Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary

The Blessing Path

For Sunday, January 29, 2017 – Matthew 5:1-12

A friend of mine says this gospel passage is simply how Jesus defines sanity, how to keep our heads on straight when the world makes our minds spin. The culture that holds sway over us says we should want to “make it big.” We should want to be and do “what really matters,” which is to accumulate more power, more influence, more attribution. Jesus, on the other hand, says we will have more fun being poor, with no power in our pockets.

The world says, try to avoid anything that brings pain or, God forbid, might even make us weep, but Jesus says if we never weep, how will we learn what it is to be comforted? If we never mourn, how will we recognize the blessing of joy? It’s not when we are already filled up with the gluttony of right answers, satiated by promises of good times to come, but when we are hungry and thirsting for justice and unsure that we will ever be filled that we can honestly search for mercy, beg for a pure heart, and count on receiving them. It is not the peace so much as the longing for peace, the long agony of finding ourselves empty, that draws us closer to the One who has all we need.

Life is not difficult now so that we will more greatly appreciate being rewarded someday in heaven. Life is difficult now simply because it is difficult now. And the reward is to see it, to feel it, to let it in. When we refuse to accept that life is not to be continually altered, continually tweaked for our pleasure, we miss a simple truth: Life is what it is, and what it is, is Life. A mixed up muddle of sorrow and peace and joy and poverty and longing. We miss it if we spend all our time trying to shut the doors, bar the windows, before Life can get to us, before God can show us how good the awful parts can be. When we let the difficulties be what they are, then we can be who we are—cherished and able to live through whatever comes.

We are not in control of life, the difficulties or the blessings. But we can learn to expect them and to receive them as guests, as guides, as friends who come to show us the blessing path.

All Good or All Bad?

For Sunday, January 22, 2017 – Matthew 4:12-23

Life, contrary to popular theory, is not sometimes very, very good, nearly perfect, and at other times really, really bad. I hear gospel preachers say we are now experiencing a dawning of hope as the new administration takes office, while others say this political change represents the most perilous time in our history. Is one story completely right and the other completely wrong? Does any man or woman have the capacity to alter the nature of our inner and outer worlds and change who we are? Rather than blaming or crediting another for a world we see as either wonderful or perilous, perhaps we need to learn to accept responsibility for a world that is both of these at once.

Soon after Jesus starts to live into his baptism, discovering and deepening his calling by living his gifts for the sake of others—a hopeful period if ever there were one—he hears that John, his baptizer and front man, has been silenced and removed. Wanting to send a clear threat to Jesus, the authorities arrest John, torture him, and threaten him with death. How much worse could things become? The dream surely will die. All hope is lost. At least that’s the extreme way we tend to tell our stories. But Jesus, you’ll notice, has another way.

Jesus keeps moving forward, step by step, practicing his calling, going where he is sent, doing what he is given to do, honing in on his central purpose which is determined by a force larger than the current conditions.The news about John does not deter him; it motivates him to share it even more boldly, and to find others who do not think life is either all good or all bad but who see its great potential for being both at once. “Repent!” Jesus cries out, as John had done before him. “Repent” of the idea that all is lost and these present days are perilous and you have been abandoned. “Repent” for shutting your eyes to all the potential and promise of heaven that is right here with you, breaking through in beautiful interconnected patterns that only God could create.

No matter what dire situations you see as monopolizing the world, the greater truth is that a light has already dawned in the regions of death. Announce it. Invite others to live in it with you. All is not lost. Now go prove it.

To Know and Not Know

For Sunday, January 15, 2017 – John 1:29-42

Apparently there will be both a lot of knowing and not knowing on the journey with Jesus. In some ways we will come to know more than we ever dreamed possible, and in some ways we never will know him, what and who he really is, nor will we fully comprehend ourselves in our fullest depths.

Even John, who has just baptized Jesus and grew up knowing him as the son of his mother’s cousin, says, “I myself did not know him.” Twice he says it, in case we don’t believe him the first time. Rather than trying to gain credibility by pretending to know everything for sure, John is on a journey of discovery. He announces what he knows so far, that the sign of God rests upon Jesus, but he does not presume to know all there is to know.

It can be difficult to claim with confidence what we know so far but do not yet know totally. Who are we to say out loud what we do not yet know as deeply and thoroughly as we might someday? Jesus has barely begun his public ministry, and people begin already to make conjectures as to who he is, what his motivation is, whether or not he will live up to the rumors they have heard thst he is the longed for Messiah. Their own hopes and longings get tangled in their desire for him to be for them what they long for him to be. Will they leave space for him just to be who he is?

Maybe this is why he says to the curious, “Come and see.” Don’t try first to learn all about me as though that were possible. Just be with me. Watch me. Come hang out in the places I hang out. Let yourself weep and laugh over the same things that move me to tears and laughter. Let me be myself as I become who I am becoming, and you just be yourself, too. We’ll let go of our preconceived ideas of who we “should” be and discover our true identities, our real names. We’ll begin again, and begin again, and forever again, knowing yet never fully knowing, discovering who we are in God’s family.

Do It for Love

For Sunday, January 8, 2017 – Matthew 3:13-17

Such a simple act marks the moment when heaven and earth are joined as one. Jesus goes to John, his childhood friend, one might presume, the son of Mary’s cousin, and asks him to baptize him. Jesus wants to be not a sightseer on an earthly journey but fully immersed in the ordinary delights and extraordinary pains of the human experience. He desires no special status, only the status of the multitude who, one by one by one, is so very beloved by God.

To stand in line with the poor and ill and ashamed and then to lower himself into the dirty waters, to say with his actions, “I am one of you; you are my people, and I am your brother,” Jesus begins to show us himself and his God. Not a God of war and division, a conquering and spiteful God who demands sacrifice, but a God we can trust—even more surprising, a God who trusts us. Just as Jesus trusts himself into John’s mortal hands, leans back and back and back until he is falling into ever more trust.

Jesus shows us how to join the Commonwealth of Creation, how to unite the portion of heaven and earth that is given to each of us to tend and nurture into fuller life. He comes to John to be baptized not in order to fulfill the religious laws of righteousness but to do what is right. Some of us have trouble discerning the difference between these. Laws can get us to do what is right only by force of the will. The Spirit compels us to do what is right by way of desire and joy.

In the Spirit we hear how tenderly God speaks to each of us: “I want to be one with you. Come to the waters. Fall back into my love. Trust me. When you are at last weak enough, human enough, we will be able to do some new things. Just for the fun of it. We’ll start over. I’ll help you be who you really are. We’ll do it for the sake of others. We’ll do it for love.”

God With Us in Suffering

For Sunday, December 25, 2016 – Luke 2:(1-7), 8-20

We have a quandary. We want a happy Christmas—a lovely, soft-lights time of giving and receiving love—but in the mix for most of us is a sticky glob of suffering. Our hearts are weighted by people we hear about in the news, our friends and family, ourselves, all of us slogging along with our heavy pails of sadness and fear and loss. Shall we simply set them aside, as warring countries have done in order to have 24 hours of peace on Christmas, or does our suffering have a place in the Christmas story?

Beautiful are the angel chorus and Mary and Joseph’s steadfast courage and the shepherds, least among men, being the first to trust and go, and beautiful today are the signs of joy and courage and rising up in the midst of suffering. Immanuel—not despite the suffering, but in the suffering—God is with us. My friend Patty Wudel, with a poet’s heart, has written a beautiful meditation about the pain and beauty of God-with-us in our suffering. She lives at Joseph’s House, where people who have nowhere else to go find a home in their final weeks and days. When you step through the door, you can feel and see how pain and wonder, sadness and joy are meant to intermingle. I thought Patty’s recent letter might help us to ponder more deeply the meaning of this mystery for our own lives. And maybe some of us will want to give Jesus another little birthday gift to help Joseph’s House.

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Dear Kayla,

Welcome to this gentler space, this place of refuge…this Joseph’s House aglow with holiday lights in every room and the Whispers caroling from our dining room boom box. Warmth and color and old school tunes and hot chocolate to comfort the troubled soul. Here we have “time only to go slowly,” as a poet has written. “No time not to love.” And yet.

It seems to me that here at Joseph’s House our souls are more deeply troubled than at this time last year. Rita is living an anguish felt by us all.

Trapped in her wheelchair, given to outbursts of sudden rage, Rita suffers from lymphoma in her brain, a disease associated with her advanced HIV. “I’m losing my mind!” she screams to no one, to everyone. Inconsolable, her distress manifests as bitterness, as regret and fear. If Joseph’s House were not a community of people who practice working slowly and attuning to the heart as we work, we might not see that Rita’s mind is not exactly broken—it’s her heart that is breaking.

And the pain of our helplessness to comfort her almost compels us to run from Rita’s suffering and our own. Still, when we find ourselves turning away, we are able to help one another stop and turn back to Rita again. Courageously and steadily we take turns being with her and also with our apparent helplessness. In this way we keep our hearts as open as we can in this particular hell.

I can’t help but wonder about this Advent vigil. What difference does it make, this time of waiting with Rita when it seems it will surely end in grief rather than celebration? “How?” as pastor Jan Richardson puts it, “How do we navigate the call at the heart of Advent: to wait, to watch, to wake up…when what awaits us is not what we are praying for?”

For months Rita waited to become strong enough to walk again, hoping to return somehow to her home in pre-war Eritrea. Daily she prayed for her circumstances to change; waited for her prayers to be answered trusting that her health and her former life would be restored. God, she now feels, is not listening; does not hear her prayers. Rita waits no longer.

I think this is where the rest of us come in. What if we, with loving intention, wait for Rita? What if we stand in for her, wait for her because she can no longer wait and trust and pray, for herself? Can we, can those of us not so deeply anguished at this time, keep vigil for her? Can we watch over her, keep close enough for Rita to sense our presence, bless her no matter what as she lives these hard days? Yes, we can. I know that we want to.

Poet Kathryn Lodato writes of an angel …

“who stays by your side,
and holds her sword steady
and holds her gaze fierce
and waits when you falter
and nods when you rise.”

We are counting on you to be such an angel for us. We trust that you want to steady and protect and encourage us, and that you can. And that you will…as we at Joseph’s House keep watch with Rita and so many who are also suffering, and with one another.

May we help each other to know that the One we are waiting for is waiting for us. May we feel His presence. May each of us know ourselves as we really are: beloved, welcome. Already home.

With so much love,

Patty Wudel
Executive Director

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Blessed Christmas to you and you and you, dear companions on the journey. In need of a tiny sabbath, I will not be offering a gospel reflection next weekend, but I shall return on January 7. – Kayla