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Lectionary Living

Servant-Leader

Isaiah 42:1-9  •  Psalm 29  •  Acts 10:34-43  •  Matthew 3:13-17

 

    When beginning anything, it is important to think it through. Maybe not to the end. But at least as far as identifying intentions – for they will quickly be tested in the thing one is trying to accomplish. This week's scriptures describe the effort to put intentions into action from three different directions: the selection of a leader in Isaiah; the principles by which the group will operate, in the Cornelius story in Acts; and the manner by which one will operate, in the baptism or Jesus in Matthew.

 

    The Isaiah passage starts off with a big reveal: behold my servant. The writer hastens to add that the servant is the chosen one, but he is described first as a servant. He is, moreover, a gentle sort of a servant, soft-spoken, and not one to cause further injury, even to a bruised plant. Underlying this gentle exterior, though, is an incredible strength. The servant is a leader who will not stop until justice is established on earth.

 

    Peter – and Cornelius, for that matter – show up as leaders in the Acts passage. Cornelius, a Roman centurion with 100 men under him, is an unusual sort, with a daily practice of prayer. Receiving instructions from an angel, he reaches out to Peter. Peter responds by telling Cornelius and his (also Roman) companions the gospel story, beginning with a new insight – that he, Peter, has come to see that God shows no partiality towards any nation or its people. He then wonders, before everyone present, whether it makes sense to baptize these folks, which he proceeds to do. In the story, Peter shows a willingness to re-think his positions; he has no need to defend his earlier views. He shows flexibility in the events unfolding before him, taking a new direction.  The community then begins to find its way beyond the tribalism of a Jewish sect towards a more universal approach.

 

    The final example of leadership comes in the gospel story. In a brief five verses, John baptized Jesus and God indicates approval in a spectacular sign from the clouds. All of this happens, though, only after John asks Jesus whether the whole thing is appropriate. Shouldn't you be baptizing me? (v. 14). Jesus, clear about what the moment requires, reassures John that it is fitting for ritual to seal his purpose, and for John to perform the baptism.

 

    In recognizing his own need to set his intention through public baptism, Jesus begins to remind the reader of the chosen one – the gentle servant – of the Isaiah passage. His decision to be baptized by John is a surprise, somewhat like Peter's baptism of Cornelius must have been. In all three readings, the surprising underlying virtue of the true leader turns out to be humility. The final surprise of the gospel reading is the opening of the heavens, complete with a dove and a voice from the clouds – but perhaps these things are no more surprising than an authentic, humble, servant-leader.

 

For reflection:

Morning: What would be different if I lived today with humility?

Evening: When did I manage to find a humble way of being? When did I lose myself in arrogance or pride?

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Blessing or Curse?

Jeremiah 31:7-14 or Sirach 24:1-12  •  Psalm 147:12-20 or Wisdom of Solomon 10:15-21  •  Ephesians 1:3-14  •  John 1:(1-9), 10-18

 

    In beginning today's readings, one must be willing to go back – way back, before the Big Bang. There, the Word is already present (John 1:1), and already in relationship with the one who would create all things. In this time, before the foundation of the cosmos (Ephesians 1:4), we were chosen to receive an inheritance. If you find yourself needing a second cup of coffee to take this in, you're not the only one.

 

    What, exactly, have we inherited? Well – spoiler alert – not money. It is an intangible inheritance, of "grace upon grace" (John 1:16). Moreover, it has destined us – from before the beginning of time, no less – to be holy and blameless (Ephesians 1:4). What a peculiar pairing of words to describe the human condition! Recipients of grace upon grace; we are holy and blameless. Somehow, it seems, this inheritance has gone missing.  Or has it?

 

    Thinking broadly, we humans, along with all creatures, find ourselves inheriting a universe which has formed over five billion years and is still evolving. We share many patterns in common with all mammals. Driven by instincts deep within us, most of our daily activity occurs without thought. Even our thinking is often occurring in response to, or in support of, our instincts. Inborn tendencies, developed over millions of years of mammalian evolutionary history, are present in families and other groups, including work environments, congregations, and anywhere else where humans have organized to cooperate. Families, for example, quite naturally operate to protect their young, without ever naming an intention to do so. Watching groups of tourists here in our nation's capital, I often see this as family groups board the subway system. Someone in the family is checking to make sure they are all on board. Someone is watching to see that the most vulnerable have a seat, or are held, or whatever is needed. Someone is already alert and watching for the stop where they will need to get off the train. All of this is happening with very little conscious thought – the cooperation of the group is assumed by all.

 

    There are two ways where the cooperation of the group can get us into trouble. One is the reduced ability to be a self; in the tourist example, for instance, if one person wants to see a different museum. The other is the inability to cooperate as a species. When many groups of people all want the same end – for example, all getting off at the same subway stop – difficulties develop. On a crowded train, people get uneasy. Tempers flare. Suddenly, children are getting yelled at, hustled into place as the all-important stop is coming. Some families – those with more experience, maybe, on how the system operate – are different. Understanding the relatively small inconvenience of going an extra stop and turning around, they have more room in their minds to be gracious. Other families, perhaps inexperienced with the subway but generally aware of the dangers of a crowded train of anxious folks, can also hold back from rushing to the door. They use emotional reasoning to manage the problem.

 

    The ability to use emotional reason involves neither denying nor intellectualizing our emotions, but rather on attending to what is motivating them. Thoughtful reflection occurs on two levels: the context of the moment (I'm getting anxious on this crowded train but it is a feeling that will pass) and the context of what is makes sense (We can't all get off, but it will be better for our group to stay together on the train for now). The daily opportunity to develop the capacity for emotional reason has been given to us humans, in grace upon grace. Seeing the opportunity as our grace-filled blessing rather than our curse is essential; along the way, we are already holy and blameless.

 

For reflection:

Morning: Where will I have a chance to practice emotional reason today?

Evening: When was I able to reflect on my instinctive emotions? When was I able to see more options?

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Back to earth

Isaiah 63:7-9  •  Psalm 148  •  Hebrews 2:10-18  •  Matthew 2:13-23

 

    If anyone was starting to think that life is a bowl of cherries, today's readings provide a quick but thorough adjustment to reality. No more shepherds, or angels, or donkeys, or cute-baby-in-a-feeding-trough. Enter an angel with an urgent warning to Joseph: run! Next comes Herod the Great – great in his paranoia and willingness to act against any perceived threat to his reign. Finally, the deaths of all the baby boys in Bethlehem, ages two or younger. The cries of the children, the lamentations of their families, are echoed in today's sad events around the world, with families torn apart and children, as always, bearing the brunt of the dissemblance of the societies around them.

 

    Jesus himself, and his parents, are themselves homeless refugees, living for some time in Egypt before returning to Israel. Joseph, hearing that Herod has been replaced by his (even crueler) son Archelaus, is afraid to go back to Judea. Another dream confirms his fears, and he chooses instead to settle in a different area – Galilee, in a town called Nazareth – where Jesus can grow up in relative peace.  

 

    In many ways, Joseph and Mary are no different from all parents, who begin almost from the child's conception to think about what will be in the child's best interests and to be aware of dangers to the integrity of the family itself. For the human species, the larger family has traditionally provided an environment for a child to grow up with a certain amount of protection from danger outside the tribe, along with a place to practice essential relationship skills within the group. Congregations seem to offer some of these same opportunities, as do friend groups. Basically, though, all of us grow up within families, learning where we came from and who we are within a larger set of relationships. In the life of a child, it is hard to beat a grandparent with a good story.

 

    How often, in the 21st century, are we denied these basic human relationships! Often, families are torn apart by modern day Herods, carrying out policies without regard to human needs. In other cases, family members choose to distance from each other, physically or emotionally, in an unbounded pursuit for agency. Even when family members choose to stay close, the family may come with a suffocating loss of freedom for each individual.  A good family, it seems, is hard to find.

 

    Many of us look at the families we grew up in with complete horror or total admiration. Here I think we have it wrong. Embracing rather than either resenting or idealizing one's past, seeing it as a seedbed for what one can become, is the beginning of realistic, abundant living. Firmly rejecting what "toxic" patterns one will no longer participate in, and identifying what positive patterns one chooses to sustain, while continuing to relate to family members, is goal. The challenge is to be ourselves, letting others know us and trying to know them. This is not easy. Emotional reactivity runs deep, interfering with efforts to be together, especially in the holiday season. Misunderstandings are common. Families are scattered, and staying connected with cousins, aunts, uncles and others takes time.

 

    Every family unit needs leaders who are interested in staying in touch with as many family members as they can find. It does not guarantee that the family will not run into a Herod or other difficulties along the way. But it does provide a way to endure, as the Hebrews reading tells us, as brothers and sisters. If you are ready to reach out more to your family, be prepared for some surprise and resistance. This is real change! Like any New Year's resolution, it takes time to make it a habit. If you can persist, others may join you along the way.

 

For reflection:

Morning: What family patterns have served me well? What do I want to do differently in my own life?  

Evening: How realistic is my view of my family? What would I like to learn about it?  

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Naming the baby

Isaiah 7:10-16  •  Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19  •  Romans 1:1-7  •  Matthew 1:18-25

 

    In today's reading, Joseph is visited by an angel to discuss the pregnancy of his betrothed, Mary, and what Joseph is to do about it. The story describes an all-too-human plight: capable of conversing with angels but stuck in focusing on others – in this case, who slept with whom. Joseph himself seems to have recognized his plight and is unwilling to participate in a drawn-out process of blaming Mary. The angel comes to the rescue, quickly telling Joseph what he is to do, before turning the conversation to the naming of the baby.

 

    Naming a baby is an interesting process. Different families take different approaches. Some look through lists of popular names, others come up with something unique. Some choose to continue a name that has been in the family for a long time; others choose deliberately to discontinue a tradition. I know a family who named each of their male children after a U.S. president. Was that reflective of a devotion to their country, a desire that a family leader might emerge, or more simply, a lack of imagination? To what extent do the names of children represent a family's hopes?

 

    In the reading, the angel mentions a couple of names, each reflecting the hopes of the Jewish people at that time. The first name, Jesus, was a common pronunciation of Joshua: the leader after Moses who brought the Israelites into the promised land. It was Joshua's job to complete the exodus from slavery in Egypt: a job incomplete, in many ways. Not only were the people still chafing under the rule of others, but more generally, they were still slaves to sin.

 

    Being a slave to sin is the experience of lacking mastery over oneself. This baby was different from Joshua or any political leader in history. This baby's job was to set people free from within. How? The angel is quick to answer this question, with reference to a second name: Emmanuel (v. 23) or 'God is with us.' Somehow, the presence of God creates a capacity within a person to rule oneself. The presence might lower anxiety and fear, creating a space for a person to act from a mature position, to think more clearly, to use emotional reasoning to manage both inner tensions and relationships with others. Relationship systems where individuals are free to be themselves while staying connected with each other may be expressions of Emmanuel.

 

    Finding this inner freedom is a daily, hourly, moment-by-moment work. One thing that may help is naming the intention to find it. Like the family who named their children after presidents, one can be bold here, naming an intention towards a way of living that casts aside all that has held one back from becoming a full self. Attending to oneself and what one has agency over, rather than a critical or worried focus on others, is the beginning point.

 

For reflection:

Morning: What is my intention today?

Evening: What got in the way of attending to my intentions?

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