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Lectionary Living


Job 1:1, 2:1-10 and Psalm 26  •  Genesis 2:18-24 and Psalm 8  •  Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12  •  Mark 10:2-16


    Family relationships are front and center in both the Genesis and the Mark readings this week. How these texts apply and don't apply to our time and place, while interesting, are only a side dish to the insights served up here. In the readings, a feast is spread out before us. 

    Mark comes in three pieces: what Jesus says to the lawyers, what he says to the disciples, and what he does with the children. First, Jesus lands a punch at the Pharisees and all of us: the biblical laws about divorce reflect not God's will so much as your (our) hardness of heart (v. 5). Well, that's fair, and not only around divorce, right? Many rules exist to corral humans at our not-so-great moments. One can even sympathize with the problem the Pharisees have in trying to trap Jesus, who could see so much.

    What Jesus does next is equally amazing, bringing both creation stories into the picture. From the beginning of creation, God made them male and female (v. 6), is a nod to the first story, and also perhaps a nod to the equal footing of gender in it. That piece aside, the first chapter of Genesis provides an even bigger view. A look back at Genesis 1:22 is a reminder that not only had God made them male and female, but also that God made them in God's own likeness. All the gathered crowd listening to this exchange would have known that. Jesus was throwing down a clarion call to grow ourselves up.

    Marriage – or any kind of partnering or living together – is a chance to grow oneself up. What often gets confusing (!) is that it is not a chance to grow one's partner up! Much of life can be spent focusing on and correcting or reacting to one's partner. The intensity can be enormous. The only person one can change, though, is oneself. To tackle one's own hardness of heart, one must see one's own contributions to every problem and decide what one is going to do differently in each relationship.

    Easier said than done. As if to acknowledge the difficulty, Jesus next talks about the second creation story: leaving one's parents, finding a mate, and becoming one flesh (Mark 10:7-8; Genesis 2:24). The Bible's description of human couples merging into one flesh describes a process ongoing not only in families, but also in the herds, flocks, and swarms of many species where survival depends on individuals operating together as one unit. In human families, ways of managing individuality and togetherness are transmitted from generation to generation.

    Noticing the togetherness pressure is a first step towards being more of a grown-up individual in it. Togetherness will always exist, with deep roots back in one's own family, where it might be better understood. While establishing adult-adult connections with older family members may not seem the obvious solution to problems in one's current relationship, the reluctance to try is the 'tell' of its importance.

    In his recent book, Born a Crime, Trevor Noah described his mother telling him as a young adult that he needed to find his father. When he asked why in the world he would need to do that, she said, "Because he's a piece of you, and if you don't find him you won't find yourself" (p. 101).  The good news for couples: as a person becomes more herself, being 'one flesh' with one's partner becomes less intense, blameful, and frustrating while also more resourceful, playful, and calmer. Becoming responsible for oneself and to others begins at home.

    Today's Mark passage ends with responsibility to the next generation: to the children. Jesus is unequivocal on this point. Each generation of a family has a responsibility to the next generation. Neither an over-focus or an under-focus on the kids does them any good; instead, working on becoming one's own most mature and least reactive self gives them room to grow up too.



Morning: How might I develop more adult-adult connections with older family members?

Evening: When did I notice togetherness pressures today? How was I clear about my own position?

Psalm 8:3-4 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?

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If I Perish, I Perish

(9/26) Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22 and Psalm 124  •  Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29 and Psalm 19:7-14  •  James 5:13-20  •  Mark 9:38-50


    One of the greatest stories in a book of great stories, the book of Esther is about an orphan Jewish girl. The set-up offers a humorous sidenote: beginning with a king at the end of a six-month party binge, who gets his feelings hurt when he calls for his more sober wife, who refuses to come. The wife – told never to enter the king's presence again, which I'm guessing was fine with her – is eventually replaced through a prospective 'bride and queen contest' won by Esther. I am not making this up! Esther had been entered into the event by her uncle Mordecai, who had been her caretaker for many years.


    Now Mordecai had advised Esther to keep her Jewish background to herself. Later, when Haman, an advisor to the king, convinces the king to have all the Jews in the kingdom killed, Mordecai manages to get word to Esther of the plot. Esther lets him know that she has not been invited into the king's presence in a month and has limited capacity to influence the situation. Mordecai messages back that all their people will die if she doesn't do something. Esther next takes a I-position, asking that all the Jewish people make a three-day period of fasting and prayer, after which, "I will go to the king, even though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish" (4:16).


    Esther keeps her wits about her, though. She is perspicacious, seeing what has to be done and finding a way forward. She manages to approach the king with his approval, inviting him and the Jews' archenemy, Haman, to a banquet. Haman goes back to his family, bragging about the invitation, and complaining that the only thing between him and total happiness was a small feud he'd had with Mordecai. It's a great study in triangles: Esther's capacity to relate to both the king and Haman, versus Mordecai's incapacity to endure anyone taking a position different from his own. It's at this point in the story – actually, the second of two banquets held by Esther – that today's reading begins. Haman is hung; a new policy is made so that the Jews are free to defend themselves.


    In a sense, Esther herself is set free in this story. By its conclusion, she has already become her own person. Earlier, when she was able to declare what she was going to do about the problem presented to her, Esther has liberated-in-place, becoming herself in the middle of a challenging environment. If I perish, I perish. When a person comes to this point, determined to take a stand, her self is more solid for it. 


    Whether it's a big decision or a small moment of everyday life, attending to one's responsibility for oneself includes attention to process, to how one is going to manage oneself in it. Consider the late banjo player Bill Emerson, may he rest in peace, who once said, "For me, it's all about satisfying me. If I feel good about what I did, it's better than a thousand people on their feet applauding." He described that sometimes, when he knew he'd played his best, no one said anything to him about it. Other times, when he knew he'd done poorly, lots of folks would come up to him and say great job. Eventually, he decided that he would give up on pleasing the crowd and be his own judge of how he was playing: the banjo player's version of Esther, and each of us. If I perish, at least I perish for doing the best I knew how to do.


    In today's gospel, Jesus was talking about the same idea. If some part of how you are living is getting in the way of being fully alive, then lose it. It's better to let go of what's not working than to continually let it gnaw away at you, taking your solid self from you every day of your life.



Morning: Where might I have to give up some aspect of my life today, to gain myself?

Evening: When have I taken a stand? What difference has it made to my life?

Psalm 19:8 the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is clear, enlightening the eyes.

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(9/19): Proverbs 31:10-31 and Psalm 1  •  Wisdom of Solomon 1:16-2:1, 12-22 or Jeremiah 11:18-20 and Psalm 54  •  James 3:13 - 4:3, 7-8a  •  Mark 9:30-37


The bookends for the Sunday readings this week – Proverbs and Mark – offer challenges for the 21st century reader. In Proverbs, one can easily get lost in wondering what flax looks like, or why a merchant would want a sash? In Mark, the contextual difficulties are double trouble, for they are elusive and yet go straight to the heart of the message. Sigh! Let's plunge ahead.


To gain strength for the journey, today's psalm is a help. A happiness can be gained – not a superficial kind – but a deep satisfaction can come from applying scripture to daily life. Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers. Now, thinking about the scoffer in me and my multigenerational family, it calls me up short! Still, to be free of a thing, one must first observe it. Onward.


The Proverbs reading, an acrostic poem in the Hebrew, is an ode to a "good" or capable wife. The author of the poem was forward thinking for his time, urging that she get a share of the profits from all her labor. I wonder, more basically, if she was doing too much.


When a person does more than her share, it may seem valiant, or virtuous. The long-term consequences, though, are less than admirable. When others get used to her being responsible for everything, they become less responsible for their own part in anything. Eventually, others around this person begin to lose capacity to be responsible for themselves, to do the ordinary things in life that others can manage who had less over-functioning parents! As adults, these folks must overcome the helplessness that comes from being too cared for. 


The Mark passage moves to a time and place where children were plentiful and tended to be overlooked. A family photo taken during Jesus' time, if such could be found, would show many children, a few parents, and very few older folks. In such a world, being a child brought zero prestige. It's a little like being old today; one is seen as a bit of a nuisance: requiring patience, and feeding, even, in spite of a lack of productivity.


In a re-telling of the story for our time, perhaps Jesus would bring in an 85-year-old and set her down in the middle of the group, reminding us to be servants of everyone. Regardless of the era, the larger point remains.  When Jesus plopped that child down in the midst of his disciples, he was countering their concern with identifying who was the greatest. Making comparisons suddenly looked silly. Here was a child, as important as anyone on earth.


In human relationships, it's easy to get distracted by who's more important/successful, or who's closer to whom, or who gets left out. While humans (and other mammals) are wired to notice and avoid loneliness, a focus on the attention, appreciation, approval, and/or expectations of others keeps a person stuck in comparisons: immaturity, in a word. Comparing is twin to coveting, the only vice which made it twice into the ten commandments! It's a dangerous path.


Instead of comparing oneself to others, an inner guidance system regarding one's own satisfaction with oneself is an option. Proverbs' good wife is a great example. If she's busy trying to be the greatest wife on the block, she's losing herself. If she's busy with her responsibilities for herself and to others – busy with the tasks that matter to her and connecting with others on them – she's becoming a mature self: happy, as the psalmist might say.



Morning: When am I at my most mature? When does maturity bring a kind of happiness?

Evening: When did I get interested in comparisons with others? How did I regain my own focus?

Psalm 1:3 They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.

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It Don't Come Easy

(9/12): Proverbs 1:20-33 and Psalm 19 or Wisdom of Solomon 7:26 - 8:1  •  Isaiah 50:4-9a and Psalm 116:1-9  •  James 3:1-12  •  Mark 8:27-38

    Last summer I talked about the Matthew version of this passage, Counter-Intuitive on Aug 24, 2020. This week, the Mark version is paired with Isaiah and James, who talk about teaching, in the distinct but inimitable styles that each is famous for. Then Jesus proceeds to give a master class in how to teach. Well, who could resist the chance to reflect on teaching, with such a set of material!

    The Isaiah reading is set sometime after the Hebrew people were marched off into exile. His description of himself as knowing how to sustain the weary with a word, makes perfect sense in terms of the Babylonian exile; he was teacher to a weary and discouraged people. Look at what happens to him though, for his efforts: insults, being spit upon, getting hit, and even people tugging at his beard. Apparently, not everyone was interested in being encouraged.

    When I taught remedial math at the community college level, most of my students were uninterested in my well-meaning, encouraging words. Once I began asking them what they saw as their problem and how they planned to get through the semester, things changed. They could overcome their own sense of helplessness and engage the challenge a little more. Acknowledging their responsibility for learning in turn had an impact on me. I was able to be more curious with them about how I could meet my responsibility to them. I started wondering and sometimes asking, "What would be useful?"

    One resource available to every teacher is her own experience. I had struggled with my share of hard math problems. For his part, Isaiah understood only too well the helpless feeling that his people were up against. Sustained by his morning prayers, he had found a way out of helplessness. As he put it, the Lord God wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. Every good teacher walks this demanding path.

    Unlike Isaiah, who seemed to be faced with a dearth of leadership, James warned against too many people becoming teachers. Teachers will be judged with greater strictness (v. 2). Then and now, taking on the role as teacher sets a person up for criticism; it's easier for the rest of us to focus on the teacher than it is to come up with our own views! Often, though, the role of teacher is unofficial: occurring whether we intend to take on the role or not. Throughout life – and across many species – we learn continually from one another. Sometimes, species survival depends on passing on what we know.

    It's how to pass it on that's the problem. As James so clearly says, the tongue can be dangerous and destructive! Lashing out solves nothing. In the Mark passage, Jesus models mature ways of using language – asking good questions, talking about his own views and asking others about theirs.  

    What's a good question? To begin, good questions denigrate no one. They are constructive, not reactive. When not too hard, they stir up genuine curiosity (For instance, Jesus asking, Who do people say that I am?). When well-framed, they ask the person to define her own position (Who do you say that I am?).  With effort, a person wrestling with a good question can build her own understanding, eventually able to describe herself in an I-position: what I think and what I'm going to do.  

    In the Mark reading, Jesus soon turns to another question: What does it profit anyone, to gain the whole world and lose one's soul? What, indeed. I'm reminded of a prayer for healing asking for that victory of life and peace enabling you to serve… (Book of Common Prayer p. 456). Life and peace don't come easy; they are available to those who have struggled with Jesus' question regarding profit and loss, found their answer, and acted on it. Not easy tasks – but they round out the subject of how to teach. A good question stirs interest, prompts clarity within self and with others, and ends in action.



Morning: What's a question I'd like to get clearer about?

Evening: When did I manage not to lash out, finding a good question or taking an "I-position" instead?

Psalm 116:7 Return, O my soul, to your rest, for the LORD has dealt bountifully with you.

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