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Proper 17 (22) Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 • 
Luke 14:1, 7-14

Humility, in theory, is an easy concept to grasp.

It is the act or ability of a person to have a modest opinion of one's own abilities and importance. Being Humble is not synonymous with being self-deprecating. A person who is Humble is aware of her / his abilities and does not attempt to show his / herself to be something s/he is not.

But when we take it a step further and think of how the Humility of one person connects to the rest of the world it seems to be a bit more complicated. It doesn't matter if you call it evolution or nature or nurture, as humans we seem to have a drive built in to each of us where we want to prove our abilities and worth as greater than the next person. It seems we all want to show we are special and unique and often we attempt to do that by finding ways to be stronger, faster, more beautiful, smarter, funnier, more serious, more giving, more industrious, cleaner, more efficient, or more spiritual than the next person. And actually, reflecting on our own experience, we often don't even need another person to compare ourselves against.....we (We) often spend a lot of time imagining ourselves and our abilities to be more than they are....and not in a Positive Self Esteem sort of way.

Most of us have a natural tendency to develop in wonderful ways and then, unfortunately,  we somehow cross a line where we lose our place. One of the favorite quotes in our house is "You have obviously forgotten that someone is in charge and it is not you."

Time to time, we all forget that someone is in charge and it is not us. We forget that we did not get to where we are only by our own devices. We forget that where we are today is a product of our families and our friends and the world and God loving us and guiding us and keeping us safe and teaching us and reprimanding us.

Again, call it nature or nurture or evolution or the human condition or sin, but the reality is that it is easy for us to lose our handle on having a Humble view of ourselves and our place in the world.

We are not sure if this is comforting or not, but we can look through scriptures and see examples of folks losing their own grip on Humility and we can see examples of teachers attempting to guide folks in the way of Humility.

In Jeremiah we read one of hundreds of Humility Reminders found given to the people of Israel. Through the mouth / pen of Jeremiah, God mourns that the people have turned their backs on Him even though it was God who brought them to the plentiful land.

It appears a lack of Humility might somehow impede our ability to love those that are important to us. In having too high an esteem of our selves and our abilities, we are actually insulting and hurting those who helped us to get where we are.

In Psalm 81 we read in the words of the Psalmist God again mourning that the the people of Israel would not give themselves over to Him. Instead, God says "I gave them over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their own counsels."

Following our own ways and not allowing ourselves to be in relationship with those that love us appears to do damage to the very ones we love.

In the passage we get from the writer of Hebrews and from the gospel of Luke we get some pretty direct advice and examples on the importance of being Humble.
Of course, the writer of Hebrews appears to simply be talking of love. It almost feels like it is this writer's interpretation of the famous section of Paul's letter to the Corinthians that gets so much play at weddings today. This passage in Hebrews is explaining that readers who follow Jesus should love. And when we look at how it is advising its readers to love, it is hard to not see (if followed) how all of these things help a person to maintain loving everyone from the stranger to the prisoner to your leaders to Jesus Christ.

And then we get Jesus Christ himself directly telling folks how to maintain practices that help a person to develop Humility. He says, "For all who exalt themselves will be Humbled, and those who Humble themselves will be exalted." The common theme here? We are all going to be Humble either by our choice or by the actions of others.

We are so driven sometimes to be better, faster, smarter, more righteous.  And Jesus' words ring true for Us as well...We've certainly found ourselves Humbled beyond our choice!  And we remember that someone is in charge, and it is not Us.

Help me see
the places where
I can love
rather than to see
the places where
I can win.

© 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.

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 16), Year C

Jeremiah 1:4-10 and Psalm 71:1-6  • 
Isaiah 58:9b-14 and Psalm 103:1-8  • 
Hebrews 12:18-29  • 
Luke 13:10-17

True confession time.

Writing these reflections each week is tough.  Sometimes it is a grind.  When we started almost three years ago, we were enthusiastic...we looked weeks ahead.  We were often done by Sunday afternoon the week prior.  We had robust conversations over the texts at dinner, on walks, before we dozed off.  But slowly, life slipped in and it has gotten progressively more difficult to sit down each week and make time for really thinking about how the text speaks to us.  Somewhere about Advent during this Year C, we both thought about quitting.  But we'd been at it for two years and we wanted to see the three year cycle through to completion.

This summer it has been super hard.  Oh, you've noticed.  Sometimes you don't get a reflection until Friday!  Not so much time for YOU to reflect then, is there? Sometimes you don't get a reflection at all!  After our week of vacation, we couldn't muster the strength or discipline for facing the text.  We called it a second week of vacation.

But if you've been watching the text over the past several weeks, you also know that we are moving into the calls experienced by the prophets.  Somehow, these texts are speaking right to the struggle we're having today with this discipline of writing each week about the text.  And in some ways, it is this struggle with call that brings us back each week. And probably for another full three-year lectionary cycle.  You see, we feel pretty strongly called to engage these texts from different points in our life.  And starting in Advent, we'll be back in Year A - and life for us has changed SIGNIFICANTLY in that time. We've both moved, at least twice.  We've changed jobs.  We've bought a house and a car.  We've gotten married.  We've vacationed with the kids as a real family.  So there is a pretty good chance that we're bringing new life experience in the Kingdom to these readings for another three years.

So let's dive into the text that helps us recognize that.

The text from Jeremiah is a call story.  God calls to Jeremiah and Jeremiah protests that he lacks experience and sophistication to do what he's being asked to do.  Now, perhaps you have this experience.  God doesn't very easily take NO for an answer once God's called you.  Whatever you are called to has this way of continuing to surface.  God takes a pretty active role in Jeremiah's decision.  Jeremiah tells of the Lord reaching out and touching his mouth...literally putting God's words there for Jeremiah to speak.  God goes on to make it very clear that Jeremiah is charged with great responsibility - "I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, and to build and to plant."  In some ways, Jeremiah is being called to be part of a new creation.

The accompanying Psalm praises God for protection since birth, and pairs well with the Lord's words to Jeremiah, "Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you..." 

Throughout Isaiah 58, the prophet calls the Israelites to authentic service to God rather than ritual.  Essentially, the promise is of the Lord's guidance if only we will feed the hungry and tend to the needy.  If you look at the prophecy closely, not only does the prophet promise God's protection, but also the restoration of Israel.  Responding to our various calls makes the world a better place - but imagine it being even better than better.  Better than what we currently envision as "good."  Kingdom on earth as in heaven, perhaps.

The accompanying Psalm is a praise Psalm that includes an often quoted revelation about how the psalmist understood God...the Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  Now we've read a lot of Hebrew scripture this summer in which God seems pretty angry.  But true to the covenant with the Israelites, the Lord keeps returning to them...and expects the people to keep returning to God.  Is God patient with our failed recognition or acceptance of the things God calls us too?  Given our tendency toward procrastination or cluelessness at times, we sure hope so!

The reading from Hebrews continues from reflections of the faithfulness of Abraham, Isaac, Moses, Sarah, Rahab and many other Israelite "heroes" toward an encouragement to recognize the gift that we receive in God's grace.  Christians refer to Jesus' death and resurrection as a sign of a new covenant relationship with God.  As in days of old, we are called to keep returning to relationship with God.  Life changes.  We stumble and stray and make mistakes.  But we can return.  If we miss a call, perhaps another will surface.  God loves us.  And it would seem God waits for us.  But in recognition of that, this letter encourages the community to give thanks with reverence and awe. 

Finally, in Luke's gospel, we read about Jesus healing in the synagogue on the Sabbath.  This isn't the first time he's found himself caught up in a controversy with the religious leaders about what he should or should not be doing on the Sabbath.  Do you ever find yourself in that spot where there are layers of rules, and what you feel is the right thing to do really is forbidden or not generally acceptable?  It sort of reminds us of the conversation we had at KC recently about how to serve our homeless brothers and sisters.  I mean, there are social workers telling us not to give the homeless person on the corner money.  And sometimes, a few dollars in their pocket will really make the difference.  There are all of these shades of gray. Call feels that way sometimes, too.  Recently, we've felt pretty called to speak out against the anger and controversy brewing over the construction of a Muslim community center near the site of the World Trade Center attack.  There are people who will tell us that by supporting our fellow Muslim citizens in their quest for a community center that we are being insensitive to the families who lost loved ones there.  It seems like a personal no-win situation.  And sometimes we're called into sticky spots like that. But it's hard to listen when it isn't comfortable.  Ugh.

And so...on this journey for us through "Proper 16," it feels all about call.  We feel called.  It's not always really clear.  It's not always really easy.  We don't always feel well-equipped. But if we're faithful, we know that God is with us, right?  That maybe in our faithful response, we shed a little light on the Kingdom, right? 

put your words
into my mouth
that I may speak
your Kingdom
into being...

© 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.

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 15), Year C

Do you have a vision for personal success and achievement that pulls you forward?  Maybe you are a goal-setter?   A list maker.  A caster of vision.

Perhaps you have studied a self-help books - Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, The Purpose Driven Life, A New Earth.  

Both of us have lived in spots of time where we were pretty driven to measure life (explicitly OUR life) against a very material ruler - the right job, the right clothes, the right house, the right friends, the right restaurants, the right vodka.  And really, those self-help books had some pretty handy tools for getting us to where we wanted to be - good solid guidance.

But over the past few years we had to examine our defined destination.  We can't really blame the guidance system for getting us exactly where we wanted to go.  But where we were going wasn't really making the universe a better place (even if it was a divine place to be us!).

As we read through the passages for this week, we felt a little tension between expectation and resulting judgment.  And that got us thinking - is it possible that our expectations lead us astray?  I mean, I suppose we could use those same self-help books for other goals, right?  For improving the environment, achieving global peace, eliminating poverty and hunger? Could we use those books very specifically for seeking the Kingdom of God?

The passage from Isaiah is a prophecy of God's judgment of Israel.  We were caught by the language of expectancy - God's expectation for Israel - "When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes."  It's hard to be disappointed without an expectation.  And once we have an expectation, it seems pretty easy to be disappointed.  The prophet tells us that where God expected to see justice, instead there was bloodshed;  where God expected righteousness, there were cries.  [Geek break:  Read the language in a good study bible.  There is actually a pretty brilliant play on words in Hebrew for those interested - mishpat (justice) and mispach (bloodshed) - tsedaqah (righteousness) and tse' aqah (cry of the oppressed).  These writers really worked on this stuff! And we miss some of it in translation.]

The Psalmist is responding to God's judgment with some indignation.  Why would God make it possible for others to destroy God's own chosen people?  The petition is for restoration - for a return to favor that will save the people of Israel.

Go back to that good study bible and read ALL of Luke 12 as a single unit - and then move into Luke 13.  Jesus really gets his preach on in this chapter.  He's really working this gathered crowd.  Beginning with a teaching on discipleship, he continues to warn against needless worry, moves on to encouraging watchfulness and then frames his own ministry as one of judgement and division.  He ends all of this by calling for repentance.  Preach it.  In the selection for this week, after telling people about how he has been brought to divide, he goes on to say something very interesting.  "When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, 'It is going to rain'; and so it happens...You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?"  Wow.  You've got the ability - why are you misusing it so?  Damning, isn't it?

And then, if we finish with the passage from Hebrews, we are encouraged to lay aside every weight that clings to us and to run the race before us with perseverance.  Now after reading Isaiah and Luke, we read this with eyes that draw us back to our expectations.  Is it possible that our own expectations are the very thing that weighs us down?

Victor Hugo has a great line in Les Miserables where he says sin is like gravity-it is the thing that holds us down. It seems like we could add Misdirected Expectations to that list. Of course if what we have written here is true, it puts a lot of emphasis on discernment, doesn't it? And discernment, while usually a step in the average self-help book, doesn't get a lot of emphasis because it is not the sexy and exciting part of the success formula. And the interesting thing we have learned in our own lives is that discernment of direction may be the most important part of the process.

How do you discern where you are going? What helps you discern your expectations for yourself? How do the communities you are a part of (family, work, church, etc) discern corporate expectations?

This prayer of Thomas Merton never seems to wear out.....

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this, You will lead me by the right road.
Though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me. And you will never leave me to face my struggles alone.

© 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