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You will be. You will be

Inclusivity Devotional for October 17, 2021

This devotion was published first in the IGRC for Unity weekly email. IGRC for Unity is a group of Illinois United Methodists who have rejected the Traditional Plan for the United Methodist Church and are working to create a United Methodist Church that is truly open to all. These devotionals will be taken from a text from the Revised Common Lectionary, and will often have a theme of inclusion and welcome.

Revised Common Lectionary Reading: Mark 10:35-45

This passage always reminds me of the movie Empire Strikes Back. In a scene inside Yoda’s hut, he and Luke Skywalker are debating if he should train young Luke as a Jedi. Yoda sees Luke’s impetuousness and immaturity. He sees the anger in young Luke and decides not to train him as a Jedi. Luke is hot-headed and impatient. He wants to be a Jedi. He wants to fight like his father. He wants to be a hero and overthrow the Empire. Yoda wonders, “Will he finish what he starts?” Pleading with Yoda he says, “I won’t fail you. I’m not afraid.” Yoda looks at him ominously and says, “You will be,” and repeats, “You will be.”

John and James come to Jesus and ask, “Allow one of us to sit on your right and the other on your left when you enter your glory.” He asks them “Will you drink the cup I drink?” They respond, “We can.” Ominously, Jesus answers, “You will drink the cup.”

They ask to sit at Jesus’ right and left. These are places of honor. They are looking ahead to the victory. They are looking ahead to the time when Jesus will reign. They see themselves as riding shotgun and basking in Jesus’ glory. What they don’t understand is that at the height of Jesus’ glory, the ones at his right and his left will be hanging on crosses just like Jesus.

The Revised Common Lectionary suggests for us to start this reading at verse 35, but to get the full context we would be well-served to start where we left off last week – at verse 32. By going back to verse 32 we see that Jesus and a crowd were “going up to Jerusalem.” The response is a mix of awe and fear, so Jesus takes the Twelve aside and reminds them (for the third time in two chapters) that in Jerusalem he will die an ignominious death before being raised up.

When the other ten hear what James and John asked, they get angry. The funny thing is, I don’t they are angry that they asked the question. I think they are angry that James and John asked it first. None of them truly understand at this point what ambition looks like in the Kingdom. Christian ambition is a tricky thing. Aren’t we all supposed to be striving for greatness?

Jesus redefines greatness. The twelve are still operating in the system that judges greatness by how many people serve you. For Jesus, greatness is defined by who many people you serve. It is not measured by rank or status. Greatness is not marked on attendance pads, church budgets, charge conference forms, or plum appointments. Greatness is earned with kindness, generosity, and service. It is seldom rewarded in the ways we expect, or even desire.

Like John and James, we may be eager for the glory. Like Luke (Skywalker, not the apostle), we may be eager to be heroes and run off and fight the evil Empire. It is good to consider just what that means. “I’m not afraid,” you may be saying. “You will be,” comes the ominous response.

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Wisdom shouts

This devotion was published first in the IGRC for Unity weekly email. IGRC for Unity is a group of Illinois United Methodists who have rejected the Traditional Plan for the United Methodist Church and are working to create a United Methodist Church that is truly open to all. These devotionals will be taken from a text from the Revised Common Lectionary, and will often have a theme of inclusion and welcome.

The Revised Common Lectionary reading for September 12, 2021

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Container_Ship_%27Ever_Given%27_stuck_in_the_Suez_Canal,Egypt-_March_24th,_2021_cropped.jpg

Gospel Reading: James 3:1-12 and Proverbs 1:20-33

When the author of James wrote, “Consider ships: They are so large that strong winds are needed to drive them. But pilots direct their ships wherever they want with a little rudder. In the same way, even though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts wildly,” there is no way that he could have envisioned what happened near his homeland in March 2020. In the early days of a global pandemic and mass shutdown, the enormous ship Ever Given, roughly the same size as the Empire State Building, got wedged in the Suez Canal, devastating global trade. The eyes of the world watched with great anxiety as the ship blocked traffic for six days in one of the most important waterways in the world.

In the case of the Ever Given, the rudder was not enough to keep the winds at bay. The ship got turned in a way the pilot could not avoid and the result was an economic disaster. While the Ever Given’s rudder was not enough, the point is still made: The tongue is powerful. Words matter.

We live in a world full of talking. The cacophony of 24-hour news, click-bait articles, pithy memes, social media ‘researchers’, talking heads on TV, and political maneuvering, feels as if we are surrounded by fire. Foolish words are doing real damage, and as the song of Wisdom declares in this week’s reading from Proverbs, “Wisdom shouts in the street; in the public square she raises her voice. Above the noisy crowd, she calls out.” And yet it feels as if no one is listening.

Last week I shared an image with different petri dishes, each showing the growth of bacteria after breathing, coughing, and singing into the dish with and without a mask. I felt is a was a graphic representation of the wisdom of modern science. I believed it showed perfectly why masks were important, and that no one would be able to argue such a graphic and clear illustration.

As soon as I shared it though, I regretted it. Even as the likes start to count upward, I realized something. People are going to like the image or not like the image, but no one is going to gain anything from it. I was not sharing wisdom. I was sharing my perspective and making it clear that anyone who disagreed with me should feel ashamed for doing so. I deleted the post.

Was this a small step in “taming my tongue”? Maybe. I decided that it was more important to share compassion and kindness. Social media has created a world in which throwing matches on fires is easy. In fact, it is rewarded with little hits of dopamine called “likes.” There is little doubt in my mind that the comments sections have been set ablaze by the fires of hell. Intentionally rigged to fan the flames.

I cannot expect to bear good fruit on the vine of a rotten plant. Instead, I will try to cultivate true relationships. I will share kind words in hopes that wisdom can be heard above the noise. As the world seems to dig deeper trenches and divide along clear lines of demarcation, I will recognize my own tendency to bless God in one moment while cursing God’s image with the same mouth. Like James said, it shouldn’t be this way. I hope a voice of change can start with me.

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Tamar and Simone

This devotion was published first in the IGRC for Unity weekly email. IGRC for Unity is a group of Illinois United Methodists who have rejected the Traditional Plan for the United Methodist Church and are working to create a United Methodist Church that is truly open to all. These devotionals will be taken from a text from the Revised Common Lectionary, and will often have a theme of inclusion and welcome.

The Rape of Tamar, by Estache Le Sueur, wikimedia.

First Reading of the RCL for August 8, 2021

 2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33 The death of Absalom (who started a war with David because David did nothing to punish Absalom’s brother who raped their sister Tamar).

I played team sports my whole life. Baseball, football, and basketball were my great passions as a kid. Even as an adult I’ve played semi-pro football and church league softball. Now as a parent I coach as often as possible – helping out with my daughters’ softball teams. I think this is why my first reaction to Simone Biles withdrawing from the team gymnastics competition was overwhelmingly negative.

In the immediate aftermath of hearing that she withdrew because of mental health considerations, I was frustrated. I was disappointed that she wouldn’t compete. I was mostly angry on behalf of her teammates. “She let them down,” I said to no one in particular. “They are supposed to be a team. They are supposed to pick each other up.”

My righteous indignation was raised on behalf of three women I had never met. “Michael Jordan never quit on his team,” I thought. “Tom Brady played through injury!” Then I saw a meme that reminded me of Kerri Strug, the gymnast who clinched Team USA’s gold in in 1996 landing a fantastic vault despite having an injured leg. At first, I thought Kerri was the true champion, and Simone had shown weakness.

Then I thought some more.

While I do not want to take anything away from Kerri Strug, I want to recognize something that we should have known then. She should not have vaulted on an injured leg. Strug was a part of a system and a culture that treated the women on the team as commodities that could be traded, replaced, and whose only value was reflected in the scores they achieved.

Since 1996, “many fellow gymnasts who endured the rigors of coaches Bela and Marta Karolyi’s ranch believed Strug was conditioned to push through her pain under an abusive environment where girls were afraid to challenge authority.” (Holly Ford, https://www.nbcphiladelphia.com/news/sports/tokyo-summer-olympics/1996-olympic-gymnast-kerri-strug-praises-simone-biles-decision/2900065/). Strug, Dominique Moceanu, and Mckayla Maroney are just three former gymnasts who have come out in support of Biles.

They were all a part of a system that compelled women to lose their autonomy, erase their dignity, and submit to the desires of more powerful people – often men. It was a culture that devalued questions and demanded obedience – or the girls would be replaced. It was a culture that produced gold medals, and it was a culture that allowed for emotional, physical, and sexual abuse.

Simone Biles survived abuse. She has stated that she returned to Olympic competition in part so that her voice as an abuse survivor would not be silenced. She wanted to hold USA Gymnastics to the fire and not go away quietly. Her platform as the greatest gymnast of all time gave her a power that no other gymnast has had.

Simone Biles became famous for doing athletic feats that no other gymnast has done before. She has four moves named after. She altered scoring systems, and now she has altered cultural systems. By withdrawing, she did something no other gymnast has done before. She stood up for herself. She stood up for the hundreds, maybe thousands of girls who were abused by powerful coaches, trainers, and doctors. She stood up and claimed her own autonomy, not for the glory of USA Gymnastics – a group that helped create a culture of abuse – but for her own self-care.

As I watched the events unfold – tape delayed on NBC – I saw the faces of her teammates turn from shock and disappointment to fierce determination and I realized that Simone Biles owed me nothing. She is a champion in the truest sense of the word. She championed for those little girls in gyms across the country who are pushed too far. She championed for those who suffer from mental health in silence for fear of being mocked or belittled. She is a champion – no matter what color medal hangs around her neck.

And what does any of this have to do with the Biblical texts this week? Very little, unless you read the story between this week and last week in 2 Samuel. The lectionary skips from 2 Samuel chapter 12 – in which David rapes Bathsheba and skips to chapter 18 and the death of his David’s son Absalom. Skipped is a civil war between David and Absalom. Also skipped is the rape of Tamar, David’s daughter.

While the Biblical text is ambiguous about Bathsheba’s rape (Biblical authors did not have the same concept of power dynamics), Tamar’s rape is explicit. She is raped by her half-brother Amnon. It is a violent exchange. She pleads with him – first not to rape her – and then not to discard her. Amnon’s actions are vile. When Absalom finds out, he tells her to be quiet. David does nothing to Amnon “for he loved him like a first born son.”

Tamar – much like dozens of American gymnasts before Simone Biles – was silenced. Yet her actions stood defiantly against her rapist. Wilda Gafney writes, “Tamar proclaims it publicly so that it may be Amnon’s shame and ultimately his death sentence. But she will have to wait years to see justice done. Tamar rips open her royal dress just as her body was ripped open, using that sartorial wound to make visible her vaginal wounds and those of her soul. She cries, not silent tears but a cry loud as the cries heard in battle, the cries of women in labor, and the cries of desperate people to their God. Tamar’s cry holds Amnon accountable – even when their father does not.” (Gafney, Womanist Midrash, Westminster John Knox Press, 2017; p. 215)

Life is messy. It is not always easy to draw easy lines of cause and effect. “Everything happens for a reason” is seldom a helpful way of understanding God. Why did Absalom die? Was it because of Joab’s ruthlessness, David’s ineffective leadership, Amnon’s lust… How far back do we go? Is it because of David’s lust after Bathsheba? Was it because David himself rose to power because of killing Goliath? How far back do we go? 

Did Simone Biles quit on her team or did she reclaim her agency? Did she crack under the pressure or did she stand up and champion those who are all-too-often silenced? Tamar was silenced, but Amnon and Absalom were ultimately silenced too. David’s kingdom crumbled, yet God’s love is steadfast and endures forever. For the orphan, the widow, and the alien, for Tamar, and for Simone, God’s love endures forever.

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David and Bathsheba

This devotion was published first in the IGRC for Unity weekly email. IGRC for Unity is a group of Illinois United Methodists who have rejected the Traditional Plan for the United Methodist Church and are working to create a United Methodist Church that is truly open to all. These devotionals will be taken from a text from the Revised Common Lectionary, and will often have a theme of inclusion and welcome.


Lectionary First Reading: 2 Samuel 11:26-12:15 (The Rape of Bathsheba)

Bethsabée *oil on canvas *60.5 x 100 cm *signed b.l.: J.L.GEROME *1889

Our first reading this week is the second part of the sad saga of David and Bathsheba. It is fraught with problems and triggers that can do harm to victims of sexual abuse, domestic violence, and parents who have suffered from infant death or miscarriage. There is little good news in this story, but perhaps it is a chance to undo some damage that preachers and interpreters have done over the centuries. Bathsheba is perhaps the greatest victim of “victim-blaming” in history, and the one shining light from this text makes this clear.  

The Common English Bible puts it bluntly: “But what David had done was evil in the Lord’s eyes” (2 Samuel 11:27b, CEB). At no point in the text is Bathsheba blamed. Generations of interpreters have read consent into Bathsheba’s actions. A blog post from the site womeninscripture.com says, “David did not rape Bathsheba, as evidenced by his subsequent actions. He vehemently loved her.” The idea that David’s love for Bathsheba exempts him from raping her is appalling.  

Womanist scholar Wilda Gafney has a different reading of the situation: “To come when beckoned by the king does not imply consent. I argue that Bathsheba’s going with David’s soldiers on her own two feet should in no way be read as consent, but rather as holding on to a shred of dignity by not being dragged or carried out… Rape is an abuse of power that can include relational and positional power, in addition to physical power. The power dynamic is clear: David uses the power and authority of his office to wield lethal violence to keep her. He sees her, sends for her, and has sex with her without her consent. He rapes her. In the subsequent narrative [this week’s text], Nathan and God treat David as a rapist by condemning him but not imputing sin to Bathsheba as a complicit, consenting person. Their treatment of her is consistent with the treatment of women who are raped in the Torah statues” (Gafney, Womanist Midrash, Westminster John Knox Press, 2017; p. 215)  

God’s judgment is upon David. Unfortunately, the punishment of David is laid down at the feet of his children and his family. The fact that David’s children – especially the child in Bathsheba’s womb – would be punished for David’s sin is disturbing. Especially to those who have suffered from infertility, infant death, or miscarriage, this does not feel like justice.  

If, however, you read more into the story of David’s life, you may see something else is revealed. David spent his life treating women as pawns. He used, manipulated, and discarded women as was politically expedient. David set up a household built on violence against women, and violence against women lived on in his line. The narrative reveals that David’s children were torn apart by rape, vengeance, murder, and rivalry. His kingdom, while going to Solomon, crumbles soon thereafter. A student of family systems, generational trauma, and domestic violence might recognize that the patterns David set up in his own family continued. And while I do not believe that this was God punishing David for his sin, the trouble in David’s children’s lives does feel as if it is the fruit of David’s actions.  

So, where is the good news in this story? I do not think there is good news in this text. The good news is left for today’s interpreters, preachers, and commentators to see the story for what it is: a cautionary tale that has tragic consequences for all involved. Instead of ignoring Bathsheba (or worse, blaming her), perhaps we can give her a voice. We can give voice to the millions of women who have been victim to violence. We can speak against the power dynamics, misguided understandings of love (I’m looking at you, author at womeninscripture.com), and toxic masculinity that allows for men in power to thrive in their abuse.  

In the end, David found grace and forgiveness, but he was also held accountable. His actions, while forgiven by God, also had dire consequences. We who follow Christ know that Jesus came from David’s line. David’s earthly kingdom split quickly and disintegrated in time. Jesus’ Kingdom, unlike David’s, is not built on violence. It is built on the dignity of all people. It is built on love and compassion. It is built upon the things that first helped David rise to power – faith, hope, and a good shepherd’s care for others.

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Inclusivity Devotional 4 (Luke 21:5-19)

This devotion was published first in the IGRC for Unity weekly email. As the Communications Director for IGRC for Unity, I compose a weekly email with news, resources, and reflections. IGRC for Unity is a group of Illinois United Methodists who have rejected the Traditional Plan for the United Methodist Church and are working to create a United Methodist Church that is truly open to all. These devotionals will be taken from a text from the Revised Common Lectionary, and will often have a theme of inclusion and welcome.
   The Gospel reading for November 17 in the Revised Common Lectionary is Luke 21:5-19. This is one of those weeks where the lectionary, and most of the subtitles of modern printed Bibles, do a disservice to the text. Many Bibles separate verses 1-4 from the story we have for today, which is a huge mistake. In fact, to truly see this passage and its power, the reader should go back to at least 20:45.
   But first, let’s look at the passage the lectionary gives us. In verses 5-19 Jesus predicts not only the Temple’s fate, which is disastrous, but also predicts the coming troubles for those who follow him. Verse 5 opens with people talking about the beauty of the Temple. Jesus responds that this beautiful structure will all come crashing down. What’s more, in the coming days things are going to get worse. He reminds his followers that remaining faithful to him will come at great cost. Many of the things Jesus mentions, earthquakes, famine, and epidemics were not altogether uncommon. These things however, were often interpreted as signs of God’s punishing judgment. Instead, Jesus is reminding them that even in the midst of trial, God’s plan is still unfolding. The disasters are not a sign of God’s wrath, but instead should serve as reminder’s of Jesus’ predictions. The disciples could take comfort in the midst of disaster knowing that their God is still with them.
   Of course, the destruction of the Temple did occur some 40 years later. It is difficult to overstate the trauma of this event, even to the early Christian church. Instead of seeing it as a disaster though, followers of Christ were called to see even this devastation as a sign that God was working in the world – not causing the destruction, but working even through such destruction to bring God’s Kingdom.
   Now, let’s get back to verses 1-4. This is known as “the widow’s offering.” Jesus saw a widow give the last of what she had to the Temple. In the very next scene, the people are marveling at its beauty. Jesus did not see its beauty – although it was quite magnificent. Instead, he only saw an institution that was taking a widow’s last coins. The beauty of the outside of the institution did not match the fruit that it was bearing. Instead of being a place where people were inspired to care for the widow, the orphan, and the alien, it was a place where marginalized were pushed farther away. In the verses immediately before the widow’s offering, Jesus warned against those who “cheat widows out of their homes, and to show off they say long prayers.”
   The widow’s offering and the beauty of the Temple served as a perfect object lesson for Jesus, and it should serve as a timely warning for us in the grand temples of Methodism today. We live in an institution that has appeared to have a beautiful facade. It is the second largest Protestant denomination in the United States. There are great cathedrals in our cities, first churches in our towns, General Boards and Agencies that wield power and influence. The Cross and the Flame is indeed a beautiful ornament dedicated to God. Perhaps on the inside though, something has been ill. Does the fruit of exclusion match the fruit that Christ calls us to bear?
   Jesus’ prediction against the Temple came on the heels of witnessing first hand the “devouring of widow’s homes.” What would he say about the Church who continues to marginalize and do harm to our LGBTQ siblings?

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Inclusivity Devotional 3 (Haggai 1:15; 2:1-9)

This is my weekly devotional, based on the Revised Common Lectionary, with a theme of inclusion. I started this exercise as a part of the IGRC For Unity newsletter. IGRC for United is a group of centrist and progressive United Methodists who have rejected the Traditional Plan (and its punitive exclusion of LGBTQ people and those who support them), and are working for a United Methodist Church that is truly for all.

One of the readings in the Revised Common Lectionary is from Haggai. This is one of the “Table of Contents” books of the Bible. If I had an actual printed Bible, I would be turning to the table of contents to find it. I know its somewhere near the back of the Hebrew Bible, but its short and easy to flip past. It’s safe to say that the pages of this prophet are not well-worn. This does not mean it’s not worth reading.

Like any of the prophets, Haggai’s historical context is important; and unlike some prophets, it Haggai’s context is remarkably clear. “The second year of King Darius” can be translated to August of 520 BCE. Darius was “noted for his administrative genius and for his great building projects” (Encyclopedia Britannica). Cyrus the Great officially ended the Jewish exile in 538 BCE, 18 years before Haggai. The people were trying to rebuild the Temple, but it was not going well. There were some who considered it of secondary concern. Some were conflicted over how it should get done.

Haggai came to try to set the people on the course of rebuilding. He saw the construction of the Temple as an essential part of their relationship with God, and the people were too busy on their own pet projects to get to work on what mattered. There were some that thought that building something new wasn’t worth the trouble because there was no way that they could recreate what had come before.

Rebuilding is not about re-creating what came before. Pining for the “good old days,” while neglecting what needs to be done now is the most toxic impulse connected to nostalgia. If the Church is to be in the business of renewal and revival, it should not be trying to recreate the 1950’s. We are to seek a relationship with the living God. We are not called to build a museum to what things used to be.

In this passage, God promises restoration and salvation. The promises are rooted in how God has saved in the past, but this does not mean God is doing the same thing as before. God saved and will save again. We are to do our part, rebuilding our hearts, rebuilding our communities, and yes, rebuilding our churches – not in the image of what was before, but in the image of God who creates all, redeems all, and sustains all.

 

 

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Inclusivity Devotional 1 (Luke 18:9-14)

This devotion was published first in the IGRC for Unity weekly email. As the Communications Director for IGRC for Unity, I compose a weekly email with news, resources, and reflections. IGRC for Unity is a group of Illinois United Methodists who have rejected the Traditional Plan for the United Methodist Church and are working to create a United Methodist Church that is truly open to all. These devotionals will be taken from a text from the Revised Common Lectionary, and will often have a theme of inclusion and welcome.
The lectionary texts for October 27 include Luke 18:9-14. This is Jesus’ parable about two people praying: the Pharisee and the tax collector. Jesus told this story about two people praying to a group who “convinced themselves that they were righteous and who looked on everyone else with disgust” (Luke 18:9 Common English Bible).
The prayers of these two are vastly different, but in one important way they are alike. They are both praying the Psalms. The Pharisee is praying Psalm 17:3-5 “If you try my heart, if you visit me by night, if you test me, you will find no wickedness in me; my mouth does not transgress…” The tax collector is praying Psalm 51:1 “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy…”
The mistake the Pharisee makes is when he compares himself to the other. He creates a hierarchy, placing himself above the tax collector. Jesus’ Kingdom is not about hierarchy. It is not about social strata, or placing one above the other. Like Mary had sung in the beginning of the Gospel “He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed.” (Luke 1:52-53)
Like most parables, we are invited to see ourselves in these characters. It is easy to see yourself as the tax collector and others as the Pharisee. The surprising thing is though, that while the tax collector is “justified,” the Pharisee is not condemned by Jesus. The high is brought low, but not cast out. We must be careful in these divisive times, realizing that both progressives and conservatives can fall into the trap of the Pharisee:
  • Thank God I am not that godless, politically correct, unrealistic liberal…
  • Thank God I am not that close-minded, judgmental conservative…
Instead, focus our prayers on our own shortcomings, our own sin, our own celebrations, triumphs, and victories. This does not mean we ignore others, but we never place ourselves above others. God does not pick and choose. God welcomes and loves all.
PRAYER: O God, show mercy to us, sinners all. Forgive us for missing the mark of your love. Forgive us for the times we have looked upon others with scorn, disgust, or apathy. Help us to see others as fellow pilgrims to be encouraged, not as sinners to be condemned. Empower us to be righteous without being self-righteous. Strengthen us in our weakness, and help us to see all humanity as beloved and created in your image. In the name of Jesus we pray, Amen.

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