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Lectionary Living

Mindful of the Needs of Others

10/10: Job 23:1-9, 16-17 and Psalm 22:1-15  •  Amos 5:6-7, 10-15 and Psalm 90:12-17  •  Hebrews 4:12-16  •  Mark 10:17-31

    Tucked away, in the so-called minor prophets at the end of the Hebrew scriptures, is the short book of Amos. It begins with a brief introduction: the words of Amos, a shepherd, and what he saw at a particular point in the history of Judah and Israel, two years before an otherwise unidentified earthquake (1:1). Later in the book (7:14), Amos himself denied being a prophet.

    In chapter 7, Amos was being pressured by Amaziah, priest at Bethel. Warning Amos to go earn his bread elsewhere, Amaziah described Bethel as the king's sanctuary, and a temple of the kingdom. Amos quickly quelled any notion that he was in this project for the money. He earned his bread through working as a herder and a dresser of sycamore trees. He was prophet based on what he had seen and understood as his to communicate to the people of Israel. He had a responsibility he intended to meet.

    The priest back in Bethel gets hammered for trying to stop him! The curse (7:17) was thorough, beginning with his own family and extending to the entire people of Israel. And this makes sense to me. The people were responsible, in a sense, for making Amaziah responsible for them. It was a reciprocal process. It's a bargain somehow: if you will be the priest, we will let you think for us.

    Nothing good comes from letting others think for us, as it keeps individuals stuck. Nothing good comes from thinking for others, as it keeps each one from his own work. No one grows up! The over-under responsibility imbalance is a quandary for churches today. As families shrink in size, congregations have new challenges. Will they adapt quickly enough to live in this new world, seeing the path forward, reframing the mission? Will there be a famine of hearing the word of the Lord? (Amos 8:11).

    Amos was clear about his own mission. Over and over again, in this short book, he condemns those who trample on the poor (5:11). Little escaped his scrutiny. Rich women were cows of Bashan… who crush the needy, who say to their husbands, 'bring something to drink. (4:1). He warned the people that their lovely worship was despised by God: I will not listen to the noise of your songs… but let justice roll down like water (5:23-24). In particular, he pointed out (twice – 2:6, 8:6) that the rich sell the righteous for sliver, and the needy for a pair of sandals.

    It's unclear from the text whether this selling of the righteous and the needy was a matter of bribery to slant justice their way or outright slavery – from which they as a people had escaped just a few centuries earlier. Either way, they were directly or indirectly profiting from those less fortunate. Amos was calling it out: an 8th century BCE version of systemic injustice if you will. As a people, they had been formed through years in the wilderness, managing their togetherness with an acute sense of justice described in the ten commandments. Now their community was fraught with unfairness.

    For his part, Amos was not without mercy. He pleaded O Lord God, forgive, I beg you! (7:2). Maybe his compassion and perspective came from a vocation of herding sheep and trimming trees. I'm reminded of All Creatures Great and Small, a book about veterinarians in rural England. Just reading the book or watching the original show – no less if one had actually been on the dale, day after day – one can develop more of an awareness of what we creatures are up against. 

    With wealth, one can forget how hard life can be. Here Jesus calls it out, in a well-known but routinely ignored verse. How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! (Mark 10:23). Hiding behind houses of hewn stone (Amos 5:11) keeps one from the reality of what others are facing. Staying connected with others is each person's responsibility to (not for) us all. Keep us ever mindful of the needs of others is a prayer that manifests – and blesses – to the extent that one is in relationship with others.  


Morning: What would Amos say about the world I live in? What might I do differently within it?  

Evening: How wealthy am I? How does my wealth get in the way of living in the kingdom of God?

Psalm 90:12 So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.

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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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