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Lectionary Living

Too much talk and not enough action

9/27: Exodus 17:1-7 and Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16  •  Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 and Psalm 25:1-9  •  Philippians 2:1-13  •  Matthew 21:23-32

    Just a few verses before this Sunday's gospel reading, Jesus drove the money-changers – a first century version of people making a buck from religion – out of the temple. Now the chief priests and elders are asking him what right he has to come into the temple and upset the applecart, so to speak. Who invited you to the party? Who gave you a say in how things are run?

    I'm reminded of a time when I went home to my mother's, got up early one morning, and began cleaning her kitchen. I moved things around, making for a more efficient use of the space. I tossed out the dated food products, making it easier to access the groceries she used regularly. I cleaned the counters, reducing the amount of clutter. Was my mother pleased with all this effort? You can be sure she was not. Confronting me, she wondered: Whose kitchen is this? Who asked you for help?

    The challenge of watching one's parents decline is a difficult one; and a full exploration of this topic would take a book, at least. But, at its most practical level, and for purposes of this conversation, I had trespassed. I had failed to see the kitchen as a symptom of my mother's loneliness and had instead pursued a quick fix to shore up my own feelings about her decline. I had not engaged the real problem with her. I had violated my mother's agency in her own home.

    The chief priests and the elders are accusing Jesus of the same things: trespassing, violating their agency over their temple. Jesus tries to tell them that this is not their kitchen, so to speak. The temple is everyone's. He tells a story of two sons, asked by their father to go work in the vineyards. One says he won't go, but later changes his mind, and completes the task. The other says he will and then never follows through. The point that actions speak louder than words is clear. More basically, though, the story is about responsibility for the vineyard and responsibilities to one another.

    Getting clear about one's responsibilities – what is, and isn't, one's work – can be a challenge in life. Getting clear about one's shared responsibilities can also be hard: how does a person understand her part in a cooperative venture?

    Well, it depends on how one sees the problem. In the text, Jesus had mentioned John the Baptist, who had reframed the problem of the Israelites from a political issue with the Romans to the need for repentance for all the people. It was a call for humility, for seeing one's own part in the problems. It was a last call for the religious leaders to wake up and see the reality of their situation, a last call which they failed to heed, leading to the complete destruction of the temple in the years ahead.

    From wildfires to covid outbreaks, a lot of destruction Is occurring these days. Something has gotten in the way of our ability to cooperate and engage our huge capacity for creativity.  The anxiety around covid has served to heighten fears already in place, keeping us from being able to think clearly. More than that, the worry is keeping us from dialogue about the problems and a willingness to engage them. Mired in helplessness, blaming each other, seems to be our strong suit. Not only that, we seem unable to face the basic questions. Whose vineyard is this earth, which we all inhabit? How can we cooperate as a species for the benefit of all? Who is talking a good game but shirking the responsibility? Who is showing up?

    Overturning the tables of the moneychangers in the temple was in many ways an extension of earlier choices made by Jesus. He had already broken strict sabbath laws to heal the sick. He'd already stood up to the Pharisees regarding their tithing of herbs while neglecting the poor. In general, over his lifetime, he had declined to focus his energy on the legal requirements of Judaism to move towards the broader concepts of justice and mercy. In the end, he is crucified for these choices – killed for being true to himself and his own principles. It's the choice available to everyone, every day.

For reflection:

Morning: How can I engage the problems I will face today? When might helplessness be avoided?  

Evening: When did I trespass today? What principles did I fail to own?

Psalm 78:16 He made streams come out of the rock, and caused waters to flow down like rivers.

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Contagious!

9/20: Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 148; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

    At first glance, this week's readings are a bit of a hodgepodge of material. The Exodus reading is abruptly ended, about 2/3 of the way through the actual story. The Philippians passage sets up the problem but stops short of the encouraging words ahead. And the story Jesus tells in Matthew is, well, (can I say this?) not his most compelling. However, each of the readings contains a description of the quick spread of reactivity in a group when anxiety is up. This is an important process to think about..

    To begin, let's look at Exodus. Moses and his brother Aaron have led the Hebrew people across the Red Sea and into the wilderness, fleeing their status as slaves in Egypt. They've successfully left the country, everyone intact, but there's a new problem: hunger. Back in Egypt, someone was feeding them, and the people begin reminiscing about how good they had it. Next, they begin criticizing their leaders, blaming their leaders for the food shortage and for bringing them to this desolate spot. Here, Moses and Aaron hand the people back their agency, pointing out that they had all left Egypt based on the principle of following the LORD.

    Next is the Philippians passage. Paul is writing a letter to the community in Philippi, which is facing persecution and suffering for their beliefs. Possibly to their surprise, Paul suggests that they see it as their good fortune to be allowed the opportunity to suffer for the faith!

    Finally, the Matthew passage. Jesus tells a story about a boss who takes time to find unemployed people, hire them close to the end of the day, and pay them the same wage as those who had worked all day. The people who had worked all day grumble, seeing this as unfair, although they had agreed to the wage at the beginning of the day.

    The blaming behavior of the Israelites, the fear of the Philippians, and the quick anger at a suspected unfairness of the full-day workers in the Matthew story are all typical human behaviors:

  • Finding someone to blame – identifying a causal agent – is sometimes useful, as when a rustle in the bushes means a lion is there. But when applied to complex situations, it creates more problems than it solves. For the Israelites, the difficulty of getting organized to find food was related to their many years of enslavement and consequent lack of agency in solving their own problems. Blaming Moses was easy, but it kept them from seeing the real problem.
  • Similarly, fear among the Philippians may have been keeping them from seeing what Paul could see. Paul, a veteran at suffering for the faith, apparently found it not only a necessary aspect of living according to his beliefs, but also a way of growth. Instead of fearing what life might bring, the Philippians would be more prepared for the dangers ahead by seeing them as a way to test themselves and grow into what mattered to them.
  • Finally, the sense of injustice among the day laborers was interfering with their capacity to see the relative plight of others. Our brains still function as though we humans were in the hunter-gatherer groups in which we evolved. In these smaller group settings, each person's capacity and contribution were carefully monitored and maximized each day through a cooperative group process. These same processes fail us in larger, more hierarchical systems. For example, in this story, the landowner had to seek out those lacking work, which would not have been necessary, back in the (hunter-gatherer) day! These days, seeing what the other is up against takes some thoughtfulness.

    Human emotions drive many automatic behaviors. Relationship processes can serve to spread emotions quickly among a group. The person who can wonder about their reactions – blaming, fear, and anger, to name a few – has a chance to use the underlying energy while letting go of the immaturity involved.  Leading others out of a wilderness – whether it's a desert in 1200 BCE or the cruelties of 2020 – begins here. In the end, no one can control whether she will be paid fairly, or persecuted, or face hunger. What she can control is what she does with her life each day.  

 

Reflections:

Morning: In what ways do I function as a good leader? What might stir up my reactivity today?  

Evening: Where did I have energy in my day?

Psalm 145:9b The compassion of the Lord is over all his works.

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How many times?!

    How many times do I have to forgive my brother? As many as seven times? Today's gospel begins with Peter asking Jesus these two great questions. Jesus gives an unforgettable answer: more like 70 times seven.

    One does wish for more commentary in the scriptures on the reactions of the people around Jesus when he comes out with these astonishing replies. What did Peter say or do next? Bang his hand to his forehead? Storm away? Send the first century version of an OMG text message to other disciples in the room? Seven times of forgiving someone seems like plenty. 

    As is often the case, Jesus sees it differently. He launches into a story about a man who forgives the debt of someone who owed him a huge amount. The person who is shown mercy, however, is not equally generous. He proceeds to go to those who owe him much smaller amounts, insisting that they pay him back, and creating trouble for those who do not. Next, the man who had originally forgiven the huge debt finds out about the person's actions and recants the debt forgiveness. The person is handed over to torturers until he pays his debt, which is more than he could ever repay.  

    This brilliant, multi-layered story suggests the reciprocal processes of life through which each of us is obligated to one another. Peter was thinking of himself as one who had forgiven generously – seven times, maybe! But he asks the question – how many times must I forgive – as though he himself were being tortured each time. It is as if the act of forgiving a debt were causing him pain.

    The debts we owe to one another are kept on a ledger of sorts, in our minds. The balance of our human interactions and who owes what to whom seems to be something that each person attends to, with a quick, ongoing accounting of what's fair and unfair within the group. Other species seem to do this too – horses for instance, will notice if one gets more or better feed. The problem, though, is when these calculations take over one's mind. When a person begins to bend everything back to himself, thinking of each debt only in terms of what is owed to him, he begins to lose touch with this larger reality of his relative place in the nested obligations and relationships of life. When he continually ruminates on how he has been harmed, what is owed to him, to the exclusion of those around him, it becomes a kind of torture in itself. As the person loses sight of other perspectives, focusing solely on his own miserable grievances and with himself as the central character, he moves further from truth and more towards a confused version of what's fair.

    There is much that's unfair in life, and Jesus in other passages is quick to take the side of those treated unjustly. The focus here is not about forgiveness per se, but the ongoing disaster of failing to cultivate a broad perspective and an understanding spirit. Not unlike a child having a melt-down, adults also have protracted bouts of insisting that the whole world owes them. They (we!) can convince ourselves that we have been magnanimous to others, without awareness of our debt to those who have put up with us along the way.

    Staying aware of the challenges one presents to others and how others make allowances for oneself brings one closer to the truth about one's world. Seeking to understand the predicament others find themselves in, and how their circumstances came to be, can help to gain a bigger view on perceived wrongs. Getting curious about how others see a problem can help one to understand all that has happened. Letting go of a grudge and moving on is always worth a try. Seventy times seven tries!

Reflections

Morning: Where could I use a larger perspective? Who could I talk with to find out more?

Evening: Where did I hold a grudge today?

Psalm 103:8 The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness.

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Going High

September 6: Exodus 12:1-14 and Psalm 149  •  Ezekiel 33:7-11 and Psalm 119:33-40  •  Romans 13:8-14  •  Matthew 18:15-20

    Today's gospel reading is a quick introduction to doing things the way Jesus did them. Not for the faint-of-heart, these words should come with some sort of warning: Not the easy way! Jesus begins with a common situation: a problem between two people. The two already know each other and they are part of the same group. In the gospel, the group was a small faith community. In my mind, whether it's family or church or work setting or any other community, the instructions apply equally well. In the passage, Jesus provides a four-step process for working things out.

    Step one is for one of the two persons to go to the other one to talk about the problem at hand. However, the obvious first step is often ignored, as our instinct as human beings is to go to a third person to complain! The instinct to avoid a problem rather than engage it, followed by the effort to hand off the problem to a third party, is an all-too-common pattern. Or, one can attempt to stuff it inside, not mentioning it to anyone. Often, at least in my own experience, an odd combination of both is attempted! The 'problem,' whatever it is, has somehow stirred up some feelings. Engaging the problem begins with managing one's own anxiety rather than taking it personally. The good news here is that one has agency over one's feelings. One can reflect thoughtfully on one's emotions.  Once a person has calmed herself down, it is possible to consider in what ways one has contributed to the problem that needs to be discussed with another. Then it's time to talk.

    Sometimes talking with the person – step two – goes well. Moving towards the problem gently but clearly may bring up all kinds of nuances each person had failed to understand previously. It's a short hop from more understanding of a problem to new insights about it. However, going through this process of self-reflection, staying calm, and talking with another, takes time and energy. During a pandemic, it takes more than that – it takes intention. A person has to arrange each conversation, as there is no casual running into one another at the office, in the neighborhood, at the gym, at church, or any of many places we are all missing these days. The Covid-19 virus underscores the need to be intentional about relationship processes.

    The most well-intended efforts, though, sometimes fail.     When the problem continues, step three – involving others – is important not only for the two with a disagreement, but also for the larger community. The underlying anxiety and the problem itself are more than the two can handle alone. Bringing in one or two others who can help sort it out can bring a solution not only for the original twosome but also for the entire group. When cooperation finds new expression, the capacity of the group to manage its problems grows.  

    Finally, step four: when nothing seems to be working, treat the person like a tax collector. The advice of Jesus here is often understood to mean shunning the person. I see it differently. Jesus himself was criticized just a few chapters back in Matthew 11, for partying with tax collectors. His interest in people extended to them. He saw them as people. He moved closer to this universally reviled group, in spite of much criticism for doing so, seeking to understand rather than reproach them.  

    The ability to be with others without agreeing with them – without losing one's own identity – is key here. Maybe the most important thing about this passage is what it doesn't say. Briefly, it doesn't say to give in. When there is conflict, the energy of the emotional system can help a person to hold on to inner principles. It can provide strength to overcome helplessness and engage a problem. While the four steps may fail to bring agreement, they offer the chance to respect the dignity of every human being, including one's self, along the way.     

Reflections

Morning: Where in the four-step process do I struggle the most? What could I do differently?

Evening: What people or problems were difficult for me to engage today?

Psalm 149:4 For the LORD takes pleasure in his people; he adorns the humble with victory.

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