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Lectionary Living

Timing is Everything

Isaiah 9:1-4  •  Psalm 27:1, 4-9  •  1 Corinthians 1:10-18  •  Matthew 4:12-23

 

    Timing is everything, but especially so when a ruthless dictator with a proclivity towards beheading has just arrested the person who baptized you. Today's gospel story begins with Jesus finding out that John the Baptizer is in prison. When he hears this, he moves away from the immediate vicinity of Herod. Where he moves to is another interesting tale in timing, for the folks in Capernaum had suffered greatly in multiple generations of foreign rule, and their families had survived to see the day when Jesus would live among them. But back to the main point here. Before this, the stories in Matthew were about Jesus being born, tempted, and baptized. Now, he's starting to preach himself. He has fled from Herod not for safety for its own sake, but for safety (at least, temporary safety) to do what matters with his life.

 

    Today's psalm is a lovely example of the experience of being in a safe place – on a rock, as the psalmist puts it – where danger can be seen in advance. It's calming to be on that high rock. Jesus takes this to the next level. He seeks safety not to stay calm, but to have a chance to begin preaching the message that the kingdom of heaven is arriving. He has something he is trying to say and do with his life – and his sense of timing tells him that he had better get going with it.

 

    For those of us wondering what we are to do – or do next – with our own lives, what Jesus has to say may be useful. It's a pretty brief message here in verse 17: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is arriving. Now, repent is often said in a kind of "feel bad about yourself, feel guilty" tone. However, repent means something more along the lines of changing your mind. It's similar to the word metamorphosis, like the caterpillar changing into the butterfly. There's one difference, though. With repent, the change happens not with your body, but with how you think about things and how you redirect yourself accordingly. It's about reason, and sometimes, emotional reason. If you are trapped in a sense of self-importance, asking yourself to use emotional reason to reflect on what you have done and not done may bring some big surprises. It may be that the person you have let down the most is yourself, as you have continually sought the approval or positive regard of others in caring and doing for them. If you are trapped in a sense of your own incompetence, asking yourself to use emotional reason to reflect on what you are capable of may bring some big surprises. It may be that you also have let yourself down – and others, too – as you have continually denied the gifts you have been given. There are a thousand and one opportunities to re-think how one has been understanding life and an equal number of chances to go a different way. Repent is an equal opportunity imperative command for each and every day.

 

    The good news here is that the kingdom of heaven is arriving; the choice is whether to participate in it. Seeing the arrival of a whole other dimension of life in this world, in this time and place, is the invitation. And now we're back to timing and focus on what one is seeking to do with the rest of one's life. For seeing what one is to do with this day allows one to live already secure in the kingdom that's on its way.

   

 

For reflection:

Morning: What do I want to do with this day? What might I need to stop doing, to get on with it?

Evening: Where could I begin to repent? What aspects of my life should I re-think? How could I see things differently?    

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Wilderness

Isaiah 49:1-7  •  Psalm 40:1-11  •  1 Corinthians 1:1-9  •  John 1:29-42

 

This week's readings continue along the theme of servanthood, beginning with the second servant song in Isaiah, continuing with the new servant group of the emerging church in Corinth, and finishing with John the Baptizer's explanation of his servant ministry. Before exploring these passages, let's begin by taking a look at the word servant. It's not a word used much in our culture. The show Downton Abbey, with the castle staff eating their meals together in the kitchen, is a fairly recent effort to portray servanthood - but in a setting 100 years ago.

 

    I guess my closest foray as a staff-servant was years ago, when I spent a winter break clerking at a local department store. I would offer a courteous "May I help you?" Most of the time, though, people would decline my help. They would wander around looking for a long-sleeved blouse, say, when I could have told them right away where they were, which ones were on sale, and so on. The idea of requiring any assistance seemed to involve a threat to their independence, perhaps a deeply instilled sense of not wanting to be a bother, or possibly wanting to distance from others to have more room to think about the purchase. Whatever the source, the discomfort with being waited-upon was almost palpable.

 

    Trust John the Baptizer to begin with our human discomfort! The religious authorities in the John passage come to him, demanding to know who he is. He begins by saying who he is not and next, continues with who he is: a voice crying in the wilderness to make straight the way of the Lord. Anyone who has ever had to clear an overgrown path will immediately understand the many difficulties of the task. For whether it's a clearing a path in the woods, or within the inner wilderness of one's own self or in the wild complexity of human relationships between persons, it's hard work.  

 

    In particular, the wilderness between human beings includes many threats. The allegiance to one's own tribe rather than to all of humanity keeps us from relating to one another fully. The drive to distance from family and friends, rather than maintaining viable (however unpleasant) emotional contact, keeps us from understanding each other. Finally, imagining that one's life is maintained without contributions from others keeps us from the gratitude towards others that a more reality-based view of life would bring.

 

    In a more grounded view of life, the idea in Isaiah that redemption is not just for our own group, but for all nations (Isaiah 49:6) begins to take shape. Following John's example, defining oneself becomes a way of servanthood, for the ongoing effort to be clear about what one is doing while continuing to stay in relationship with others takes real time, real energy. Surprisingly, the energy and effort that are involved become their own reward. The psalmist (40:3) describes it as a "new song." Coming up out of a noisy bog of chaos into more secure footing for oneself and one's relationships with others provides a way through the wilderness.

 

For reflection:

Morning: How do I clear a path between myself and others in my world today? How can I make my own thoughts and positions clearer to others?

Evening: What were the surprises in my day?

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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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