The Reflectionary – Week of January 26, 2020

Epiphany 4

Text: Mark 5:21-43

When Jesus had again crossed over by boat to the other side of the lake, a large crowd gathered around him while he was by the lake. Then one of the synagogue leaders, named Jairus, came, and when he saw Jesus, he fell at his feet. He pleaded earnestly with him, “My little daughter is dying. Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live.” So Jesus went with him. 

A large crowd followed and pressed around him. And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.

At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?”

“You see the people crowding against you,” his disciples answered, “and yet you can ask, ‘Who touched me?’ ”

But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it. Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.” 

While Jesus was still speaking, some people came from the house of Jairus, the synagogue leader. “Your daughter is dead,” they said. “Why bother the teacher anymore?” 

Overhearing what they said, Jesus told him, “Don’t be afraid; just believe.”

He did not let anyone follow him except Peter, James and John the brother of James. When they came to the home of the synagogue leader, Jesus saw a commotion, with people crying and wailing loudly. He went in and said to them, “Why all this commotion and wailing? The child is not dead but asleep.” But they laughed at him. 

After he put them all out, he took the child’s father and mother and the disciples who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum!” (which means “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”). Immediately the girl stood up and began to walk around (she was twelve years old). At this they were completely astonished. He gave strict orders not to let anyone know about this, and told them to give her something to eat. 

Reflection

In this week’s text, we see Jesus perform two dramatic healings: the raising of a girl presumed dead, and the healing of a woman who had been sick for so long, she felt like she had been left for dead.

Let’s consider the story of the little girl first. Her father, Jairus, was a leader in the synagogue. As such, he would have been a fairly prominent person in the community – the reason why we even get his name in the first place. He comes to Jesus, desperate for him to heal his daughter, who is close to death. (It should be noted, that while Jesus did face opposition from some of the Jewish leadership throughout his ministry, there were also many others who became followers – Jesus’ ministry in Galilee was, primarily, among the Jewish people, after all). Jesus responds immediately to Jairus’ request and goes with him.

But then, as they are going on their way, a large crowd has started to form around Jesus. People are pressing in on him from every direction. All of a sudden, Jesus stops in his tracks. “Who touched me?” he demands. How could he have even felt the woman’s touch, in the midst of all of the crowds? But Jesus knows. He turns, and he sees the woman – head turned down, eyes averted, falling at his feet and begging for mercy. Perhaps she can barely get the words out to tell him about her situation. Twelve long years of bleeding. Twelve long years of being identified as ritually impure. Twelve long years of perhaps longing to bear a child, knowing she had no chance whatsoever. This unnamed woman occupies a very different place in society than Jairus and his daughter. Rather than a place of prominence and respect, she exists on the edges, in the shadows, in the forgotten places. And yet, Jesus stops for her. He heals her.

Perhaps that is one of the jarring parts of the story for those who witnessed it. Shouldn’t Jesus have just gone on with Jairus? He was, after all, a very important person, and his daughter lay close to death. Couldn’t Jesus have come back later for the woman?  But maybe, just maybe, that is the whole point of this story. Jesus shows up not only for the well-to-do, but also for those who are forgotten or shunned by the community. It’s not one or the other. It’s both.

It may have been the temptation for those who were witnessing these events unfold to scold Jesus for stopping to heal this woman. She was not in a good place, but she wasn’t about to die. And she wasn’t the daughter of a synagogue leader either! In healing both the woman and Jairus’ daughter, Jesus reveals that he has come for all who are sick – for all who are suffering – for all who need healing. It’s not a competition with Jesus!

In his blog, “The Listening Hermit,” Peter Woods reflects on this passage with these words:

At times of great disaster medical personnel are trained to practice triage. To decide who is most in need of medical attention and care.  The injured are tagged with tape.  Green for not serious. Yellow for serious. Red for critical. Black for terminal. If Mark’s edit of the gospel tells us anything it is this… Christian, pack away your tape and labels. There is no need for triage in the kingdom of God.

So maybe we should pack away our tape and labels and let Jesus do what he will with whom he will, whenever he wills.

Ponder

o   What words, phrases, or images from the text speak to you? What thoughts or feelings do they evoke?
o   Have you ever felt judgmental and/or envious towards another person’s faith or healing experience? If so, why do you think that is?
o   Have you ever felt like Jesus was neglecting your need?

Challenge

Consider someone you know who needs healing. Lift them up in prayer, but don’t stop there. Give them a visit or a phone call. Send them a card. Let them know you are praying for them.

And/or

Think of a time when you have felt like God answered prayers for someone else, but yours got no response. Write about that experience. Offer all of your feelings and frustrations up to God.

Prayer

God, you offer healing to the powerful and to the powerless. You see us all. Cultivate in me the faith of Jairus and of the unnamed woman. Restore life to me as you did to them. Restore life to those whom I love. I lay this all at your feet – you are my only hope. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.

-Cindy+

The Reflectionary – Week of January 19, 2020

Epiphany 3

Text: Mark 5:1-20

They went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes. When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an impure spirit came from the tombs to meet him. This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain. For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.

When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him. He shouted at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name don’t torture me!” For Jesus had said to him, “Come out of this man, you impure spirit!” 

Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?”

“My name is Legion,” he replied, “for we are many.” And he begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area.

A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside. The demons begged Jesus, “Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them.” He gave them permission, and the impure spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned. 

Those tending the pigs ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. Those who had seen it told the people what had happened to the demon-possessed man—and told about the pigs as well. Then the people began to plead with Jesus to leave their region.

As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. Jesus did not let him, but said, “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed. 

Reflection

I love the pathos of this story. The whole scene stirs up a deep sense of fear, of chaos, of compassion. The man that Jesus encounters in the land of the Gerasenes is desperate. He has been so completely affected and taken over by demons that he can’t even live in his community anymore. He’s been driven out of town and his only neighbors are tombstones. And yet, even though he’s utterly alone, his life is anything but quiet and peaceful. His demons torment him day and night. He can’t even really remember who he is or what is happening. He just knows that he is suffering. Yet, even as the demons continue to fight for control, somewhere, deep inside of all of the turmoil and pain, the man sees Jesus and realizes he is his only hope.

I can picture this man. I see his matted hair, his bloody hands, his dirt-covered face, his emaciated body. I see a man who has been so overtaken by forces that are greater than him. No one, and I mean no one, up until this point has any clue what to do with him. He’s a danger to himself and he’s a danger to others. He is one who everybody saw as a completely hopeless case.

And I can also picture Jesus. Rather than standing back in uncertainty, or keeping his distance out of fear or disgust, he sees the man as he runs up. Truly sees. I imagine him locking eyes with the man as he asks him his name. The demons respond, but Jesus is not deterred. Jesus, full of compassion, does not write this man off. Jesus knows who this man is and who he can be. He sends the demons out of the man and into a herd of pigs. Just like that. It’s done.

Notice the response of those who come to see what all of the hubbub was. They see the man who had formerly been possessed, clothed and in his right man. They came right up and started to celebrate, right?

The answer, of course, is, no, they didn’t. In fact, they still kept their distance. The text says it was because they were afraid. What were they afraid of exactly? Perhaps they were afraid that he hadn’t really changed. Maybe they were afraid to look him in the eye or talk to him after all of the things that had conspired between him and his community. Possibly they were afraid that Jesus might intrude on their lives in the same way, or that he might see the other demons that they wrestled with in less obvious ways. In any case, their response was not one of celebration, it was one of distance.

I think the man who had been healed noticed this, and it may have been part of the reason he asked to go with Jesus. It certainly would have been easier for everyone if he had done so. Instead, Jesus commands him to return home. In doing so, Jesus taught the man and his community, and he teaches us, that true healing often includes the restoration of relationship.

Two healings occurred that day in the graveyard – the man was delivered from his demons, and then he was restored to his community. As we contemplate this encounter between Jesus, the Gerasene demoniac, and the surrounding crowds, Jesus reminds us that there are many ways in which he can bring healing.

Ponder

o   What words, phrases, or images from the text speak to you? What thoughts or feelings do they evoke?
o   Where do you see yourself in this story? With the man among the tombs? With the crowds? Tending the pigs that come to an abrupt end? Somewhere else?
o   Where in your life do you need to find restoration or reconnection with another?

Challenge

Consider a relationship in your life that might need some healing. How might you reach out to encourage reconnection? Pray about it. If you feel ready to act, do so.

And/or

Think of a time when God healed you or someone you love. Remember, healing doesn’t always mean physical healing. It can be emotional, spiritual, or relational as well. Write a prayer of thanksgiving for what God has done.

Prayer

God, you are always ready to see me, and to heal me. May I fall down at your feet like the man among the tombs, recognizing that you are my hope and my healer. Restore me, reconnect me, reveal to me the ways that you are working. Free me from the demons I wrestle with. Give me clarity of mind and peace in chaos. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.

– Cindy+

The Reflectionary – Week of January 12, 2020

Epiphany 2

Text: Mark 4:1-34

Again Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water’s edge. He taught them many things by parables, and in his teaching said: “Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.” 

Then Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”

When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, 

“‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving,

    and ever hearing but never understanding;

otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’”

Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable? The farmer sows the word. Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown.” 

He said to them, “Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed? Instead, don’t you put it on its stand? For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open. If anyone has ears to hear, let them hear.” 

“Consider carefully what you hear,” he continued. “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you—and even more. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.” 

He also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.” 

Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”

With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.

Reflection

Today, I am reading these passages against the backdrop of current events. Last week, our President unilaterally ordered a military strike with the intent to assassinate Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani of Iran. The strike succeeded and Soleimani was killed. The fallout has been swift – tensions have worsened, some retaliation has already occurred, and it looks like we might be sliding toward all-out war with Iran.

For years, as a Christian, I have wrestled with whether or not war is ever justifiable. Sometimes I fall closer to the understanding that in very specific and rare instances, war can be justified (as long as it adheres to the strict principles of just war theory), other times I buck against even the idea of just war. In an ideal world, we would never have to ask men and women to put on the uniform and sacrificially serve in the military. I know we do not live in an ideal world, but the real world. We live in the tension between what God desires and of what is. The question of the necessity of war is one I will continue to wrestle with for my whole life.

As I read this passage, this time, I couldn’t help but think about the words of Isaiah 2:4: “He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” Isaiah paints a picture of the coming Kingdom of God that indicates a shift away from war and violence and a shift toward agrarian life. I find it significant that so often, when Jesus speaks in parables about the Kingdom of God, like he does in this week’s text, he uses agrarian images. He uses images of cultivation. Of growth. Of life.

We live in a culture of death. Violence, fear, and hatred permeate our society. They permeate our world. It has become normal, justifiable and even in moments, glorifiable, to wage war or inflict violence upon the one deemed as an enemy. I cannot pretend to have figured out what we do about evil and suffering in the world, but I also cannot help but think that when Jesus speaks in parables about God’s Kingdom, he speaks about cultivation, about growth, and about nurturing life for a reason.

In three of these short parables, Jesus uses the image of the seed, scattered or sown in the ground, as a way of talking about what the Kingdom of God is like. In each, something grows, and that which grows provides nourishment or nurture for someone or something else (other people, birds, etc). What does it mean for us to be the good seed that gets spread on the ground? What does it mean for us to be those cultivated for and those cultivating God’s kingdom?

We live in a complicated world, to be sure, and I certainly don’t want to suggest that Christians should do nothing in the face of evil, but I do wonder what it would mean to seek to live out that shift that Isaiah indicates and that Jesus echoes in his parables. What might it look like for our swords to be beat into plowshares? What might it mean to “train for war no more?” What would it look like for Christians to be trained and cultivated in the ways of peace, in ways that provide nurture and nourishment for all? What could it be like to embody a culture of life rather than one of death? I ask all of these questions not because I have answers to them, but because I wrestle with them.

Jesus says the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed – the smallest of seeds. It’s tiny. It doesn’t seem like it will amount to much or make a difference. But when that tiny seed is cultivated, it grows and provides nurture. It lends itself to the life and well-being of God’s creatures. What seeds of life and peace might God be wanting to nurture in you today?

Perhaps we leave the text today with more questions than we had before we read it. Perhaps we feel discomfort after reflecting. May the questions and discomfort lead you to a holy wrestling that move you along the path of wisdom and peace.

Ponder

o   What words, phrases, or images from the text speak to you? What thoughts or feelings do they evoke?
o   Today’s world is full of violence and unrest. Where do you find peace and hope?
o   What might God be trying to cultivate in you right now?

Challenge

Our world needs prayer. Our leaders need prayer. Our country needs prayer. Spend a significant amount of time praying for wisdom and peace. Journal your prayers, speak them aloud, put them on notes around the house. Ask God to guide you in the ways of Jesus.

And/or

It’s still winter so it might be hard to get out in the dirt and work with your hands, but if you can, spend some time nurturing things that grow from the ground. It might be tending to houseplants or planting a windowsill herb garden, or maybe sitting down and planning what your will grow this spring. As you do, consider what God might be trying to grow in you.

Prayer

God, you are a God of life. Cultivate in my heart your goodness. Train me in the ways of peace. Sow in me the good seeds of your Kingdom that I might be an instrument of nurture for others. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.

-Cindy+

The Reflectionary – Week of January 5, 2020

Epiphany 1

Text: Mark 2:1-22

A few days later, when Jesus again entered Capernaum, the people heard that he had come home. They gathered in such large numbers that there was no room left, not even outside the door, and he preached the word to them. Some men came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

 Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 

Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, “Why are you thinking these things? Which is easier: to say to this paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”

Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.

Painting by Fr. Sieger Koder

While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 

On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. Some people came and asked Jesus, “How is it that John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?” 

Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast. 

“No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. Otherwise, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins.”

Reflection

In this week’s text, we find Jesus in three different scenes: one healing a man who is paralyzed, one sitting at Levi’s dinner table, and one where Jesus is questioned as to why he is not fasting when everyone else is. If I had to name this passage like an episode of the show Friends, I’d call it, “The One Where Jesus Flips Expectations.”

The first story begins with a familiar scene – many gathered around Jesus as he teaches in a home. People have come from all around town and the surrounding countryside to learn from this teacher and healer. It’s no surprise that people are clamoring to get close to Jesus to experience his miraculous healing for themselves. That’s exactly what four men do when they bring a paralyzed man to Jesus. But it’s so crowded they can’t even get in the house. So they do the best thing they can think of – they climb up onto the roof, pull away some of the thatching, and they lower their friend down from the roof to the space right in front of Jesus. Their persistence and faith are certainly central aspects of this story. In this moment though, I want to consider the surprising way that Jesus responds.

Expectations were such that Jesus would, of course, immediately heal this man of his paralysis. Instead, Jesus responds in an unexpected way. He says, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Jesus, say what? Your sins are forgiven? First of all, that wasn’t even what they were asking for. Second of all, how can Jesus even do that? Isn’t God the only one able to forgive sin? (Which, of course, is the whole point of Jesus doing such a thing – to reveal that he’s more than just a healer; he was, in fact, God in the flesh.) Receiving forgiveness of sin was not what anyone was expecting from Jesus. The boundaries between God and humanity were being torn down in this encounter, and those who questioned Jesus on this knew it.

The second scene, too, flips expectations in their head. Jesus is sitting down to dinner with a number of people. That part is not surprising. But where is Jesus eating? He’s eating at Levi’s house. A tax collector. A tax collector was someone who was seen as a corrupt extortionist. A Jewish tax collector was those things and more – he was a betrayer of his people by working for Rome, the empire of oppression. Jesus is eating in such a man’s house, along with other sinners. The Pharisees ask themselves, “what in the world is Jesus doing? How could he eat with such unrighteous people?” As they voice their question, Jesus responds, “It’s not the healthy people who need a doctor, but the sick.” Again, not what they were expecting from Jesus.

And then there’s the third scene, which is little more than Jesus giving a semi-cryptic response to a few people who came to ask him why he and his disciples were not fasting when both John and the Pharisees were. He talks about a present bridegroom, unshrunk cloth, and wineskins, and in each metaphor, Jesus seems to be telling his listeners that he is doing something different. He’s breaking from the norm. Something new is taking place.

In this single chapter of Mark’s gospel, Jesus is clearly different than what many expected him to be. They don’t yet truly understand, but Jesus is beginning to show them that he is one to flip expectations. And isn’t that what God does? Any time we try to put God in our own box or conform him to our image, God breaks out and says, nope, that’s not who I am – let me show you a little bit more.

It can be jarring when our picture of God is stretched, or when our understanding of how we practice faith is challenged. Those who were around Jesus struggled to understand what he was doing and saying. The Pharisees and many other devout people really did not know how to handle Jesus. While there were, certainly, some Pharisees who were hypocritical, judgmental, or power-hungry, on the whole, I think they were largely a group of pious people who were doing their best to be faithful in keeping the covenant with God. And yet, Jesus challenges them. Jesus challenges us today too. Jesus challenges pious Christians who are just doing our best to be faithful in keeping the covenant with God.

If this gospel text reminds us of anything, it is this: Jesus will constantly surprise us and challenge our expectations of him. Are you willing to encounter him in new and unexpected ways?

Ponder

o   What words, phrases, or images from the text speak to you? What thoughts or feelings do they evoke?
o   How has Jesus surprised you?
o   Where have you been stretched in your faith?

Challenge

Jesus had a habit of going and hanging out with people who were different or excluded. He challenged categories left and right. Consider a group of people who might be different than you. What might you be able to do to bring yourself into a closer relationship with them? Perhaps it could mean going and sitting down to share a meal with someone at Manna Meal in downtown Charleston or volunteering with a recovery home. Maybe you could ask to visit with folks from our local mosque or from the synagogue or temple downtown. (And if you need help in making connection with any of those communities, please let Pastor Cindy know)

And/or

Jesus likes to sit down at the table with people. It is one of the main ways that he builds relationships with others in the New Testament. Make a plan to have a meal with someone – a coworker, a neighbor, someone you may not normally get to spend much time with. Have them over for dinner, or go out to eat together.

Prayer

God, you always flip my expectations. You show up in places I’m not expecting or looking. Help me to see you wherever you are and to also see whomever you are with. Do something new within me, that I might be a new wineskin, ready to receive your transforming grace. In Jesus’ name I pray, Amen.

-Cindy+

The Reflectionary – Week of December 15, 2019

Advent 4

Text: Luke 1:5-24; 57-80

In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.

Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside. 

Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink,and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” 

The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.”

Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.

When his time of service was completed, he returned home. After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion.

 —————————-

When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy.

On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, but his mother spoke up and said, “No! He is to be called John.”

They said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who has that name.”

Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child. He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, “His name is John.” Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue set free, and he began to speak, praising God. All the neighbors were filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, “What then is this child going to be?” For the Lord’s hand was with him.

His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied:

“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David
(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us—
to show mercy to our ancestors
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel.

Reflection

When we found out I was pregnant, one of the first things we did was to choose potential names for our child. We agreed on a boy’s name and a girl’s name – each chosen with significance and intention. When our child was born and we saw that we’d had a boy, we joyfully named him Augustine Thomas, after St. Augustine and Doubting Thomas/Thomas Aquinas. Each of these people have had significant influence on our faith journeys, and so we gave our son those names, with the hope that he will go on his own faith journey.

Names are important in Scripture. They often tell us more about what is going on in a narrative. In today’s text, we meet two such people whose names reveal much: Zechariah and Elizabeth. We learn that Zechariah and Elizabeth are up there in years, and that they have been childless all this time. Of course, when we hear about an elderly, infertile couple in Scripture, we know that the unexpected is about to ensue! It’s no different here. Zechariah and Elizabeth are about to get the surprise of a lifetime – they will conceive and bear a child – the child who will grow up to be John the Baptist.

We know this story – but what do their names reveal? In her book, Light of the World: A Beginner’s Guide to Advent (which, incidentally is the book we are using for this year’s Advent study), Dr. Amy-Jill Levine tells us that the name Zechariah comes from the Hebrew root z-k-r,  which means “remember” and the yah” sound at the end of his name is the traditional marker for YHWH, the Divine Name. With this knowledge, we learn that Zechariah’s name literally means, “God remembers.”

Memory is a consistent theme throughout the Bible. Not only does God remember God’s people time and again, but God also calls God’s people to remember. In fact, memory is often tied to recognizing God’s miraculous and liberating work in the life of God’s people. God constantly calls God’s people to remember the covenant, to remember how God brought the people out of slavery in Egypt. God constantly calls God’s people to remember how God has been present, how God has spoken, how God has loved, and how God has delivered God’s people. Zechariah is one whom God remembers, just as he is also called to remember how God has worked throughout the life of the people of Israel.

And yet, we find that Zechariah seems to temporarily forget when the angel comes upon him in the Temple. He forgets the ways God has worked in the past, so he is unable to see how God is working in the present. He questions what the angel is saying, in disbelief. He loses his ability to speak as his memory of what God has done and can do fails him. It isn’t until his son is born that he is able to speak again. And what are the first words out of his mouth? A song remembering the way God has always remembered his people! Zechariah is now able to see the way God’s memory gets played out in his own present – he sees the relationship between memory and seeing the miraculous!

Elizabeth, too, is a name that echoes this theme of memory. According to Dr. Levine, her name likely derives from the Hebrew Eli, which means “my God,” and sheva, which means “oath.” Her name means “God’s oath” or “God keeps promises.” In other words, Elizabeth’s name reveals that God remembers what God has promised. God does not forget, and God follows through.

The whole of this first chapter of Luke’s gospel is one that proclaims that God remembers God’s people. God does not abandon, forget, or destroy them. God’s memory is long. And what does God remember? Love. God remembers God’s love for his people and he makes a way for them. The story of the birth of John the Baptist is a way that God begins to bridge the past into the present reality of the coming of Jesus Christ.

Like Zechariah, Elizabeth, and all of God’s people, we are called to memory, that we might recognize the miraculous. May we remember, even as God continually remembers us.

Ponder

o   What words, phrases, or images from the text speak to you? What thoughts or feelings do they evoke?
o   What stories of Scripture stick out in your memory? What stories have spoken to you?
o   Where in your own life do you recall experiencing God’s presence and grace?

Challenge

If you have been in the practice of journaling or writing prayers and you have access to older journals, go back and read through some of them. You may be surprised at moments they call to mind in your own spiritual journey.

And/or

Write a psalm of praise to God, recalling what God has done and is doing in your life.

Prayer

God, your memory is long. You never forget me. You never forget all of your people. Help me to recall the ways that you have worked in the lives of those who have gone before me, and in my own life, so that I might be able to see how you are working in the present. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.

-Cindy+

The Reflectionary – Week of December 8, 2019

Advent 3

Text: Ezra 1:1-4, 3:1-4, 10-13

In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and also to put it in writing:

“This is what Cyrus king of Persia says: 

“‘The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of his people among you may go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the Lord, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem, and may their God be with them. And in any locality where survivors may now be living, the people are to provide them with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem.’” 

———————-

When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, the people assembled together as one in Jerusalem. Then Joshua son of Jozadak and his fellow priests and Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and his associates began to build the altar of the God of Israel to sacrifice burnt offerings on it, in accordance with what is written in the Law of Moses the man of God. Despite their fear of the peoples around them, they built the altar on its foundation and sacrificed burnt offerings on it to the Lord, both the morning and evening sacrifices. Then in accordance with what is written, they celebrated the Festival of Tabernacles with the required number of burnt offerings prescribed for each day.

———————-

When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments and with trumpets, and the Levites (the sons of Asaph) with cymbals, took their places to praise the Lord, as prescribed by David king of Israel. With praise and thanksgiving they sang to the Lord: 

“He is good;
his love toward Israel endures forever.”
 

And all the people gave a great shout of praise to the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy. No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise. And the sound was heard far away.

Reflection

When I think back on Advent and Christmas as a child, I remember a sense of magic to it. I get this deep sense of sentimental nostalgia, where I wish I could relive this season now just as I remember experiencing it as a child. But no matter how I try, there is no going back. For me, that day has passed (though I now find joy in the season in different ways.)

I imagine that you, also, have experienced something like this. It might not be about Christmas, but perhaps it is about a time gone by. Maybe you look back to a time in your life when you were young, or your children were young. Maybe it was a time when everything in your life just felt so right. Maybe you look back to a time when the church was full, or when everyone knew their neighbors. Maybe you look longingly back at the time when you could let your children play outside without having to supervise them and you could leave your doors unlocked. We look back, and we long for those days, but no matter how we try, there is no going back.

In this passage from Ezra, we see some of the older priests, Levites, and family heads who experience this deep longing and grief for what once was. As we have been reminded in texts from previous weeks, the exile that the Kingdom of Judah experienced under Babylon was incredibly significant and disruptive to the life of the people of Israel. Though the exile was not particularly long, it challenged the people in major ways. The Temple built by King Solomon had been destroyed. Many people had been taken from the land. They had to figure out what it meant to worship God away from Jerusalem and without a Temple. It was HARD.

But now, the Persian king, Cyrus, had allowed the exiled people of Israel to return home. He allowed them to rebuild the Temple. For many, it was, in fact, a time of celebration. Rebuilding the Temple was a fulfillment of God’s promises. So why wasn’t everyone rejoicing?

For those who remembered the days of the first Temple, this new Temple paled in comparison. The first temple was built under the powerful and autonomous Kingdom of Israel. It was built with the great wealth of Solomon. It was the Temple of the “Golden Age.” This new Temple was built only under the auspices of the Persian king. It was built with much more meager resources. It could not compare to the Temple of days gone by. And so, the elders grieved. They had lived long enough to remember what once was, and they longed for it. They wept because they know no matter how hard they tried, there was no going back.

While we can relate to this passage as individuals, I think we can also relate to this passage as the Church. There is a general sense among those who have been Christian for a long time that we have long left behind the “Golden Age” of the church in America. Among many, perhaps yourself included, looking to the future does not bring about shouts of joy or a sense of excitement, but instead deep lament over what has been lost or left behind.

Moving into the future can be scary. It can be overwhelming. Change always brings some kind of loss. While the rebuilding of the Temple was certainly a time for celebration for many as God’s promises were being lived out in a new way, it was also a time of grief for others. This passage speaks to a new beginning and a new expression of the shared life of the people of Israel, but shouts of praise could not be distinguished from the sound of weeping. The sound and the deep emotions behind both are to be honored.

So know this today: if you are excited and thankful for new expressions of Church that are taking place in our midst, you are heard. But also know, if you are weeping and longing for what once was, you also are heard. And in it all, God is with you.

Ponder

o   What words, phrases, or images from the text speak to you? What thoughts or feelings do they evoke?
o   Where do you look back longingly in your own life?
o   Where do you look with excitement or anticipation of the future?

Challenge

Identify a change that has taken place in your life where you are now grieving the loss that has come through that change. Name it. Validate it.

And/or

It’s easy to get caught up thinking about days gone by. Sit down and make a list of things that you are grateful for in the present, and things you are hopeful for in the future. Give thanks to God for them all.

Prayer

Lord God, you are the giver of hope and new life. You constantly bring about the new and the good in me and in the world around me. I give you thanks for what you have done in the past, and I ask you now to help me look to the present and the future, and to find hope even in the midst of loss and change. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.

-Cindy+

The Reflectionary – Week of December 1, 2019

Advent 2

Text: Isaiah 40:1-11

Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.

A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
 

A voice says, “Cry out.”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
 

“All people are like grass,
and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
because the breath of the Lord blows on them.
Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of our God endures forever.”

You who bring good news to Zion,
go up on a high mountain.
You who bring good news to Jerusalem,
lift up your voice with a shout,
lift it up, do not be afraid;
say to the towns of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power,
and he rules with a mighty arm.
See, his reward is with him,
and his recompense accompanies him.
He tends his flock like a shepherd:
He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
he gently leads those that have young.

Reflection

I have never experienced an earthquake, and I hope I never do – but there are millions of people around the world who have gone through the devastating impact of the earth literally moving beneath their feet. An earthquake is no less than a earth-shattering event. It drastically alters everything. In particularly bad earthquakes, buildings are reduced to rubble. Lives are lost. The world is undone.

In today’s text, Isaiah speaks of a world undone. Of mountains being laid low and valleys being raised up. Of the crooked being made straight. He speaks of nothing less than an earth-shattering event. But here, unlike in an earthquake, the reversal of fortune is a good thing.

The people of Israel had known great misfortune throughout their history. They had endured slavery, violence, oppression, captivity. They experienced deep grief, deep lament, and deep anger. Their world had come undone time and again – even as they had willingly deviated from God’s parameters and faced the consequences.

As we’ve moved through the Hebrew Bible over these last few months, we’ve heard the story of God’s people – of promise, of sin, of oppression, of forgetting what it means to worship God. We’ve seen what happens when God’s people go terribly astray.

And yet, all along the way, even as doom and gloom bears down on God’s people, there is always grace. God’s final words are never words of hopelessness, death, or destruction. They are always words of hope. They are always words of new life. They are always words of restoration.

Today, I’m thinking about those who have entered into this season of Advent with deep grief. I’m thinking about those who have lost loved ones and are facing this time of year for the first time without them. I’m thinking about those who have been cut off from their families. I’m thinking about children who are without their parents. I’m thinking about those who are facing violence and upheaval. I’m thinking about all those who have gone through or are going through earth-shattering experiences.

For many, this Advent season, it feels like the earth is moving underneath their feet, and all they know is falling away or being reduced to rubble. We cannot and should not try to skip through these seasons of grief and darkness when they come. But this text reminds us that grief and darkness are not the last word. God gives us a promise that one day, things will be different. One day, the darkness will turn to light. One day, we will, in fact, experience the fullness of the good news.

Jan Richardson, an artist, writer, and United Methodist minister knows what it is to experience grief after losing her husband during Advent in 2013. She writes,

“Comfort, O comfort my people, we hear God cry out in an Advent text from Isaiah (40:1). If, in this life, I cannot do away with grief, then I pray that I will at least enter into it with a heart open to this comfort, this solace that is one of the greatest treasures God offers us in the landscape of this season. This comfort is no mere pablum, no saccharine wish. And though it is deeply personal, it is not merely that; solace does not leave us to our own solitude. True comfort opens our broken heart toward the broken heart of the world and, in that opening, illuminates a doorway, a threshold, a connection. It reveals to us a place where, in the company of heaven and earth, we can begin anew, bearing forth the solace we have found” (This Luminous Darkness: Searching for Solace in Advent and Christmas).

May the words of Isaiah speak comfort and hope to you here and now, especially if you or someone you love are struggling with grief this Advent season.

Ponder

o   What words, phrases, or images from the text speak to you? What thoughts or feelings do they evoke?
o   Where are you experiencing grief or struggle presently?
o   How do you move through and with grief?

Challenge

Maybe this is a difficult season for you that overwhelms with all of the expectations, all of the people, all of the cultural noise around Christmas. Cultivate space in your life. Make time for silence, for prayer, for working with your hands. Make time for a meal with a loved one. Perhaps seek out a counselor if you need help processing your grief. Disengage from all of the extra noise. You don’t have to buy into it.

And/or

Notice those around you who may be having a difficult time. Don’t force cheerful words upon them. Be with them in their struggle. You don’t need the right words. Just be present. Share a meal, write a card, be with them. Allow them to speak to their grief if they need to.

Prayer 

Lord Jesus Christ, you are the Man of Sorrows. You know grief and suffering. Walk with me as I struggle. Be with me in the darkness. And even in the darkness, may I experience sparks of your light this Advent season. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.

-Cindy+