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Lectionary Living

The Washington Nationals and a Palm Sunday Crowd

(3/28) Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29  •  Mark 11:1-11 or John 12:12-16

    My one experience at a sort-of-Palm Sunday event came in the fall of 2019. The Washington Nationals had just won the world series. The somewhat impromptu parade -  starting at the Washington Monument and ending at the foot of the Capitol on the northwest corner, was unusual for DC. These things are usually planned, way ahead. But the superstitions of baseball would not allow for any pre-planning! So the word came out, like a day or two before, that there would be a parade. It was a gorgeous day. There was no time for making fancy signs or otherwise getting organized. A lot of us dedicated fans just showed up.

    The parade itself was pretty casual. The players were coming by on flatbed trailers, several to a truck. We yelled and screamed their names, and they were close enough to respond to the crowd as individuals. Every once in a while, someone would start up a cheer and we'd all - or almost all - add our voices to it, unthinkingly, really. If someone had said 'the sky is green,' I might have repeated it several times before realizing it was nonsense. It was all in good fun.

    And then someone started a cheer about the Nats winning the world series again in 2020. The players in front of us just looked at us. And then they looked at each other, shook their heads no, no way, and laughed. They knew how hard it had been. They knew what had gone into it. They knew the strange combination of circumstances which had propelled them from struggling in last place to barely making the playoffs to becoming world champions. And they also knew, right then, that the crowd did not understand. The crowd had failed to get it.

    Sometimes, joining into the crowd mentality can be relatively harmless, as it was that day. It was fun, no more, no less. Other times, joining into the crowd mentality has risks. A person can lose her thinking brain, unable to see the reality of the situation. Going along with the group, one can support people and ideas without really understanding them. Then, a friendly crowd can become a dangerous mob, as reflected a little later in Mark (15:13) when a crowd shouts "crucify him" to Pilate.

    The crowd laying down palms in front of the donkey carrying Jesus - what were they thinking? From the language they used – the Hosannas – it seems that they were welcoming their leader. Like goofy baseball fans though, they had not really thought it through. Acting like children, they had all agreed to pin their hopes for a bright and happy future on this one man.

    The human need to agree is a powerful force: to go with the flow, to enjoy the comfort of imagining that 'we' are all thinking and feeling the same way. While it can make us less anxious for a while, it can also lead to immaturity, to a giving up of self for the chance to be a part of the group. Each person can begin to lose agency, expecting somehow that the group or perhaps some leader will emerge to take responsibility for them. The immaturity itself can be as contagious as covid, spreading across a community quickly.

    The Nats baseball players quickly tamped down the expectation of another World Series bid in 2020.  Jesus, who had spent his life clarifying what he was here to do and not do, summed up his response to the crowd a few days later on a cross. Each of us has the same option: go with the crowd or remain connected to others while seeing reality and choosing one's own way. Seeing what's real can be part of the challenge. A crowd or at least a few others who are unafraid to disagree or add new thoughts matters. Getting a broader perspective is useful. Understanding the game, appreciating its beauty and nuances, allows one to live more fully.


Morning: Where could I use a broader perspective?

Evening: When did I notice myself feeling pressured to agree?

Psalm 118:19 Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the LORD.

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The Back Story

(3/21) Jeremiah 31:31-34  •  Psalm 51:1-12 or Psalm 119:9-16  •  Hebrews 5:5-10  •  John 12:20-33

    Kind of an odd beginning to this week's gospel. Knee-deep in John, the thickest material ever on the life of Jesus, and already past the parade of palms into Jerusalem, it suddenly turns to what seems to be trivial detail on who said what to whom. Turns out that the writer is trying to describe the context for the deep insight coming next. For it to make sense, the reader must first understand the back story.

    The background involves some 'Greeks' who had come to the Passover Festival. While they may have been Greek Jews, the wording suggests that they were non-Jewish by birth. Possibly, they were interested or somehow starting to identify as members of the Jewish faith. The problem was that they wanted to see Jesus at the festival; temple worship had admission criteria which they might not have fit.

    Another complication might have been language. The Greeks spoke in Koine Greek – the universal language of the Roman Empire; the Aramaic language (closely related to Hebrew) might have been more common in Jerusalem.  They chose to approach Phillip, a disciple with a Greek name from Bethsaida, a region with many Greeks in the surrounding area. The scripture does not say whether they knew him or had sought out information about those close to Jesus and found out that a few were from Bethsaida.  Phillip then turns to Andrew, another disciple from his hometown (John 1:44), to talk about what to do. They go together to tell Jesus what's happened.

    When Jesus hears their report, he puts the pieces together. It's an epiphany for him to see how his death, which he knew was coming soon, was timed for success, as it were. How the good news was already beginning to spread; what was needed for it to blossom; all of this he recognized in a flash of insight. Verses 23-26 say it all.

    Here, and on a decidedly more mundane note, I'd like to go back to the opening verses for the reading. The side story, the description of the very human processes of reaching out to others and making the connections necessary to meet a goal, are the world most of us live in, most of the time. And, after all, without them, we would not have the amazing epiphanic moment reported here.

    The wise among us pay attention to the side stories. They notice who is talking to whom and where people are from. They think about the context behind what is unfolding in front of them. They strive to be respectful of the ways people are already connected, joining in cooperative, rather than destructive, ways. They treat these details as, well, holy.

    The holiness of everyday life can easily be forgotten in the busyness and business of our world. The Greeks had a goal. They thought through the best way to approach it. One person listened to them, and, considering what to do, involved another. Together they approached their leader to think it through. What an ordinary story!

    An ordinary day includes many human interactions. They often clump together in trios of three: the Greeks, their spokesperson, and Phillip; Phillip, Andrew, and Jesus. Seeing how the trios operate can be useful. For instance, when Phillip told Andrew about the Greeks, they decided they needed to include Jesus in the conversation. In other trios, one person can be left out, or blamed, or complained about, by the other two. In well-balanced clumps, all three persons are in good contact with one another.    Noticing these human clumps and how they are operating in one's life can make a difference. Once a person starts becoming aware of how they are working, then one has more choices on how to manage oneself in them. Along the way, the everyday becomes the holy, and maybe, vice versa too.  


Morning: What are some of the clumps or trios in my life? How balanced are they?

Evening: What happened when I connected with others today?

Psalm 119:15 I will meditate on your precepts, and fix my eyes on your ways.

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Small Steps

(3/14): Numbers 21:4-9  •  Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22  •  Ephesians 2:1-10  •  John 3:14-21       

    Count on the fourth Sunday of Lent for things to start getting dicey. This year, the Numbers reading has the Israelites complaining about their circumstances and resenting the leaders who had brought them there. Next come poisonous snakes. Finally, God tells Moses to craft a poisonous serpent on a pole and hold it up; anyone bitten by a snake who looks at the bronze serpent on the pole will live.         

    In a similar vein, the psalmist is unsparing in his description of people. Some were sick through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities endured affliction. The Ephesians reading begins with the declaration that you were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived. Finally, the gospel reading likens Moses lifting up the serpent on the pole with the lifting up of Jesus on the cross.  

    What's the poor human to do? In my humble opinion, this week's lectionary selections, perhaps a well-intentioned effort to remind us of our need of God, can instead induce a bit of helplessness. If it's this bad, why try? If the cycle of try-repent-try-again is bound to repeat itself, why bother? Growing towards the person one wants to become can seem too hard, too slow. The inability to be perfect, to get it right, whatever it is that day, can induce more helplessness, more immaturity!

    At this point, laughing at oneself can help. And trying something new can make a difference.  Consider the bronze serpent on the pole. Take the very thing that is poisonous to you, and stare at it. Perhaps an early version of exposure therapy, the idea would be to sit with it long enough that it no longer scares you.

    Many human problems begin with something we're afraid of. Once anxiety is in the air, it looks for a place to land. For the Israelites, it was being in the desert itself that got them scared. After that, it was easy for the tension to spread around the community, and to land on the bad food and lack of water. The snakes were the final blow, but the fear had started much earlier.

    For us today, one year into the covid pandemic, it seems like people have almost forgotten what got everybody so anxious. Tension, blaming, and arguments can land on anything, it seems. And here's where one has to stop staring at the current issue, the snake, as it were. People must step back and see the worry, the tension in the air. Each must consider how the worry is getting managed or spread around the group, considering one's own responsibility for oneself.

    A worried attention on another person is a common way of managing one's own anxiety. Mistaken for compassion, it actually interferes with the growth of the other and also keeps one from appropriate attention to one's own self. If a person can ever stop focusing on others, what they should do or think and/or how one might 'help,' then one can set the mind on a more curious course. A broader perspective and new insights may result. Relationships may be restored. Life may look a little brighter.

    Small steps, for sure – but leading towards a new set point one's life. Others may try to push one back towards one's previous functioning, but that's all part of the growth. They will eventually adjust and begin to grow themselves, too. And the next time one goes through the try-repent-try again cycle, one begins with a little more self in place, and a little more connection to others.      

Daily Reflections

Morning: How will I work to manage my own anxiousness today?

Evening: When did I notice tension today? How was it managed or spread around the group?

Psalm 107:1-2 O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever. Let the redeemed of the LORD say so, those he redeemed from trouble

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On Being Human

(3/7) Exodus 20:1-17  •  Psalm 19  •  1 Corinthians 1:18-25  •  John 2:13-22

    Everyone has a tipping point; even Jesus could get mad. In this week's John reading, he's walking into the temple during the week before Passover when it happens. The Passover festival itself had become an opportunity for a few to take advantage of the crowds of people in Jerusalem. To meet their needs, an area of the temple had been set up as a storefront, with sheep, doves, and cattle ready to be sold. Merchants, with tables set up to manage various currency of the travelers to Jerusalem, were present too. Convenience without rival – compared to this operation, Amazon Prime is a distant second. Jesus, apparently pretty put out, first took the time to make a rope whip. Next he drove out the animals and turned over the tables of the merchants. Last, he explained himself, telling those selling the doves to stop making my Father's house a marketplace.  

    Jesus here illustrates a key aspect of being human. The emotional system, when yoked to the intellectual system, can do great things. The energy available to the person – the adrenalin rush, we would call it – must be channeled. Overthinking it must be avoided, lest the energy be lost; one's principles must already be in place and ready for action. When the moment is right, though, it can serve a great purpose. In this case, a purpose still reflected on, all over the world, on the third Sunday of Lent.  

    When expressed as thoughtless reactivity and sprayed around a group of people, anger can do a lot of damage. The danger, though, is the avoidance of the expression of any anger. The idea that one must always please others, or always be willing to compromise, is far from the example being set here. In this reading, the time had come to take a mature stand against the corrupt temple practices.

    Corruption itself is injustice finding its way into everyday practice. At its most basic, it's something one hears on the playground: that's not fair. Animal species too – from crows to dogs to horses to primates – react to unfairness. Crows go pretty far with this – refusing any food reward at all, even after completing the task, if another crow had received a better one! Among humans, we adults, used to the unfairness of life, still have a tipping point. Sometimes, things just go too far to be tolerated.

     I wonder if the sense of fairness has been built into creatures as an adaptive process. If food is not shared, the herd diminishes; without the herd, the survival of the individuals is threatened. Attention to fairness gets built in, making sure all are eating, with a cross-species attention, as well. Did you know that animals take turns at water holes every day? This allows all to live – and hunt and be hunted by one another time!

    Attention to inequity is ongoing in human communities. When humans lived in small tribes, there was a good chance that fairness within the tribe itself would prevail. Everyone worked; everyone ate; all of it was monitored by group members. Even today, on a busy family farm, the five-year old washes the dishes because the family needs for her to help – everyday life is an all-hands-on-deck situation. All contribute and all are cared for. In a functional family or other group, each person is attending to responsibilities for self and to others. Respecting the dignity of all prevails. 

    The trouble is that today's large and loosely connected human communities often lack a tribe's constant attention to fairness. Some win and some lose. In today's story, the winners were the temple authorities and merchants. The losers were all those flocking to the city to observe the Passover, about to be taken advantage of.

    The anger of Jesus was certainly Biblical. A thousand and one prophetic texts come to mind. Let justice roll on like a river (Amos 5:24). What does the Lord require, but to do justice, show mercy, and walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8) And so on. In addition to being Biblical, justice, as I see it, is human. Sensitivity to unfairness is built-in to our species. Noticing it, deciding what one will do about it, offers a chance to be more human: more oneself. 

Daily Reflections:

Morning: Where might I see unfairness today?

Evening: When did I express anger in a mature way today? When did I get more reactive and less thoughtful?

Psalm 19:12 But who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults.

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