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Reflections on the Sunday lectionary readings

Inner sweeping

Isaiah 11:1-10  •  Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19  •  Romans 15:4-13  •  Matthew 3:1-12

 

    Last week's Isaiah prophecy had people beating their swords into plows, no longer harming each other nor even considering violence as an option between people. As if that weren't enough, this week's Isaiah reading features the end of predator vs. preyed upon: the lion laying down with the lamb. In this make-believe world, a child can play around snake holes without his mother fearfully grabbing him up for safer ground. Even the poor have little to fear, as the leader of this this imaginary future leans towards equity for all. The psalm picks up on the same theme, praying that the king would defend the cause of the poor and deliver the needy.

 

    Poverty ruled in the mountains of southern rural Appalachia, where my husband's family is from. Not only were they poor, but there were snakes. Everywhere, it seems. His grandmother specialized in snake defense. Every day, she took a broom and swept the area around the cabin, maintaining a snake-free zone of hard clay completely surrounding their home. While she could keep the snakes away, though, there was little she could do about the poverty. As she watched the men in her family leave for the coal mines every day, I'm guessing she was always left wondering not only if they would be back for dinner, but also what she would cook, besides potatoes and beans.

 

    Coal mining is famous for its inequities, and the wealth of a few borne on the backs of many poor. But it is the same story, everywhere, that the rich continue to want to be richer. No one relaxes – everyone keeps striving for more. This is apparently less true in small communities or tribes, where everyone is accountable to each other for carrying their share of the load, and everyone shares more or less in the harvest or hunt. Even in small groups or families though, one can see the endless striving of human beings to take more than their fair share, as is commonly played out as siblings fight, first over cookies and later over their parents' estate.

 

    Humans are in a tough spot. We can keep fighting with one another, grasping for more than our share. Or we can lean into an egalitarian world. We can select leaders interested in pursuing justice for all. And we can, within our own hearts, begin to prepare the way for such a world. It is as though each person is called to take a broom and begin sweeping from within. Sweep away all the clutter of fear, which can completely outweigh any desire to see that others, outside of one's own group, will be treated fairly. Prepare a path of peace within oneself: a well-worn path of thoughtful reflection on one's emotions, and a governance by one's own most mature self.

 

For reflection:

Morning: What am I anxious about, or afraid of, today? How can I calm down?

Evening: When did I manage myself maturely? Connect with others openly and fairly?

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Swords into plows

Isaiah 2:1-5  •  Psalm 122  •  Romans 13:11-14  •  Matthew 24:36-44

 

    The readings in December have a double purpose: to prepare to celebrate the baby Jesus while also considering the meaning of his coming again. Well, this is a tall order. Christmas itself, that flurry of gift-giving and parties, takes us far from the mystery of the word made flesh. And speculation about the second coming can quickly become a flight of fancy. Fortunately, the readings this week can bring us back to earth.

 

    The Isaiah passage starts us off with a beautiful image: beating swords into plows. Isaiah is prophesizing a future where there are no more wars, no more need for swords. In that future, all the peoples of the earth have stopped killing each other! It is no longer one group pitted against another, but all tribes are working together to make sure that everyone is fed.

 

    To do this, they begin practically, heating up the instruments of war and refining the metal to be used for a quite different purpose. Stopping here for just a moment, one can see how completely unnatural this is for human beings. Perhaps a group can find a way to trust each other and cooperate, within itself. Perhaps, if a family were on a desert island together, with no thought of danger from anywhere, and complete unity within the group, they might beat their swords into plows. Perhaps.

 

    How do we learn to live as a peaceful, unified family while maintaining individuality? The other passages give us some hints. The psalm, for instance, focuses on Jerusalem as a place of peace. How do we make our own homes, our own work environments, our own congregations, even, such places!? In the Romans passage, Paul lays it out pretty clearly. Live in the light of day or, as it is almost time for New Year's resolutions, let's say have a little discipline, for starters. Avoid petty bickering. Note that this is different from being willing to disagree with another person around a thoughtful principle. Nothing is to be gained from a false peace. Stop with the envy, the constant comparing of oneself to another. All of these pieces are part of a community that has learned to live together while offering each person the freedom to become their full self.

 

    Looking to the gospel, Jesus has just prophesied about difficult times to come when he offers one final piece of advice: Keep Awake! He reminds folks that in the time of Noah, folks were pretty happy up until the flood started. So stay ready, he is saying to us, for trouble is ahead.

 

    It seems like the holidays always bring trouble, or tension, among families and also among friends. If one person can offer a little calmness, maybe some swords can be beaten into plows, or at least put down long enough to get to know one another as real people. In our coming together and beginning to know one another more deeply, perhaps Jesus is coming again.  

 

Reflections:

Morning: Where might I put down a sword, or turn the energy towards another purpose?

Evening: When did I have a chance to know another more deeply today? To share what I'm thinking about?

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Boss of Me

Jeremiah 23:1-6 & Luke 1:68-79  •  Jeremiah 23:1-6 & Psalm 46  •  Colossians 1:11-20  •  Luke 23:33-43

 

The church year calendar, beginning each year with an Advent season starting four weeks before Christmas, is an odd conglomeration of readings. Perhaps nothing is odder than the last Sunday of each church year – Christ the King Sunday. In this week's reading from Luke, Jesus is hanging on a cross, with two criminals, one on either side, along with a sign over his head: Jesus, King of the Jews.

 

Being executed by crucifixion was not an uncommon event in those days, where the Romans ruled a wide empire of many peoples. While supportive of peace, the Romans were not averse to using force to quell any unrest suggestive of insurrection. However, while being executed on a cross was not unheard of, being executed with a sign over one's head saying King of the Jews was unusual.

 

It was Pilate, the governor appointed by the Romans, who had directed that the sign be placed over Jesus' head. Everyone joined in the fun of ridiculing a powerless man who had talked about kingship, now hung on a cross. Spectators dared him to save himself. The guards brought him soured wine, in a charade of a servant waiting on a king.  Even the criminals began speculating about kingship. One of his fellow sufferers joins in the mockery; if you are a king, get us out of here. The other takes Jesus' side, saying we're criminals but this man did nothing wrong.

 

There were hints, earlier in the story, that Pilate himself had realized that Jesus had done nothing wrong. He was too much of a politician to let this interfere with the political expediency of the death sentence. Still, it seems that the King of the Jews sign may have had a hidden meaning, for under the ridicule was a tipping of the hat. In a sense, calling someone a king is like calling them an Olympic gold medalist or a karate black belt or a chess master.

 

What was Jesus a master of? Not this world, that's for sure. No one put to death by torture in their early thirties can claim any success in this life. Master of the life to come, maybe – and he seemed to think so, promising to the criminal on the cross next to him that they would both be in paradise by close of business, so to speak, that day. But there is something else that Jesus was master of: himself. From the arc of his life story, from the scene in the temple at age 12 to this dying moment on the cross, Jesus was clear about himself, ruling what came from him.

 

What would it be like to be ruler, king, or queen, of oneself? First, it would mean ruling over one's emotions, not letting them take over oneself, that insurrection from within threatening every human under pressure. Second, it would mean having options, as a king has couriers, bringing many different ways of seeing and managing situations rather than reverting to whatever automatic positions one usually takes. Finally, it would mean benevolence: connecting with others without fearing them. The balance of true kingship involves being both human and regal, reigning over the realm of the real.

 

For reflection:

Morning: How can I rule over myself today? When might I have difficulty?

Evening: What was automatic for me today? How can I see a broader view?

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All in the Family

Isaiah 65:17-25 and Isaiah 12  •  Malachi 4:1-2a and Psalm 98  •  2 Thessalonians 3:6-13  •  Luke 21:5-19

 

This week's readings, taken as a whole, are all about family: gone right and gone wrong. Isaiah 65, for instance, talks about the coming age where no infant will die (v. 20) – all families will enjoy full and prosperous lives. Then there is Malachi 4, which promises not only a fire to burn the arrogant (v. 1), but also a time of mercy, when parents' hearts will be turned towards their children and children's towards their parents (v. 6). Moving on to the reading from Second Thessalonians, there is a warning not to take advantage of hard-working siblings; in a twist of human fate, the same patterns of in-fighting among siblings who in that time usually worked together for the economic good of the family had emerged between 'brothers and sisters' in the community. Finally, in Luke, Jesus is predicting a time of great destruction when people would be betrayed by their closest family and friends.

 

It seems that the worst betrayals come from people that one had trusted. A terrible story from North Korea comes to mind, of a night at a party when one of the Kim rulers accused a woman of a crime against the state. Her husband asked to be the one to shoot her – doing so right then. I wonder if this is the sort of thing that Jesus was talking about when he is saying that "you will be hated by all because of my name" (v. 17). Not that she was a Christian – living in North Korea, she may never have heard of Jesus. But let us say that she had somehow stood up to that cruel regime: in effect, hated because she was being true to her best and bravest self. Her character was what Jesus himself accomplished: the ability to stay true to one's own principles in the most difficult of circumstances.  

 

While being true to self, it has also been important for humans to join together for the good of the group, cooperating against a relatively hostile world to hunt or farm or dwell together. If we can, in this early part of the 21st century, beginning with our families, turn our hearts towards one another rather than away from one another, perhaps we have a chance to work together, so that our species (and many others) can survive. I believe this is the beginning of social justice. If a person can be engaged with family members in life-giving ways – clear about one's own thoughts and listening to another without becoming reactive or shutting down or agreeing without question –then one has more capacity to speak one's mind to the world.

 

Staying connected with family members while taking a position for oneself is deceptively difficult. In North Korea, apparently family members don't talk amongst themselves about the Kim regime, except when agreeing with the regime's views. In the U.S., it seems that when it comes to politics, family members often either totally agree or agree not to discuss their differences. It's not that surprising. Human beings are, after all, just mammals – and mammals live in small groups, dedicated to the survival of the group, not the species. Under pressure, group loyalties run high while the capacity to think independently runs low. Whether one is living around 30 BCE in a Jewish community under Roman rule, or in the current era of increasing population and climate upheaval, anxiety and pressures to conform run high.  Maybe humans are up to the challenge. Maybe not. It may begin with being a distinct person within that first tribe, one's family.

 

For reflection

Morning: Where are my chances to work on my own reactivity with family members?

Evening: In conversations with family members, where was I able to be myself?

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