A short reflection on Psalm 133 , the psalm for Proper 15a, according to the Revised Common Lectionary.
Ihaven’t been able to get the crisis in Iraq out of my head. The ancient Christian community in Mosul (formerly known as the biblical city of Nineveh), which dates to the most ancient of times, is now empty. Children are beheaded and their heads rest on pikes. Women are raped. Hordes of people are walking to Syria – because there’s a place that just screams “all safe over here.”
But, I really think it was the article about the Anglican priest in Baghdad who was grieving over the child he had baptized who had been cut in half for the high crime of being a Christian.
He had held this child in his arms and poured sacred water over his head, welcoming him into the Body of Christ. He had anointed his little supple forehead with sacred oil. He had celebrated with the child’s parents. The parents had named the child after him.
And, in the name of a bastardized form of a religion – whose name literally means “peace” -this child was cut in half.
I’m truly guilty of being an uncaring American who hears yet another report of yet another country over there where yet another insane human atrocity is committed…uttering something about how horrible it all is, and then going right back to pinning some impressionist landscape on Pinterest. I’m totally guilty of zoning out when the news turns to the Middle East, and images of desert vistas with men wearing scarves point guns and bazookas at the the enemy. I go back to my video game. Or my book. I change the channel to something which actually interests me.
Maybe it’s the juxtaposition of all the bombing and killings in Gaza, the girls who were abducted in Africa, and now the direct persecution of Christians (and Christian children) in Iraq that has raised the carnage to a level that has reached saturation in my highly distracted mind and heart.
Oh, how good and pleasant it is,
when brethren live together in unity!
It is like fine oil upon the head
that runs down upon the beard.
I suppose those words are true. I mean I guess they are.
Though perhaps it would be more truthful to say that they might be true, if these words were ever practiced.
I get glimpses of it every now and again. When I reconcile with someone I have wronged, or someone who has wronged me… Gosh that feels good.
But, it’s a fleeting feeling, because then I turn on the news again, and someone else is beheaded, or blown up, or raped, and the good feelings dissolve like dandelion fur in the hand of a child.
We so desperately need to find a way to be brethren, and quite frankly we don’t have any time to waste. We need to find a way to not be adherents of this religion or that, members of this kabal or that administration, watchers of MSNBC or FOX… We need to be first brothers. First, sisters.
And a great deal of the responsibility of that rests on the people holding the guns and drawing up the battle plans. But, a solid portion of the responsibility rests on me and you to regard the innocents and the enemies as our brothers and sisters. People who are worthy of caring about, worthy of our love, worthy of our attention, worthy of our outrage.
It might be easy to shoot them, or change the channel when they are shooting at them again. But, it’s harder to shoot a brother, to care less about a sister.
What can we do? Won’t they just always be shooting themselves and blowing each other up over there?
Maybe. But, if we started caring over here it just might make a difference. And fine oil might just run down the beard for the first time.
A short reflection on Matthew 14:22-33 , the Gospel lesson for Proper 14a, according to the Revised Common Lectionary.
Biblically, the “waters” are the physical incarnation of “chaos,” and as such they so often serve as a medium over which God shows His power.
In the beginning, the Spirit of God hovered over the waters, just before God called forth the light out of the darkness. Then the waters from above were separated from the waters below. And, of course, the waters were separated from the dry land – whereby God commanded the waters that they were not to come any further past the boundary which He established.
When humanity truly fell apart into depravity, God called on the waters, and they came. He It rained, of course, but the waters from under the earth also burst forth like geysers, covering the earth and making one great sea.
Much later, the waters of the Red Sea are divided, so that the children of Israel could walk through on dry land, beginning their sojourn to freedom and the Promised Land. The waters were piled up, on either side side in great walls of water till they came tumbling down again on Pharaoh’s army.
We can’t control water when it rages. Hurricanes, typhoons, floods, tsunamis – they wipe away everything in their path. There is no holding them back. When the ship is tossed to and fro on frothy seas, there’s nothing much to do but hold on, or call in a Coast Guard helicopter.
We can’t control water. But…God can. It’s one of the ways that we see in the Bible that God is the King of All Creation. Large-and-in-charge. We can’t stem the tide of chaos, but God does.
Jesus’ walking on the water is a vestige of this. Like the “I Am” sayings in the Gospel of John which harken back to the story of Exodus where God gave His Name to Moses at the burning bush, the walking on water is a demonstration that Jesus’ story is intrinsically bound together with the story of the God of the Hebrew Bible. By calming the roiling sea, and strolling out to the disciples atop the lilting waters, Jesus is showing Who He Is.
He’s harkening back to the story of Creation. He’s harkening back to the story of Noah, and the first covenant with all living creatures. He’s harkening back to the story of the Exodus.
He’s saying “Here I Am! I’m the New Creation. I’m the New Exodus. I’m here to set you free and make a New Covenant with you!”
And…he’s saying that the storms that rage in us, and around us…the chaos which swamp us and bring us down so low that the seaweed begins to wrap around our feet and not let go…well that chaos can be tamed. That storm can be calmed.
And Jesus is just the one to do it.
A short reflection on Matthew 14:13-21 , the Gospel lesson for Proper 13a, according to the Revised Common Lectionary.
Jesus had just received word that John the Baptist was dead. Beheaded.
Their families were close. Their mothers had gotten together when they were pregnant with each of them. They were both servants of God, sent to preach the Good News.
John had baptized him.
And now he was gone. Murdered.
Jesus’ reaction is the same reaction that many of us might have when we hear such news: we retreat. We need some time alone to process it. To weep. To pray. To remember times gone by—better times.
But, the draw of Jesus was so magnetic, he couldn’t really get away. Someone had seen where he had gone, which tipped the crowd off. And the crowd followed.
Perhaps the crowd didn’t know what had happened. Maybe they hadn’t gotten the news yet. Maybe they didn’t know that the news had effected Jesus so deeply, or that such news would even phase such a wise teacher like Jesus.
Maybe they just didn’t care. All they could see were their own needs. All they could feel was their own pain.
Matthew doesn’t give us all the details here, but I suspect that the latter option is the right one.
I suspect that because when I’m in despair it’s hard for me to see the despair of another too. All I can do is see the hurt that’s inside of me.
But, that’s not how Jesus operates.
He could have sent them away. He could have told them all what had happened to John. He could have just cried and yelled and screamed. He could have gotten into the boat, conjured up a good storm and been done with them all.
But, he was moved with compassion. He always is. He was able to see beyond his own pain, and feel the pain they were bringing.
And so he healed them. And when he was done healing them, he fed them.
This passage shows so beautifully the humanity and divinity of Jesus. Mourning and grieving, and yet offering healing and life at the same time.
Like manna from heaven, day by day, he is always enough.
A reflection on Romans 8:26-39, the epistle lesson for Proper 12a according to the Revised Common Lectionary.
“Would someone like to offer the prayer?”
Before you can count 1–2–3, every eye in the place is either looking at me, or doing everything they can to not make eye-contact with the person who asked that question. No one told me that’s what would come with my clerical collar: that when-in-public, I’m the go-to prayer guy, no questions asked.
It’s not that I mind praying. I like praying. A lot. In fact, I even think I’m pretty decent with “public praying.” But, it always makes me uncomfortable because I wonder if I’m robbing others of the opportunity to pray, to learn to pray, and to come to love praying.
And, I still remember the time when I was in my first year of seminary, and was asked to pray for someone in the hospital bed in front of me. I choked. I bombed. It was so bad, that after my shaky “amen” the chaplain behind me picked up the slack and offered another prayer, because mine was so incoherent.
The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought.
And then there’s that.
Paul is speaking of something more than just “not knowing what to say.” He’s not speaking of #publicprayerfails. He’s not even speaking of that thing where you just can’t find the right words.
He’s talking about prayer in a much deeper sense. When it comes to communicating with an omnipotent, omniscient, and eternal God, we’re not communicating on anything I that even resembles the same level. We’re throwing out morse code, whereas God is capable of something even beyond highly integrated 60-GHz mm-wave circuits. (As if I even know what that means…)
We look at the world around us with such a small lens. We see only a few possibilities: war or no war; sick or cured; happy or sad. We see the world in black and white on a fuzzy CRT with bad reception. But, God sees from one horizon to the next, in crystal clear high-def. God sees infinite possibility.
So no, we don’t know how to pray as we ought.
But, that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.
Prayer. Really, it has nothing to do with the words. Nothing. I mean words are nice. Quaint.
But, real union with God comes not from words from from the sighs that are too deep for words.
The only thing that I can think of that it resembles is the wordless communication that happens between two people who know each other so well, that one person can send a signal with one raised eyebrow to the other person in the room…and the person knows exactly what it means.
And, with God, this is a gift of the Spirit.
So, yes, help people learn to offer the grace before meals by themselves. Teach them the Lord’s Prayer, the Kyrie, and the General Thanksgiving. It will be good for them, and for their spirituality. But, also teach them to be with God, devoid of awkwardness and brimming with humility, casting off words and listening to each other’s sighs.
A short reflection on Matthew 13:24-30,36-43 , the Gospel lesson for Proper 11a, according to the Revised Common Lectionary.
The wheat and the weeds are so incredibly close together, that one cannot be uprooted, without uprooting the other.
I know this. Not because I have lots of evil neighbors. But, because the goodness in me, and the evil in me, is so close together. The person who I judge to have evil intent, also has good in them.
This parable is about how gray the world is. How what’s good, and what’s bad isn’t so easily separated.
“Bad” people don’t live “over there” anymore than the “good people” live “here.”
I really liked Disney’s new movie “Maleficent,” because of this exact same point. Maleficent is the wicked character in Sleeping Beauty, but the new movie makes her – and the other characters – more complex. She is capable of great evil. But, she is also capable of great love and compassion.
It’s also one of the things which made Breaking Bad so compelling. A “normal” lower-middle-class high school chemistry teacher with a relatively “normal” life has it in him to become a drug kingpin and murderer.
And, that same dichotomy is in us all.
A reflection on Matthew 13:1-9,18-23 , the Gospel lesson for Proper 10a, according to the Revised Common Lectionary.
For the longest time I’ve read the Parable of the Sower as descriptions of various groups of people. As if there are certain people who are, no doubt about it, just plain rocky soil. Then there are others who hang out with the thorns. The lucky ones are the healthy soil.
That would be convenient. Especially if you happened to be fertile dirt. It may even be convenient to be the impervious path, because it might just feel like a condition you had nothing to do with. As if being poor soil is kind of like having acne, or a receding hair line.
But, the uncomfortable reality is that I have good soil potential within me… And, it’s only a stone’s throw from some seriously rocky ground.
Not far from the thorns and weeds either.
They are all within me. And depending on the day, or the moment, or the circumstance, I end up presenting one or the other.
Years ago now my wife and I tried starting a garden next to our house. There was good soil – we lived right by the bank of a creek after all. But, there were also a lot of large rocks. It was amazing how many we pulled out of that little patch. We tried tilling it up, and it was incredibly tough.
We even broke the tiller in the process. Broke a blade right off.
Eventually, after a half-baked effort, we gave up.
I could apply that story as a metaphor to many, many moments in my life. Sometimes I come up all rocks. Sometimes I break things.
Sometimes, to heck with it, I just give up.
Jesus is asking us here to bring our best dirt, so that his Way can take root deep within us. This isn’t something that happens by chance, or because we’re fortunate to have good genes. It’s something we put effort into.
We’re the ones charged with tilling our soil so that the Life which Jesus sows may grow in us, and produce a bounty.
Even if we bust the tiller in the process, there’s no giving up.