The Reflectionary – Week of February 23, 2020

For Lent 1

Text: Mark 10:17-31

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’” 

“Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” 

Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”

The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 

The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”

Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.” 

Then Peter spoke up, “We have left everything to follow you!”

“Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”

Reflection

As the parent of a toddler, I enjoy watching him learn new words and concepts on a daily basis. One concept that he has very recently figured out is that of possession. “My” is quickly becoming his favorite word. I ask him if he’ll share a bite of his food with me. “No! My!” Another kid gets too close to a toy he’s playing with, he pulls it away, saying, “My!” He sees something I am eating/using/working on, and tries to grab it while uttering a demanding, “My!” In my toddler, I see a microcosm of the human condition at work – the constant compulsion towards possession.

In today’s text, Jesus encounters a rich young man. We don’t know very much about this man. We know he is rich, and we also know that he is concerned about keeping God’s commandments. He comes to Jesus, not to test him, but to ask a genuine question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He tells Jesus that he’s kept the commandments since he was a child. This does not appear to be an exaggeration, or disingenuous, because Jesus looks at him, loves him, and he says, “There is just one thing you lack.” Just one thing! That’s great news! Surely this man who has, apparently, kept all of these commandments from his youth can do whatever Jesus is about to ask of him!

“Go and sell everything you have and give it to the poor, then come follow me.”

When I picture this scene unfolding, I see the young man’s jaw hitting the floor. I see a look of befuddlement in his eyes. I see him scratching his head, thinking he must have heard Jesus incorrectly. Maybe Jesus said, give alms to the poor. Maybe Jesus said, sell some of your stuff. But when he realizes that what Jesus has asked of him is nothing less than selling everything he has and giving it all away to the poor in order to come and follow him, it is more than he can handle. He simply cannot even fathom doing such a thing, or why Jesus might require it of him.

When Jesus asks the man to sell everything he has, he is not saying that his wealth is bad, nor is he saying that this cost is something that all wealthy people need to undertake in order to follow him. What Jesus is saying, however, to this young man, is that he not only needed to separate himself from his possessions, but that he needed to also consider his relationship to those who were on the margins. The ask was not just to sell his possessions, it was to sell them so that he could then give to the poor. Jesus was asking him to re-orient himself in relationship to his possessions and also to his neighbors. For this particular man, his possessions had become a barrier to loving his neighbor, which then also became a barrier to loving God.

I can’t stand in judgment of this rich young ruler without standing in judgment on myself. I can’t look at this story from a place of disconnection and distance. While it is true that Jesus doesn’t require every person to sell everything they have and give it to the poor, that doesn’t mean that I can dismiss it, shrugging it off, saying, “Well, Jesus isn’t talking to me, here.”

Just as Jesus seeks to help the rich young man become radically reoriented in relationship to his possessions and his neighbors, he asks you and me to do the same thing. He asks us to look at what we have, and what we do with what we have. Do we see our possessions, our money, our status, or our social capital, as means for ourselves alone, or do we see them as assets we can use to better love our neighbors, and consequently, God?

Jesus called this young man, and he went away dismayed. Jesus calls you and me today. What is your response?

Ponder

o   What words, phrases, or images from the text speak to you? What thoughts or feelings do they evoke?
o   Why do you think the rich young man was unable to do what Jesus asked?
o   What do you think Jesus is saying to you through this story?

Challenge

Jesus calls us to use what we have to serve others. Identify something that you have: time, money, possessions, influence, etc. How are you currently using it to serve others, especially vulnerable and marginalized people? How might you more effectively be about to use it to love your neighbors? Spend time journaling, praying, and then, most importantly, acting.

And/or

Take an inventory of your possessions. Consider what you might need to give away. Make a commitment over the season of Lent to simplify and let go of things that need to be let go. Donate where possible.

Prayer

God, you call me out of my comfort. You call me to a life of radical discipleship. Give me a willing and courageous heart to respond to your call. Re-orient my heart and my life that I may better love my neighbor and better love you. In Jesus’ name I pray, Amen.   

-Cindy+

The Reflectionary – Week of February 9, 2020

For Epiphany 6

Text: Mark 7:1-23

The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)

So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?” 

He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:

“‘These people honor me with their lips,

    but their hearts are far from me.

They worship me in vain;

    their teachings are merely human rules.’

You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” 

And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)— then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”

Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.”

After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.) 

He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”

Reflection

One of my clergy friends told me about a children’s sermon she recently preached. She told the children about how Jesus wants our hearts. One kid responded, as truly only a child can, with sheer horror. The child’s response was something like, “But I don’t want Jesus to take my heart! I need it to live!” She proceeded to explain that what she meant was that Jesus wants to live in our hearts. A comical moment, no doubt. I can imagine the chuckles of the congregation. But when I think about the child’s response of fear, thinking that Jesus wanted to literally take his heart out of his body, (a la Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), I can’t help but think, maybe that response isn’t as far out there as we think. See, Jesus is actually concerned about our hearts – and what lives within them. And the work that Jesus wants to do with our hearts can be downright painful and scary.

In the text this week, Jesus and the Pharisees hash it out over what it means to be “pure.” The Pharisees become quite concerned when they see that some of Jesus’ disciples are not observing the practice of ceremonial handwashing before eating. To us, this might seem like it’s not a very big deal, but it was significant to the Pharisees. It was an important way that they showed their commitment to recognizing the blessings of God. The practice of ceremonial washing before eating was a traditional way that many Jews showed honor to God. It was an act they took seriously, even if it wasn’t technically Law, per se.

When that group of Pharisees see some of Jesus’ disciples failing to conform to this practice, to them, it felt like an affront to God, and they wanted to prove that Jesus was, in fact, a heretical teacher. Jesus’ response, however, is pure gold. The Pharisees are trying to indict Jesus by accusing him of circumventing the Law; Jesus’ response holds the mirror right up to the Pharisees to show them their hypocrisy in idolizing their own traditions to the point that they are actually the ones violating the Law! (This is what is going on in the whole conversation where Jesus quotes Isaiah and then talks about honoring one’s mother and father and the use of Corban, which was a practice of giving one’s assets to the Temple, assets that may no longer be used for the family’s, including elderly parents’, care).

Jesus continues on and moves the conversation to address the heart of the matter (pun intended). He shifts the conversation from outward practices and traditions to the content of the heart. He says, what actually defiles a person is what comes from within the heart. In other words, we can do or say all of the right things, but when we have hatred, or malice, or selfish desires in our heart, we, in fact, violate the Law. We might have all of the “right traditions, go through the “right motions” in worship, or even keep the letter of the Law, but those things are not what make us good or righteous. Jesus talks extensively about this very idea in his Sermon on the Mount.

(Please do note that in Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees that he is not making a blanket condemnation of all tradition or outward acts of piety. Rather, he is condemning the ones that circumvent the heart of the Law and become idols in themselves. Sometimes traditions can teach and train our hearts in the ways of Jesus.)

What is in our hearts matters. We might be very practiced at saying and doing all of the right things, but if, in our hearts, as Christians, we are filled with selfishness or hatred or lust for power, then we are no different from the Pharisees in today’s text. This is not to say that our actions don’t matter. They do. And in fact, goodness, kindness, love, and the other fruits of the Spirit are things that should flow out of a heart that is being changed. Jesus does want out hearts, but he wants them so that our whole lives and world can be truly transformed.

Jesus holds up a mirror to each of us. What do you see today?

Ponder

o   What words, phrases, or images from the text speak to you? What thoughts or feelings do they evoke?
o   What do you see in the mirror?
o   What traditions do you hold on to? What traditions have helped cultivate your heart in positive ways? What traditions might you need to leave behind for the sake of the gospel?

Challenge

Get a mirror. Look into it. Have a conversation with yourself about what you see – not physically, but spiritually. What might God be wanting to do in your heart today?

And/or

Think about someone (whether it is an individual, or perhaps even a group of people) to whom your heart has been hardened. Simply spend some time in prayer for that person or group of people – not prayers that they might change, but that God might meet their every need.

Prayer

God, you want to work in my heart. I give it over to you, to tend it, to prune it, to plant new seeds within it. Tear out the weeds of selfishness and fear and hatred. Make me new. In Jesus’ name, I pray. Amen.

-Cindy+

The Reflectionary – Week of February 2, 2020

Epiphany 5

Text: Mark 6:1-29

Jesus left there and went to his hometown, accompanied by his disciples. When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed.

“Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him? What are these remarkable miracles he is performing? Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. 

Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. He was amazed at their lack of faith.

Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village. Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over impure spirits.

These were his instructions: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra shirt. Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.”

They went out and preached that people should repent. They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.

King Herod heard about this, for Jesus’ name had become well known. Some were saying, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.”

Others said, “He is Elijah.”

And still others claimed, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of long ago.”

But when Herod heard this, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!”

For Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, whom he had married. For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” So Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to, because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him. 

Finally the opportune time came. On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests.

The king said to the girl, “Ask me for anything you want, and I’ll give it to you.” And he promised her with an oath, “Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom.” 

She went out and said to her mother, “What shall I ask for?”

“The head of John the Baptist,” she answered.

At once the girl hurried in to the king with the request: “I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”

The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her. So he immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. The man went, beheaded John in the prison, and brought back his head on a platter. He presented it to the girl, and she gave it to her mother. On hearing of this, John’s disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.

Reflection

If I had to sum up this week’s text in one word, it would be “rejection.” First, Jesus experiences rejection in his hometown, where no one can believe this little kid they watched grow up is now this miracle worker, teaching with authority. They knew him when he was still in diapers, for goodness’ sake! Then, as Jesus sends his disciples out, he gives them advice about what to do if they are rejected. “Shake the dust off your feet!” he says. And then, in the third, and longest, segment of the text, we hear of the beheading of John the Baptist. If that isn’t a story of rejection, I don’t know what is. That third story is what we’ll be considering today.

Herod Antipas was the ruler of the Galilee. While he didn’t have the title of “king,” he was known as the Tetrarch (which means “ruler of a quarter”). He ruled Galilee as a client state of Rome, meaning that all of Herod’s power was derived from and subordinate to Rome. Herod’s own rise to power was one fraught with complications and manipulations. He was a younger son of Herod the Great, and it was never intended for him to rise to become a ruler. But after the executions of two older brothers, and another tried to poison his father, Herod Antipas was granted the rule of Galilee and Perea, which had to then be ratified by Caesar Augustus. Perhaps Herod Antipas felt like he had a lot to prove, and he sought to establish himself as a great and powerful ruler like his father.

As one who had grown accustomed to a life of seeking power for himself, Herod Antipas had a habit of taking what he wanted, which included his half-brother’s wife, Herodias. Herod divorced his own wife, in order to marry her. War broke out because of it. John the Baptist was an outspoken critic of Herod Antipas. Ultimately, that outspoken criticism led to his imprisonment and subsequently his beheading.

I don’t know about you, but these days, I am wrestling with Christianity’s relationship to the powers and rulers of the world. John the Baptist did not have any problem calling out and confronting Herod. John was definitely not a supporter of Rome or any of its subordinate institutions. His defiance and his proclamation of sin got him in big time trouble. I can’t help but look at our society today, where many who consider themselves to be a part of Christian evangelicalism appear to try to derive their own power from the “rulers of this world.” I can’t help but think about how many Christians are unwilling to confront corrupt and abusive powers of our leaders when they demonstrate such behavior. John the Baptist knew that his power did not come from Herod or from Rome. His power came from God. I can’t help but wonder, what would John the Baptist be doing and saying if he were living today?

John the Baptist reminds us of the cost of being sent out on God’s mission – it can mean rejection. Herod was afraid of John and the kind of life and kingdom John was proclaiming. He also came to see Jesus as a threat to his power and authority. There is much for us to wrestle with in this text. Where do you find yourself in it today?

Ponder

o   What words, phrases, or images from the text speak to you? What thoughts or feelings do they evoke?
o   How do you understand the relationship between faith and the political sphere? What do you consider to be appropriate or inappropriate interaction?
o   In your understanding, how would you characterize the kingdom of God?

Challenge

Where do you see corruption or injustice in today’s world? Consider how you might be called, as a person of faith, to address it. Take the first steps towards doing so.

And/or

Journal about how the idea of “rejection” sits with you.

Prayer

God, your kingdom is not like any kingdom of this world. Align me with your goodness, with your purpose In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.

-Cindy+

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+