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Lectionary Living

Words to a friend in prison

Isaiah 35:1-10  •  Psalm 146:5-10 or Luke 1:46b-55  •  James 5:7-10  •  Matthew 11:2-11

 

    Where there's life, there's hope. A squirrel foraging for nuts is an essentially hopeful creature, behaving as though he might gather enough to live until spring. For the squirrel, hope is automatic – the behaviors happen without any reflection on the likelihood of survival. For the human species, hope is at one level instinctive, but at another level, a choice.

 

    Today's readings contain many elements of hope. In the gospel, John is sitting in prison, one can imagine somewhat gloomily (and realistically, given the outcome) contemplating his fate. John sends his disciples to Jesus with a question, asking whether Jesus is the Messiah, the hoped-for one of Jewish tradition. Jesus sends back what seems a somewhat cryptic message: go and tell him what you are hearing and seeing – the blind can see, the lame can walk, and so on. To John, this would have been a clear invitation to reflect on today's Isaiah text.

 

    In the Isaiah passage, the prophetic voice begins with the crocus, that small flower popping its head up early in the spring when snow still covers the ground and the winter slog has become wearisome. It goes on to describe a world where people are healed of many infirmities, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news – a reason to hope – preached to them. Then the passage turns to another remarkable vision of a highway where people may return home safely, in a lion-and-other-danger-free zone.

 

    The Isaiah passage, while rooted in a historical period of exile from Jerusalem, can provide a source of contemplation for all of us who are distanced from people and places of meaning to us. It offers a vision of a road back, of re-connecting. The problem is how to make the vision come alive in this life. Perhaps many of us long for a way to connect or reconnect with family and friends without the inevitable tension and problems that can come up. A danger-free highway where people may connect or reconnect sounds great. In practice, though, creating and maintaining such a path is hard work. Frequent travels – virtually or in-person – keep the path clear. Real conversations, about topics that matter to each person, keep the roadway viable. Thoughtfulness sprinkled with humor can prepare the way. Groups we are a part of – families, workplaces, friend groups, congregations – can structure themselves to grease the wheels, so to speak, providing opportunities to share fellowship and food together along the way. For the highway is the path of connecting to others while also finding oneself as one travels.

 

    Some speculate that Jesus responded to the question about himself as the Messiah with a reference to the Isaiah text to avoid upsetting Herod, who had, after all, just imprisoned John. Maybe there were other reasons as well. Out of respect for John, perhaps, Jesus provided his disciples with the information John will need to make up his own mind. Out of concern for John, perhaps, Jesus also reminds him to contemplate this lovely text of imagination and hope. What a great gift to someone in prison – not a yes or no answer to a question, but a much more complex sharing of their common hope in a reality bigger than what can be seen here.  

 

For reflection:

Morning: What in this week's readings lifts my own heart? In what ways can I offer a gentle message of hope to others today?

Evening: Who did I connect with today? How can I find ways to reach out to family and friends without losing my own goals along the way?

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Inner sweeping

Isaiah 11:1-10  •  Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19  •  Romans 15:4-13  •  Matthew 3:1-12

 

    Last week's Isaiah prophecy had people beating their swords into plows, no longer harming each other nor even considering violence as an option between people. As if that weren't enough, this week's Isaiah reading features the end of predator vs. preyed upon: the lion laying down with the lamb. In this make-believe world, a child can play around snake holes without his mother fearfully grabbing him up for safer ground. Even the poor have little to fear, as the leader of this this imaginary future leans towards equity for all. The psalm picks up on the same theme, praying that the king would defend the cause of the poor and deliver the needy.

 

    Poverty ruled in the mountains of southern rural Appalachia, where my husband's family is from. Not only were they poor, but there were snakes. Everywhere, it seems. His grandmother specialized in snake defense. Every day, she took a broom and swept the area around the cabin, maintaining a snake-free zone of hard clay completely surrounding their home. While she could keep the snakes away, though, there was little she could do about the poverty. As she watched the men in her family leave for the coal mines every day, I'm guessing she was always left wondering not only if they would be back for dinner, but also what she would cook, besides potatoes and beans.

 

    Coal mining is famous for its inequities, and the wealth of a few borne on the backs of many poor. But it is the same story, everywhere, that the rich continue to want to be richer. No one relaxes – everyone keeps striving for more. This is apparently less true in small communities or tribes, where everyone is accountable to each other for carrying their share of the load, and everyone shares more or less in the harvest or hunt. Even in small groups or families though, one can see the endless striving of human beings to take more than their fair share, as is commonly played out as siblings fight, first over cookies and later over their parents' estate.

 

    Humans are in a tough spot. We can keep fighting with one another, grasping for more than our share. Or we can lean into an egalitarian world. We can select leaders interested in pursuing justice for all. And we can, within our own hearts, begin to prepare the way for such a world. It is as though each person is called to take a broom and begin sweeping from within. Sweep away all the clutter of fear, which can completely outweigh any desire to see that others, outside of one's own group, will be treated fairly. Prepare a path of peace within oneself: a well-worn path of thoughtful reflection on one's emotions, and a governance by one's own most mature self.

 

For reflection:

Morning: What am I anxious about, or afraid of, today? How can I calm down?

Evening: When did I manage myself maturely? Connect with others openly and fairly?

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Swords into plows

Isaiah 2:1-5  •  Psalm 122  •  Romans 13:11-14  •  Matthew 24:36-44

 

    The readings in December have a double purpose: to prepare to celebrate the baby Jesus while also considering the meaning of his coming again. Well, this is a tall order. Christmas itself, that flurry of gift-giving and parties, takes us far from the mystery of the word made flesh. And speculation about the second coming can quickly become a flight of fancy. Fortunately, the readings this week can bring us back to earth.

 

    The Isaiah passage starts us off with a beautiful image: beating swords into plows. Isaiah is prophesizing a future where there are no more wars, no more need for swords. In that future, all the peoples of the earth have stopped killing each other! It is no longer one group pitted against another, but all tribes are working together to make sure that everyone is fed.

 

    To do this, they begin practically, heating up the instruments of war and refining the metal to be used for a quite different purpose. Stopping here for just a moment, one can see how completely unnatural this is for human beings. Perhaps a group can find a way to trust each other and cooperate, within itself. Perhaps, if a family were on a desert island together, with no thought of danger from anywhere, and complete unity within the group, they might beat their swords into plows. Perhaps.

 

    How do we learn to live as a peaceful, unified family while maintaining individuality? The other passages give us some hints. The psalm, for instance, focuses on Jerusalem as a place of peace. How do we make our own homes, our own work environments, our own congregations, even, such places!? In the Romans passage, Paul lays it out pretty clearly. Live in the light of day or, as it is almost time for New Year's resolutions, let's say have a little discipline, for starters. Avoid petty bickering. Note that this is different from being willing to disagree with another person around a thoughtful principle. Nothing is to be gained from a false peace. Stop with the envy, the constant comparing of oneself to another. All of these pieces are part of a community that has learned to live together while offering each person the freedom to become their full self.

 

    Looking to the gospel, Jesus has just prophesied about difficult times to come when he offers one final piece of advice: Keep Awake! He reminds folks that in the time of Noah, folks were pretty happy up until the flood started. So stay ready, he is saying to us, for trouble is ahead.

 

    It seems like the holidays always bring trouble, or tension, among families and also among friends. If one person can offer a little calmness, maybe some swords can be beaten into plows, or at least put down long enough to get to know one another as real people. In our coming together and beginning to know one another more deeply, perhaps Jesus is coming again.  

 

Reflections:

Morning: Where might I put down a sword, or turn the energy towards another purpose?

Evening: When did I have a chance to know another more deeply today? To share what I'm thinking about?

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Boss of Me

Jeremiah 23:1-6 & Luke 1:68-79  •  Jeremiah 23:1-6 & Psalm 46  •  Colossians 1:11-20  •  Luke 23:33-43

 

The church year calendar, beginning each year with an Advent season starting four weeks before Christmas, is an odd conglomeration of readings. Perhaps nothing is odder than the last Sunday of each church year – Christ the King Sunday. In this week's reading from Luke, Jesus is hanging on a cross, with two criminals, one on either side, along with a sign over his head: Jesus, King of the Jews.

 

Being executed by crucifixion was not an uncommon event in those days, where the Romans ruled a wide empire of many peoples. While supportive of peace, the Romans were not averse to using force to quell any unrest suggestive of insurrection. However, while being executed on a cross was not unheard of, being executed with a sign over one's head saying King of the Jews was unusual.

 

It was Pilate, the governor appointed by the Romans, who had directed that the sign be placed over Jesus' head. Everyone joined in the fun of ridiculing a powerless man who had talked about kingship, now hung on a cross. Spectators dared him to save himself. The guards brought him soured wine, in a charade of a servant waiting on a king.  Even the criminals began speculating about kingship. One of his fellow sufferers joins in the mockery; if you are a king, get us out of here. The other takes Jesus' side, saying we're criminals but this man did nothing wrong.

 

There were hints, earlier in the story, that Pilate himself had realized that Jesus had done nothing wrong. He was too much of a politician to let this interfere with the political expediency of the death sentence. Still, it seems that the King of the Jews sign may have had a hidden meaning, for under the ridicule was a tipping of the hat. In a sense, calling someone a king is like calling them an Olympic gold medalist or a karate black belt or a chess master.

 

What was Jesus a master of? Not this world, that's for sure. No one put to death by torture in their early thirties can claim any success in this life. Master of the life to come, maybe – and he seemed to think so, promising to the criminal on the cross next to him that they would both be in paradise by close of business, so to speak, that day. But there is something else that Jesus was master of: himself. From the arc of his life story, from the scene in the temple at age 12 to this dying moment on the cross, Jesus was clear about himself, ruling what came from him.

 

What would it be like to be ruler, king, or queen, of oneself? First, it would mean ruling over one's emotions, not letting them take over oneself, that insurrection from within threatening every human under pressure. Second, it would mean having options, as a king has couriers, bringing many different ways of seeing and managing situations rather than reverting to whatever automatic positions one usually takes. Finally, it would mean benevolence: connecting with others without fearing them. The balance of true kingship involves being both human and regal, reigning over the realm of the real.

 

For reflection:

Morning: How can I rule over myself today? When might I have difficulty?

Evening: What was automatic for me today? How can I see a broader view?

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