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Gospel Reflection for April 13, 2014, Palm/Passion Sunday

7 Apr

About three o’clock Jesus cried out in a loud tone, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?”  This means, “My God, my God.  Why have you forsaken me?”

Matthew 27.46

The events of the passion test and manifest Jesus’ love for God, for the world, for his friends, and for the community that still gathers in his name.  Jesus endures not only the pain and shame of crucifixion but one friend’s betrayal, another’s denial, and God’s seeming abandonment.

When have you found Jesus with you in times of betrayal or suffering or seeming abandonment?

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Gospel Reflection for March 16, 2014, 2nd Sunday of Lent

10 Mar
via flickr user Horia Varlan

via flickr user Horia Varlan

Jesus was transfigured in front of his disciples.
Out of the cloud came a voice, “This is my beloved Son, on whom my favor rests.  Listen to him.”

Matthew 17.5

 His transfiguration takes place just after Jesus tells his disciples for the first time he will suffer, die, and rise on the third day.  This awakening to Jesus’ suffering moves the disciples from ordinary to sacred time.

In his transfiguration the disciples see Jesus as both divine and vulnerable, belonging to both heaven and earth, residing in both ordinary and extraordinary worlds.  His transfiguration terrifies his followers, but Jesus touches them gently and tells them not to fear.

This vision disturbs their lives.  The solid ground on which they stand shifts.  They move from ordinary space to sacred space, from mundane to mystery.

When has an awakening transformed your past and future?

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Praying Away the Anxiety Spiral

4 Mar

Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span?

                                                    –Matthew 6:27

A few weeks ago, I came upstairs from starting a load of laundry to find my five-year-old face down, asleep on the couch at 5 p.m. If you knew my son, this would strike you as unusual, since he is the sort of kid who goes hard all day long, only stopping to relax when we finally force him into bed at night. Thinking, “It must have been a tiring week at school,” I started preparing dinner.

A few hours later, as we cuddled in bed reading books, my son told me his neck hurt. Thinking, “Maybe he slept funny on it on the couch,” I told him a good night’s sleep would make it feel better, gave him a kiss on the cheek, and turned out the light.

It was not until I started getting ready for bed myself, after the hustle and bustle of the day had subsided, that my brain started connecting some dots.  “A usually healthy and active boy who is suddenly tired with a sore neck… wait, isn’t there a serious illness connected with a sore neck?” These thoughts sent me to Google and then to WebMD to learn more about the signs of meningitis. I tiptoed back upstairs and into my son’s room, laying the back of my hand on his forehead to see if he had a temperature, which he did not. He was sleeping soundly and looked perfectly peaceful.

I wish I could say the same for my next few hours in bed. Despite a fairly strong intellectual sense that my son was not, in fact, sick with anything serious, I could not help but think, “What if he is ill and I do not do anything about it? What if I find him unconscious in the morning… or worse? What kind of mother would I be?” I was in an anxiety spiral, with negative, unlikely, and even macabre thoughts stacking upon each other and driving me upstairs multiple times to stick my hand in front of my son’s nose to feel the warm breath that signaled his life. Eventually, by what felt like some quotidian miracle, it occurred to me that the only thing to do was to pray. So I recited the Serenity Prayer over and over until I eventually fell into a restless sleep.

At a time when anxiety seems to be on the rise in our society, we might chuckle at Jesus’ rhetorical question in this week’s Gospel as to whether any of us can add a minute to our lives by worrying. Certainly, we know in our heads that worrying will not lengthen our lives (and we likely have been exposed to countless articles telling us that it actually will have the opposite effect), but we might also question in our hearts whether we will still be good parents, partners, employees, citizens, and people if we attempt to put an end to the anxiety spirals. Will the world still spin if we ourselves stop spinning in anxiety?

Jesus’ answer to this is very clear: the world will go on even if we stop worrying since it is God who controls the world in the first place, not us. Easy enough to say, harder to live into. In my experience, this is where prayer comes in. The act of praying invokes a greater power in the universe, reminding us that we are only human and in control of very little in our lives. Far from increasing our anxiety, prayer can help us identify that which we can change in our lives and in our world and that which we need to give over to God for safe keeping. Maybe with Lent approaching we all need to strive to give up  and give over to God some of our needless worrying and to redirect our energy to strengthening our relationship to God, the One whom Jesus assures us will provide for our needs.

Gospel Reflection for March 9, 1st Sunday of Lent

4 Mar

Jesus said, “Scripture says, ‘Not by bread alone do people live but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Matthew 4.4

Jesus lives by God’s word not by bread alone.  He refuses to put God to the test.  He worships God alone, the first commandment.  His testimony calls us to welcome and chew on God’s word this Lent and resist popular images of success.

What images of success have you tested and found false in your life?

Gospel Reflection for March 2nd, 8th Sunday in Ordinary Time

25 Feb

Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters.  People who try either hate one and love the other or pay attention to one and despise the other.  You cannot give yourself to God and money.”

 Matthew 6:24

Sunday’s gospel begins with a generic saying: No one can serve two masters.  What makes the saying memorable is its one-two punch—one can’t serve two.  Also the statement is absolute—no one can serve two.  The no sets our mind scrambling for an exception, testing its truth.  In the end, the gospel names its own specific conflict.  You can’t give yourself to God and money.

What conflicts do you experience between God and money?


via flickr user jeffweese

via flickr user jeffweese

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Gospel Reflection for February 23, 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time

18 Feb

Jesus said, “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Matthew 5:44

Jesus rejects conventional wisdom and accepted cultural values.  He offers a prophetic alternative to payback; he wants us to make neighbors even of enemies.  He pushes the law beyond simply keeping the rules and being obedient.  He calls us to communion with our neighbors and active commitment to the wellbeing of all—to those who need coats and loans, to the violent from whom we must help others keep safe.

When have you succeeded in making of a neighbor of a seeming enemy?

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Speaking the Truth

12 Feb

Recently I boarded a puddle jumper at 10:30 p.m. for the last leg of a trip to Lexington, KY. I would not get in until midnight and knew I had an eight hour day of teaching beginning at 8 a.m. the following morning. Not long after I slumped into my seat, hoping at least to get in a cat nap during the short flight, my seatmate arrived, a talkative man about my age who immediately engaged me in conversation. It was your standard where-are-you-from-what-do-you-do conversation until the man asked me to rate the two male flight attendants who were serving us that evening. The look on my face must have betrayed my utter confusion, because he added, “You know, on a scale of one to ten, how would you rate them?”

I could feel my face flush and my palms start to sweat. I started with a feeble, “I really don’t know,” hoping to back my way politely out of this uncomfortable conversation. But my seatmate was not ready to let the subject rest. After giving his numerical assessment of the attractiveness of the two flight attendants, he demanded an answer from me, reasoning that this was only fair given that he had shared his opinion. Even though in my head I was screaming, “This is such a demeaning way to treat people,” I mumbled some numbers, praying that we were talking quietly enough that at least the people around us were not privy to this objectionable conversation. My seatmate was then curious about how my husband stacked up against the two flight attendants. Hoping humor and grandiosity would satisfy him, I gave my husband a twelve. Blessedly, the plane began its take off after this. Indicating that I was pregnant and that this was way past by bedtime, I then pretended to sleep so as to avoid any more conversation.

This bizarre plane encounter came back to me this week when I was reading the Gospel for this coming Sunday from Matthew 5:17-37. Speaking to the disciples, Jesus raises the bar set by the Ten Commandments. It is not enough simply to refrain from murder; followers of God must reconcile any anger they hold against their fellow human beings before participating in worship. Similarly, it is not enough to refrain from the act of adultery; Jesus indicates that lust after another is adultery of the heart. Now certainly, I was not lusting after the two male flight attendants whose attractiveness my seatmate was asking me to rate. But by going along with his game, I was participating in an act of dehumanization against them. I colluded in turning them into sexual objects because I was too polite to tell this stranger next to me that I found what he was doing to be offensive. I am ashamed that I did not at least say, “I do not want to talk about this.”

via flickr user jasoneppink

via flickr user jasoneppink

To me, this also connects to the end of this Gospel. Jesus tells his disciples that rather than swearing by heaven, earth, Jerusalem, or even their own heads, their yes needs to mean yes and their no needs to mean no. The conflict I felt on the plane was between standing up for what I believe in and being nice and polite. And frequently happens in my life, nice and polite won out. Now certainly being nice and polite are important in social interactions. The problem is that there are many times when being nice and polite means that my yes does not mean yes and my no does not mean no. I say what I think that other people want to hear, rather than venture my own opinion. But then my niceness and politeness actually mean nothing since I am not speaking my truth.

Unfortunately, I cannot speak my truth to my plane seatmate at this point. But I can at least speak it here: I know what it feels like to be objectified. It makes you feel less than human and not worth anything. And I want to hold myself to a standard of not objectifying other people because I believe that every person in the world is a beloved child of God.

Gospel Reflection for February 16, 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time

10 Feb
Jesus taught his disciples about the law saying, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill them.” 

Matthew 5:17

Jesus is a wise man, a teacher, and wisdom figure.  Jesus interprets the law of Moses in unconventional ways.  He contrasts the old and new law with a repeated formula in which he first states, “You have heard the commandment…” and then counters with his interpretation, “I say to you.”

Jesus insists that he is not overturning the commandments.  He is calling his hearers to a deeper and more challenging approach to Mosaic Law.  He doesn’t destroy but fulfills and completes the old law.

Name and describe someone whose wisdom you have integrated into your life.

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The Season of Glory

7 Feb

Sports fans in America like me are living in the season of glory. First, the Super Bowl stocked full with Seahawk cheerleaders wearing blue sequined leggings and a white bronco leading the Broncos passed pyrotechnics, the Pepsi half-time show with Bruno and the Chili Peppers and a fireworks show, beer and truck commercials saturated with celebs galore, and left-over Gatorade dumped on coach Carroll. The Seahawks, after a game of pure physical domination, were named the “world champions” amidst confetti. The MVP, Malcolm Smith, was awarded a Chevy truck in addition to his ring. Russell Wilson in a post-game interview, mentioned taking full advantage of his “God-given talent.” At game’s end, we point out that Scarlett Johansson made a grammatical error in her sexy Soda Stream commercial. We look up the Esurance Super Bowl commercial on Youtube and have to watch an ad to get to the ad. We forget about the Broncos completely. We pay for all the wings and nachos we ate. Glory.

via flickr user Eugene Redis

via flickr user Eugene Redis

Matthew Skinner, in his article “Enjoy the Super Bowl; Be Suspicious of Its Values,” points to the wealth behind the game by reminding us that “The commissioner of the NFL has “earned” a salary of $30 million in one year, working on behalf of the rich owners of the league’s 32 teams. Full-service luxury suites for the big game are renting in the neighborhood of $500,000.”

The Olympics are starting, followed by March Madness. More glory. More America. More winners. More excess. More wealth.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love playing and watching sports. I watched the Super Bowl, and I will probably catch moments of the Olympics and March Madness. I allow myself to get emotionally involved in the storylines of the athletes.  I appreciate people pushing their bodies to their limits. But the season of glory leaves me feeling empty, dirty, and a little embarrassed for us. I find myself thinking of my friends in other countries (and my country) with so much less than I have. I find myself wondering about the losers, the meek, the rec league kids, the countries that don’t go to the Olympics. I find myself wondering about our country’s obsession with power, wealth, gluttony, excess, and winning. We are trained to look toward the winners for definitions of happiness and success. Little kids are watching, with less constructive criticism than me.

The season of glory inspires me to go straight to Matthew 5 with Skinner as a corrective. Jesus preaches a theology of the cross, not a theology of glory. It is clearly seen in the beatitudes. “Who will be made content and gratified by participating in what Jesus offers now and in the future? The kinds of people who suffer brokenness and grief. The people taken advantage of by friends and strangers. The people who always come out on the losing side, whether the field of play involves their economic well-being, their social respectability, or their physical health. Jesus announces he intends to invert our taken-for-granted expectations about where happiness and achievement can be found.”

I know, as an American sports fan, I play a role in the season of glory. But I don’t have to be complicit. I can be self-critical and also play a role in living out the theology of the cross. I believe in Jesus, and I believe he came with good news for the losers. His message was so threatening to the empire that he was killed. So I, for one, will be reading a lot of Matthew 5 this season, and praying for a blessedness that is reserved for the people far away from the glory.

Let Your Light Shine

6 Feb
Photo by flickr user jlodder

Photo by flickr user jlodder

It was just over two years ago that my sister invited me to a fundraiser for the KGSA Foundation, a non-profit organization based in the Twin Cities whose mission is to engage globally by providing resources and advocacy to support the needs of local communities. Knowing my interest in education and empowerment for young women, she told me that the current focus of the KGSA Foundation was a partnership with the Kibera Girls Soccer Academy (KGSA), a free, community-run, all-girls secondary school in Kibera, one of the largest slums in the world located on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya.

In response to her request, I launched into the sort of hemming and hawing that I usually reserve for telemarketers: “I don’t know if we can afford to give to their cause right now, I hate to take a night away from the kids, I can’t bear to leave my warm house on a Thursday evening in the middle of a Minnesota December.” Having already met the founder of the KGSA Foundation, a charismatic young man in his middle twenties who graduated from our high school alma mater, my sister challenged me to show up and not be moved by the work this group was doing.

So with an attitude of “I’ll show her,” I arrived at the event. And despite not wanting to give my sister the satisfaction of being right, I found myself moved. I was taken in by the story of Abdul, a Kiberan man who was disturbed enough by the lack of options for the young women in his community (many young women either marry at a desperately young age or end up turning to prostitution to support themselves) that he started first a soccer program, to get the girls off the streets, and then a secondary school, so these girls could raise their prospects for the future. I was taken in by the story of Ryan, the KGSA Foundation executive director, who had met Abdul in a bar while on a study abroad program in Kibera and decided to dedicate his post-college years to supporting Abdul’s work. Taken in by these stories, my heart was more open to the appeal that followed. However, I knew that our family would only be able to give a little financially… and then I heard Ryan say that they were looking for interested volunteers to serve on the first board of directors for the Foundation.

Hearing this petition for help, I realized that it was the sort of thing I had not even known I had been looking for. I was in between jobs. I had put off any sort of volunteer work for the past four years of birthing and raising my two sons. Tired of feeling so overwhelmed by the world’s problems, I wanted a tangible way to live my desire for social justice in the world. I e-mailed Ryan the next day and was on the board of directors within a few weeks, lending my writing skills to the Foundation’s grant writing efforts.

In this week’s Gospel from Matthew 5, Jesus tells their disciples that they are a light for the world and that they must allow their light to shine before others in the form of their good deeds. And just in case we modern readers are not sure what these deeds would look like, the lectionary gives us a first reading from Isaiah that makes it plain: “Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them, and do not turn your back on your own. Then your light shall break forth like the dawn.”

That evening at the fundraiser I had so strongly resisted attending, I felt my light being called forth and I was at a point in my life where I could hear and respond to the call. We all have gifts that we can share with the world; we all encounter opportunities, big and small, to let our light shine in the world through our deeds. In your own life, when have you felt called to let your light shine? To what are you being called right now, whether you have been aware of it or not?


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