing mercy in one's everyday life may make it more accessible when the stakes are higher.


For reflection:

    Colossians 1:13 He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.



    Where will I have a chance to show mercy today? Where could I get clearer about my own needs and dependence on others?



    How did I see mercy operating today, in my own life and the lives of others?

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Humbled and Healed

2 Kings 5:1-14 and Psalm 30  •  Galatians 6:(1-6), 7-16  •  Luke 10:1-11, 16-20


    How quickly the powerful take offence! In the beautifully written story from 2 Kings, both the Israeli king and the Aramaean military commander require others to assist them in containing their anger. In the case of the king of Israel, it takes Elisha himself to calm him down; with the commander, the urging of servants helps him to put aside his frustration long enough to give the cure recommended by Elisha a chance.


    The king had been upset by a request he deemed impossible – a request he thought was a pretext for war. His position as king seems to have had a paradoxical effect: taking all the responsibility on himself, rather than recognizing the many options available to him. In this case, a letter requesting healing made him panic, unable to think through his position and see the potential political leverage in the situation. He seems to have forgotten that there was a prophet in Israel, a prophet who could heal. His fear of the strong Aramean military enemy rendered the king of Israel too angry to think.


    Similarly, the military commander, Naaman, angered at his treatment by Elisha, almost walks away from the cure itself. Naaman's exact illness is uncertain – translated as leprosy, the NRSV Bible notes that the word itself was used more generally as a description of many skin conditions. Skin conditions – even a mild case of poison ivy – have a way of preoccupying a person, a nuisance always present, always keeping one from doing more, lest it become aggravated. In Naaman's case, his problem was widely known, as his wife's servant knew of it and the king of Aram himself had provided payment for it. On the trip to Israel, his hopes high, he perhaps dreamed of his healing. He had the resources to see the best doctor, so to speak, in the land. The healer would come to him, wave his hands over him, and heal him in a spectacular display of power. All would be well.


    Instead, Elisha sends a message for Naaman to go bathe seven times in the Jordan river: in dirty water, where a large tool could not be observed once it had sunk (2 King 6: 4).  Convinced by his servants that it was, after all, worth a try – although reassured that certainly he could have done something much harder – he heads to the river. One can picture him, in each of the seven baths, noticing his skin getting clearer. As the mud dries and he rinses himself, he can begin to feel relief from the constant nuisance of the irritated areas. By the seventh bath, he is a new man, restored to physical health.


    He is also restored to emotional health with an inner calm, not present when his skin was itchy. Additionally, he is relieved of the need for spectacular shows of power of chariots and horses, no longer thinking that he must do something difficult to be healed, nor give huge gifts to procure his own health. The opposite has occurred: healing has come to him without trying so hard. He also sees that the waters of Israel are worthy of his respect. In a sense, he moves beyond tribalism, acknowledging Israel's God and asking for loads of Israeli dirt to take back for his worship space.


    Many of us carry loads of responsibility, along with loads of tribalism, both of which can lead us astray. Being responsible for others can make a person anxious and unable to think clearly. Being tribal – on the alert for dangerous 'others' – can do the same. In today's story, it is the servants, along with Elisha himself, who have a realistic view of the world. Elisha's refusal to make the healing into a spectacle provides Naaman with a clearer understanding of life and one's place in it.


For reflection:

Psalm 30:11 You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.


Morning: When might I rely on others to calm me down today? How can become aware of times when I'm starting to get upset?


Evening: When did others help me to think or see things more clearly today?

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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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