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Sixth Sunday in Lent - Year C

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29  •  Luke 19:28-40
Liturgy of the Palms

On the Sunday that begins "holy week," we mark first the events of Jesus' triumphant ride into Jerusalem.  This is a manic Sunday in the Christian year.  If you close your eyes and imagine the dynamic - the joyous followers, the worried local politicians and officials, the priests threatened by Jesus' teaching and by the pressure of distant powers in Rome - you can hear the mixed murmuring that might have occurred. 

"Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna."
"We must see that he takes this no further."
"It will be the ruin of the Jewish people."
"This Jesus must die."
"What harm?"
"Keep the people quiet.  We'll have a riot on our hands."
"Like John before him..."
"Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord"

It's all brewing just under the surface.  For those of us who grew up in churches waving palms and singing praise songs on Palm Sunday, a deeper understanding of the events of the ride into Jerusalem are now unsettling.  Perhaps because we hear it in our own world.  Our own manic confusion about what is good and what is bad, what is wrong and what is true, what is harmful and what is helpful. Who we think we are and who God has created us to be. Individual liberties and justice for all.  Who we are and who we hope to be.  Our world or God's Kingdom.

This is the trouble brewing.  Hosanna! Crucify him! Hosanna!  Crucify him!

Isaiah 50:4-9a  •  Psalm 31:9-16  •  Philippians 2:5-11  •  Luke 22:14-23:56 or Luke 23:1-49
Liturgy of the Passion

You do not have to listen to a newscast or a "news show" or read very far in a newspaper to see or hear one person labeling another.


And usually when someone is slinging a label around, they are not trying to improve the status of the other person.

Conservative. Liberal. American. Terrorist. Malcontent. Troublemaker. Wealthy. Poor. Disconnected. Stupid. Uncaring. Marxist. Cranky. Crotchety. Un-american. Etc.

Now why do we do this? And don't fool yourself....we ALL do this. But why?

Is it fun?

Does it make me feel better?
Does it increase my social/professional/political capital?
Does it stop global warming?

Why are we so quick to label and dismiss folks we don't like or don't agree with?

And once you have labeled someone, what does it take for you to Un-label them?

Well, since both of us are closer to being theologians than we are to being sociologists or psychologists, let's look at the primary text this week and see what we can infer from there.

If you have spent much time around Christianity, you know this story. It is the end of Jesus's life. He makes his last trip in to Jerusalem, he gives some final instructions to his disciples, he gets arrested by chief priests and scribes and officers of the temple police (mostly Jewish leaders),  Pilate (a Roman authority) attempts to release him, folks wanted him killed, and the last part of this passage shows Jesus being beaten and killed between two other criminals and then his body is taken away to a tomb.

There are many other details in this is a full two chapters of details.

But the question we want to think about a bit is why Jesus had so much anger directed toward him.

So....why do you think?

As we read in the passage, he is brought before and tried before a council of Jews who were looking to find fault with him. It appears that by the time he got here, he had already been labeled as a Liar and a Troublemaker and One Who Should Not Be Trusted. They passed their judgment on him and then he was tried by a couple of Romans with some authority (Pilate and Herod) and they found no guilt in him.  But neither did they feel great need to set any records straight...

And the Jewish leaders kept on pushing. Somehow, in their minds, Jesus had crossed a line that could not be uncrossed.

What are the issues, the choices, the threats we encounter today that set us in our ways, our decisions, our convictions?  Something had solidified with the priesthood in Jerusalem - something about Jesus' teaching, his reach, his inclusiveness, his mercy, his power - something made it impossible for his life and his work to continue.  Some risk was too great.  Have you felt your heart harden against someone or something in that way?  No turning back.

And we return to the why?
Is it fun?
Does it make me feel better?
Does it increase my social/professional/political capital?
Does it stop global warming?

Stop me in my tracks
and soften my grip
on control and disdain.
Give me ears to hear,
hands to touch,
and a heart to feel
for this broken place
of life. 
Where I see anger,
let me sow peace.
Where I see suffering,
let me sow comfort.
Where I seek to polarize,
cause me to reach out instead.
Where I hear
in many directions,
guide my voice
to harmonize.

© matt & laura norvell 2010
we want to share this with you and hope you'll share with the world;
we simply ask that you let people know where you found these words.
May Grace & Peace be with you.

What's the Point of Practice? (Part 2)

So what is the point of practice?  We have a sense of our objective when practicing a musical instrument--we want to become more proficient at playing.  But what about spiritual practices like prayer, scripture study, service, fasting?  These aren't activities which we really set out to master.  In fact, the more we do them, more we become aware of how little we actually know and how much more we have to learn.  We may start doing these things regularly with the intention of becoming better at doing them.  But the experience of doing them regularly eventually changes the intention with which we do them.

At least that's how it's worked for me.  I start of doing things for one reason--but the reason to continue doing them, the real value of the practice, is revealed to me only over time.

The cover story of the March 9, 2010 issue of The Christian Century was written by William H. Willimon, currently a United Methodist Bishop and formerly the Dean of the Chapel of Duke University.  It got my attention because on the cover was this quotation:  "The focus on religious practices is deflecting our attention from God."

Willimon's article is a re-consideration of some of the statements he and co-writer Stanley Hauerwas made in their 1989 book, Resident Aliens.  I know the book well, as the year it came out I wrote my senior thesis in college on Hauerwas.  My thesis adviser was Alasdair MacIntyre who is quoted with disapproval in Willimon's article.  I don't think it's a stretch to say that my 16 years in pastoral ministry have more deeply shaped by the conversation about the value and role of practices in the life a of a Christian than by any other theological movement.  And now I serve a congregation which requires its members to agree to practice five basic disciplines:  prayer, worship, service, scripture study and giving.

At the heart of the conversation about practices is the assertion (or really, the reminder) that being a Christian is not just a matter of professing faith in Jesus Christ.  Christianity is not just a set of ideas or beliefs or feelings--it is a way of living, a way of relating to other people, a way of relating to the future, and so on.  Jesus asks us not simply to believe in him, but to follow him.  (If you've been listening to me preach for a while, these comments will sound familiar!)

Willimon has no argument here.  What bothers him is that sometimes, people adopt spiritual practices, or even argue for spiritual practices, for other reasons beside their desire to follow Jesus.  He doesn't want to separate a practice from "the God who makes Christian practice interesting in the first place."  This is especially problematic, according to Willimon, when we use the conversation about practices to make connections with other religions.  So for example, when Christians and Jews talk together about observing the Sabbath or Christians and Muslims talk together about fasting without discussing the distinctive faith commitments that are expressed in these similar practices.

I do see Willimon's point, but I think it's so important that Jews and Muslims and Christians talk together that I'm willing to forgive a lot about the nature of the conversation.  Any common ground is better than none.  We can move to talking about differences later.

But more importantly, I haven't experienced the problems he describes as common.  We talk an awful lot about practices (or disciplines) at KC, but we ALWAYS describe these activities as preparing the ground in which God will plant the seed of a call.  That's an important distinction for us--we are not a practice-based church.  We are a call-based church, committed to hearing and responding to God's call to each and all of us.  Because of that, we are committed to faith practices, because they help us to become receptive to God's call.

So what if someone observes these practices for the wrong reason?  What if someone comes to worship to see their friends?  What if someone reads scripture in order to be able to argue with his fundamentalist neighbor better?  What if someone prays because it passes the time?  Well, I don't expect that these people will see significant change in their life.  Like Brother Lawrence, I think the spirit with which you enter into a practice is significant.  That's the reason why washing pots can be a prayer--you can enter into that activity with an intention to be in the presence of God.

But I also know there is a lot of mystery to these things.  I know that you can start reading scripture to argue with it and end up being surprised by its grace and beauty.  You can start off praying for God to heal your sick mother and somewhere down the line you realize that its you who has been healed.  Alasdair MacIntyre taught me this--many of the goods, the virtues of a practice are only accessible to those engaged with it.  It is hard to describe what prayer does to someone who does not pray.  The nature of prayer is, in part, revealed only to those who undertake it.

So I for one don't care if someone undertakes a faith practice for the wrong reason.  I think we all find that our reasons change as the practice deepens.

What's the Point of Practice? (Part 1)

This past weekend I stepped out of my comfort zone and led a retreat on prayer.  I had a sympathetic audience which made it a lot easier--an inter-generational group of women from Macalester-Plymouth United Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, the church where I was confirmed and ordained, the church where my parents are still active members.  Still, I found it challenging to speak with any sense of authority about how to pray or why to pray or even what prayer is.  I know people who have gone through years of training to become spiritual directors and to lead prayer retreats.  I know people who go on prayer retreats on a regular basis.  I know people who travel to India and sit in ashrams and meditate for weeks or months.  I am not one of those people.  When it comes to prayer, I consider myself strictly amateur.

So I called on Brother Lawrence for help.  I met Brother Lawrence through the little collection of his writings and letters called "The Practice of the Presence of God", a book that a dear friend from my church gave me when I graduated from high school.  Brother Lawrence is the Patron Saint of prayer amateurs.  He lived in France in the 17th century, a time when there were some hard-core professional prayers.  Brother Lawrence didn't have the educational background required to become a monk, so he worked in the kitchen of a monastery, and when he got too old to be on his feet all day, he repaired shoes. 

Over the course of his time at the monastery, he began to realize that he could be as close to God in the kitchen as he could during worship.  He decided to talk to God throughout his day--whatever he was and whatever he was doing, "holy" or mundane.  He came to call his distinctive prayer practice, "The practice of the presence of God", the goal of which is " to find joy in his divine company and to make it a habit of life, speaking humbly and conversing lovingly with him at all times, every moment, without rule or restriction….” Ironically, Brother Lawrence came to be so widely known for his prayer life that people came from all over to learn from him.

During the retreat last weekend, we took a cue from Brother Lawrence and worked on being in conversation with God throughout the day--both in conversation and in awareness of God's presence with us.  I put together a series of stations where people engaged in very simple, every day activities--pouring water, touching rocks, lighting a flame.  I suggested we could associate these activities with a "topic of conversation" that we could have with God.  So, for example, every time we pour water, could we remember the blessings which God pours into our life and say a word of thanks?  Even though I had planned this out in advance, when I actually sat and did it at the retreat, I suddenly found myself becoming tearful with gratitude. 

After spending an hour at the stations I planned, we broke into small groups and talked about other daily activities which we could use as a "prayer prompt".  I suddenly thought of my habit of turning on the stove to boil water for tea--what if that was my modern-day, daily equivalent of lighting incense, or even a sacrificial fire?  What if I offered a prayer of intercession with the steam rising from the kettle?  And I thought of Carrie Newcomer's wonderful song, "Holy as the Day is Spent" where she has the line, "to pray as only laundry can."

When we weave prayer into our lives like this, we come close to making prayer a practice, which is to say, a pattern of thought and action that moves from conscious performance to something that shapes and re-shapes our identity in a deep way. 

But before we could talk much at the retreat about the idea of a "practice", we had to work through our feelings about "practicing".  Unfortunately, the first thing that comes to mind for many of us when we hear the word "practice" is being nagged about practicing piano as a child.  So, the word sounds like "doing something boring when you'd rather be outside."  A survey of the women at the retreat revealed that about half had mainly negative memories of "practicing".

Then, someone brought up the "10,000 Hour Rule" which Malcolm Gladwell described so compellingly in his book, "Outliers".  He describes a number of studies which have shown that individuals reach mastery in any number of endeavors (playing the violin, playing chess, playing tennis, writing poetry, being a pickpocket) only after they have practiced about 10,000 hours.  In a world obsessed with identifying who is (and who is not) "Gifted and Talented" I found this evidence that it is really practice that makes an expert revelatory.

When we got into this at the retreat, I figured we had gotten off track.  Hadn't my initial point been to distinguish spiritual "practices" from "practicing" the piano?  The 10,000 hour rule is about expertise, not something we usually aim for with prayer.  If I were to put in 10,000 hours of prayer (three hours a day for a decade, for example) what would I be better at in the end?  Would my prayers for healing be more effective?  Would I be able to hear God's voice loud and clear?  Would I understand God any better?

But then it occurred to me that Brother Lawrence is an example of someone who probably put hours like that in, and he didn't seem to gain any superlative powers as a result.  But he became deeply receptive--able to sustain a sense of God's abiding presence with him throughout the day.  The parallel that comes to mind is wine tasting--people can learn to discern different flavors through practice.  Or maybe ear training in music--which lots of practice, people can learn to recognize pitches and intervals that an untrained ear may not even be able to distinguish.

So maybe there is a connection between "practicing" and "practice" after all?

5th Sunday in Lent, Year C

Isaiah 43:16-21  •  Psalm 126  •  Philippians 3:4b-14  •  John 12:1-8

(Laura writes)
It was almost three years ago.  I sat across from Pastor Heather
beneath a vast expanse of glass looking out over early summer trees in
Northwest DC.  My mouth could barely shape the words of my confession
- a nasty divorce, guilt for my children and for my life image
abandoned, guilt about those I had disappointed, guilt about the new
life I was seeking, fear for my future - and a clear sense that God
was present in it all.

Her response changed my confession of faith in an instant.  "Gives
resurrection a whole new meaning, doesn't it?"

Yup.  Ummm...yes.  It sure does.  New life from certain death.  Breath
regained after sure asphyxiation.  Ashes, dust, sprouts.

During Lent, we are brought face-to-face with death - the absence of
life.  And we are challenged to consider resurrection - life rising up
from death.  Intellectually, these are incompatible notions.  But in
in God's covenant delivery from death to life again and again, in the
life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, in Paul's conversion,
we see the pattern and possibility.  And surely...surely we see the
pattern in our own life experience.

The prophet Isaiah shares God's promise to "do a new thing."
Certainly the exiled community to which Isaiah spoke had seen a great
deal of destruction.  They knew the hopes and and miracles experienced
by their ancestors.  And perhaps they are sensing a new opportunity.
God is afoot, preparing to do a new thing.

The psalmist is recalling God's work in the restoration of Zion and
placing hope in a God who will continue to raise up new life from
desperate situations.

And in Paul's letter to the church at Phillipi, he describes his own
unlikely rebirth - from persecutor of the church to devout church
planter.  He recognizes a life transformed for a new thing, and knows
that he is not done "dying" by any means.  He is willing to press on
with faith that his life is transformed in his belief in Jesus Christ.
 He says some pretty important things here.  He confesses that no work
- no specific acts of righteousness - will help him to gain life.
Instead it is faith. Phew.  That's a tough one.  Faith can be more
difficult than works and far less certain at times.

And in the familiar and poignant story of Martha, sister of Lazarus
whom Jesus has recently raised from the dead, anointing Jesus' feet
with valuable oil.  When Judas questions the act, recognizing the cash
value of the oil that has been used, Jesus rebukes him.  In a symbolic
way, Martha has anointed Jesus' body for burial, and he alludes to
his own death in his response to Judas - "you will not always have
me..."  Martha is rejoicing in the Lord who has shown her the
possibility of new life and perhaps sensing Jesus' own uncertain
future.  And it's not hard to imagine our own Judas response.
Sometimes it is very difficult to know that someone else has found joy
in "good news" that we can hardly bring ourselves to believe and

None of this Lenten journey is intended to be easy or quick.  And for
some of us, our embrace of resurrection can only come in the midst of
personal pain.  And for those who have felt that miracle, the value of
that vessel of oil is surely tied up in the new life promise, not in
street value.

God, sometimes it is so hard to see anything but dirt.
Unfertile, rejected, salted, scorched dirt.
There are days when everything has gone so wrong
and we have strayed so far
and we feel so little value that
we look at our life and cannot even
conjure up a memory of a yellow blossom or a green leaf.
And You remind us again and again,
through words and people and actions
that dirt is not impotent.
Sometimes it has to be coaxed a bit,
but it is never worthless.
Thank you for reminding us that storm clouds
and showers of manure
create conditions for new growth.


© matt & laura norvell 2010
we want to share this with you and hope you'll share with the world;
we simply ask that you let people know where you found these words.
May Grace & Peace be with you.

Fourth Sunday in Lent - Year C

Joshua 5:9-12  •  Psalm 32  •  2 Corinthians 5:16-21  •  Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

It is hard to look at ourselves and to look at others as God does.

From what we read in scriptures we see that God views each of us as a
loved, valued, cherished, forgiven, special Creation.

It is hard to look at ourselves and to look at others as God does.

It's not even just hard to look at ourselves that way - it's hard to
imagine anyone can look at us that way.

Any ideas why that is?

The lectionary this week begins with a reading from Joshua. This
continues to follow the story we have been reading the last few weeks.
Joshua has led the people of Israel across the Jordan in to the
Promised Land that would develop in to the Land of Israel. As they are
settling in to their new home, God says to Joshua "Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt." Suddenly they are truly "in the land," living on what is produced there with their own hands.  They are living into what had been promised to a previous generation, in spite of all that had happened to that point.

Wow. That is a lot. There is plenty of disgrace that the people of
Israel built up during their time in (and flight from) Egypt. What do
you think it took for Joshua and the people to really take that in and
appreciate it?  To know that their slates were wiped clean and that
God loved them for who they are and not what they have done? Wow.

This really speaks to what it means to be in relationship with
God--honestly living and being in relationship with our Creator.

Next we have the Psalmist showing us another step in this process. He
opens Psalm 32 with "Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered." And then goes on to talk about how he
understood his transgression to be forgiven. The writer says, "I
acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, "I
will confess my transgressions to the LORD," and you forgave the guilt
of my sin."

The Psalmist took a chance to see and acknowledge himself as God sees and knows. Wow. That takes a lot of courage to be that honest. We aren't often very willing to look at both our flaws and our perfection.  They both seem to cause us to avert our eyes.

In the second letter to the followers of Jesus in Corinth, we see Paul
addressing this directly.  He says, "from now on, we regard no one
from a human point of view...if anyone is in Christ, there is a new
creation: everything old has passed away; everything has become new!"
Imagine it...what if we were all able to view ourselves and to view
one another as if we were loved and forgiven Creations of God.

And in Luke we see the classic story of the prodigal son.  You all
know the story. Look at the love of this father for his son. He does
not spend a lot of time offering criticism about who his son was, he
rejoices at who his son is in that present moment.

Wow.What does it mean to truly look at ourselves and others as the beautiful, beloved and forgiven creation of God? What is necessary for you to see others in this way?  What is necessary for you to see yourself in this way? What changes?

Thank you for a stunning, complicated creation.
Thank you for loving me.
Thank you for loving me in spite of my bumps and warts.
Thank you for creating me so beautifully for this world.
Help me to see with your eyes
myself and those around me.
And help me help others
to see with your eyes as well.
Strengthen me to bear what it is that I see
and move forward toward your Kingdom.

© matt & laura norvell 2010
we want to share this with you and hope you'll share with the world; we simply ask that you let people know where you found these words. May Grace & Peace be with you.

Third Sunday in Lent, Year C

Isaiah 55:1-9
Psalm 63:1-8
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Luke 13:1-9


Every one of us must do some work each day to be Sustained. 

At our most basic level, we must take in some food and some water...our physical bodies must be Sustained.

We must also find ways to be in relationship with others...our social and emotional selves must be Sustained.

We must also find ways to be in relationship with God...our spiritual selves must be Sustained.

Of course, these three categories are arbitrary categories...none of them can be so easily separated from one another.  They often work together...physical Sustenance often occurs for us while in the presence of others giving us social Sustenance.  Many of us stop to pray and find some spiritual Sustenance before we eat and gain physical Sustenance.  Many of us pay attention and show gratitude to where all of the food comes from that we take in, and that can lead us to physical, social, and spiritual Sustenance taking place all at once.

In the scriptures this week we see some different examples of the importance of different types of Sustaining resources and avenues.

The prophet Isaiah almost teases the listener - come and eat good food and drink good wine without price!  Among the exiles, such a promise must have seemed enticing and rich, indeed.  But the prophet is not really speaking of physical sustenance.  Instead, the prophet is inviting the listeners to Lean more deeply into their covenant with the Lord.  He's suggesting that they call upon the Lord while the Lord is still near - which sort of implies the Lord might not stay that close at hand.  The Lord will abundantly pardon.  We don't often think of the act of pardon as something that happens with abundance - at least it is not common to refer to non-tangibles "in abundance."  But here the prophet is promising abundance if we'll only pay attention to the relationship.

The psalmist is giving thanks again with a metaphor of food and drink and physical sustenance.  A soul satisfied with a rich feast must be near to overflowing, we think.  And what overflows from a soul that is abundantly nourished?  We deeply suspect that like a spring gurgling with good clean water, our souls might just provide sustenance for those around us in these times of plenty.

In his letter to the church at Corinth, Paul offers some warnings about hunger and thirst.  Hunger and thirst can beget hunger and thirst and take on a life of their own!  Paul warns of idolatry, of forgetting the reason for being sustained and seeking instead the sustenance itself.  Do we sometimes become greedy?  Ask for more than our share out of a ravenous, unfulfillable place?  Paul reminds us that God is faithful - that we will only have to endure that which we are able.  Similarly, like the Israelites in the wilderness, we needn't gather manna to spare.  It will be there when we need to be sustained. It kind of reminds us of Thanksgiving.  Why is it we rush to gorge ourselves on pumpkin pie on this day?  Isn't pumpkin on the store shelves 365 days a year?

Finally, in the gospel of Luke, we read some puzzling teachings of Jesus.  He seems to be questioning their basis for judging others harshly and encouraging their consideration of their own misdeeds and trespasses.  But he ends with a puzzling parable about a fig tree that has not borne fruit.  When the vineyard owner asks his gardener to cut down the fruitless tree, the gardener asks for one more year during which he will feed it and tend to its roots very carefully.  This tree might just need a little TLC to bear fruit.  And the master agrees to that second chance, but only on the condition that it be fruitful or be cut down in the next year.  Hmm.  That puts a little pressure on sustenance, doesn't it?

It would seem that there is something important about the care and feeding of ourselves so that we are able to care and feed for the kingdom.But it is hard to find the right balance - enough to be fruitful without becoming idolatrous. 

Help us recognize
true hunger
and find
appropriate ways
to care and feed
our souls
so that we might
care and feed
those around us
and bear fruit.