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Lectionary Living

Four not-so-easy steps

Acts 2:14a, 36-41  •  Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19  •  1 Peter 1:17-23  •  Luke 24:13-35

    Growing up, my mother hung clothes on a clothesline to dry, a little self-conscious about what was on it, as all the neighbors could see. A clothesline display of what we humans are up against is provided in today's reading from Luke. The story begins with two followers of Jesus on a long walk – seven miles – to Emmaus. One is named Cleopas, and the other unnamed person may have been his wife, Mary (see John 19:25). Whoever they are, the two are walking along, talking about the death of Jesus and all the things that had happened in Jerusalem, joining together in their views and their feelings. It is comforting, in a strange way, to stir the pot of anxiety with someone else who is similarly upset – sort of like selecting a cable news television channel these days, but I digress.

    When Jesus joins the pair on their walk, they were so deeply engrossed in their conversation that they did not recognize him. He listens for a while as they describe the recent events, but can only take it for so long, finally saying "How foolish!" Not only had they been unwise, he also says that their hearts were slow.

    Jesus then breaks it down for them. He begins with their blaming the crucifixion on the chief priests and governing leaders. He is quite matter of fact: it was not their fault, it had to happen in this way. He then began to unpack the story, beginning way back with Moses, bringing it forward so that they could see the larger picture. Their fears were calmed, as they began to understand that his death was not in vain, but part of a larger purpose. He does one more thing. He blesses the bread they are about to eat, seeing to their hunger after a long walk. And it is at this point that they start to understand.

    In essence, Jesus did four things. He stops the blaming, takes a bigger view, calms the anxiety, and attends to physical needs – remembering that we are but dust. He gets what it is like to be a human being, and provides us with a four-step process, a way out of our confusion. Depending on the circumstances, the order of these four things may be different, or more of a weaving of several threads, than in the chronology of this story – still, it seems that they all matter.

    Blaming others, around since the garden of Eden, deserves a special mention. Blame not only gets in the way of understanding events more deeply, it also impacts relationship processes. Sometimes, two people find blaming a third person an easy way to agree, so that getting along is at the expense of another. Or, as with the pair on the road to Emmaus who found blaming the authorities for Jesus's crucifixion an easy way to think about his death; blaming provided a helpless, immature posture making few demands on their lives.

    Blaming others can use up a lot of energy, diverting attention and strength away from one's responsibilities for self and to others. When a person can get clear, though, about what has happened, what her choices are, and what she is going to do with it – then, energy and motivation follow. Suddenly, one can begin growing up, stopping the blaming, accepting responsibility for one's own life, and getting interested in what might happen. As the story ends, and the pair is walking back another seven miles to Jerusalem to tell the disciples what they have learned, they have a new energy for what lies ahead.

For reflection:

Morning: What do I have energy for today? Where might my way of looking at things lack wisdom?

Evening: When did I get stuck in blaming another? Where did I find a bigger view than I had understood before?

Psalm 116:12 What shall I return to the LORD for all his bounty to me?   

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Plenty to do (Easter 2)

Acts 2:14a, 22-32  •  Psalm 16  •  1 Peter 1:3-9  •  John 20:19-31

    In the pandemic world we are now inhabiting, each of us is shut up inside our own home, for fear of the virus. It's not that different from the disciples, who were shut up for fear of the authorities when in walks Jesus. The disciples are overjoyed. Jesus gets right to the point – four points, really: peace, mission, a spirit of holiness, and forgiveness. All of these topics are covered in a short three verses, and all of it speaks volumes to our current quarantine predicament.

    Jesus begins by saying "peace be with you." For the disciples, terrified that they too might be crucified, a sense of inner peace may have been in short supply. Peace between the disciples may have been lacking too. When people are confined together in a small space, tension between them can grow fast. Thomas, who was not there, had probably slipped out for supplies. He had also probably gone for a few minutes to get away from the others! In normal times, people operate like the tide, coming together and separating, allowing us each time to recollect ourselves alone. Shut up together, it's easy to lose peace within, and to overreact to others.

    But the greeting of Peace was not simply Jesus wishing them group harmony for its own sake. Peace was going to be needed for them to think clearly, to manage the realistic fear of danger, and to work together, all necessary for what Jesus had to say next: I'm sending you out. And then, Jesus is breathing a spirit of holiness on them and telling them to wear it, like clothes.

    Wearing holiness seems to be a tall order, but then again, maybe not. I once heard a woman of the Islamic faith talking about the shawl she wears for her prayer time, and then using that same shawl as a head covering when she goes out – literally wrapping herself in her prayers for the day ahead. It sounded like a physical taking on of the spirit of her prayers, an assuming of not only the content, but the whole attitude of a prayerful person. This humble spirit, the opposite of self-righteousness, comes when a person finally quits trying so hard, finding herself facing and at peace with what is.

    After peace, forgiveness may follow. The one who forgives is set free from continued hurt, resentment, anger, bitterness, and hatred. Occasionally, the forgiver can even see a big enough picture to understand what another person is up against, realizing that there is nothing to forgive. Again, it is up to each of us, whether or not letting go of our judgement of others becomes a habit.

    Thomas, quick to judge, is present when Jesus returns a second time and immediately believes in him. Very few of us in any era will see the risen lord or have visions of him or anything else. Most of us are stuck here on the terra firma, in the mundane like Thomas, trying to figure out where to get groceries and hoping for a minute away from it all. Here is our chance though. For in taking one's ordinary life and sifting through it to figure out one's beliefs, an authentic person comes alive. Struggling to identify what matters, and then trying to live accordingly, is a blessing one can give oneself.

    Today's reading is all about managing oneself. Being at peace is a choice. Avoiding criticizing others, while so tightly packed together in our homes under coronavirus lockdown, is the simple but profound challenge. Attention to self-control, rather than focusing on others, is a beginning step. Taking on a gentle, holy spirit and wearing it like a soft shirt is a choice. Forgiving, stopping the blaming, seeing what the other person is up against: all choices. Developing beliefs – up to each of us. Plenty to work on, so that when finally the quarantine is over and we are sent out into the world again, each of us can go with more ability to manage the inner self.

Reflections:

Morning: How do I want to manage myself today? What sort of person do I want to be?

Evening: Where did I find peace in my life? What do I believe?

Psalm 16:11 You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

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Redemption (Easter)

Acts 10:34-43 or Jeremiah 31:1-6  •  Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24  •  Colossians 3:1-4 or Acts 10:34-43  •  John 20:1-18 or Matthew 28:1-10

 

My focus is on the Matthew story of the resurrection, adding a few verses that come right before the text, - Matthew 27:62-66. It's a great subplot, taking place the morning after the crucifixion. First enter the chief priests and Pharisees, still worrying about Jesus, dead but not forgotten. After all, he had said he would rise again, after three days. Finding Pilate, they explain all this, adding that it would be easy for the disciples to steal his body and pretend he had risen. Pilate hears all this and – in my imagination, anyhow – he laughs. Maybe he snorts. He sees straight through the religious leaders. Their anxiety about Jesus has not lessened, even though the guy is dead now, as per their request. Pilate tells them to go ahead and make the tomb "as secure as you can." I wonder whether:

  •          Pilate was taunting the religious leaders. He had no respect for these anxious creatures, wanting to keep the crowds under their thumb, and willing to sacrifice any person with too much integrity for their compromising ways.
  •          Pilate, politically astute, knew that things had already shifted. The group Jesus had started would grow, regardless of how well the tomb was sealed.
  •          Pilate had seen enough of Jesus to wonder if it might be true. From his wife's bad dream to his own conversations with him, to this news of a potential come back, he had an inkling, a Hamlet moment, that there is more in heaven and on earth than are dreamt of, in many philosophies.

    Perhaps Pilate was some mixture of all three of the above. And perhaps many of us are also approaching Easter this year with some mixture of skepticism and belief. As I write, the coronavirus continues its invasion around the world, infecting without regard to belief systems. Humans are vulnerable, including Jesus, who looked at life so differently that he had to die for it.

    Some of us are going to die from COVID-19. Others will grieve for someone who has died. Many will suffer from the economic collapse we are now undergoing. Most, I think, are watching a way of life disappear and wondering what will be left. In the midst of many losses, though – and without minimizing how hard they are – there are also some small significant surprises. People are scratching their heads and saying things like, "Gee, you know it is nice to sit down and eat supper together." For many of us, dedicated medical professionals aside, the busy pace of life before the virus is, at least temporarily, a thing of the past.

    What will emerge on the other side is unknown. Humans don't have control over life or death. Many things, though, are up to us to decide, including how we live. Talking with our families about living according to what matters to us would be a different way to observe Easter this year. The Easter egg hunts, the children, the flowers, the music, and all the rest of it, will be missed. There's a chance, though, that some good will come of it; and people who celebrate the resurrection of a lord who died on a cross might be on the lookout for that.

    Like the women who found the tomb empty, each of us may recognize an emptiness in how we have been living. Each of us may respond as the women did: with fear and great joy, and maybe with a new clarity about what matters. Using emotions – letting both fear and joy fill the tank, so to speak – can bring energy for finding a new way of living worthy of Easter. In this, each of us is given the chance to participate in redeeming the times: making life better than if it had never gone wrong.  

For reflection:

Morning: How does life look different to me this Easter? What ways of living are worth bringing back to life? What do I want to let go of?

Evening: When did I find a new way of living today? When did I get stuck in old ways?     

Psalm 118:24 This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

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Sheep flu pandemic (Palm Sunday)

Isaiah 50:4-9a  •  Psalm 31:9-16  •  Philippians 2:5-11  •  Matthew 21:1-11 •  Matthew 26:14-27:66

   A lot of territory is covered in the Matthew readings this week: from Jesus entering Jerusalem to his death on the cross. It's a long story, though, for a church service! For me, sitting down with it in a comfortable chair in a quiet hour at home made the whole picture come alive.

    The crowd's excited response to Jesus, laying palms on the path of the donkey carrying him, was a mirror image of their negative reaction later. It is almost as though a virus spread among the people. Viruses have no real life of their own. They lay dormant until they can attach to a host, and then they can multiply, spreading quickly within a host and looking for the next one, too. In these readings, a virus – let's call it the sheep flu – seems to be active in at least two ways:  

  • First, like sheep, following the flock right off of a cliff, people lost the ability to think for themselves as a powerful desire to be part of the group took over.
  • Second, like sheep, people looked for someone to follow, someone who would meet their needs, rather than being responsible for themselves.

    As Jesus entered Jerusalem, the people were excited to see the leader they were looking for, the one who was going to take care of them. They had seen him heal the sick, for heaven's sake, this man was like a walking hospital. He had stood up to the Scribes and the Pharisees, too, and goodness knows, everyone was sick of them. And maybe he was the Messiah, and the Romans would go away, too. This guy will take care of everything! Life is good! Problems solved!

    The sheep flu spread its sickness both within people and between people. The trouble with the sheep flu, though, is that it did not have the ability to live within these hosts without also damaging the host organisms. Judas was the first to regress, going to the leaders to ask for money in exchange for betraying Jesus and later killing himself.

    A whole series of betrayals follow. The disciples flee at his arrest. Peter denies him three times. False witnesses come to testify against him. The religious rulers plot against him. The crowds scream for his death. Pilate sits perplexed, caving to political pressures but washing his hands of it in front of the crowd. The soldiers torture him, ridiculing while they beat him. The sheep flu has rendered its hosts incapable of any emotional reason.

    Only Jesus, the good shepherd, is able to think his way out of this. In the garden of Gethsemane, he is agitated. He takes time to pray, three times, wrestling with what is to come. He seeks the companionship of the other disciples, but they let him down, sleeping while he prays. In this hour, all alone, Jesus regains his ability to be himself, to face what is ahead. By accepting his responsibility for himself, the sheep flu could not attach to him, even in the most virus-friendly conditions of stress, pressure, anxiety and fear.

    Jesus warned the disciples in the garden that prayer was needed, that "the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak." When anxious, some of us pray and others sleep; few, however, manage what Jesus did that night: to accept the reality he found himself in and choose to be his best, calmest, most mature self in it.  In contrast, our immature selves want others to fix it for us, while at the same time, blaming them for our plight. We are easy targets for the sheep flu.

    None of us are called to be the good shepherd; that's on Jesus. All of us are called to engage our our best thinking as the challenges ahead unfold. In the middle of the coronavirus, this can mean everything from the mundane to the sublime to the difficult – from taking time for a walk to playing music for reflective listening to dealing with the many unimagined challenges suddenly a part of life. The good news is that unlike the coronavirus, when it comes to the sheep flu, each of us has a choice about whether or not to become infected.

For reflection

Morning: How shall I order my day? What are my options?  

Evening: Where did I find myself infected by the anxiety of the group?

Psalm 31:16 Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love.

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