It took a year to read the Bible, then almost 9 months to read the Apocrypha. Now, I'm going to try to offer reflections on the Narrative Lectionary. But, I won't be posting daily--at least, for a while.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Reflection on readings for January 31

Turn to me and be gracious to me.
Relieve the trouble of my heart.
Forgive all my sins. (from Psalm 25:16-22)

Exodus 12:14-13:16
The Hebrew people are still in Egypt. Pharaoh has not yet admitted defeat. He is still refusing to listen. Things don't seem to be getting better. Things don't seem to be changed.

Yet, the Lord says to Moses, "This is the beginning. This is the first month of a new year." Then, the Lord gives what seems to me to be a surprising instruction, "Have a feast. Have a big feast. And put on your traveling clothes."

We may be living in the midst of trouble, of sadness, of disappointment. We may feel stuck in a situation that is painful and seems impossible to escape. We may wonder if God has forgotten us.

What is the purpose of the feast? Is it to help them forget how bad things are? I don't think so.

Can we learn anything from this passage to help us face our troubled times? Can we hold onto hope through difficult times?

The Lord tells them to remember this day, to celebrate it as a festival. Remember those days when hunger drove you from your home. Remember those days that you were slaves to Pharaoh. Remember that I sent a savior to deliver you, to bring you home.

Not just one meal but a perpetual ordinance. Perpetual--this isn't something that happened once way back then to a bunch of other people--this continues to affect us right now. Ordinance--do it

Along with the directions for what had to be done before they left Egypt were commands for what they were to do when they came to the place that had been promise to them. They were to remember and tell what they remembered.

That night the Lord struck down every firstborn son in the land of Egypt, including the son of Pharaoh, of prisoners, of sheep and cattle. In despair and panic, Pharaoh told Moses to leave.

The Israelites were given silver and gold ornaments by the Egyptians. A throng of non-Israelites accompanied them.

How do we remember the times that we were rescued from troublesome situations and difficulties? Think about the hard times that your congregation (or congregants) have gone through. What event got you through? Do you have a way of recalling, and sharing your experiences of rescue?

Matthew 20:29-21:22
What could possibly go wrong now? They're following the directions the prophets had laid out.

Matthew describes the entrance in language evoking Zechariah,
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, you king cones to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (9:9)

A very large crowd welcomes them enthusiastically. Were they thinking of the next verses in Zechariah?
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the warhorse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth (9:10).
He's being welcomed in Jerusalem, the capital city founded by King David. Of course, now it has been centuries since Jerusalem was ruled by Jews. Now, Rome is in charge. And Rome does not want anyone wanting a new king. Rome favored peace, but a peace in which Rome was totally in charge.

Let's not be Rome for a while. Let us instead welcome the new king into our dominion, a king who is a prophet.

Wesley White describes what is difficult about prophets: They preach change. They tell us some uncomfortable things. He sums up by saying "Prophets get stoned, not throned, and in the end are spit upon, not smiled upon." (Wrestling Year A)

Prayer for Today: Lord, as we read about the Hebrew people preparing to leave Egypt and about Jesus entering Jerusalem, we think about our leavings and our arrivals. Forgive us for those misdeeds and missed deeds that we were guilty of during our past. Guide us now to a new life, one in which we do your will. The good we do, your work we participate in, is often down through the church, through our specific congregation. Inspire us to support that congregation so that we can continue to do what the world needs from Christians. Amen.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Reflections on readings for January 30

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
O my God, in you I trust
(Psalm 25:1-2a)

Exodus 10:1-12:13
Wesley White has compiled a connection of lectionary readings with lived experiences, Wrestling Year A. Here's an excerpt:
Would you have participated in the first Passover? Just because Moses said so? His track record wasn't the greatest. If pests and boils won't work, why would blood on the door and shoes at the ready?
Matthew 20:1-28
Jesus is addressing people who might find themselves in this parable as the workers who had been there all day. They (we?) have done everything that was expected of them and had received what they had expected to get. Why are they resentful? What in us makes us unhappy in a situation in which we got what we had been promised?

Put yourself in the place of the latecomers. When have you gotten more than you had earned? What was your reaction? Why was Jesus silent on their reaction?

Put yourself in the place of the landowner. How should you pay your workers? Who has worked for you? Did you always reward them according to what they deserved to get? Have you ever been generous beyond what equity would call for? If so, were you confronted with more unhappy or more happy recipients?

Robert Frost's poem Death of the Hired Man (  suggests that some of us are able to recognize a need to care for someone who may not have earned that care.

In Jesus' time many laborers had been thrown out of work as a result of the economic conditions (Allen & Williamson, Preaching the Gospel).

In our time, we still have to figure out how to deal appropriately with laborers who have arrived later. 

Psalm 25:1-15
In praying this psalm, we admit that we have not always done what God would have preferred us to do, and we admit that we have more to learn.

We ask the Lord, "Forget what we have done and remember what you are like."

Think about your own life. If you had known then what you know now, what would you have done differently? How can you live so that God want have to keep being so merciful to you?

Prayer for Today: O Lord our God, we pray today for your guidance and for your forgiveness when we do wander from the path you have shown us. We give you thanks for the community that our congregation offers to us, for the support and encouragement that it offers. We ask that you continue to motivate the lay leaders who do so much for us and continue to motivate us to support them and work with them to carry out the mission that you have entrusted to us. Amen.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Reflection on the readings for January 29

Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?
And who shall stand in the Lord's holy place?
(Psalm 24:3)

Exodus 8:1-9:35
The Lord is persistent. Moses and Aaron are obedient. The court magicians can replicate some of the plagues, but eventually recognize that these plagues were the result of the finger of God.

John Goldingay in his Old Testament Theology, Vol 1, points out that "The signs indicate that the God who delivers Israel from Egypt has sovereign power in the natural world and is prepared to exercise it." and that God is sovereign in both political events and events in the natural realm.

 Pharaoh waivers in letting the people go, but God hardened his heart. Or, this earthly king used to exercising great power can't quite admit that he's not in charge of everything and everybody.

Matthew 19:13-30
Large crowds are following him. Then, to the irritation of the disciples, they start bringing their children to him, asking him to lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples think he should be focusing on more important things that spending time with children. In their world, children were not important, didn't do important work, had no status. Jesus set them straight.

In our time and place, we are eager to include children in our churches (with some qualifications about their behavior, etc.) Yet, we may have difficulty in assimilating other groups of non-working, low status folks.

When a rich young man asked Jesus what he had to do to attain eternal life, Jesus reminded him that he already knew what he was supposed to be doing (and not doing).  The young man asserted that he was already following the commandments and asked what else he could do. Jesus forced him to consider what was really most important to him, what he would cling to than serve Jesus. Jesus admitted that being a follower was hard.

He's talking about more than money. What else in our lives do we need to protect? What are we not willing to give up?

Are we irritated or reassured by his comment that the first will be last, and the last will be first?

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Reflection on readings for January 28

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.
(Psalm 23:6)

Exodus 5:22-7:25
God becomes involved with politics, takes the side of immigrants, the working poor.

Matthew 18:21-19:12
Jesus had strong words for his disciples. Look back at yesterday's reading for the imprecation against the strong interfering with the humble. He commanded them to seek the ones who stray and to bring them back into the fold. But, what happens when that sheep is back in the fold and you would really rather have him leave? Jesus outlined a procedure for helping the church member change behavior. "If he won't change," Jesus said, "Treat him like a Gentile or a tax collector."

Now Peter asks, "How many times do we have to go through this procedure before we can give up on somebody?" Jesus' response is a number too big to keep track of.

Don't read this message as a word to those who are being abused that they need to stay in relationship with someone who will continue to harm them.

Don't read these words of Jesus as saying that sin does not matter. This message is to Peter. If the church is going to make it, then church members have to work together.

On a tangent: Am I right to read a requirement for repentance to precede Peter's forgiveness? After all, in the parable, the debtor begs the king for forgiveness.

The Power of Forgiveness explores recent research into the psychological and physical effects of forgiveness on individuals and within relationships under a wide variety of conditions and translates it into a popular, accessible documentary film for national public television.

The film also explores the role forgiveness holds in various faiths traditions. It provides an honest look at the intensity of anger and grief that human nature is heir to. We see in the film that there are transgressions people find themselves unwilling or unable to forgive. Through character-driven stories the film shows the role forgiveness can play in alleviating anger and grief and the physical, mental and spiritual benefits that come with it.

This includes feature stories on the Amish, the 9/11 tragedy and peace-building in Northern Ireland, along with interviews with renowned Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, best-selling authors Thomas Moore and Marianne Williamson and others.

And take a quiz to see how forgiving you are.

(Thanks to the heads-up from Alive Now, September/October 2008 that alerted me to this website.)

Psalm 23
This psalm is surely the most familiar psalm to many of us. Some of us can even recite it; even more of us recognize it as soon as we hear it being recited.

I suggest a reason that it is so ubiquitous is that we need to hear its message, one of the love and protection that God offers to all of us. A love that protects, comforts, and just is always to be counted on.

John H. Hayes, in Preaching through the Christian Year B, points out that two different images of God are used in this psalm--shepherd and host.

First, the psalm begins, "The Lord is my shepherd." When we are in danger, or in need of direction, we can be comforted with that image of a shepherd taking care of the sheep who really need being taken care of, including being protected from predators, and being told when we are on the wrong path and being shown the right way to go.

Also, the psalm includes, "You prepare a table for me....." The Lord welcomes us, is generous with us, and will continue to do so; "I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long."

Hayes summarizes the diverse expressions of human experience found in this psalm:
One set emphasizes the troubles that threaten to overwhelm human life.... Another set stresses the positive instruments and acts of God's care.... Human life, of course, experiences both the negative and the positive.... This psalm presents the human predicament without any illusion about persons/ being superhumans and above pain, loneliness, and lostness; yet the symbol of God as protector and even corrector affirms the potential of a tranquil life lived amid adversaries and the harsh realities that are the ingredients of every life.

Prayer for Today: Give us an understanding of how we can work to end the social injustices in our time. Amen.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Reflection on the readings for January 27

But you, O Lord, do not be far away!
O my help, come quickly to my aid!
Deliver my soul from the sword,
my life from the power of the dog!
(Psalm 22:19-20)

Exodus 4:1-5:21
When God directed him to take on a new job, Moses responded with several objections. "Suppose they won't believe that the Lord wants me to do this?" After viewing a demonstration of several signs that would make the Egyptians willing to believe, Moses then offered another disqualification--he was not an eloquent speaker. The Lord assured him, "I'll teach you." Moses, still unwilling, pleaded with the Lord to send someone else. The Lord said Moses could take his brother Aaron with him.

When Moses did go to Pharaoh and ask that the Israelites be allowed to take off work long enough to celebrate a festival, the Pharaoh responded negatively and even directed that their work be made more difficult to perform. The people became very angry with Moses and Aaron.

Moses had had to leave Egypt because of a crime he had committed. He's now living somewhere with a family and a job. God directs him to go somewhere dangerous and to perform a task that he doesn't consider himself competent to do. What would any of us say to God under these circumstances? How is it that some people are willing to leave comfortable places to do really hard things?

The pharaoh could not identify with the needs of the large immigrant population. Those in authority often can not get too worried about what the lower classes are going through.

God sent Moses and Aaron to help their people. When the immediate consequences were negative, they turned on Moses and Aaron. People we are trying to help may be incapable of taking the long view when the short view right in front of them is so terrible.

Matthew 18:1-20
Jesus reminds them of the joy of recovering those who stray from the flock. Then, he talks about the difficulty of living with those who don't leave. "Here's what you can expect: some church members are going to treat you badly. Don't ignore the problem. Even if you are not at fault, you still have the responsibility to mend the relationship."

Here's the hard part. Start by going directly to the offender. Don't go around telling everybody else how much you are hurt. First, tell the one who hurt you.

Then, if that doesn't work, and only if that doesn't work, share your concerns with a couple of other church members. If that doesn't work, and only if that doesn't work, then you may tell others in the church about the problem.

If the offender won't listen to the whole church, then treat that person like a Gentile and a tax collector.

Notice the irony in this last instruction by remembering how Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors.

Thinking about forgiveness and the congregatingness (congregatability?) of the congregation, I read Kathleen Norris' typically wonderful poem, Mrs. Schneider in Church:

Here's the first and last stanza:

It's the willingness to sing
that surprises me:
out of tune,
we drag the organist along
and sing, knowing we can't,
and our quite ordinary voices
carry us over.

Now we are changed,
making a noise
greater than ourselves,
to be worthy of the lesson:
all duly noted,
all forgiven.
(Excerpted from Cries of the Spirit, Beacon Press, ed. by Marilyn Sewell

Psalm 22:19-31
Psalm 22 begins in despair, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" It lifts up complaints of mistreatment and mockery and threats. And, intertwined with these laments, are words of remembrance of what God and done and a call to God to do more.

Verse 22 begins with "Save me" but then shifts to "You have rescued me."

How do rescued people respond?

Thank God and make those thanks public. Give thanks in the middle of the congregation.

Those people present there at that place will hear of God's work. And not only them. All of the families of the earth will know what God has done and what God can do. People living now and people to come.

Whose praise of the Lord have you heard? Who has heard your praise of the Lord?

Prayer for Today: On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, pray the Kaddish.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Reflection on readings for January 26

(For the invocation, today, I have chosen Psalm 22:1-2, a prayer that we may find ourselves praying during our hard times)

My God, my God, 
why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me,
from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day,
but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.

Exodus 2:11-3:22
Moses is at work. The text gives us no indication that he is seeking God or that he has spent much time thinking about what had happened to him in Egypt and what is still happening there. But, God has been thinking about these things.

But, when God impinges on Moses' life, Moses does notice. When God sees that Moses is willing to let the everyday stuff be laid aside, God calls to him.

"I have seen the misery of my people who are still in Egypt. I have heard their cry. I have come down to rescue them, to bring them to a good land, a land flowing with milk and honey."

Rescue, though not immediate, is imminent.

Then God tells Moses how this rescue is going to be effected: "I'm sending you." 

Several questions arise for me as I think about this passage. 

How many times does God make a dramatic appearance in our not-so-dramatic lives, and we don't even notice? How many times are we compelled to come closer to God, to recognize a holy time and place, and we don't respond? Should we expect God to know our suffering? Do we recognize God's behind-the-scenes work in our rescue from that suffering? Does everyone, or anyone, respond positively to the call of God if it is to do something as dangerous as face a Pharaoh?

God has heard the cry of the Israelites and has come to send Moses to rescue them. Has Moses been paying much attention to their cry? We are told nothing of his yearnings to save his people. "Who am I?" he asks. "Why have you picked me?"

I've always read this as modesty on Moses' part. But, now I'm thinking that it may be more than modesty. It may be a sincere question, "Why me? Why not someone who has spent years devoted to freedom fighting?" Or, "Why not somebody who doesn't have a steady job and a family to take care of? Don't you know some single, underemployed people who have time for charity work?" [I admit I'm going a little over the top now, but I'm thinking of common current reasons for not doing God's work.]

God responds, "What difference does it make who you are or what you think you are good at? Think about it. I Am the one who is sending you."

(As before, much thanks to William Goldingay, Old Testament Theology, Volume One, Israel's Gospel)

Matthew 17:10-27
On the way down the mountains, Jesus talks to his disciples about the role of John the Baptist. When they are again in the crowd, someone asks Jesus for help for his son, saying that he had already asked the disciples and they hadn't cured him. Jesus could and did. The disciples wanted to know why they hadn't been able to effect the cure. Jesus told them they didn't have enough faith.

To be effective, faith doesn't have to be big, but it has to be persistent.

Peter was asked if Jesus paid the temple tax, that is, if he was supporting financially an organization that he was also critical of. Many Methodists today are considering whether they should remain members of a denomination that they are critical of. Some, because it is not liberal enough; some, because it is too liberal.

John Wesley said we were going on to perfection. Apparently, we aren't there quite yet.

Psalm 22:1-18
One of the discussions I remember from some theology class was the classic problem of how God could be all good and all powerful and at the same time we humans were suffering. Trying to solve this, we came up with quesions like "Did we deserve every bad thing that happened?" or "Was the bad thing we were experiencing going to turn out to be a good thing after all?"

However we frame our answers to our inquiry into the nature of God, we who are faithful hold on the knowledge (hope? faith?) that yes, God is all-powerful and all-good.

But, sometimes, we feel abandoned. We can pray "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

Even Jesus felt abandoned--see Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34.

Yet, even in that sense of forsakenness, we can turn only to God. O my God, "I cry by day ... and by night...."

Prayer for Today: Choose a prayer from Joan Stott's website, The Timeless Psalms.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Reflections on readings for January 25

Be exalted, O Lord, in your strength!
We will sing and praise your power (Psalm 21:12)

Genesis 50:1-Exodus 2:1-10 
When their ancestor Joseph had had an important government job in Egypt, he had relocated his family there. They had prospered there for a while, but things are different for their descendants. As many rich countries do, the Egyptians thought that these immigrants were getting too much of a share of the country's resources. In Egypt's case, their xenophobia went so far that the king ruled that all Hebrew boys be killed at birth.

Three things strike me as I read Exodus 2. One is that the midwives' names are given and the king's is not. Often in the Bible, a woman will be described not by her name but by her relationship to her father or husband or son. For example, Moses' sister and mother and Pharaoh's daughter) are not named here (If we have read ahead in Moses' story we may assume that this sister is Miriam). Why are we told the names of the midwives? They don't appear later that I can remember.

Another point that interests me today is comparing the story of Moses with that of Jesus. They have several factors in common: an imperial ruler that threatens the life of this infant among other infants, the rescue of this child who will later rescue his people.

I am also struck by the realization that infants are still at risk. Memphis a few years ago had the highest infant mortality rate in the nation. The Shelby County health department made saving babies its goal. In the last year, the rate has dropped by a third. Things are getting better, but we still have work to do.

Matthew 16:13-17:9
Try not to think of all those cartoons you have seen of St. Peter at heaven's gate, letting some in and excluding others. For one thing, Matthew does not restrict the term, heaven, to mean a place somewhere else, at a time only after death. Rather, the kingdom of heaven is a more pious way of saying kingdom of God; that is, a place here and now, where God is in charge.

Peter has the keys; that is, Peter understand and can convey what kingdom life is like, what kingdom residents are like. Jesus built this church and entrusted Peter with it. (with thanks once again to Boring & Craddock's The People's New Testament Commentary)

When Peter was told what what was going to happen to Jesus, he rebuked Jesus. As Allen and Williamson put it, he turned from being the rock to being a stumbling block. (Preaching the Gospel without Blaming the Jews)

When the devil showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and promised them to him in exchange for being worshiped, Jesus told him to go away.

When Peter pleaded with Jesus to skip the suffering, Jesus called him Satan and said, "Get behind me." Boring and Craddock suggest that Jesus was not telling him to go away. Rather, Jesus was telling Peter, "Get in line behind me. You're next. If any of you want to be my followers, take up your cross. What is going to happen to me, you can expect to happen to you."

I wondered, as I thought about this passage, what modern-day evangelists were saying to potential converts. Then I remembered who he was talking to--his disciples, insiders, not the crowds, the uninitiated.

Jesus knew as much about cost as a CPA. "What you decide to do today will affect what happens to you tomorrow and the day after that and for time to come. Take care of the matters that God cares about, and God will take care of what should matter to you." 

Stanley Hauerwas  points out that "six days later" points us to the creation story so that Jesus' transfiguration is the seventh day thus bringing God's work to completion. Peter, James, and his brother John are there on the mountaintop with Jesus. They witness his transfiguration. They see him changed, and they see Moses and Elijah. Peter, as usual, speaks first. He offers to build three dwellings. We aren't told explicitly what Peter had in mind, but we can speculate that he wanted to keep Jesus on the mountaintop--usually a significant place in the Scriptures--along with those two important figures, Moses who had led the people out of slavery and brought them the law from the Lord and Isaiah the prophet who told them the Lord's word as they emerged from exile. 

As Peter was still speaking, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud, a voice speaks to them, repeating the words spoken at his baptism (Matthew 3:13-17) "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased" and adds some words not heard at that time, "listen to him!"

The immediate reaction of the disciples is fear. They fall to the ground.

They have seen light, heard the voice, and they are scared.

Jesus responds to their fear by coming to them and touching them. He tells them to get up and not to be afraid. Thomas Long, in his excellent commentary on Matthew, reminds us that Jesus has touched the leper (8:3), the hand of the fevered woman (8:15), and the eyes of the blind men (9:29) and healed them. Thus, as Jesus can heal blindness, fever, and leprosy, so can he heal fear.

When they look up, Moses and Isaiah are not visible. It's time to leave the mountain. On the way down, Jesus tells them not to tell anybody about the vision they have witnessed until after the resurrection. 

Fred Craddock, in Preaching through the Christian Year A, explains: If the disciples understood who Jesus was only after the resurrection there certainly was no reason to assume the crowds could. After all, if the baptism and prediction of passion seemed a contradiction of the terms "Messiah" and "Son of God," how much more would the cross? The people are not ready for the Transfiguration story because the disciples are not ready to tell it.

And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Prayer for Today: Lord, help us the church to be the rock, to use the keys to your kingdom wisely, to be willing to leave the mountain so that we too can reach out to those who need your healing power in their lives. Make us ready to share your story with people who have not heard it and people who have heard it told badly. Amen.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Reflection on readings for January 24

The Lord answer you in the day of trouble!
The name of the God of Jacob protect you!
(Psalm 20:1)

Genesis 48:1-49:33
Before he died, Jacob adopted Joseph's sons Ephraim and Manasseh as his own. In a echo of what his own father had done, Jacob, also almost blind by this time, reversed the blessings of the elder and younger sons. Joseph tried to get his father to reverse this, but he wouldn't.

As he neared death, Jacob called all his sons together so he could tell them what was going to happen to them. He named their failings: Reuben had bedded his father's wife. Simon and Levi had killed men and harmed oxen. On the other hand, he praised Judah, Zebulun, and Joseph. Issachar was a slave; Dan, a snake and viper; Gad, a raider.

Matthew 15:29-16:12
Since Matthew, like Mark, describes two feeding incidents, look for similarities and differences between them. Or, as I did, read Thomas Long's commentary on Matthew. In chapter 14, Jesus is by the sea; in chapter 15, he is on the mountain. The mountain, in Matthew, is where important events occur; e.g., the Sermon on the Mount. I don't know how to interpret Asher's and Napthtali's outcome.

In both cases, the crowds come to him, and he heals many. (Long suggests comparing the list of infirmities with those found in Isaiah 35:5-6, an indication that Jesus is the one promised by the prophets).

And along with the healing, he feeds many. As in chapter 14, the disciples don't think their small resources are sufficient to handle the great need. But, again they are willing to take what they possess and distribute it to the crowd.

The church continues to be faced with great needs. We continue to doubt whether our current resources and abilities will be able to make even a dent in those needs. Even looking back at what we used to be able to do doesn't always convince us that we can still be helpful.

The next time your congregation gathers for Holy Communion, think about the actions described in verse 16: He took the elements, blessed then, broke them, and gave them to the crowds. Then consider acting out those steps in the life of the church.

Prayer for Today: Lord, as we read Jacob's judgment of his sons, help us to be the kind of children that you would judge favorably. Today, we ask that you grant of the wisdom to carry out the responsibilities that you have given us as a congregation to understand your will and to use our resources as you would intend for us to do. Amen.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Reflections on readings for January 23

Let the words of my mouth 
and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer
(Psalm 19:14)

Genesis 46:1-47:31
When Joseph's family arrived in Egypt, they moved to Goshen because Egyptians found shepherds abhorrent. As Joseph had interpreted Pharaoh's dream, Egypt  suffered a severe famine. Joseph used the tragedy to acquire for Pharaoh the people's land. Egyptians were turned into something like tenant farmers. Joseph's family became prosperous.

Matthew 15:1-28
Matthew is not telling us how superior we Christians are to Jews. He's telling us how to be better Christians. "You're worrying too much about the unimportant and not enough about the important."

Long before, Hosea had called Israel to repentance by voicing this word of God, "For I desire love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings" (6:6)  

Try not to think of all those cartoons you have seen of St. Peter at heaven's gate, letting some in and excluding others. For one thing, Matthew does not restrict the term, heaven, to mean a place somewhere else, at a time only after death. Rather, the kingdom of heaven is a more pious way of saying kingdom of God; that is, a place here and now, where God is in charge. 

Peter has the keys; that is, Peter understand and can convey what kingdom life is like, what kingdom residents are like. Jesus built this church and entrusted Peter with it. (with thanks to Boring & Craddock's The People's New Testament Commentary) 

Jesus had called himself the Son of Man (verse 13), but Peter called him the Son of the living God (16). I'm saving discussion of "Son of Man" for another time, and right now looking at the "Son of God" designation. Since Jesus is the Son of God, then God is his father. Jesus assents to this relationship when he says " Father in heaven."  

I've been reading Julian Sheffield's essay, "The Father in the Gospel of Matthew," in A Feminist Companion to Matthew, edited by Amy-Jill Levine: The term, father, is used for God 65 times in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). 44 of those are in Matthew. God the father is identified as "heavenly" or "in heaven" 20 times in Matthew. Sheffield instructs us that this interpretation of God as heavenly father comes from the context of Rabbinic prayer language. This language emphasizes who is in charge--God, not Caesar.

Psalm 19
"Where did you see God?" our small group asks us at the beginning of each meeting. I don't think I have ever answered by quoting the first verses of Psalm 19, but I may remember to next time.

"Look at the sky," the psalmist says. "Notice that it's day. Notice that it's night. Where do you think the sun came from? Why do you think it moves?"

God has so ordered the universe that the sun rises and sets, the sun provides light and warmth for us.

If only we humans could respond affirmatively to God's intentions.

The commands of God are intended to help us live good lives, orderly lives, joyful lives.

And they are intended to help us avoid behavior that would harm us and others. God's law provides rewards and boundaries (are these always opposites?)

Although we may want to behave wisely, we may fail at times. And we live among people who don't seem to care about doing right at all. Protect us from them, and protect us from failing to live up to God's wishes for us.

We may have difficulty in discerning who is speaking for the Lord.

Or, we still have difficulty in accepting that someone who isn't part of our own congregation can be connected with the Lord.

As a help, we could remember the words of Psalm 19--the judgments of the Lord are true, righteous, desirable. We should pay heed to them.

If we do pay attention to God's words and wisdom, then we can evaluate human words and wisdom. We can even pray the psalmist's prayer to be cleared of any movement away from those words and wisdom in our own ways.

Prayer for Today: God, keep us faithful to the intent of your will. 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Reflection on readings for January 22

The Lord lives!
Blessed be my rock,
and exalted be the God of my salvation
(Psalm 18:46).

Genesis 44:1-45:28
Years before, they had thrown their brother into a pit from which he could not escape, then sold him into slavery. Now, they are facing that brother, their lives dependent on what he decides to do with them. 

"Don't worry, don't be mad at yourself for what you've done. God has sent me here to preserve life."   

Do we agree with Joseph? Forgiveness is one thing, but attributing to God all actions, including such hurtful ones as done by Joseph's brothers, may be hard to accept. 

William Goldingay, in his Old Testament Theology, Israel's Gospel offers an explanation that is helpful to me:
God does not inspire the brothers to their immoral deed, but makes creative use of desires and acts that were self-serving or destructive.... The acts of God include human actions whose results can be made to further God's intentions in the world rather than working against them, p. 258.
Like other characters in Israel's story, Joseph is a human being with strengths and weaknesses, and God works through both of these--and not merely despite them, p. 281.
We read this story of the reconciliation of Joseph to the brothers who had, in their jealousy, tried to harm him. "God has brought this about. Bring everyone here where I can provide for them."

Centuries later, Joseph's ancestors will form a nation, split it in two, then succumb to defeat by Assyria and then Babylon. Those ancestors can remember Joseph's story when they themselves are in exile. God can turn this terrible thing into something good just as the terrible thing that happened to Joseph turned out to be a saving event for his family.

Even more centuries later, we can also remember Joseph's story of exile and delivery. And we can look in it for hope for our situations.

Matthew 14:13-36
Jesus took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to the crowds.

At the last supper with his disciples, "While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, 'Take, eat; this is my body.'" (Matthew 26:26).

The metaphorical interpretation of verse 19 as foreshadowing eucharist is not the only possible interpretation. We might read it as literally descriptive of what Jesus did that day, and, so, literally descriptive of what his disciples are called to do. Think about this verse at the next church supper you attend. Who's eating with you--only other church people or some hungry crowds?

The sea in the Scriptures is often a scary place, a place with sudden storms and hidden monsters. It often marks a border, a place of separation between us and them. Yet, it is a place under the control of the Lord.

Matthew tells us about the disciples, stuck in a boat during a storm. When Jesus came to rescue him, they didn't recognize him.

The disciples were alone in the boat during a storm--as the church of Matthew's time must have thought itself on occasion. They didn't recognize Jesus until he called out to them, "It is I." Many commentators consider this reassuring statement to be an allusion to the Scriptural name of the Lord, "I Am."

Peter tests Jesus, demands a miracle from him, "If you are who you say you are, command me to come to you on the water." Apparently Jesus' words have been enough to give Peter confidence because he can walk on the water. For a few steps. Then Peter notices once more what had been so frightening before--the wind. He falters, he can no longer do what he had just been able to do. He begins to sink.

Peter calls for help. Jesus gives it.

Sometimes, we can see God's presence; sometimes, not so much. Sometimes, we make a good beginning, but we fail to connect to it a good ending.

Sometimes we call for help.

Prayer for Today: Lord, instill within us the compassion that Jesus showed toward the sick and toward the hungry. Strengthen our confidence that we are able to trust you, that we are able to act out that trust in a faithful manner. Amen.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Reflections on readings for January 21

You have given me the shield of your salvation, 
and your right hand has supported me;
your help has made me great.
You gave me a wide place for my steps under me
(Psalm 18:35-36).

Genesis 42:18-43:34
Why is the father called by his original name Jacob in this passage until 43:11 when he is called Israel (32:18)?

Joseph and Benjamin eat separately from their brothers. The Egyptians don't eat with Hebrews. Who are our usual dining companions? Who is welcome or not welcome to eat with us at church? Who's welcome to share in Communion?

No mention of Simon. Aren't the brothers curious at all? Or, are they afraid to find out? Do they not trust Joseph? Should they?

Matthew 13:47-14:12
Jesus  describes the kingdom of heaven in three parables. The kingdom of heaven is like a valuable treasure that has been hidden. It's like a pearl worth all that one owns. It's like a net thrown into the sea that catches fish of every kind, good and bad.

When he asks the disciples if they have understand this teaching, they respond, "Yes."

I think I do, too. When Jesus is describing the Kingdom of Heaven, he's not restricting his discussion to an afterlife. He's talking about here and he's talking about now. Review the Lord's Prayer. Matthew was talking to people that would have been familiar with the Scriptures--what we call the Old Testament. So, they would have known that God provides food for people in the wilderness (See Exodus 16:13-35; Numbers 11:7-9, 31-32) and that God can feed a lot of people with only a small food supply (See 2 Kings 4:42-44). [Thanks to Allen & Williamson, Preaching the Gospels without Blaming the Jews.]

Of course, Jesus' disciples would have known those texts. Why did they think that they were incapable of feeding the crowds, that the only solution for hungry folks is to find their own food?

Well, we've read the same texts, and we've read Matthew's Gospel, as well. How much have things changed?

At the last supper with his disciples, "While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, 'Take, eat; this is my body.'" (Matthew 26:26). 

We remember these steps each time we participate in the Eucharist.  

If you want to know more about how United Methodists view this sacrament, read United Methodists and the Sacraments by Gayle Felton 

The metaphorical interpretation of verse 19 as foreshadowing eucharist is not the only possible interpretation. We might read it as literally descriptive of what Jesus did that day, and, so, literally descriptive of what his disciples are called to do. Think about this verse at the next church supper you attend. Who's eating with you--only other church people or some hungry crowds?.

Prayer for Today: Choose a prayer from the GBOD page discussing Communion

Monday, January 20, 2014

Reflections on readings for January 20

I love you, O Lord, my strength.
I call upon the Lord,
who is worthy to be praised (Psalm 18:1, 3a).

Genesis 41:17-42:17
Joseph, rejected by his brothers, sold as a slave, falsely accused and sent to prison, was able with God's help to interpret the dream of Pharaoh. Pharaoh was pleased with the interpretation and implemented Joseph's advice. Joseph was made governor,  a position of great authority, was given an Egyptian name and wife.

When Jacob learned that there was grain in Egypt, he sent his sons for help.

Contrast Joseph's early relationship with his brothers, his travels, his name change, and his meeting again with his brothers with Jacob's.

Matthew 13:24-46
The Lord God spoke to the exiles in Babylon. "You deserve every punishment; yet, I will forgive you. I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar, plant it on a high mountain so that it will produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind" (from Ezekiel 16:59-17:24).

Jesus tells a similar parable.
a small beginning, a great and very visible outcomea source of sustenancea promise of protection, a homeplace
Jesus left the crowds and went into the house. That's Matthew's way of saying that he's talking to those closest to him. he has, at their request, explained the parable of the weeds to them. His explanation ends with a ominous vision of what will happen when the weeds are plucked out of the kingdom.

In 13:24-30, Jesus is speaking to the crowd, telling them a parable. In 36-43, Jesus is speaking to his disciples, inside the house, responding to their request to explain the parable. Even those closest to Jesus don't immediately get everything he is saying. Being in the house enables a disciple to get closer to Jesus, that is, ask for explanation.

Jesus tells them about the furnace of fire. If we are accustomed to making distinctions between the OT God and the NT God, we need to remind ourselves of this passage and try to think where eternal punishment is mentioned in the OT.
The kingdom is on the earth.The evildoers will be taken away; the righteous will be left to shine like the sun.
Why is it helpful to us to know that the wicked will be punished?

They can't stay in the house. The field is in the world. Go to the official UMC website, and click on the tab Our People to see the following inclusionary list that describes what people of the United Methodist Church do:
Help people in their community. Accept you for who you are. Offer a place to belong. Care for and support each other. Show respect for other religions. Support people facing difficulty. Welcome diverse opinions and beliefs. Guide others to find deeper meaning.
As I read this list, I feel good about the Methodist Church. I want to be the kind of person that helps, accepts, cares for, supports, welcomes, and guides. Is anything on this list in conflict with the parable describing the kingdom of heaven in Matthew 13:24-30? When Matthew was telling the church not to get so upset about weeds, was he assuring the church of his time that God would pull the weeds? Or, was he aware that we might not be able to distinguish between good plants and bad ones? Or, is each of us a hybrid plant that needs to have the weed-part extracted from us?

When God rules your entire life, what would your life be like? If the church went about its affairs in the way that God intended for it to do, what would such a church be like? What would the lives of those touched by the church be like?

Prayer for today: Choose a prayer for Martin Luther King Day from the GBOD website.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Reflection on readings for January 19

Hear a just cause, O Lord;
attend to my cry;
give ear to my prayer from lips
   free of deceit (Psalm 17:1).

Genesis 39:1-41:16
The enslaved Joseph was taken to Egypt where he was sold to Potiphar, one of the Pharaoh's officers. We are told that the Lord was with Joseph, and things did go well with him for a while. He was promoted to be overseer of Potiphar's household. Unfortunately, when he refused the advances by Potiphar's wife, she accused him of rape. Joseph was sent to prison. Even there the Lord was with Joseph. He found great favor from the chief jailer.

Two of his fellow prisoners had dreams. When they complained that wasn't anyone to interpret them, But, with the help of God, Joseph was able to interpret the dreams of two of his fellow prisoners. One of them was released restored to his position as chief cupbearer of the Pharaoh. When Pharaoh had a dream, the cupbearer remembered Joseph's talent.

When Pharaoh asked Joseph to be the one to interpret his dream, he responded, "It is not I; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer."

Are we as likely to recognize God's presence in good times? in hard times?

Matthew 12:46-13:23
Chapter 9, Jesus heals a paralytic, someone who's mute, stops a woman's hemorrhages, and restores a synagogue leader's daughter to life. Chapter 10, Jesus gives instructions to his disciples: what to take and not to take on missionary journeys, persecutions that are coming, and rewards. Chapter 11, Jesus praises John the Baptist, reproaches the cities who have not repented, and gives thanks to the Lord, adding "Come to me, all you that are weary..."

Chapter 12, Jesus travels again, heals again and again, faces a confrontation with some scribes and Pharisees--and also his own family.

Adapted from Thomas G. Long's commentary on Matthew: The Gospel of Matthew alternates between action then teaching. Chapter 13 forms the third of five great teaching discourses. But this teaching has a different style from the previous ones--rather than speaking directly, e.g., "Do not judge, so that you may not be judged," Jesus uses parables.

In Chapter 12, Jesus had been inside a house, but now he goes outside. We can infer he has a larger audience. I'm imagining that the audience could be more diverse also--just thinking about who might feel comfortable coming inside somebody's home or who the homeowner might feel comfortable inviting in compared with who we are willing to be in the same crowd with.

And this is a big crowd--Jesus has to get in a boat so he can speak to all of them.

His parable begins, "A sower went out to sow." The sower isn't very careful about where he sows the seed. He scatters some on the path, some on rocky ground, some among thorns, and some, at least, on good soil. Jesus is not giving us agricultural instruction here. He's speaking about lavish distribution. He's talking about ignoring risk of loss--Some soil is not likely to nourish the seed, even really good seed.

But, even with allowing for a lot of lost seeds, this farmer has an abundant crop.

For this parable to work for us church people, we need to realize that we can't always tell what soil is on the path and which is rocky and where the thorns are. We just keep scattering that seed. Good soil is there, even if we don't recognize it right away.

John the Baptist hadn't been sure Jesus was the messiah. Religious authorities were pretty sure he wasn't. But, having seen what he could do, crowds flocked around him.

Prayer for Today: Choose a prayer from Joan Stott's website Timeless Psalms.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Reflections on the readings for January 18

Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge.
I say to the Lord, "You are my Lord;
I have no good apart from you." (Psalm 16:1-2)

Genesis 37:1-38:30
Jacob has returned home, is living where his father lived. In one way, he's living as his father lived: He has a favorite son. Isaac's favorite stayed home; the other son, Jacob, went into exile for decades.

The story changes as it repeats. In this generation, the father's favorite goes into exile.

Although Jacob is certainly aware of the consequences of intra-family jealousy, he seems to encourage it. After he has received a bad report about the brothers from Joseph, Jacob sends him out to see how they're doing and to report back to him. Joseph has a dream of being lord over his brothers. Not only does he dream it, he tells his brothers and father about it. His brothers hate him for his presumption; his father is not pleased, either. Yet, knowing what Joseph is thinking and saying, Jacob sends him to report on those brothers.

Knowing what Joseph is thinking and saying, the brothers decide to get rid of him. The first-born, Reuben, and the fourth-born, Judah, step in to stop the murder. Instead, they sell Joseph as a slave to some traveling Ishmaelites (hear the echo of the rivalry between Isaac and Ishmael?).

Judah left his brothers. He married a Canaanite woman who bore three sons. When the first son died, Judah told the second son that he had to marry his brother's widow. When this son died, Judah told his daughter-in-law Tamar to stay a widow. She tricked Judah into impregnating her. When her twins were born, the first one put out a hand but the other one came out first.

So, in another generation, we have tricks and twins.

Matthew 12:22-45
When Jesus cast out a demon from a man who was blind and mute, the man was able to see and speak. Although the crowds were pleased, the religious insiders definitely were not. They questioned the source of his authority. He told them to judge him by his results.

Jesus then has a teaching about unclean spirits. When they leave a person, they look for a new place to live. They may go back to the original place and bring along some other evil spirits with them. That's what is happening now. Thomas Long applies this teaching to every generation: 
The Christian life is not merely the absence of bad things; it is the presence of good things. The life of faith is not a vacant lot where sin used to be; it is an active neighborhood where justice, mercy, and peace live together (Matthew).

Psalm 16
The Wesley Study Bible describes Psalm 16 as a refugee's song. And certainly the Scriptures contain many stories of refugees--some voluntary but most involuntary. Think about what would be important to you if you lost your home or even your nation, if you had to leave behind so much of what had been familiar, what had seemed to be necessary. Then imagine praying this psalm.
Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge.
I say to the Lord, "You are my Lord;
I have no good apart from you." (1-2)
I've lost what I was used to, what I thought I had to have, but I still have what is really important.
I bless the Lord who gives me counsel;
in the night also my heart instructs me.
I keep the Lord always before me;
because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. (7-8)
I can still rely on God for guidance.
Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices;
my body also rests secure. (9)
I can give up reliance on the familiar or the false. I can rejoice that I can rely on the Lord.
You show me the path of life.
In your presence there is fulness of joy;
in your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (11)
Commentators suggest several settings for this psalm as well as nomads like Abraham and Moses or fugitives like Jacob or exiles like those transported by the Assyrians or Babylonians, or the to-be-King David after one of his escapes. For example, the psalm could express the relief of someone surviving a near-death experience. 

Prayer for Today: Choose a prayer from Joan Stott's website Timeless Psalms.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Reflection on readings for January 17

O Lord, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?

Genesis 35:1-36:43
After the slayings and plundering, God told Jacob to leave Shechem and to go to Behel, the place where he had built an altar when he was fleeing Esau's wrath. The move this time is a new start--they are to leave behind foreign gods, purify themselves, and change their clothes.

A question I don't know the answer to: Why is Rebekah's nurse mentioned? Where is Rebekah? The last we heard from her was in Ch 27 ( although she was mentioned as a relative in 28 and 29). We have no explicit statement that she ever saw her favorite son after he left home.

Matthew 12:1-21
The more things change....  Religious authorities were upset that Jesus healed somebody on the Sabbath. They prepared lunch. We moderns have become accustomed to fixing lunch or having someone prepare it for us, to go to ball games (or watch them on TV), or go shopping, and so on. We have become willing to ignore one of the ten commandments if it affects our pleasure. 

Two take-aways. First, the sabbath is intended as a gift. Second, don't use scripture to criticize people that you are mad at for some other reason.

Psalm 15:1-5
This psalm is given to us in the words of David but the concerns are ours as well. It begins with the question, "Lord, who is welcome in your house?"

The answer given:the one who lives without blame
who does what is right, who has never done wrong to anyone
who stands by his oath even if doing so hurts him
who has never lent money at interest
who has accepted a bribe.
I'm trying to imagine this list posted at the door of a church--or synagogue or mosque. How many of us would read that list and then go on in?

On the other hand, why is it so much easier for so many of us to imagine a quite different list of who should be allowed in our congregation? Furthermore, why is it so much easier for some of us Christians to think that our Jewish ancestors cared only about dietary restrictions?

Although I'm having a hard time imagining that anyone could live up to the requirements of Psalm 15 completely, I can recognize that I need to try. I need to live and speak in a way that does not harm those around me. I need to remember that any assets I am in possession of are being held by me in trust for the Lord. If I say I'll do something--and it's something I ought to do, then I should do it.

Prayer for Today: Choose a prayer from Joan Stott's website Timeless Psalms.