Thursday, July 18, 2013

Reflections on the Text – Luke 10:38-42:

Serving and Sitting?
This story of Mary and Martha appears only in the Gospel of Luke, but yet it is one of the most memorable stories in all of the Gospels.  While both Mary and Martha appear in the Gospel of John (along with their brother Lazarus) the John episodes are completely of a different character and intensity (the Raising of Lazarus, Martha’s confession and Mary’s anointing).  In Luke the story appears as a break in the action.  Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, he is teaching along the way in parables.  In chapter 10 immediately before this little episode Jesus has told the story of the Good Samaritan.  Following this episode Jesus will teach the disciples to pray, presenting the Lord’s Prayer and continue with more parables.  Here in these few verses at the end of chapter 10 Jesus, his disciples (and we the readers) get to take a break, enjoy some 1st century hospitality and have a meal (and remember in Luke Jesus is always eating a meal, and each meal has overtones of Holy Communion).
First, it is important to make a couple comments about the cultural context. When Jesus and the disciples show up at Martha and Mary’s house there was an expected protocol that would have been followed.  There was an expectation of hospitality and the burden for this fell mostly on the women of the family.  This includes washing feet, providing drink, a comfortable place to rest and preparing a meal.  There is no indication that there are servants to help and in Luke brother Lazarus does not appear, so if the home is that exclusively of Mary and Martha it would have been up to them to provide hospitality.  And Martha is not only doing this, but it appears that she is doing this very, very well.  She knows what she is supposed to do and she is doing it.  One can only imagine that she may have been a terrific cook and that this group of visitors were treated to a wonderfully relaxing afternoon and a delicious meal.
In the 1st century, the position of sitting at the feet of a teacher listening and learning was reserved for men.  What is remarkable about this particular story is that not only that Mary boldly and without reservation takes a place with the men at Jesus feet, but that Jesus approves. It may well be that not all of Jesus’ disciples approved but they were overruled and Jesus actually commends Mary and accepts her discipleship.
What Martha does next, however, is both interesting and surprising within the context of her time and place. She complains! To complain to a guest is a major breach of hospitality. One can only assume that within this group there was perhaps an openness that was unusual for the time.  The Gospel of John tells us in so many words that Jesus was very close to this family, and it must have been the case for Martha to feel like she could openly complain to Jesus.  Jesus response to Martha – often interpreted as a rebuke – focuses not on her work, or how good a job she is doing as a hostess, but it focuses completely on the complaint and on her being stressed out about Mary.
This passage has an interesting history in that at various times it has been used by different groups of Christians to justify, for example, the contemplative life over a life of action.  It has also, ironically, been used to justify excluding women from ministry on the basis that Jesus is condemning a women who are serving.  This of course within the context of the culture makes no sense.  In response to these objections it must be pointed out that, first, in Luke Jesus regularly calls women to be disciples and there are a number of them; and secondly, doing is a part of discipleship and in this passage Jesus does not condemn Martha’s doing or serving.  We might also note that in Acts – Book II of Luke/Acts - Luke spends a fair amount of time describing the establishment of a deaconate which is dedicated to serving, and the first martyr comes from this group – Stephen.  Additionally, in the parable that immediately precedes this story Jesus has finished it by commending his listeners to “go and DO likewise.”  No, doing or serving is not the issue.
I would suggest that we look carefully at Jesus’ words to Martha: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the GOOD part, which will not be taken away from her.”  The Greek word translated as “better” is actually the word for “Good.”  It makes a difference.  The word “better” suggest a comparison where one way is better than the other.  Jesus is saying Mary’s way is “good” but he is not saying Martha’s is bad!  So - is this then really a condemnation? Is it a rebuke?  I do not think so.  I think that we should look upon this response as a teaching in which Jesus makes two points: 1. He expresses compassion for Martha’s distraction and worry that raises her stress level.  And by naming an issue that is probably something that Martha, and many others, struggle with on a regular basis – namely the need to be busy and the need to always doing something which then prompts worry and distraction – Jesus is giving her permission to take a break and to lower the intensity.  It is as though Jesus is saying, “Martha, come sit with us for a moment – it’s ok! You deserve a little break, you are doing a wonderful job, but give yourself a moment to be refreshed!”
2nd – most important – Jesus is lifting up the importance of being grounded; of having a foundation.  If we are always doing, doing, doing but never take any time for rest, refreshment, never take any time to study and learn we will burn out!  The general activities that fill our lives, including our Christian service all need to be grounded in rest and refreshment – in prayer, in God’s Word and Sacrament.  We cannot just go, go go! We need to take time to study, to pray and to renew our relationships with Jesus and our family and friends.
We live in a very active society.  In fact, I would say we live in a world that is too active.  How many of us are on the go all of the time?  How many of our children are on the go all of the time? How many of us and our children are over-programed?  How many of us and our children need to be doing and going all the time = this activity to that sporting event to this activity then home to play video games, watch TV, do this, do that.  It is like a whirlpool which just gets faster and faster and sucks us down deeper and deeper.  Can we take time to stop for a moment? To refresh ourselves by sitting and reading the bible, praying, connecting with our family or sharing a meal together?  And not occasionally, but on a regular basis! 
I would again at this point lift up the Faith 5 system as a way to address the very real issues and concerns that Jesus raises in this text about us and our busy life-styles. There is no rebuke here – there is just pastoral concern and there is an invitation to us to look at ourselves honestly, take an inventory of our busyness and the health of our relationships and then to come, sit at the feet of the master – listen, pray and be refreshed!  Hear the Word; come share bread and wine at table and allow for time to reconnect with Jesus and others throughout the week.

The wonderful artwork at the top of the this post is titled "The African Mary & Martha" but I have no artist name; The work above is by HeQi - 
The title of the blog is adapted from a sermon by Luke Bouman - "Service or Sitting"

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Reflections on the text – Amos 7:7-17

Read the text here: Amos 7:7-17
Centered & Straight!
What is a prophet? There is a broad misconception that a prophet is someone who predicts the future. As we begin to enter into a series of wonderful texts from various prophets it is important for us to recognize that this is NOT what a prophet is.  Predicting the future, like some kind of fortune-teller, is simply not what the ancient Israelite prophets were about.  What is a prophet?
A prophet is a truth-teller; prophecy is telling the truth!
And the remarkable thing about ancient Israelite prophecy is that the truth-telling of prophets like Amos and Hosea and Micah is still as relevant and difficult to hear for us as it was for these prophet’s original audiences.
But there are instances where a prophet’s oracle contained a prediction that came to fulfillment.  Jeremiah is a great example of this, as is Amos who warns that ultimately the North will be destroyed – and the north eventually is destroyed.  But there is a distinction to be made between fortune-telling, that is simply predicting the future for the sake of predicting the future, and being able to see the consequences of a particular course of action.  And from that being able to deduce what may happen.  In the case of Jeremiah, the King, his court and religious advisors were desperate to appease the Babylonians and were going to great and extreme lengths to do so.  Jeremiah could see that it was simply not going to work, and that the King and nation was simply selling its soul in a futile effort to prevent the inevitable. And Jeremiah told the truth – he spoke up and said what he saw.
The same is true with Amos.  This prophet, who claims to be a non-prophet, can see clearly that in this time of economic boom the runaway materialism that had led to gross injustice and mass abject poverty would eat away at Israel like termites working on the foundation of a house until the nation would be destroyed and it would collapse in a heap of rubble.  According to Amos the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer and this was creating a dangerous unbalance that was destroying the spiritual health of the nation and would ultimately destroy the nation physically.  What was the problem then specifically? Well, not content with modest and honest success the wealthy and connected of Israel had hired lawyers to cheat smaller farmers out of their land and then they built mansions and threw wild parties.  The rich thus became super-rich and the majority of the population could not find work and became beggars, day laborers, servants and destitute.  Not only that but while the poor were starving in the streets they were being blamed for their own poverty while the rich filled the religious shrines to thank God for blessing them so abundantly.  To this Amos speaks a harsh word of condemnation: God rejects your worship because you have rejected and taken advantage of others.  You are sowing the seeds of your own destruction.
Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream. Amos 5:24.  This is at the heart of Amos’ message.  God is about justice and righteousness and we who claim to be believers and disciples of God through Christ have a responsibility to work for justice in the way we order our own lives and in doing what we can to reach out to others and demand justice and righteousness from our institutions.  And to be clear – Amos is talking about economic justice here.  In another very well known passage from chapter 7 Amos sees God with a plumb line, a carpenter’s tool to determine whether a structure is centered and straight.  God then uses this plumb line on God’s people and discovers they are off center and they are crooked and will eventually collapse in a heap of rubble.
This vision is followed by an exchange between Amos and the King’s top religious advisor, Amaziah.  During this exchange Amaziah orders Amos to stop bothering the King and the people saying, “for this is the King’s sanctuary, and it is the temple of the kingdom.”  Amaziah has unwittingly confirmed what God’s plumb line has shown – off center and crooked!  The sanctuary and the temple are not the King’s they are Yahweh’s!  But they have become the King’s and consequently they are no longer Yahweh’s because they are being used to enable the abusers to continue to abuse and to support the thieves and encourage them to keep stealing.  These religious structures are now being used by the rich and connected to pat themselves on the back and say, “aren’t we great!”  And Amos says – no, you are destroying yourselves!
If God applied the plumb line to us, what do you think he would find?  Are we centered?  Are we straight?  Do we live lives that reflect God’s grace, God’s love, God’s justice and God’s righteousness?  Or are we caught up in the materialism of our culture.  Are we guilty of putting money and stuff ahead of other human souls?  In what ways do we work to reach out to help and provide for others?  We are responsible for others.  This is one of the corner stones of our Judeo/Christian faith. Being a Christian isn’t all about ME – it is about US.  We have a responsibility to others – pure and simple.  I know this is not a popular viewpoint in our culture today.  But it wasn’t a popular viewpoint during Amos’ time either.  Amos calls us all to take a hard look at ourselves and our life styles and our relationships with others and our commitment to our faith, and make adjustments as required to prevent the termites from devouring our foundation and to keep the walls from falling.
And it is not just Amos.  In our Gospel lesson today we have the famous parable of the Good Samaritan.  This is not a feel good story.  It is a story that contains a profound and radical challenge!  Who is my neighbor? Well, just look around.  Your neighbors surround you and those who are the most different from you; those whose background and culture and race and religion and lifestyle are not only the most different from yours, but whom you also do not like or you find offensive – well - that is your neighbor!  Speaking to a Judean audience, Jesus didn’t choose a Samaritan as the hero of his story for nothing.  So who is your neighbor who is reaching out to you in need today? 
God’s love for God’s people of all times is beyond our comprehension.  It is all encompassing.  But God’s love also calls forth a response.  We are called to follow and to accept our responsibility to love, to care for, to work for justice and to do anything and everything we can to reach out to others.  This includes the giving of our resources, our time and our abilities – all of which have been given to us by God. “Go and do likewise,” says Jesus.  At the same time recognizing that God promises to remain engaged with us and to be present with us no matter what.
Questions for Reflection
How can we bear God’s fruit in the world? How can we live out the commandment to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves?

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Reflections on the text – II Kings, 5:1-17

Read the text of the story here: 2 Kings 5:1-17

A Story for Our Time
Namaan was a big deal! He was rich.  He was successful. He was important. He had a position.  He was the kind of guy that got what he wanted, when he wanted.  But Naaman was also sick.  He had a serious disease that threatened to take away everything he had in life.  Surely a man as important and as wealthy and as connected as Naaman could use that money and status and connections to do something about this disease. But there was nothing that he seemed to be able to buy or command that made any difference.  It wasn’t until a young Israelite slave-girl proposed a solution: a prophet in Samaria who has the power to heal.
Now let’s stop and consider this much of the story.  Here is this important and rich man, well connected and a successful field commander.  He is used to getting what he wants.  He is used to having other important and wealthy people do his bidding.  But here he is in a situation where, for perhaps, the 1st time in his life, his wealth and position and power and importance is irrelevant and can do nothing to help him with this situation.  Bear that in mind as the story progresses – for that point is not an easy one for Naaman to accept.  But here at the beginning we find that the only one who can offer any assistance at all is a young, foreign slave-girl.  And this is someone who is the lowest of the low = young, that is a child; foreign, that is actually someone who was captured and brought into the household as a spoil of war; slave, that is someone with no rights and no power and no possessions; girl, and on top of it she is a girl, which within the context of this time and place lowered her status even farther.  The contrast between Namaan and this child could not be more extreme.
So Namaan puts a plan into effect.  His King sends a letter to the King of Israel (the Northern Kingdom – probably Jehoram the son of King Ahab) demanding that the King heal his commander.  Of course we start with a letter from a King to a King.  It seems like that word about the “prophet in Samaria” has gotten lost.  The King of Aram doesn’t mention of it and it doesn’t seem to occur to the King Jehoram of Israel. This is yet another high stakes power game being played out on the international stage of (ancient) global politics. But the prophet, himself – Elisha – gets wind of the letter and Namaan’s predicament and sends a message to King Jehoram to send this important general to him. 
What a scene it must have been.  The great, wealthy and important military man moving in procession to the place of the prophet’s home.  But before they can go very far this procession is interrupted.  A messenger from the prophet arrives with a word from the prophet.  And this word stops the procession in its tracks.  No need to go any farther, the message says, just go on down to the Jordan River and wash yourself seven times in the river.  That’s it!
And this message infuriates Namaan.  Who does this prophet think he is anyhow?  Here is Namaan, a very important and wealthy man.  No one gives him orders.  There should have been a display of some kind.  Namaan was expecting the prophet to treat him with submission and awe, like everyone else; Namaan was expecting the prophet to put on a show, a spectacle of some sort.  But instead all he gets is an order to wash in a dirty, muddy river.  We might imagine that Namaan was beside himself with anger and indignation.  But again, his servants come to him and encourage him to give the prophet’s command a try.  He receives God’s blessing and he is healed.
In many ways this story is one for our own time. 1st - Like Namaan and the other characters we too put a high value on wealth, position, success and importance.  Like them, we also really and truly believe that all of those things can get us absolutely everything we need and want; and like the characters in the story we too are guilty of expecting that others should bow to those things and those who possess them with deference and submission.  We think we are entitled – that is the word.  But this story lets us know that God is not impressed with wealth, position, success and importance; God, in fact, knocks the supports right out from under all of those things in the way the slave-girl and then the prophet relate to Namaan.  What is important to God, according to this story?  Humility, openness and faith!
2nd – In this story all of the “important” people seem to both presume and value self-sufficiency.  Namaan is used to getting whatever he wants when he wants, and he expects everyone to submit to his desires.  The King of Aram seems to think that his power gives him the right to order his fellow (and lately defeated) King Jehoram to do what he thinks needs to be done.  And for his part it seems that it never occurs to King Jehoram of Israel to consider dealing with this situation by looking outside of himself for help.  These characters are the quintessential rugged individualists! And this sense of rugged individuality, this assumption of self-sufficiency is completely rejected by God in this story.  Only by being willing and open enough to receive advice and help from others is Namaan able to find healing.  If he had continued to rely on himself he would never have accepted the gift of grace and healing which was being offered to him.  And it is worth pointing out again that these others were not equals – they were servants, slaves and a prophet – people who had little to no value in this culture.  And that is how God worked then and continues to work now.
3rd and last – God not only works through others, but through unusual and unexpected means – specifically in this story: the River Jordan.  While it is true that the river was a little bit more substantial in ancient times, it still was never much of a river except at the headwaters.  In many places the River Jordan was more of a creek.  Sometimes it would dry out completely, sometimes it seemed like it was standing water.  But at all times, especially downriver, it was dirty and muddy.  This river, such as it was, was a part of the every day life of the people who lived near it.  They washed in it, they brought animals to drink, they used the river for all kinds of ordinary things – some of which we would no longer permit today.  And for a river that was more of a creek, some of this could be, well… let’s just say I can understand why Namaan might have been reluctant to bathe in this river.  But God takes the common and the ordinary; God uses that which interacts with human life in a mundane way and brings life from it; God provides healing and blessing not in a spectacular way, using the purified and sanitary water that might have been obtained elsewhere.  No, God provides life, healing and wholeness; God blesses in the midst of the ordinary, the dirty and even in spite of sinful resistance.
This story of General Namaan is really a story for us and for our time.  We who too often put so much value on power and wealth and position; we who prize our rugged individualism and our self-sufficiency; we who think that God’s blessings come only in spectacular ways coerced by “good” and “right” attitudes and behavior.  This story teaches us that in fact – God doesn’t care about power and wealth and instead empowers the powerless and the voiceless to encourage faith and humility; that we are called to be a part of a community and that God works through community.  That individualism can actually hinder and subvert our relationship with God because we experience God through community.  And God works through the ordinary stuff of our lives – water, bread, wine, friendship and love - to shower us with unexpected and unconditional blessings.  And God’s blessings upon us individually, as a church community and as a nation are not dependent on our holding the “right” or “holy” attitudes and positions, and not even dependent on our being “good.”  But God’s blessings are showered upon us unconditionally on the basis only of God’s grace.  Thanks be to God!