Wednesday, 15 October 2014

A whole that reaches beyond the self.

Lectionary texts for Oct. 19, 2014. Isaiah 45:1-7, Psalm 96:1-9, Matt. 22:15-22, 1 Thess. 1:1-10

Identity is a big deal. We all want to "be someone", "find ourselves", "know who we are." While personal identity has always been important, in the information age personal identity is something with which we are almost manically obsessed. Privacy laws proliferate in a society in which we have less privacy than ever before. (Examples: ad agencies know so much about each of us from multiple electronic sources that they can personalize and target ads for individuals. Poor choices, whether in photos or words, posted online can become international public property within minutes of being posted.)

Even with all the concerns, however, people are posting, you-tubing, facebooking, tweeting....putting themselves out on display, branding themselves as special individuals. The balance between healthy and harmful in this self-expression is precarious. People are willing to chance the harm because the drive to "be someone" and identify themselves somehow is so very strong. We all want to belong somewhere, to be important, to matter. Why, though, are we so fixated on ourselves?

In 1 Thessalonians, an identity has formed too-but it isn't all about an individual, it's about the whole church community. That identity hasn't been "creatively" constructed with bits of information. It has formed as a result of the communities actions. They have become known as a group of joyful believers, dedicated to serving God even in the face of difficulty. They are individuals (with, I'm sure, the healthy and the problematic personalities all part of the community) but they are known as a group.

Surrounded, as we are, by an obsession with glorifying the individual, I am intrigued by this communal identity. What kind of "identity" do churches have today? Do we as individuals concern ourselves with how our actions and words reflect on the whole or are we a "me first" kind of people? Are we simply collections of self-interested individuals, or do we understand ourselves as part of a larger identity-a whole that reaches beyond the self?

In the Matthew story, where Jesus says; "give to the emperor what is the emperor's and to God what is God's", he is forces his listeners to think about who they belong to. The biggest piece of their identity isn't some individual trait or talent, but who they see themselves as belonging to.

Who do you belong to? When we can answer that question, perhaps we are at least part way to understanding who we are.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Rotten Tomatoes and Thankfulness

Thanksgiving 2014 Lectionary Passages. Isaiah 25:1-9, Psalm 23, Philippians 4:1-9, Matthew 22:1-14

It's the time of year when going into our cold storage room makes me happy. Jars of bright orange peaches, red jellies, and green pickles line the shelves. Boxes full of crisp and fresh carrots, potatoes, and onions are stacked in the corners. I am so thankful to have this good food and there is a sense of satisfaction in seeing the harvest, the good work of the earth and our hands, ready to sustain us through the winter.

There are also flat boxes of green tomatoes slowly ripening on the floor awaiting their turn in my canner.

All it took for that "happy" to change one day was one rotten tomato. The whole storage room stank, souring my mood and sending me into a search for the culprit. It had oozed it's foul innards onto the cardboard box. The good tomatoes all had to be moved and the rotten one and the box thrown out.

I thought of that tomato when I read Philippians. Paul is pleading with two people in the church to find a way to get along. He asks others to help them. I wonder if their dispute is "rotten tomatoing" the whole group and souring the collective mood. He goes on to remind the church of what else is on the 'shelves.' "Rejoice in the Lord always" he says. Address the issue with prayer and petition, with thanksgiving.

The word thanksgiving is key. There is so very much good surrounding us, that thanksgiving should always be the foundation from which a problem is approached. One rotten tomato smells overwhelming, but it really isn't as big a stink as it seems. It doesn't remain so powerful for long if it is dealt with. If however, it remains and touches other tomatoes, the rot spreads. On the other hand, if a tomato is ripening well, it is good to have it with the green ones, because it gives off the right kind of smells to encourage ripening in them.

Paul urges the people not to focus on the rot, but on the true, the right, the noble, the pure, the lovely, the admirable. If anything is excellent or praiseworthy-that is where the majority of energy needs to go.

When I step into a smelly cold room, I need to deal with the issue, but I need not be overwhelmed by it. There is too much to be thankful for! I can work with the problem, but it's the places where things are ripening well that should be what really is allowed to affect me.

Of course, Paul isn't advising a neglect of issues, just encouraging and reminding the people that they've got more to be thankful for than they do to complain about. When we have thankful hearts and joyful spirits, we have the energy to clean up what needs attention and we can still grow in joy.

I like the Isaiah passage for it's exuberant thankfulness to a God who is a refuge for the poor, and who promises to remove the shroud of despair and death from all peoples. I don't like that verses 10-12 are eliminated from the reading. They are probably left out because they are darker, speaking of judgement that will come down on the oppressors. Unappetizing stuff, the bad tomato. We don't naturally tend to ever associate ourselves with that group, we lump ourselves in with those who receive the soothing message of comfort and hope. But what if we are the rotten tomato? What if it is our lifestyles, and attitudes, and treatment of others puts us into the category of the Moabites?

We need to hear these words of judgement with humility, carefully thinking about how our words and actions affect the growth and health of those around us.

If we can cultivate an attitude of thankfulness and let our gentleness be seen, in prayer and petition, God's peace will guard our hearts and thankfulness will be the foundation from which we will share with others.