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+

The Reflectionary – Week of November 24, 2019

Advent 1

Text: Jeremiah 33:14-18

“‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will fulfill the good promise I made to the people of Israel and Judah.

“‘In those days and at that time
I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line;
he will do what is just and right in the land.
In those days Judah will be saved
and Jerusalem will live in safety.
This is the name by which it will be called:
The Lord Our Righteous Savior.’

For this is what the Lord says: ‘David will never fail to have a man to sit on the throne of Israel, nor will the Levitical priests ever fail to have a man to stand before me continually to offer burnt offerings, to burn grain offerings and to present sacrifices.’”

Reflection

This text for the first Sunday of Advent is short and sweet. In it, the prophet Jeremiah speaks these hope-filled words of God – words of promise that God’s people do, in fact, have a future. As Christians, we read these words as ones that anticipate the coming of Jesus Christ, God in the flesh. As Christians, we have the gift of hindsight. But Jeremiah? Jeremiah writes these words in the midst of what looked like an impossible situation.

The previous chapter sets the scene. In it, we learn that Jeremiah is being imprisoned by Zedekiah, who was the king of Judah, the southern kingdom. At the same time, the Babylonian Empire, the most powerful empire yet to be seen, was in the midst of laying siege on Jerusalem. Things were not looking good. Jeremiah knew what had happened to the northern kingdom of Israel when Assyria came in and took them captive, and the ten northern tribes had been essentially scattered to the winds. Jeremiah had been warning Zedekiah of Judah’s impending similar fate, which angered the king and consequently led to his captivity.

As Jeremiah was held in confinement, Judah’s fall was imminent. The people would be expelled from the land. They would be driven into exile.

And then a strange thing happens. A relative of Jeremiah comes to him with a proposition – to buy the field at Anathoth. God tells Jeremiah to do so. Jeremiah does. So what’s so strange about this transaction?

Remember, Jerusalem is currently besieged by the most powerful empire they’d yet seen. The city’s fall was all but inevitable at this point. Why in the world would Jeremiah invest in property that was about to be lain to waste? It would be like someone saying in the midst of the Syrian civil war, “I think I’d really like to invest in property in Aleppo.” Or maybe like someone else saying, “Gaza is where I’d like to buy land.” It just makes no sense given the current reality of violence and destruction in those regions.

But Jeremiah buys the field and takes the deed to the land and preserves it in a clay jar. Then he awaits the utter destruction of Jerusalem and of the kingdom of Judah at the hands of Babylon.

To buy the field is an act of complete trust and hope in God’s grace. It is to look squarely in the face that which seems to be the end of the world and to say, “God’s not done with us yet.” It is to see that the death that is surely coming is not the last word. And so, Jeremiah’s act of buying the field leads us into these words of hope in Jeremiah 33:14-18. The fall of Jerusalem and Judah is not, in fact, the end for God’s people!

This passage reminds us that God’s grace is always at work. It reminds us that God’s work is never finished. It reminds us that God is never, ever, done with God’s people. Even when it feels like there is no hope, like death is closing in, or like there is no escape from the darkness and brokenness we are experiencing, God gives life.

Jeremiah trusts so fully in this promise that he invests in land that is about to be destroyed. He sees life, even when faced with death. I don’t know about you, but I long to be able to see with Jeremiah’s eyes, and to trust with Jeremiah’s heart. I long to be able to have that kind of unreserved faith in the promises of God.

This season of Advent that we are entering into is a season where we look expectantly to the promises of God in Jesus Christ. I challenge you to look to those promises with the eyes and the heart of Jeremiah.

Ponder

o   What words, phrases, or images from the text speak to you? What thoughts or feelings do they evoke?
o   Where, in your life, have you or are you struggling to find hope?
o   Where have you witnessed God’s faithfulness in your life?
o   What words do you need to hear from God today?

Challenge

Acquaint yourself with the practice of the Ignatian Examen. You can find many resources online, but here is one simple one: https://jesuits.org/Assets/Publications/File/The_Daily_Examen.pdf Each day this week, consider these two questions before going to bed: When, today, did I feel most disconnected from God? When, today, did I feel most aware of God’s grace?

And/or

Think of someone in your life who might need some encouragement – someone who might need to be reminded of God’s promises. Write a card, give a phone call, take them out for coffee, go visit. Remind them that God has more for them.

Prayer

God, you are the one who speaks life in the midst of death. You are the one who brings light in the midst of darkness. You are the one who brings healing in the midst of brokenness. Speak life, and light, and healing into my life and into the lives of those around me. Help me to utterly trust in your promises through Jesus Christ. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.

-Cindy+

The Reflectionary – Week of November 17, 2019

Text: 2 Kings 22:1-23:3

Josiah was eight years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem thirty-one years. His mother’s name was Jedidah daughter of Adaiah; she was from Bozkath. He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord and followed completely the ways of his father David, not turning aside to the right or to the left.

In the eighteenth year of his reign, King Josiah sent the secretary, Shaphan son of Azaliah, the son of Meshullam, to the temple of the Lord. He said: “Go up to Hilkiah the high priest and have him get ready the money that has been brought into the temple of the Lord, which the doorkeepers have collected from the people. Have them entrust it to the men appointed to supervise the work on the temple. And have these men pay the workers who repair the temple of the Lord—the carpenters, the builders and the masons. Also have them purchase timber and dressed stone to repair the temple. But they need not account for the money entrusted to them, because they are honest in their dealings.” 

Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the secretary, “I have found the Book of the Law in the temple of the Lord.” He gave it to Shaphan, who read it. Then Shaphan the secretary went to the king and reported to him: “Your officials have paid out the money that was in the temple of the Lord and have entrusted it to the workers and supervisors at the temple.” Then Shaphan the secretary informed the king, “Hilkiah the priest has given me a book.” And Shaphan read from it in the presence of the king.

When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his robes. He gave these orders to Hilkiah the priest, Ahikam son of Shaphan, Akbor son of Micaiah, Shaphan the secretary and Asaiah the king’s attendant: “Go and inquire of the Lord for me and for the people and for all Judah about what is written in this book that has been found. Great is the Lord’s anger that burns against us because those who have gone before us have not obeyed the words of this book; they have not acted in accordance with all that is written there concerning us.” 

Hilkiah the priest, Ahikam, Akbor, Shaphan and Asaiah went to speak to the prophet Huldah, who was the wife of Shallum son of Tikvah, the son of Harhas, keeper of the wardrobe. She lived in Jerusalem, in the New Quarter.

She said to them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Tell the man who sent you to me, ‘This is what the Lord says: I am going to bring disaster on this place and its people, according to everything written in the book the king of Judah has read. Because they have forsaken me and burned incense to other gods and aroused my anger by all the idols their hands have made, my anger will burn against this place and will not be quenched.’ Tell the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the Lord, ‘This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says concerning the words you heard: Because your heart was responsive and you humbled yourself before the Lord when you heard what I have spoken against this place and its people—that they would become a curse and be laid waste—and because you tore your robes and wept in my presence, I also have heard you, declares the Lord. Therefore I will gather you to your ancestors, and you will be buried in peace. Your eyes will not see all the disaster I am going to bring on this place.’” 

So they took her answer back to the king.

Then the king called together all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem. He went up to the temple of the Lord with the people of Judah, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the priests and the prophets—all the people from the least to the greatest. He read in their hearing all the words of the Book of the Covenant, which had been found in the temple of the Lord. The king stood by the pillar and renewed the covenant in the presence of the Lord—to follow the Lord and keep his commands, statutes and decrees with all his heart and all his soul, thus confirming the words of the covenant written in this book. Then all the people pledged themselves to the covenant.

Reflection

Kings, kings, kings. The kingdoms of Israel and Judah had each had their fair share of kings, and most of them were not very good kings. But the king of today’s text was not like most kings. Josiah, who ruled the southern kingdom of Judah from 640-609 BC, was known as the reformer. As Josiah ascends to the throne, he inherits a kingdom that is in bad shape. His predecessor, Amon had a short reign, being assassinated only two years after becoming king. Amon’s father Manasseh, however, reigned for approximately fifty years, and in that fifty years, he did a lot of damage.

While the kings of Israel and Judah were not particularly known for their fidelity to the God of Israel, Manasseh is reckoned by the narrative of 2 Kings to be the worst of all of the kings of Judah. Much like Ahab in the north, Manasseh allowed, and perhaps even encouraged the practice of worshipping foreign gods. Whether his motivations were political or personal, we can’t really know. What we do know is that Manasseh was the poster child for forfeiting the distinctive character and requirements of the people of the covenant in order to accommodate other powers and principalities.

This is the kingdom Josiah inherited – a kingdom whose powerful couldn’t have cared less about worshipping the God of Israel. Paying lip service to God was fine, but what really mattered was political expediency and pragmatism. The ends justified the means. In today’s text, however, we see in Josiah a king who is resolved to be a different kind of king than Manasseh.

He became king at eight years old, and he “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord.” While the text does not explicitly say what that means here, we can infer that Josiah was not only a king who truly worshipped God rather than foreign gods, but that he was also a just king.

In the eighteenth year of his reign, a significant event happened – a Torah scroll was found in the Temple that had presumably been lost for a long period of time (perhaps because it had fallen into disuse under the laxness of previous kings). The text says that when the king heard the words of the Torah, he tore his robes. Clearly, this was not only a personally moving moment for Josiah – it was a moment that called him to repentance on behalf of his kingdom. Why? Because perhaps for the first time in his life, he was hearing the words that spoke to the heart of Israel’s identity. He was likely hearing the words from Deuteronomy that call the people of Israel to live in a very particular and distinctive manner, identifying themselves as a people of the covenant. He was hearing words that gave the moral, ethical, and religious vision to his people.

Josiah called his people to repentance and renewal. He spent the remainder of his reign tearing down altars to false gods, continually calling his people to worship the God of Israel as the only God. And yet… even as Josiah earnestly sought to worship God with all of his heart, soul, and mind, it wasn’t enough. Judah had become too entrenched in accommodating false gods in the name of political expediency. Exile was not too far off.

Though we live in a very different time and place, we, too, face the struggle of remaining faithful to the vision of the kingdom of God that Jesus Christ gives to us. We, too, live in a time and place where the Church has made all kinds of accommodations to false gods of wealth and power. We face the temptation of living in such a way that says “the ends justify the means.” Like Josiah, we might not be able to change everyone around us, but we, ourselves, can hear God’s words, tear our robes, repent and renew our commitment, and seek to live out the vision God gives to us.

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 us making accommodations to false gods today?
o   What vision of the kingdom has God given to you? How might you help make that kingdom a reality here and now?

Challenge

Spend some time meditating on the vision of God’s kingdom. If you would like Scripture to meditate on, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 is a very good place to start.

And/or 

Sometimes one of the best ways to think about the vision of God’s kingdom is to consider the faithful witness of those who have gone before us. Take some time to learn about one or several saints of the Church. Read their stories, and listen for God’s testimony through them.

Prayer

God, you are the only one worthy of worship. Give me a vision of your kingdom, and then help me to live in it, here and now. Make me a faithful witness and hearer of your words. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.

-Cindy+

The Reflectionary – Week of November 10, 2019

Text: Isaiah 5:1-7; 11:1-5

I will sing for the one I love
a song about his vineyard:
My loved one had a vineyard
on a fertile hillside.
He dug it up and cleared it of stones
and planted it with the choicest vines.
He built a watchtower in it
and cut out a winepress as well.
Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,
but it yielded only bad fruit.

“Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.
What more could have been done for my vineyard
than I have done for it?
When I looked for good grapes,
why did it yield only bad?
Now I will tell you
what I am going to do to my vineyard:
I will take away its hedge,
and it will be destroyed;
I will break down its wall,
and it will be trampled.
I will make it a wasteland,
neither pruned nor cultivated,
and briers and thorns will grow there.
I will command the clouds
not to rain on it.”

The vineyard of the Lord Almighty
is the nation of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are the vines he delighted in.
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.

_______________________________

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of might,
the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.
 

He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
or decide by what he hears with his ears;
but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
Righteousness will be his belt
and faithfulness the sash around his waist.

Reflection

I was recently listening to NPR when they were doing a story on how the wildfires in California were impacting vineyards and the production of wine. Naturally, wildfires are a huge threat to productivity, when they can completely wipe out a vineyard. But as I listened, I also learned a little bit more about the care and management of vineyards. Cultivating healthy grape vines is actually quite a fine art that takes a lot of care, patience, wisdom, and, of course, cooperative weather/soil/environment, etc. There are many things that can go wrong in the process that can lead to a failure to produce good, healthy, and flavorful grapes. I imagine that it must be highly stressful work to be a vintner. You have to work hard to manage the “just right” conditions, and even if you do everything according to plan, wildfires (among other things) can still come along and mess everything up.

In the Isaiah 5, the prophet begins to sing a song about a vineyard and a vintner. This vintner loved his vineyard and put everything he had into it. He managed to get the “just right” conditions. He built a watchtower so he could see and protect the vineyard from anything that threatened to come in a wipe it out. The vintner did everything according to plan. And then… and then… the time came for the crop. The grapes should have been perfect. But the grapevines yielded only bad fruit. It was all sour grapes.

In v. 3, the text shifts from the prophet singing a song about a vineyard and a vintner to God speaking in the first person. We realize that the vintner is God, and God is angry about the failed crop of the vineyard that he so carefully and attentively cultivated. God is ready to destroy the vineyard. He’s ready to let the proverbial wildfires come in and make it a wasteland where only briars and thorns can be found. In v. 7, we find out that the vineyard is representative of the southern kingdom of Judah (which is where Isaiah did his prophetic work).

But what exactly was the “bad fruit” of Judah? What was it that made God so angry with his people? The prophets in both the northern and southern kingdoms tended to have two main criticisms that they articulated over and over again: the people needed to stop worshipping idols and the people needed to stop inflicting injustices upon the vulnerable. In this instance, the accusation against the people of Judah falls in line with the second of the two criticisms: where there should justice (mishpat), there is bloodshed (mispakh), and where there should be righteousness (tsedaqah), there are cries of distress (tse’aqah).

Justice here does not simply mean appropriate punishment for wrongdoings. Justice, in the biblical sense, has a much greater breadth of meaning. Justice is about the world being as it should. It is about wrongs being made right. It is about a vision of a society where the vulnerable are no longer vulnerable, and rather than exploitation, there is equity. Justice is about a social order where all of God’s people flourish.

Similarly, righteousness also has a social component. While the word “righteousness” for us often connotes a sort of personal purity and piety, in the biblical sense, righteousness is also relational. It has a connotation of “doing right” by one another.

If justice is about creating a right order where all people can flourish, righteousness is about each person looking out for their neighbors. That sounds like the kind of world I want to be a part of. That is certainly the kind of world God hoped his people would work to create. But instead of finding justice and righteousness, God finds bloodshed and cries of distress. He finds manipulation, exploitation, and everyone only looking out for number one. Let the vineyard be destroyed, God declares.

But then, a few chapters later, we shift metaphors, but we see that God does not leave God’s people to be destroyed, after all. Instead, we find God proclaiming anew the vision of justice and righteousness that God has for God’s people. God has not given up hope!

Some days, when I look at the world around me, I become overwhelmed. On those days, I become pessimistic at best, and nihilistic at worst. I get angry at all of the ways in which we, as human beings hurt one another. I feel rage at the evil we commit. I feel like I understand Isaiah’s vineyard song.

But God doesn’t leave us with the vineyard song. God leaves us with the image of the shoot that comes out of the stump of Jesse. God leaves us with new life coming out of that which appears to be dead. God leaves us with the vision of his kingdom – the kingdom of Jesus Christ, which is good news to the poor and needy. It’s good news to those who are crushed beneath the wheels of injustice. It’s good news to those who are trampled by unrighteousness. God leaves us with the vision of his kingdom – one that comes into existence through the gift of the Spirit. As you meditate today upon these words of Scripture, may God instill in you the vision of the kingdom and courage of the Spirit to work toward its reality.

Ponder

o   What words, phrases, or images from the text speak to you? What thoughts or feelings do they evoke?
o   Where, in our world, do you see injustice and unrighteousness?
o   Where do you catch glimpses of God’s kingdom being made a reality? What can you do to be a part of that?

Challenge

Enjoy some grapes, or fruit, or other type of food that comes from the ground. As you eat and taste the sweetness of the food, meditate on this passage again. As you think on it while engaging your senses in this different way, pay attention to what new insights or thoughts God might be showing you.

And/or 

Consider an injustice that is occurring in your own community. It might be related to food security, access to medical care, or any number of things. Identify one thing that you can immediately do about it, and then do it. It may be as simple as taking food to a neighbor who sometimes goes without or driving a friend to a doctor’s appointment. It could be volunteering with an organization that directly addresses social needs. It might even be working to change or create laws that care for the most vulnerable.

Prayer

God, you are the great vintner and you continue to nurture your vineyard. You want your vineyard to be a place where all vines can flourish. You want your vineyard to be a place where all may find the sweetest of fruit. Cultivate me, that I might be a vine rooted in Jesus Christ. Prune me, that I might bear the good fruit of justice and righteousness. Through your Spirit, may I work with you, as you give me a vision of your world. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.

-Cindy+