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Twenty Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Joshua 3: 7 - 17
Psalm 107: 1 - 7; 33 - 37
1 Thessalonians 2: 9 - 13
Matthew 23: 1 - 12
It seems like this summer and fall we have been writing a lot about obedience...and this week is no different.  Why is the bible full of stories that set meaning, that prescribe how we are to behave and how we are to be in relationship with others and with God.  Does anyone think this notion of obedience might be an important theme for us to pay attention to?

We begin this week seeing Joshua receiving his Leadership Orientation from God as the people of Israel are preparing to pass over in to the Promised Land.  God continues to be quite directive and detailed about how and what Joshua should do and what he should have those with him do.  AND God explains the things God will do.  We hope we can say this without too much disrespect: it seems a little like the child's game "Simon Says".  God gives them (literally) step by step instructions as to where to stand and when to walk and who should go first and later on God explains who should pick up a stone and where they should stack them and why they are doing all of this.  It almost feels as if God did not trust the people to do their own meaning is almost as if God does not trust them to understand what is happening to and around them on their own.  Granted, the people have not demonstrated a great grasp of the concept of obedience or meaning-making to this point.  Are we nearly at a breakthrough here?  At what point does Israel finally begin to understand? (Hmm...we think Isaiah has things to say about this, too.)

And this certainly makes sense as the nation of Israel continues to develop and recall their own history as they live in to the future.  In so many Psalms (including 107 for this week) the writer relives what had happened to the people and how when they had obeyed they found themselves in the loving care of God and when they had disobeyed they found themselves either left out of the favor of God or directly incurring the wrath of God.

This form of believing and following is reinforced in Paul's letter to the Thessalonians in a variety of ways.  Paul's letter to the church in Thessalonica is believed to be the oldest of his letters.  At this point, the community is only about twenty years past the stunning events of the crucifixion and resurrection.  It was probably a largely gentile community.  Paul is sort of recounting his visit and the things that he taught, and correcting some misunderstandings while, like any good teacher, reinforcing good behavior on the part of the community.  He points out to them that his conduct was blameless....his conduct was obedient to God and therefore should be imitated by newer Christians as the way to live.  He also praises this community for hearing God's word through Paul and Timothy and accepting it, not as human word, but as the word of God...somehow different, somehow more profound.

And then in the words of Jesus as recorded by Matthew we see a different view.  Jesus makes explicit what everyone always sort of hints around at....he holds the scribes and Pharisees up as examples of excellent teachers of the law and really poor obeyers of the law.  It is almost as if they have taken what they were originally given and over-read it and over-manipulated it and over thought it to where it no longer follows the initial intention.  Somehow, the scrupulous attention to the law has brought them to a place where they have lost an understanding of why they are doing what they are doing.  Perhaps Jesus didn't see in them a true understanding of these laws handed down by God to Moses as part of a deep relationship between God and creation.
Sometimes we lose ourselves in a rational, heady space.  And sometimes we resist "direction" that seems too explicit or that we don't fully understand.  But there were really important reasons for God helping the Israelites to set meaning.  There were reasons that young Christian communities needed to be encouraged and applauded for heeding God's word (c'mon, they were reeling...waiting for Jesus to return and for all the dead to be resurrected..and for the Roman Empire to fall, to boot).  In that rational, heady space, we can explain things away, claim a lack of "relevance" to our modern world.
But somehow, we are here, listening and reading and hoping to see meaning for our lives - recognizing that there is more to this than we can know, or we would be on to something else by now.  These readings work on us.  These ancient traditions and stories and laws and warnings still trigger something within us.
I am the maker of the Heavens
I am the bright and morning star
I am the breath of all Creation
Who always was
And is to come

I am the One who walked on water
I am the One who calmed the seas
I am the miracles and wonders
So come and see
And follow me
You will know

I am the fount of living water
The risen Son of man
The healer of the broken
And when you cry
I am your savior and redeemer
Who bore the sins of man
The author and perfecter
Beginning and the end
I am

I am the spirit deep inside you
I am the word upon your heart
I am the One who even knew you
Before your birth
Before you were

Mark Schultz - I Am

Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Deuteronomy 34: 1 - 12
Psalm 90: 1 - 6; 13 - 17
1 Thessalonians 1: 1 - 10
Matthew 22: 32 - 46

In a recent episode of NPR's "Speaking of Faith" Eckhart Tolle (author of A New Earth and The Power of Now) said stress is created when you are not content where you are and are wishing you were somewhere else.  His primary purpose is to help folks live for right Now (as can be seen in one of his recent books). 

And it seems to us this is likely true--whether it is a willful personal choice or the circumstances dictate it, when you are not able to appreciate where you are, life is more difficult.

We wonder if Moses was under stress.  Unfortunately, this week, we lose Moses.  We really lose Moses.  And now after all he has been through we see him as he looks out over the Promised Land and he receives some difficult news from the One he has been following--he will not set foot in this place, this magnificent Promised Land to which he has led the murmuring crowd.  No - instead he dies alone on a mountain and is mourned for 30 days by Israel.  He is praised as a holy man and a great prophet.  In fact the reading says there has been no such prophet since.  Think about all the psalms we have read through this recent lectionary cycle.  So many of them celebrate Moses' actions very specifically.  He was a great man.  And the Israelites, in spite of their history of grumbling at him, knew this.  After all he has experienced in his life, he made it to the mountain overlooking the promised fertile plain, and he went no further.  After all the dreams of the Promised Land, he only looked in at it from the edge.  We really hope there was already a bumper sticker in existence that said "Life is about the journey, not the destination."

In the Psalm this week there is lots of "time" language where it seems the writer is longing for the days gone by and longing for the days to come, but does not spend any time talking about the satisfaction of the present moment.  It must be tough to live that way.

Paul's letter to the Christians in Thessalonica seems to be a fairly good example of someone who is attempting to live in the present moment in as stress-free a way as possible.  In fact, it reads as a letter of deep friendship or a love letter affirming how wonderful it is to be in relationship with them today.  The author acknowledges that the message that they brought to Thessalonica was not popular – not the toast of the town – but they loved well and did good work and consider this to be beloved community.

In Matthew we find the not often quoted second half of the "Greatest Commandment" conversation where Jesus turns the tables and asks the Pharisees a question about the Messiah.  The text of the Gospel of Matthew was written to a Jewish community.  With that in mind, the dialogue that Jesus has with the Pharisees becomes a little clearer.  Using references that would be clear to every person sitting in the room, Jesus asserts his divinity.  He is not just David’s ‘son,’ but he is the Son of Man.  The messiah is the fulfillment of God's long-standing covenant with the people of Israel, and Jesus asserts that the Messiah is the son of God.  And the interesting thing here (to us) is that the very concept of the Messiah is an idea where folks were looking to the future for someone to come and save / restore them from the current difficult situation they were living in.  The idea of a Messiah had developed as the Jews were living under oppressive rulers and watching their homes and holy places being destroyed.  And so it is interesting how Jesus spends this time trying to tease out their understanding / expectation of who the Messiah would be and what the Messiah might bring.  How ironic that he lived in their midst, awaited and expected and somehow not quite recognized.

It is hard to be present.  It is hard to have a rough day and know that it is only one and to regard it as God’s magnificent gift, warts and all.  It is hard not to project the angst of today on to tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.  Similarly, it is difficult not to look past what we have hoping for something more.  And yet, this day and all that it is is gift.  The ones in our midst are gift.  The kingdom is at hand.

What are ways that you overlook the present?

Are you more apt to look ahead, look behind or look to the present moment?

What is it about the present that we cannot bear?

How can we become friendly with each day as it happens?

Blessed One, Mother-protector and Father-provider,
   in each one but also everywhere.
May your name frame our lives and tame our world!
Only in such a Divine reign will the embrace of earth and heaven be realized.
In the interim time, give the poor enough to eat and adequate clean water to drink;
   and save the rich from trusting in overfilled barns and overstocked vintage wines.
Transfer your strength to assist us to forgive friends and even enemies;
   may this be our gift-offering in gratitude for divine amnesty.
Help us not to be overcome by temptation;
But when in the pit of alienation and self-indulgence reach down and free us.
Help us never to lose hope that your power to transform our petty kingdoms
   into your glorious dominion will in the end prevail.  Amen.

Contextual rendition of the Lord’s Prayer by Sathianathan Clarke, Wesley Theological Seminary

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Exodus 33.12-23
Psalm 99
1 Thessalonians 1.1-10
Matthew 22.15-22

Do you ever find you have been paying attention to the wrong thing? You know, you put a lot of energy and work and focus and worry and anxiety in to one particular issue, and something happens that broadens your vision or gives you a different understanding of the situation and you suddenly understand your focus was too narrow or possibly even misplaced. A light example might be worrying about scratches on a car whose engine is about to seize up or whose brakes are failing or that won't even start.

We imagine that in the scene related to us by Matthew this week, Jesus is shaking his head in disbelief and frustration. He has found himself in another debate with some fellow keepers / interpreters of the law, and they are actually trying to find a way to "trap" him in to saying something that will cause his downfall when he transgresses either the Mosaic law or the Roman law....they had gotten to the point where they did not care which system they tripped him up in, they were just focused on tripping Jesus up. In this case they were attempting to get him on both accounts to a certain extent. If he gave an enthusiastic "Yes" toward paying taxes to the emperor, that would raise eyebrows among the Jews because that would mean he was excited / affirming paying taxes to the people they felt were illegally ruling over them. If he gave an emphatic "No" toward paying taxes to the emperor, that would raise Roman eyebrows because he would be encouraging disobedience to the civil authority (and we all know that it is always a small step from civil disobedience to toppeling a governing authority!). But Jesus was not drawn in. In fact, he attempts to show them what a misplaced focus they were bringing up...he reminds them to offer back to the emperor what the emperor gave them--that is such a small portion of life; and offer back to God what God gave them--life itself. There is no comparison between the two. Why try?

In Paul, Silvanus and Timothy's letter to the church in Thessalonica we see an example of how folks had changed their focus from things of less consequence to more consequence and this letter was a bit of encouragement and affirmation. Evidently, when the message of Jesus first came to that area, they were putting all of their faith in, and worship toward, idols; and through the Good News that was shared they turned toward God. And that Refocusing they went through (which we also read was inspired / sustained / supported by the Holy Spirit) had changed the way they welcomed and interacted with visitors from all over the region. Because they were aimed in the appropriate direction and focused on the right thing, their whole personality and reputation seems to have changed.

There is an interesting dialogue between Moses and Yahweh, with Moses insisting on seeing God we see a mature, dependent Moses who understood the importance of being in relationship with God. When we read the whole 33rd chapter of Exodus we see a beautiful example of Moses and God working out their relationship and both of them discerning / discovering what is important to them. The Exodus passage contains three key words – see, face and know. See and sight are repeated over and seems that Moses is seeking proof. And Yahweh isn't offering proof; I am who I am, I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, you have found favor in my sight. It's as if God has lost patience and is offended by Moses’ need for assurance, for proof. And we also see that, in the end, God relents and (as best as we can interpret from the text) seems to soften and recognize Moses' need for himself and his people to have a more present, more visible, more tangible connection to being the people of God. Again, from our interpretation, it seems both have recognized the need to not focus on what one thinks the other needs, but instead to listen to what the other actually needs. It turns out both God and Moses needed to have some commitment shown by the other party involved. This seems to be a much different relationship with God than we have today....what do you think has changed?

The Psalm is one of focus as well. It is a praise psalm, honoring God’s mighty power and justice. It acknowledges God’s faithfulness to Moses and Aaron and Jacob, and recognizes his corrective actions when followers go astray. It is a psalm that seems to be written by the victor, and the words are ripe with praise for the authority of God’s “kingship,” which may or may not be something we recognize or celebrate today. It repeatedly calls worshippers to praise a righteous and holy God.

It is hard, we think, to let go of things once they seize our imagination or understanding. But we also recognize as we read these verses that we are awfully good at missing the point while diligently attending to the Wrong Thing. Sometimes it is as simple for us as focusing on the low moments of the day instead of the gift of life and the beauty of creation. Sometimes it is a deep focus on a dividing issue instead of a uniting bond. If only we could always know when we were headed astray...

+How do you check in with yourself about your relationship with God, with others, with society, with creation?
+How are the “right things” revealed to you?
+What is the focus of your relationship with God?

Neither Out Far Nor In Deep
Robert Frost

The people along the sand
All turn and look one way.
They turn their back on the land.
They look at the sea all day.

As long as it takes to pass
A ship keeps raising its hull;
The wetter ground like glass
Reflects a standing gull.

The land may vary more;
But wherever the truth may be?
The water comes ashore,
And the people look at the sea.

They cannot look out far.
They cannot look in deep.
But when was that ever a bar
To any watch they keep?

Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Exodus 32:1-14
Psalm 106:1-6
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

This week's readings have us wondering – what does God really expect from us?  We sort of like the Micah justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.  Got it.  Check it off the list.  Can do.  And then, what's in it for us.  (Did we say that out loud?  Really?)

In Exodus, we see our current hero, Moses, on top of the mountain in the wilderness receiving commandments....instructions....from God.  God is explaining to the people through Moses what is expected of how they are to live so that they will be able to be in right relationship with God.  Meanwhile, down at the bottom of the mountain, Aaron and the rest of these liberated slaves and current wilderness wanderers have lost their patience with Moses and God and whatever is happening on top of the mountain.  They haven't seen Moses for a few days and they have written him off and want some thing and some one else to follow.  These are certainly people who want to be committed to least they want to take direction from someone....they need someone to tell them where to go and how to live.  And so Aaron has a brilliant idea to make a idol for the people to worship and follow.  This brings God in to a quick and deep anger.  It seems God has lost all patience and is ready to completely wipe out these folks who continue to complain and whose faith continues to regress at the slightest bump in the desert path.  It seems like at this moment, both sides of this relationship have failed a bit.....certainly God knew these folks were easily scared and needed some pretty constant attention.....and certainly these folks knew God had delivered them and provided for them and protected them up to this point.  What do you think the people really expected of God?  As we have followed them during this lectionary cycle, it seems they have been fairly consistently disappointed in how (and at what speed) their needs were met.

In the Psalm as excerpted for this week, we get the viewpoint of a person who is obviously in a different place in life.  This writer is able to look back at those same wilderness wanderers and the history that surrounded them and see God's faithfulness and power and protection in a different way than they were able to see.  He has a great line in there:  "They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass."  How often do we do this?  Exchanging the relationship we have with God for the image of something pale by honest and thoughtful comparison?  It certainly is easier to look back through the lens of history and experience at someone else who obviously failed to see the works of God around them.  Read the entire Psalm – it's long.  And it is largely a history of Israel's experience of failing to be faithful and experiencing dire consequences.  Was Israel's suffering a result of some punishment? Or did their actions set in motion reactions that resulted in crisis?  It's hard to know where cause and effect lie.

There is no question that Paul understood / taught / deeply believed we must be faithful to God for God to be faithful to us.  This passage from his letter to the Christians in Philippi reads like an elementary school worksheet about "if-then" statements.  He encourages his readers / hearers to live in upright ways and then they will receive the Peace of God.  Another reading of this is that the Peace of God shows up as we live faithfully.....somehow through the very actions of obedience we are living out / performing.  Again, we wonder how does this work?  How do our actions and our choices affect us and our relationship with God?  And does God respond?  Or do we live with consequences we create? 

And in the parable Jesus tells us we see another illustration of how this relationship between humans and God works.  A king invites all of the best and brightest to his son's wedding banquet, and none of them show up.  Hmmm.  We'd be a little offended, wouldn't we?  The king must have really offended these folks at some point.  Not one to waste a good spread, nor one to fail his son and daughter-in-law by not hosting a proper banquet, he turns his servants out to invite the entire community...the dregs of local society.  And they come, with joy (and we're guessing a little trepidation).  But evidently, these folks knew the local custom and all but one managed to wear the appropriate clothes (show the appropriate respect) for the banquet.  Woe to the one who did not.  We see that obedience is required and expected against the penalty of death and banishment.  If asked to come to the wedding banquet, it seems the thing to do is to put on your best wedding robe and show up....immediately if not sooner.

All of these stories seem a bit like the wool sweater worn on a day that is just a little too warm.  They are uncomfortable.  They are chafing.  The difficulty for us with all of these examples is that they all seem to lack the Grace we prefer to read in to the scriptures.  Maybe we have a wishful and inappropriate reading of the gospel story, but it seems that when we read the full scope of the story we find more of an allowance for mistakes.  And yet, we live in a world full of sad stories and uncomfortable circumstances.  What role do we have in creating it, and if we are faithful – really outrageously faithful – can we change it?

What is your gut level response to the readings for this week?
What is your response telling you about yourself?  About your relationship with God?
Is covenant a reciprocating relationship, or simply a faithful relationship?  What is the difference between those things?

The Kaddish
Let us magnify and let us sanctify the great name of God in the world which He created according to His will.  May His kingdom come in your lifetime, and in your days, and in the lifetime of the family of Israel--quickly and speedily may it come.  Amen.
May the greatness of His being be blessed from eternity to eternity.
Let us bless and let us extol, let us tell aloud and let us raise aloft, let us set on high and let us honour, let us exalt and let us raise the Holy One--blessed be He!--though He is far beyond any blessing or song, any honour or any consolation that can be spoken of in this world.  Amen.
May great peace from heaven adn the gift of life be granted to us and to all the family of Israel.  Amen.
May He who makes peace in the highest bring this peace upon us and upon all Israel.  Amen.