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Are We Rome?

3 Apr
Photo via Flickr user Lawrence OP

Photo via Flickr user Lawrence OP

 

Happy Holy Week to you, one and all.

On Palm Sunday, we imagined Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. We wondered what this procession of palms may have looked like. Was it to fulfill a prophecy? How many people caught the reference to Zachariah in the moment? Was it, as Crossan and Borg argue in The Last Week, a procession to challenge the Imperial Procession of Pilate and counter the dominating system? Pilate’s procession symbolized Roman military, theology and political might. Was Jesus reminding us that God’s kingdom counters that of worldly domination?

Did Jesus know what he would find when he got to the temple?

And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers. –Matthew 21:12-23

We imagine Jesus turning over tables and try to reconcile his anger with our ideas of his perfection. What, today, is worth our righteous anger? Are we complicit in the dominating system of our day that Jesus was countering by riding in from the East on a donkey?

On Palm Sunday, the youth in our congregation make and sell Cinnamon Rolls in celebration of Holy Week and to raise money for our summer work trips. We pictured Jesus, having to pass our table where money was being exchanged on his way to the sanctuary for worship. Would he turn over our table and call our gallery a den of robbers?

“I’d like to think Jesus would buy a cinnamon roll from us,” a ninth grader said.

Yet the image lingers. Would Jesus turn over my table in anger? This Holy Week, I’m wondering what procession I am truly taking part in. If Jesus’ journey into Jerusalem to die was really about, in part, countering the violence, power and glory of the dominating empire that ruled the world at that time, how can I follow him more closely today?

The Common Good

20 Mar

Our church’s theme for Lent is The Good Life. We are looking at parables in Matthew, full of people searching for The Good Life, and Jesus often flipping expectations on their head: the last will be first, surely the rich will struggle entering the kingdom, I dwell among the least of these. We too, like the people in Matthew’s Gospel, are all searching for The Good Life, and often mistake values in this world with what God values in the next.

 

A video series on the Good Life is accompanying worship, and with the camera rolling, I got asked what I think the Good Life is. I talked about balance: striving for balance between my introverted self and my extraverted self, between my mind, body and spirit, between my personal/private life and professional/public life. I talked about being mindful, living fully in the present moment and fully engaging in the stage of life I am currently in, not wishing away moments or pining for the past.

 

“Okay, thanks so much,” the videographer said. “That was great.”

 

Hours later, I was still thinking about what he captured me saying on video. I came to realize what was bothering me was what I didn’t say. My answer was self-centered. My idea of The Good Life, at least the part caught on tape, was all about me. It was individual, personal self-improvement. So were most people’s answers, actually. An eighth grader, for example, succinctly stated the American Dream as The Good Life: “I want to graduate college, get a good job, have my own house, and raise kids to be successful.” A man in his seventies talked about striving in his life to achieve his goals. Maybe it is the default of humans, or our society’s obsession with self reliance and independence, but the instinct to go personal when building The Good Life is undeniable. 

It could be argued that personal work is a good place to start, but I don’t believe it is the place to end. I believe, deep down, that my own joy and well-being is tied up in the joy and well-being of all people. I do believe that I am only doing as well as the least of these. If given another shot, I would have focused my answer about The Good Life on The Common Good.

 

Darwin tells us that natural selection operates on the individual level. I pass my genes on to my son, and it is easy to fall into the trap of caring so much about my immediate family that I do not look further to the health of my community. With a three-month-old baby, I do feel this way at times. There is a strong element of survival, that turning inward to protect my child has an undeniable biological element to it. I love my child so fiercely that it can be consuming. At the end of the day, I think, “Well, I kept this human being alive today. That’s probably enough.” We take care of our own, and we define our own narrowly.

 

However, Darwin also saw that civilization works on the tribal level. Groups of people who work together and value the common good outlive groups of people who work as isolated individuals. One person might not be able to successfully hunt a predator, but a group of people working together can. Community matters for our own good. 

I agree with Lord Jonathan Sacks when he says:

Community is the antidote to individualism on the one hand and over-reliance on the state on the other.

He goes on to say that church is still one place in society where we believe in and act out The Common Good:

Frequent worshippers are also significantly more active citizens. They are more likely to belong to community organisations, neighbourhood and civic groups and professional associations. They get involved, turn up and lead. The margin of difference between them and the more secular is large. When we celebrate or mourn we do so as a community. Even when we confess, we do so together. We find God in community. We develop virtue, strength of character, and a commitment to the common good in community. Community is local. It is society with a human face. It is not government. It is not the people we pay to look after the welfare of others. It is the work we do ourselves, together.

Worshipping together, with a group who would otherwise be strangers, builds community. Church is still a place where people can come together and create community that will act together for The Common Good. Worshipping together turns out outward, reminding us of The Common Good as a main component of The Good Life.

Forgiveness

5 Mar
Photo via Flickr user Quantumlars

Photo via Flickr user Quantumlars

For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart. –Matthew 18: 23-35

Ok, nothing like a light, cheery story to start your day. The only comfort we can find in this passage, amidst the throwing people into prison and the handing people over to be tortured is that fact that it’s a parable. The allegory is clear. We’re the slaves, and it’s not going to go over well with God if we don’t forgive the people in our lives. But maybe Jesus doesn’t expect us to take the parable literally? We hope?

We can get lost in the weeds, digging into the details here: A talent is a whole heck of a lot more than a denarius, so the Lord is forgiving a much larger debt than the slave refuses to forgive his peer. We could muse about how hard it is to ask for patience from other people, how humiliating it is to admit that we need more time, more help, more money. But we can only skirt around the last two verses for so long. This forgiveness thing is serious. Scary serious.

So he means it—that we are actually supposed to do the impossible– forgiving not just seven times but seven times seven. Or in other words, always, all the time. Perhaps Jesus wants to blow our hair back a bit here with this violent parable because of those last two words—your heart. It is your heart on the line. Refusing to forgive, as the Buddha points out, is like grasping hot coal to throw at another. It is the throwers hand that gets burned. Holding onto hurt hurts us. Forgiving is our healing work, too. When we are brave enough to forgive from our own heart, it is our heart that is changed. That heart change frees us to live more fully, to love more fiercely, to know God more closely.

Forgiveness is the way out. It opens up a whole new future full of possibility. The landowner shows the slave the way out, but he doesn’t choose to follow. God shows us the way by forgiving us every day. Then, God invites us to give it a try, to find freedom in letting go of the need to keep score, letting go of the anger inside of us. We’ll fall short. Of course. We’re human. But the more we ask for God’s patience and recognize that we are shown mercy, the more courageous we can be to have a change of heart ourselves.

Dust

27 Feb
Photo via Flickr user John

Photo via Flickr user John

Our church has three Ash Wednesday services, one of which is a family service. The children’s choir sings, and the pastor sets a bowl of palms on fire during the sermon, burning them into ashes. Each family is given a Lenten daily devotional book full of prayers created by children. “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3)

Families come up together to receive a blessing, and then the family members place ashes on each other. I stood at a station blessing families, watching them remind each other of their dust-i-ness. As families filed up to the altar, the sanctuary was charged with love, affection, humility, mindfulness and a touch of melancholy.

My spouse approached my station with our sleeping three-month old son in his arms. I started crying while blessing us:

Holy God, we praise you for sending your Son into the world to show us how much you love us. Bless us with your grace and strengthen us in faith, now and always. We ask this in Jesus’ Name. Amen.

I continued crying as I placed my pointer finger into the bowl of ashes and made the sign of the cross on his little forehead:

Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.

Dan and I exchange ashes, and I was filled with gratitude for this life we are given, this moment of consciousness together on earth as the dust brought our mortality undeniably into focus. I was not filled with fear of our dust-i-ness, but filled with wonder of the depth of goodness that occurs between dust and dust.

Just a year ago, I sat by myself during the family service, watching parents place ashes on their children’s foreheads. I didn’t go up to a station to get blessed. I didn’t want to place ashes on myself. I waited for the next service that wasn’t so focused on children. We were living in the grief of two miscarriages, and exhausted, sad and lonely, I leaned hard on God. Alone in the pew, I laid my heart bare to God. It was an Ash Wednesday and Lent that felt comforting, appropriate, raw and honest to me in my melancholy, in my grief. We are dust. We are human. We are dependent, like children, on our God.

I kissed my baby’s warm, soft cheek before they returned to their pew, and my heart sang with joy. Here is this person, given to us to care for for a short time. He is such a gift, and the ashes on his forehead, sitting right between his bright blue eyes on his tiny, innocent face reminded us that there was nothing and now there is something, and that something is so good. It reminded us of our need for God who gives us life now and promises life for us forever.

What Else?

20 Feb
via Flickr user Mufidah Kassalias

via Flickr user Mufidah Kassalias

Another day, a man stopped Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” Jesus said, “Why do you question me about what’s good? God is the One who is good. If you want to enter the life of God, just do what he tells you.” The man asked, “What in particular?” Jesus said, “Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t lie, honor your father and mother, and love your neighbor as you do yourself.” The young man said, “I’ve done all that. What’s left?”

“If you want to give it all you’ve got,” Jesus replied, “go sell your possessions; give everything to the poor. All your wealth will then be in heaven. Then come follow me.” That was the last thing the young man expected to hear. And so, crestfallen, he walked away. He was holding on tight to a lot of things, and he couldn’t bear to let go.

–Matthew 19:16-22

I identify with the young man in this story, so much so that I have to chuckle. I am a doer, an achiever, one who wants to earn God’s love and promises on my own accord. In school and more recently as an employee, I acted like this young man, saying to my teachers and supervisors, “Ok, done. Did that. Checklist complete. What’s next? What else can I do?” Read: How can I show you even more how competent, efficient and productive I am and thus gain your respect and approval?

I even acted like the young man in Matthew 19 during Lent. I got good at giving things up as a young girl. When I was twelve I gave up soda and candy and eating between meals. It was easy. So then decided to give things up and do more good. For example, one Lent I sent a nice note to someone different every day in addition to giving up everything I thought to be a vice. Look at me go, God.

The young man in Matthew goes so far as to treat the Ten Commandments like a checklist. Check, check, check. Got it. Now what? What else can I do? What is next? I, like this young man, was looking to Jesus for the same rewards I got from my teachers and bosses. Jesus, like he so often does in his ministry, elevates the conversation. He let’s me and the young man know that we are not even playing the right game. Following Jesus requires a lighter load.

The season of Lent is a time that invites us to downshift our lives. We take a deep breath, look around, and take stock of what we are holding tightly and what we can’t bear to let go. Jesus gives us a hint that it’s probably the wrong stuff, and it’s the stuff that is limiting us from following him. For years, I couldn’t bear to let go of my accomplishments. I clung to my competence and my ability to do do do more and do it well. And when I was finished, I’d go back to see what else there was for me to do. I don’t need to let go of chocolate and add more to my Good Samaritan to-do list. This Lent, I am praying about playing the wrong game. It’s not about doing more. What I cling to is doing more. For me, it is about embracing the being part of human being. Following Jesus means letting go of the spiritual checklist to be more free to love.

Sin of Hiding

13 Feb

In my undergraduate program, a fellow religion major wrote her thesis on the shadow side of Augustine’s Confessions. The sin of arrogance, for example, has a shadow side: the sin of hiding. It has stuck with me because at times Augustine’s writing is easy for me to dismiss in my personal life. My struggles are different than his. Like Aristotle’s virtues, it’s helpful for me to remember that there are two ditches to avoid, the excess and the deficiency. After reading through Matthew 6 with high school students

When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Matthew 6:16-18)

I asked them, “Do you know any showy Christians?” I got a resounding affirmative, accompanied by groans and eye rolls. “Okay, what does that look like in your world, when Christians are showy?”

“There are people in my school who are really vocal about their faith on Twitter and can go over the top. It seems a little inauthentic because it is just words.”

“Or the kids who hang out with people who drink but need everyone to know that they don’t drink, like they are better somehow.”

“How about the football players who gather to pray in the middle of the field? It makes me wonder if people of different faiths feel excluded.”

I wondered, due to the strength of their negative reaction, if in their quest to not be showy, they were hiding. I didn’t even have to raise the idea of a shadow side. One young woman pushed back, “Is there a difference between showing off and being authentic? Aren’t there times when it is appropriate to claim your story and beliefs publicly?”

We talked about how, as a group, we tend to be good at taking verses like Matthew 6:16-18 seriously. We can take it too far, as stoic Scandinavians, and hide. We use passages like this one to justify our hiding. I’m guilty of it. Sometimes I write safe, not venturing into controversial territory so as to not offend. Telling people that I teach theology, what I see assumptions and projections in their nonverbal, subtle reactions makes me want to downplay my role to the next person. I let the showy Christians have the floor. But there is room for my story, there is space for my beliefs if I am brave enough to come out of hiding.

In Matthew 6 we talk about using oil while fasting instead of looking somber. Today social media raises new questions about the heart of the verse in our quest to follow Jesus’ teaching. The #UseMeInstead campaign is one example, or maybe we’ll see another round of #Ashtag next week. Where is the line between acts of integrity and acts of arrogance using our faith for good versus using our faith for harm? Where is the line between my public faith and my private practice? Knowing my tendencies, it’s important for me to remember that there is a tension to be sought day in and day out between the sin of arrogance and the sin of hiding.

Gospel Reflection for January 4, 2015, Epiphany

30 Dec

Sunday Readings: Isaiah 60.1-6; Ephesians 3.2-3,5-6; Matthew 2.1-12

“The star which they had observed at its rising went ahead of them until it came to a standstill over the place where the child was.”

Matthew 2.9

MagiMatthew’s stories of Jesus’ birth don’t mention the manger, the swaddling clothes, the shepherds, or angels singing in the sky. Matthew gives us journeyers for whom a star in the sky sets them on an earthly journey. The great thing about being human is that we can always change.  Conversion, turning toward or turning away, is a capacity we have. We can become more and respond to mystery. We simply have to look up, see the star that is calling us, find some traveling companions, and set out. The divine awaits the seeker on every horizon.

What new horizon summons you?

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Gospel Reflection for November 23, 2014, Feast of Christ the King

19 Nov

Sunday scripture readings: Ezekiel 34.11-12,15-17; 1 Corinthians 15.20-26,28; Matthew 25.31-46

“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you or naked and gave you clothing?  And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?  And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.”

Matthew 25.37-40

Matthew’s gospel places the judgment of the nations immediately before Jesus’ passion in the flow of the gospel narrative.  In his passion Jesus himself becomes the least among us, suffering the kind of execution aimed to shame and subdue rebellious slaves.  Sunday’s parable invites us to recognize Jesus is all those who suffer.

In whom that you know do you see Jesus suffering?

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Gospel Reflection for November 16, 2014, 33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time

11 Nov

“Then the one who had received the one talent came forward and said, ‘Master, I knew you were a demanding person, harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not scatter, so out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground. Here it is back.'”

Matthew 25.24-25

One talent is equivalent to 6,000 denarii. One denarius is the standard day’s wage for a worker in Jesus’ time. Anyone who works six days a week for one denarius a day earns 340 denarii a year. An ordinary laborer would work 17 years to earn one talent. The master in Sunday’s gospel entrusts his servants with incredible wealth.

Each human person receives the priceless windfall of life itself. We each have life without having caused ourselves to be. Our ancestors have invested themselves in relationships and efforts that bring us to full adulthood. Jesus invested his life in the human race, identifying with us totally unto death, opening to us all we can become in God. How do we use these extravagant down payments on ourselves?

What is one of the most valuable ways you have invested your life energies in our world and its people?

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Gospel Reflection for October 26, 2014, 30th Sunday of Ordinary Time

21 Oct

“Teacher, which commandment is greatest?”  

Matthew 22.36

Gospel love is not an idea or an emotion but an imperative–a call to act.  The two great commandments–to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves–recognize that acts of love weave us into community, just as selfish and violent acts fray the social fabric.  The commandments are more than rules to keep and thereby gain heaven.  The actions to which they call us are the hammer and nails of Christians community.”

Who that you once treated as an alien or no-good have you treated as a neighbor?  With what result?

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