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Monday, December 21, 2015

January 6, 2016, Epiphany C

Quotes That Make Me Think

"The story of the magi foreshadows later developments in Matthew's narrative. Even in infancy Jesus inspires both worship and hostility, responses that are repeated throughout the story."

Commentary, Matthew 2:1-12, Mark Allan Powell, Preaching This Week,, 2008.

The narrative of Epiphany is the story of these two human communities: Jerusalem, with its great pretensions, and Bethlehem, with its modest promises. We can choose a "return to normalcy" in a triumphalist mode, a life of self-sufficiency that contains within it its own seeds of destruction. Or we can choose an alternative that comes in innocence and a hope that confounds our usual pretensions. We can receive life given in vulnerability. It is amazing -- the true accent of epiphany -- that the wise men do not resist this alternative but go on to the village. Rather than hesitate or resist, they reorganize their wealth and learning, and reorient themselves and their lives around a baby with no credentials.

"Off By Nine Miles," Walter Brueggemann, The Christian Century, 2001.

General Resources for Sunday's Lessons

This week I am including for my prayer before preaching one of my favorite hymns: Brightest and Best of the Stars of the Morning by Reginald Heber (118 in the 1982 Hymnal).  It was first sung in 1827, and is normally sung to the tune of Star of the East.

1. Brightest and best of the stars of the morning,
dawn on our darkness, and lend us thine aid;
star of the east, the horizon adorning,
guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.

Brightest and best of the stars of the morning,
dawn on our darkness, and lend us thine aid;
star of the east, the horizon adorning,
guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.

2. Cold on his cradle the dewdrops are shining,
low lies his head with the beasts of the stall;
angels adore him in slumber reclining,
Maker and Monarch and Savior of all. (Refrain)

3. Shall we then yield him, in costly devotion
odors of Edom, and offerings divine,
gems of the mountain, and pearls of the ocean,
myrrh from the forest, or gold from the mine? (Refrain)

4. Vainly we offer each ample oblation,
vainly with gifts would his favor secure;
richer by far is the heart’s adoration,
dearer to God are the prayers of the poor. (Refrain)

5. Brightest and best of the stars of the morning,
dawn on our darkness and lend us thine aid;
star of the east, the horizon adorning,
guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.

Some Thoughts on Matthew 2:1-12
Oremus Online NRSV Gospel Text

Resources for Sunday's Gospel

This week is unique because Epiphany falls on a Sunday and we are able to celebrate and preach on texts which normally stay hidden amongst the twelfth night celebrations. The Feast of the Epiphany has a wonderful history and traditions which are many and varied around the world. You can see some of these in the wikipedia article on the Feast of the Epiphany - which isn't too bad.   When we lived in Mexico we remembered the feast by placing our shoes outside our door with straw in them.  Then the wise men would leave little gifts as a trade for helping them get on their way.  It has also always been our household tradition (since I was a child) to bring the wisemen to the nativity scenes which were scattered around the house; and we would take down our Christmas tree.

My father always loved to ask us questions about the bible at dinner. It was like a little test. Actually he probably only had about 20 different questions but they were always enough to keep us busy thinking and figuring out the answers.  Recently I ran across an article which talked about Brent Landau's book Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men’s Journey to Bethlehem, the first-ever English translation of an ancient manuscript that tells the famous story from the Magi’s perspective. In it he shares five things you didn’t know about the Magi - this is exactly the kind of stuff my dad loved to use to trip us up.  So here are the five things Landau offers:
"1) The Gospel of Matthew doesn’t say how many Magi there were. Three became the most popular answer because of the three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But some paintings in Christian catacombs have two or four, the Revelation of the Magi has a list of twelve Magi with names, and other Christian writings imagine an entire army of Magi!

2) Early Christians didn’t agree on where the Magi were from. The most popular answer was Persia (modern Iran), but others thought they were from Babylon or Arabia. In the Revelation of the Magi, they come from a land called Shir, which, because it is located at the eastern edge of the inhabited world, is probably equivalent to China.

3) Nobody knows what the Star of Bethlehem really was. Some early Christians thought it was an angel or the Holy Spirit, and more recent theories include a comet or a supernova. In the Revelation of the Magi, the star is none other than Christ himself in celestial form.

4) Opinions differ about how long it took the Magi to reach Bethlehem. Based on Herod’s asking of Magi when the star appeared, coupled with his subsequent command to kill all male infants under the age of two, many Christians thought it took them two years. Some imagined a much faster journey of twelve days, based on the “twelve days of Christmas” between December 25th and the celebration of Epiphany on January 6th. Their journey is even faster in the Revelation of the Magi, since the star “carries” the Magi to Bethlehem in the blink of an eye.

5) A number of answers were proposed for how the Magi knew that a star signified the birth of the King of the Jews. Many Christians thought that they knew the prophecy of Balaam, a prophet who predicts in Numbers 24:17 that “a star shall come out of Jacob.” In the Revelation of the Magi, the Magi are descendants of Seth, who learned about the prophecy of the star from his father Adam -- since the star used to stand over the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden."
So, let us now turn out attention to the actual text for this Sunday's Gospel.  Not unlike Luke, Matthew gives us a time frame for Jesus' birth. We are told that magi or some kind of astrologer or dream interpreters were paying attention to the night sky and so they understood from their studies that a king had been born.  This of course takes us back to both Isaiah 60 and even further back to Numbers 24.  Numbers 24:17-24 prophesies that “... a star shall come out of Jacob, a scepter shall rise out of Israel”, and that this ruler will conquer surrounding nations.

So we see in this birth a new reign of God being revealed, a new king coming into the world. This king will draw many to him, even wise men, and the nations will bow down to him.

This is certainly cause for alarm if you are the local earthly king and so Herod's fears and anxiety are woven into the tapestry of story.

It foretells the reality that this God king is not found in high places, or among the royal families of the day, rather he is found in the lowliest of places. He will threaten the mighty not with great armies and power but with peace and love.  It is the lowliest place Bethlehem, it is the poor family, it is the barnyard stall and the poorest of means that reveals the lordship of Christ.

In seminary I learned a wonderful word: Heilsgeschichte. It is a German word that means salvation history.  One of the things I love about Epiphany is the many levels in which the passage from Matthew is working.  The first is the tradition found in Numbers, the Psalm, and Isaiah.  These are the ancient heilsgeschichte prophesies which reveal something to us about the person of Jesus.  Then there is the context of the story in which the signs and symbols are presented and God in Christ Jesus is revealed to the magi by way of a language and imagery which they can understand.  Then there is the first community to hear or read Matthew's good news of salvation. The narrative is reinterpreted again and reveals to them the nature of this new community founded upon the Christ; who will draw to him a varied people.  Then there is our community today.

So, we ask ourselves how does the church present the revelation of the good news of salvation today?  How are we revealing the Christ and his work? We are challenged I think to continue the sharing of the story in contemporary form and through contemporary images.  We are to use contextual narratives to reveal the reign of God.  We are to remember that the kings were not fooled by the aristocratic means of Herod nor his court or majestic realm, but rather the integrity of the message of God's lordship was found in the humblest of places, the poorest of families, and the weakest of citizens - a child.  Our preaching and teaching of the salvation history of God will always be measured by the parallel life of our church's mission in the most marginal of settings with the weakest of people.  AND vice versa, our mission will always be measured by the presentation of salvation history through the unique offering of God in Christ Jesus through the eyes of our own church's tradition.

It is a both and proposition. We are about the work of revealing this God and the uniqueness of Christ, to do this in word and work, in such a way that both the shepherds and magi of our day may be drawn to him.

Some Thoughts on Ephesians 3:1-12

A cave painting of Paul, found in Ephesus in Turkey.
We find in the letter to the Ephesians that Paul's ministry to the Gentiles, and his belief that God had called them into the family of Abraham as equal members of the church has led to his imprisonment.  In our passage this Sunday Paul is telling the community about his work.  His words tap into the revelation that is also present in the Gospel for Epiphany.  Paul writes, "In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel."

Like Paul, the community at Ephesus is invited to participate in the sharing of this revelation.  Paul talks about  how God was revealed to him.  And, he repeats his conviction that both Jews and Gentiles are to be at work in the saving activity of sharing the good news of salvation; of Christ and his kingdom.  Paul does a little work in translating the salvation history for the church at Ephesus, the heilsgeschichte, he talks to them about the revelation of old and God was at work to draw other nations to him.  The prophets of old and the apostles of his day offer a vision that all are invited to be co-heirs, co-members and co-partners.  (In Greek each word begins with syn as in synchronous.)

It is here that we find something unique and important to the Gospel in our tradition as Christians who are Episcopalians.  Paul was an unlikely choice, he offers, to be an evangelist of this gospel.  But that is the point.  The good news of salvation is that all are invited into the work of evangelism (sharing the good news in words) and mission (sharing the good news in work).  More importantly, this salvation story, has always come to the least likely people, the most unexpected persons, and the one's to whom the powers of the day never expect much of anything - other than remaining in their place.  The newcomers to the family, in this case the Gentiles, are always to be integral members of the family.  

Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given me by the working of his power.8Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ,and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things;10so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.11This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord,12in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.

Paul, a Jew, has become an unlikely evangelist to the Gentile.  His work is to share the abundant "riches" of Christ with whomever will listen.  He is to tell the salvation story, that from the beginning God's plan was established, those who are outside of the family of God now have a place as an integral part of the ever evolving family of God - the new community - the new Israel.  The work of the community, the church at Ephesus, the work of the Christian community today, the work of the Episcopal/Anglican church is to share the good news of salvation (all are welcome and included) and the uniqueness of Christ (he is a light to the world and a challenge to the powers of this world).  

Whenever I read Paul I am constantly challenged to wonder who are the gentiles in our context?  It is not us! We are more like the Abrahamic family, the Jews in Paul's letter.  So, who are the ones who this day stand outside the family of God, who are we being challenged to invite in? Who are we to offer the story of salvation history - a salvation history that includes them?  I think this is the most challenging aspect of our faith. You and I are the most unlikely of evangelists, yet you and I have been given the revelation and offered a vision of God's unveiling salvation history.  As unlikely as we are, we are the ones to carry the banner today and to invite the most unlikely of recipients into the family.  I find that is always good news for them, the "other", and rather challenging news for us.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Christmas 1.C

Quotes That Make Me Think

"If we struggle with Jesus? being 'fully human and fully God,' it should not be surprising if the child Jesus wrestled with his identity too."

"Stirrings of Divinity,"Peter Storey, The Christian Century, 2000.Religion Online.

"Children find their true home despite us."

"Learning from Our Children," Peter Woods, I Am Listening, 2009.

General Resources for Sunday's Lessons

What love you have bestowed upon us, O good and gracious God, in letting us be called your children, and in giving us your Son, Jesus, to live as a child among us in the family of Mary and Joseph.  Let all who seek the face of Christ find him, not only here, in this house of prayer, but in the households, large and small, where your love is revealed in our love for each other.  We ask this through Christ, with whom you have raised us up in baptism, the Lord who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.

From Prayers for Sunday and Seasons, Year C, Peter J. Scagnelli, LTP, 1992.

Some Thoughts on Luke  2:41-52
Oremus Online NRSV Gospel Text

Resources for Sunday's Gospel

There are no other stories like this in the Gospels.  This is unique to Luke and it remains one of the only stories of Jesus' young life that we know. 

Certainly scholars will recognize similar stories in the writings of the age.  These are stories of great men who in their youth portray their giftedness; giving a glimpse of their future life and vocation. 
The reader can easily see that without this story there is a 30 year gap in the life of Jesus.  It is perhaps for this reason that people try to mine this for all that can be discovered.

Yet the story is a simple story.  It is a beautiful story about a lost child, parents desperately looking for him, a frantic search,  and a bit of domestic drama between confused parents and an adolescent piety.

What do we know? Jesus grew up in a pious family. They tended to their faithful duties including a Passover pilgrimage. 

There are definitely two tensions in the story.  The first is created by a family who is simply doing the normal though pietistic thing.  They are making their way to Jerusalem. They expect Jesus to be in the group, he is found to be lost.  The second tension is in the reality that Jesus is found in the Temple teaching. This is certainly a nod to future events but it is also a tension between Jesus and his family.  While they had all kinds of signs that their son was Lord and God with us; they seemed surprised to find him.  Indeed, he seems surprised that they are surprised.  For Jesus himself from this point on will begin to distance himself from his family of origin and begin to spend time with the new emerging family of God.

At the end of the story we have a very clear theme emerging in Luke's gospel. Being lost is like being dead and being found is like being alive (Luke Timothy Johnson, Luke, 60).  The theme is a portent where Jesus is lost, he is found, and he is teaching in Jerusalem.  After his death, he will be lost, they will search for him, he will be found in Jerusalem to teach.  Again in the Emmaus story we have a similar theme. 

I think on this the first Sunday after Christmas we must be careful to not move into mere sentimentality.  The text is present to link the Christ of the nativity with the Christ of mission and proclamation.  The text reminds us that the one in the manger is the one who shall teach us our roles as helpers in the kingdom of God.  The story helps us to remember that it is Christ that we look to for wisdom and for direction.  And, perhaps that this God who is unlikely to be found in human form is also unlikely to be found in all kinds of places; and there, when you find him shall you receive revelation.

Some Thoughts on Colossians 3:12-17

This passage from Colossians speaks of the life lived in a community of Christ.  It is about the virtuous characteristics of Christians. 

Not surprisingly the passage follows a teaching on morality.  We are to put to death impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness all of which is about us getting what we want.  All of these things are idolatry. Therefore, if we are not to be idolatrous and we wish to follow Jesus and to serve  him a live of virtue will consist of: "compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience."

We are as a community and as individuals to "bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other."  Wow, what would the church be like if we did this?  Christians are to remember that "just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive."

All of this can only be done with love, peace, and gratitude.  We are to dwell on the word of Christ and try to learn from one another.  And in the last part of the reading we are reminded that the essential key is for the individual (regardless of sex or age) to give themselves completely to God and to the other; whether it be family, friend or neighbor.

I wonder after all the time spent with folks over the holidays how well we did on this?  How well do we do it within our church? 

I was recently asked why people love God and are losing their faith in denominations. I believe that people are losing their faith in most kinds of organized religion because we don't do this.  People are genuinely looking for love, peace, and gratitude.  People are looking for compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.  If the church, which the scripture tells us is to look exactly like the virtuous community described in Colossians, doesn't look like it then why bother with it. 

The church should be the one place for Jesus' friends - the sinners.  This is true, but it is not permission to be ugly and tread people with disrespect.  It just isn't.  I want to invest my life in helping our Episcopal church be about these things. I want to work with people who are compassionate, kind, humble, and patient. I want to work with people who support one another and forgive one another. I want to work with people who are invested in love, peace, and gratitude.

I would like nothing more than to spend a lifetime trying to be the church Paul imagines in today's lessons.  Instead of looking back to a community who may or may not have been like what Paul describes, I want to be at work creating the community of the future which reflects the virtues described in today's lesson.


Monday, December 14, 2015

Christmas Eve/Day

Quotes That Make Me Think

"This holiday familiarity is a particular problem for preachers. We must keep in mind that for some, the Christmas story has been regularly heard since childhood. And yet, these annual rehearsals have failed to reveal to contemporary audiences the jarring display of ancient culture the episode describes."

Commentary, Luke 2:1-14 [15-20] / Luke 2[1-7] 8-20, Joy Moore, Preaching This Week,, 2011.

"Nonetheless, it is to these unlikely and unworthy shepherds that the first news of the birth of Jesus is given, and not to the Kings, Caesars, and Governors mentioned at the beginning of this passage."

Holy Textures, Understanding the Bible in its own time and in ours, Luke 2:1-20, David Ewart, 2010.

General Resources for Sunday's Lessons

Abiding with you forever in glory, O God, your only-begotten child is born among us in time..  May we ever welcome your Son to the warmth of an earthly home and so open for all earth's children a path that leads us home. We ask this through Christ, with whom you have raised us up in baptism, the Lord who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.

From Prayers for Sunday and Seasons, Year C, Peter J. Scagnelli, LTP, 1992.

Some Thoughts on Luke  2:1-20

The mystic Abu Hamid al-Ghazah once wrote, “Human perfection resides in this, that the love of God should conquer the human heart and possess it wholly, and even if it does not possess it wholly, it should predominate in the heart over the love of all things.”[1]  And so, the incarnation comes in Christ Jesus to conquer the human heart and to possess it wholly.  In an eternal  return to the garden God comes in Jesus to find us, once hidden in the eve of the day amongst the flora of our garden world.  The goal, as in last weeks epistle to the Hebrews, is that we might be about the work and will of God.
Today, we pause, and we think and we ponder.  What is the world around us like? What are our lives like.  We live in a time when we want to know God is present. We desire to be rid of our fear and our anxiety.  We hope and we wish for a sign.  We don't know who to believe anymore because everything is relativized.  There seems no assurance that we won't hurdle off the fiscal and mental cliff of our time.  We feel shame and unworthiness which we hide behind consumption and business.  We still long fro some kind of love, acceptance, forgiveness, and understanding.  And, we offer our sacrifices to the God of our day hoping perhaps this year will be different. 

I am most certain that this is not the same time and nor are these the same issues that faced the shepherds.  They were probably cold, hungry, and without shelter in the desert night.  They were most likely a lot like most of the rest of the developing world that exists far beyond our concerns and thoughts this Christmas.
Yet into this ancient world and our world today comes the message that the prophesy is fulfilled. God is in our midst. Do not be afraid. In fact rejoice and be glad.  Look for God in the least of these, in the form of a child.  Here you will find him.
Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
And so all over the world we gather on this most holy of nights to celebrate the mystical union of God and humanity in Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, God with us, Savior, Messiah, Blessed One, Son of Man, Jesus the Christ Child born of woman called Mary – Miryam of Nazareth.

I have for a long time been touched by this mystical poem from Ann Johnson’s collection of sacred poetry Magnificat of the Stable:
My soul rests confidently in the animal warmth
     And the lantern light of the simple place, Yahweh,
     And my spirit rejoices in the privacy of this time of birthing
     We share with you, O God of Creation,
     For you come alive again tonight
     In the blood and water of your people.
Yes, this is the time we have waited for.
     This is the moment of blessing.
Holy is birth,
     And you shall show yourself from age to age
     In those who enter into creation with you.
You have shown the power of a dream enfleshed
     And we are humbled.
You have pulled down all our strivings
     And lifted up this simple, common moment.
This stable is filled with good things,
     New life and happy people.
     Are those in the inn rooms as satisfied?
You have come to Israel,
Mindful of our shared nature,
     . . . according to the promise of Eden. . .
     mindful of our nature to seek the wisdom of new life together
     as long as we walk the earth.[2]
Rehearsing our sacred story reminds us of God presence in our lives.  We are invited in this holy feast to remember that this God we believe in enters the world in human form and comes to the margins of life; to Mary and Joseph who are essentially homeless and wandering.
We are invited on this day to retell the story of the nativity that we may rehearse the beginning of the reign of God where people without a coat are given clothing; where people with no roof over their head find shelter; where people with nothing to eat are given good things.  We retell the story to remind ourselves that the work of Christians is kindness, gentleness, and hospitality like the inn keeper.
We are invited to retell the story on this day so we remember what it means to discover a living God and how we, like the shepherds will search for him where ever he will be; so tenacious is our hearts hunger for God.
We are invited to retell the story that we might be reminded of our work to be heralds of good news and glad tidings for our family, our friends, and our neighbors.
And, we are invited to retell the story because in it we are reminded that the child wrapped in linen and laid in a manger shall be our savior wrapped in cloth and lain in a rock tomb. 
This is our God, this is our Messiah.  In this Christmastide may we be aware that God has come and that we are his followers.  
For those who intentionally choose to remember we recognize that the birth of Jesus was a prophetic challenge to the world order; and that those who find their being in his sacred story and follow his way are to challenge the world order with ethical and moral sensitivity.  We are to speak truth and act in a world hungering for deliverance from greed, poverty, oppression, malnutrition, abuse, illness, war, and all the other dark and evil powers we have created and come to know.  It is not to Caesar Augustus or Quirinius that this God comes to, but the God we believe in comes to the lowly.  So it is that we are to open our hearts to this God that our own lowliness and shame may be transformed. So it is that we are to open our hand and lives to those around us.  We are like the angels, the shepherds, the inn keeper, and the holy family to make room for this God in our lives, and in so doing to make room in the world for the kingdom of God.

[1] Quoted by Kabir Helminski in Knowing Heart, p. 4.
[2] Johnson, Miryam of Nazareth, p 81.

Some Thoughts on Titus 2:11-14

In the Epistle lesson from Titus Paul is writing about the household code; a moral code by which the church is to live. They are to be a community. This community is to be acceptable to the society around it and most scholars see parallels between Paul's code for community and the code for community espoused by the philosophical leaders of his day. In other words much of what Paul offers is a reflection of basic ethics for individuals and morality for a community which is at work within a wider social construct.
That being said, there is an underpinning theology that is important and separates how Christian community is to live from other communities.  Paul's prevailing theology looks back at God's acts and sees that our God is defined by his one saving act - the Exodus and the Sinai revelation. God is holy and we are to be God's people and God's people will be holy.  Moreover that the way of this community is defined at its foundation by God's commandments which marks the group as special and of a higher household standard that the prevailing notion of such codes in Paul's day.  Paul adopts this saving action and nature of God's people to the emerging Christian community.
In our passage appointed for Christmas day we see this clearly.God in Christ Jesus has appeared in the incarnation.  Christ Jesus in his own actions has modeled a higher way of being in the world.  We like the ancient ancestors of Israel are to be formed by his example.  We are to "renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly.   God in Christ Jesus is himself redeeming us even in our failure to live this life.  We are given Christ, for he gave himself fully.  Christ is redeeming us and we are being purified by his grace.
I would add then that we are to do the same.  We are to give ourselves over to the other, we are to give ourselves over to God and to our neighbor.  The very basic and most essential work is to be "zealous for good deeds."
Paul's list (which comes above and below this passage)is filled with directions for the household code.  It is true that some we would agree with and some we would not.  Yet they offer us a challenging view of a life lived in the shadow of God's saving embrace.  Most of all we are to live no longer for ourselves but for God and for God's people.  We are the gift to this world.  As followers of Christ we are the gift to a world in need and we are to be about our father's work: good deeds. 
A Christmastide bereft of giving to others and most of all to the poor, of eating while others go hungry, of warmth and merry cheer while even more are cold, lonely and remorse is no Christmastide at all. 

Advent 4.C

Quotes That Make Me Think
"According to Luke, when Mary sang, she didn’t just name those promises but entered into them. Notice, for instance, that the verbs in Mary's song are all in the past tense. Mary recognizes as she sings that she has already been drawn into relationship with the God of Israel..."

"A Promise That Changes the World," David Lose, WorkingPreacher, 2012.

"Christmas is fascinating as a place of marginalisation..."

"First Thoughts on Year C Gospel Passages in the Lectionary," Advent 4, William Loader, Murdoch University, Uniting Church in Australia.

General Resources for Sunday's Lessons

God of the everlasting covenant, as your servant David leapt and danced before the ark, so John the Baptist leapt in the womb of Elizabeth when Mary came bearing within her the promised One.  Let that Christ stand in our midst today, and feed this flock in the strength of your name.  Prepare us, O God, to be a people doing your will a nation believing that your promises will be fulfilled. We ask this through Christ, with whom you have raised us up in baptism, the Lord who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.

From Prayers for Sunday and Seasons, Year C, Peter J. Scagnelli, LTP, 1992.

Some Thoughts on Luke  1:39-45(45-56)
Oremus Online NRSV Gospel Text

Resources for Sunday's Gospel

The Icon of the Visitation
In this, the fourth Sunday of Advent, our Gospel lesson (Luke 1:39-56) offers us the story of Mary's visit to Elizabeth and Zechariah's home. We cannot read this lesson without reflecting on the passage before--wherein Gabriel visited and announced the coming of the "Son of God"--and that this child is to be born in the lineage of the great Hebrew King, David. We learned that this new royal son is to bring into creation a new reign, an eternal reign of God. So, what is this God doing in an unwed mother, in a small town, visiting a poor relative.

We have our doubts.  Where is this God?   Mary might have been wondering the same thing.  Wondering and pondering the meaning of this message. The angel puts her heart and mind at rest, reminding her that this is the God of the Hebrews who had done miraculous things, things that cannot be believed, things that are told from parent to child. This is the God who sent Abraham wandering. This is the God who gave Sarah a child in her old age. This is the God who brought Joseph into Egypt and protected him there. This is the God who frees them from slavery and provides for them in the desert. This is the God who returned his people to their land and built up a great city and temple, Jerusalem. This is the God of both the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel. This is the God who loves his people. He is inaugurating a new heavenly reign in which all the world will be invited to participate and to dwell within. "Yes", we might say, "This is the God of those who have been forgotten, who are in need, or who live on the margins.  Now I remember."

You may have doubts but our ancestral faith story tells us that nothing is impossible with this God. We might remember these words from Genesis 18:14: “Is anything too wonderful for the LORD? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son."

In the midst of a doubt which questions where our God is, we might recall:
  • Exodus 6:6 the delivery from slavery in Egypt
  • Deuteronomy 4:34 “by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and by terrifying displays of power, as the LORD your God did for you in Egypt”
  • Jeremiah 27:5 “It is I who by my great power and my outstretched arm have made the earth”
  • Isaiah 40:10; 51:9 "Do not fear for I am with you."

For Luke, the author of these passages, Gabriel's news is the inauguration of the final stage in salvation history; or the first stage in a recreated world.  So then, we see these very first words of Luke's Gospel--his good news to his readers--is that their salvation is deeply rooted in the story of their ancient faith ancestors.

This is true for us just as it was for the first readers of the Gospel of Luke. Do we in this moment begin to meet and know Jesus again for the first time, renewing in this, the fourth Sunday of Advent, our relationship with Jesus -- bringing our final act of preparation for Christ's birth on Christmas to a close; and opening for us a way to enter into God's eternal reign?

If this happened to me, I would rush to my closest relative's side -- and that is what Mary does -- bringing us to the Gospel for the fourth Sunday in Advent. When she arrives and tells Elizabeth, the child in her womb leaps. This reminds us of the ancient story of the leaping children in Rebecca's womb, brothers Esau and Jacob. Perhaps the leaping David before God's arc? Perhaps this is even a foretelling of the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus; and the shifting of power from prophet to savior?

Elizabeth's response is faithful as she wonders how she might be so blessed as to receive the visitation of Mary. And Mary is portrayed as a model believer, having faith and hope in God's promises to her. For Mary what we see is an individual who has accepted this news and deliverance; she is already participating in the new recreated world.  This is the meaning of "blessed" in Luke's Gospel, that she is portrayed as a faithful follower of God. Sometimes we believe the word blessed in the scriptures refers to God's blessings, here and throughout Luke, blessed refers to the idea that the person who receives the blessing is a good steward, faithful follower and believer. It is in their actions, not God's, that show forth and invite the acclamation from those who witness their faith that they are blessed. Remember God's other blessing promises from Luke 6.20ff:
20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
‘Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 ‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
‘Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.

22 ‘Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.23Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

I wonder what it would be like to go through the rest of the days between now and Christmas and, where we witness faithful people following Jesus and helping and aiding the less fortunate, doing kind work on behalf of others, working to heal those who are infirmed … what if we mentally and prayerfully marked them as blessed people in our lives? What if we actually verbalized, as does Elizabeth in our Gospel, their giftedness and told them they were blessed?

It is in this moment that Mary offers the words of the Magnificat. I imagine Mary reflecting on the story of her people and the immense sense of collision with her life this news from Gabriel, the leaping of the child in Elizabeth's womb, and the words Elizabeth offer. I cannot describe the potential of this moment. But Mary does describe it and speaks out proclaiming God's greatness and her willingness to serve the Lord and be obedient in all things. She will be a steward and disciple because of all that God has provided for her. In remembering her people's story she proclaims and glorifies God because God is compassionate and remembers that she is in fact one of God's blessed ones. Mary knows and calls out that this God keeps his promises and is faithful to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and Moses, and all the patriarchs and matriarchs.

Mary is rehearsing Hannah's prayer in 1 Samuel 2:1-10. We see that the past work of God is begun anew in the conception of Jesus. Mighty work is done from the lowliest of people. God is continuing salvation history and fulfilling his promises made to Abraham. But the message of Jesus is a reconstituted reign and a diversified Israel where by all those who have called their father Abraham (remember John the Baptist's words from last week) are joined by all those whose baptism with the Holy Spirit by Jesus may now find their home in Jerusalem. This is not simply an ethnic heritage, but one open to the adoption of God's children not in the fold of Abraham's family.

As we meditate upon the meaning of the words of Luke's Gospel it would be too easy to see this as a past event. Yet this is our story. It is certainly my story. From my parents and faith family I inherit the story of Jesus and the ever widening circles of his reign and his grace-filled embrace. Like Elizabeth I have the opportunity to bear witness to visions of blessed people who faithfully follow Jesus and aid those who are without, in accordance with John the Baptist's proclamation.

I also have the opportunity to thank God in this the fourth Sunday of Advent for my inheritance and the gift given to me in Jesus. Still more opportunity lies before me though, recognizing that my heart leaps at the news of my relationship with the about-to-be-born Jesus. But I also have work to do. So may my words and your words be as Mary's … “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Some Thoughts on Hebrews 10:5-10

This Sunday we come to a pastoral letter to the Hebrews.  It is one of eight epistles of which the origin is unknown.  However, it is our tradition to attribute this to Paul and the Pauline school; though unanimously this is given an unknown origin.  I think if I had to capture the ideas of scholarly thought I would say that a generous review of the text lends us to believe we have a pupil of Paul's.  That seems neither here nor there when it comes to preaching the text, but seemed somehow important to mention. 

The document itself is one of deep theology and sacramental thought.  We can imagine that the hand which has written it is thinking carefully about the old and the new covenants, the nature of Christ and his connection to the Temple, and that Jesus is the perfector of faith.  It is most likely from Jewish Christian hands that the text takes its shape.  An interesting idea emerges with the text as a whole for many scholars believe it was written for the emerging gentile Christian community.  That means, in my opinion, the text takes on an almost explanatory quality. It is as if the letter to the Hebrews is something like our catechism. It is a document that seeks to translate traditions in relationship to God in Christ Jesus to a group of people who have no inherited tradition of temple and synagogue worship at all; who in the end may only have the worship of idols as their primary context of interpretation. 

So we come to the plainness of this Sunday's readings.  We are immediately aware that God is not interested any longer in burnt and sin offerings.  Jesus, as the great high priest who sits in the temple of heaven, then teaches that while the law has required such offerings, that the new revelation is one that is about doing God's will.  The old sacrifices were good things but we now understand good things come of God in Christ Jesus.  It is as if to say the old sacrifices, which were good, where never enough. They never quite did the job. In part they were insufficient because we as humans were not transformed by them, in part they were a kind of crutch that we used continually; never quite taking on new behavior. 

In Christ Jesus, whom we sacrificed, we have made our final offering.  God needs no more of this; instead we are to be about God's work in the world.  Christ is the final offering. Quoting from Psalm 40 the author explains that God prefers an obedience rooted in the body, in life, that is incarnational.

I don't believe this does away with the old way of making good offerings so much as it says, enough, now we must be at work. God has finally wiped the slate clean.  We are made ceremonially clean, we are being perfected, we are being made whole...not through our own work but by God's work in Christ Jesus.

I wonder what "sacrifices" we believe we are making this Advent and Christmastide?  What is the ultimate purpose of them?  Do we believe that all the gifts and giving will provide us with new relationships and love?  Will this be the best Christmas ever because somehow the sacrificial credit card purchases will make it so?  For the Christian we are perhaps deeply torn.  Who doesn't like the gifts and the giving and the receiving? I do to be sure. But what this passage may remind us of this Fourth Sunday of Advent is that it is only in the giving of ourselves to one another that true and real transformation is possible. It is only in the work of the body, soul, heart, and mind that we find bound to our families, friends, and neighbor.  There is nothing in this world that will either bind us to one another or to God which is not found in the ultimate example of a God who comes into the world and gives so completely of himself.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Advent 3.C, December 13, 2015

Quotes That Make Me Think

"Caught between eschatological judgment and messianic consummation, the crowds hear John speak of a role in the coming kingdom they can play. It demands neither renunciation nor asceticism, neither pilgrimage nor sacrifice. Rather, participating in God's new kingdom is available to them where they are, requiring only the modicum of faith necessary to perceive the sacred in the ordinary."

Commentary, Luke 3:7-18, David Lose, Preaching This Week,, 2009.

"Do we need to be told that it is a good thing to be elated, to be glad and happy? Some, who see Christianity as something dour and serious, need to hear it."

"First Thoughts on Year C Epistle Passages in the Lectionary," Advent 3, William Loader, Murdoch University, Uniting Church in Australia.

General Resources for Sunday's Lessons

Lord our God, already in our midst and yet to come, your presence delights us even now as we long for your peace.  Winnow from our lives the chaff of selfishness and sin.  Sow in us a harvest of gentleness and generosity, for we rejoice in you, even as you exult and sing for joy over us. We ask this through Christ, with whom you have raised us up in baptism, the Lord who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.

From Prayers for Sunday and Seasons, Year C, Peter J. Scagnelli, LTP, 1992.

Some Thoughts on Luke 3:7-18
Oremus Online NRSV Gospel Text

Resources for Sunday's Gospel

We continue this week the story of John the Baptist's proclamation of baptism; and we are aware that the Word of God comes in the wilderness. We remember the uniqueness of this baptism as a metanoia or turning that is essential bedrock within the catholic tradition and universal expression of our church. While there were many prophets in that time and scholars recognize that baptism was not unusual, we see in the Gospel a self differentiation for the follower of Jesus in the Lukan community that sees baptism as a primary way a Christian marks their choice to follow Jesus. We can easily imagine in this unique combination of accepting an ordered life in the manner of Jesus and the water of baptism as a cleansing ritual the growth of our understanding that our sins are forgiven and life is forever changed.

John the Baptizer is not offering us an opportunity to adopt his way of life where home is the desert, clothes are skins, foods are grasshoppers and wild honey, there are no alcoholic beverages, and prayer with fasting mark the hours of the day. John is offering us in his proclamation and act of baptism an opportunity to turn away from our previous life to a life lived in the power of the Holy Spirit.  We are being offered an opportunity to follow God in Christ Jesus.

It is very possible that some of these words, which make up the synoptic tradition, are deeply rooted in the earliest Christian documents of sayings and traditions. Sometimes this document is called Q.

We know in the Gospel of Luke that the religious leaders of the day will reject John's baptisms (7.30 and 20.5). Nevertheless, crowds of people looking for a savior come out to the Jordan to hear the message and receive the baptism. They come out to a wild place where a wild man resides in order to take a sacramental journey into the wild places of life.  They come to wash as a pilgrimage mile marker towards ever new and transformed life.

They are met there by the wild John the Baptist calling them vipers! Jesus also will call those who live questionable lives with alternative and destructive intentions vipers (23.33). The people who come to John are recognized by him as people who are in need of change. They are in fact creatures of the desert place and the washing may prepare them for the coming kingdom, and deliverance from the wildness of this world into the grace of the coming reign of Christ.

We might well remember Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians 1:10 where Paul says, "you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead – Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming”.  In baptism we are choosing to follow a particular God with a particular way of life.

In verse 8 we see the word “repentance," metanoia. The word in Greek literally means returning, or coming back to the way of life charted by the covenant between God and Israel. See also Exodus 19:3-6 (where God commands Moses to tell the Israelites “if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation”); 24:3-8; Jeremiah 31:31-34 (“The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. ... I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts ... they shall all know me ... I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more”).  This baptism is a mark that the person is choosing to live a changed life.

John the baptizer is demanding right living based on a sincere search for God’s will (Matthew 7:15-20; Galatians 5:22-23) and suited to the promise of repentance. We see this ancient covenant connection and the life of our faith ancestors throughout Luke's Gospel and Jesus teaching as we are reminded of “Abraham our ancestor”. See also Luke: 1:54-55, 72-73; 3:34; 13:16, 28-29; 19:9; 20:37; Acts 3:13, 25; 7:17, 32; 13:26; 26:6; 28:20; John 8:33, 39; Romans 2:28, 29. We are then named a desert people who have found our life and our faith in the bosom of God and deep within the well of his heart. For those who choose to live a life oriented on the Christ and his reign we see the promise and potential of a life lived not in scarcity but the bounty of grace which promised manna from heaven, that the lilies be clothed, that the poor would have good things and the hungry fed.

Verses 10 - 14 are unique to Luke's Gospel. Here we see the Gospel's proclamation that right living has to do with sharing what we are given, and that it is characterized by a special concern, sensitivity and action on behalf of the poor. Jesus in Luke's Gospel will speak clearly about stewardship of possessions and so central was this to Jesus' teachings that we see it mirrored throughout the Acts, see Acts 2:44-45 and 4:32-35.  It is a funny thing in my mind that righteous living today has taken on new meaning.  Here it is clear that such a life lived post baptism is a life lived in service to neighbor and the least of these - God's friends.

We get a sense of the rich and the poor being unified in this proclamation of change and baptism, and in their ministry one to another. We cannot read verse 12ff without remembering here we are to hear of the story in Luke's Gospel of Zacchaeus the tax collector who gives half of his possessions to the poor.

So powerful was John's message and such a figure of hope and transformation was he that others believe he may be the messiah. John the baptist was far more a messenger of hope than one of judgement to be sure.   So it is the last verses of this passage that we see him continue to refocus our attention, beginning in verse 15, on the coming of Christ who ultimately will provide the Holy Spirit to the baptism of water.

How often do we move into positions of power or authority or ministry and the glory which rightly belongs to Christ comes to us? In this advent season we are challenged to remember the humility of the Christ family as described in the Gospels and be challenged to do as John the baptizer does and point forward to the Christ who is truly working in us and our life together greater things than we can ask for imagine.

As I think about these verses and the opportunity to preach this weekend, I am wondering how the season of Advent can serve to reorient our lives to our baptismal promises? How can our time, in the midst of preparations for Christmas celebrations, help us to see that we are to change, take a step back into the life of Christ? That we are called and challenged to live a particular life of continuous returning to the desert and waters of baptism for refreshment in a life's long journey. When we come to this place of Advent, we are to realize our place within the faith family of Abraham and seek not only to be reconciled with our Jesus but also to be reconciled with the notion of right living which is plainly: to give to the poor, and to aid those who go without.

Americans spent over 8 billion dollars on Halloween.  Americans will spend some $504 billion (2009 retail amount) to celebrate Christmas according to Gallup (see chart here).  The in breaking of God in the person of Christ might just cause us to pause and realize that only $10 billion would ensure clean water for every human being in the world, and $13 billion to keep folks from going hungry. Yet today I heard that safety net agencies that do just this work have seen a 10% decrease in funding.  Certainly these are numbers to make one pause in the face of Zaccheaus who gives away half of what he possesses to the poor. What if we lived out the charge and hope of living for our neighbor.  John the Baptist offers us not only a vision of a Christmastide incarnation but a transformed world of a new community - the kingdom of God.

Some Thoughts on Philippians 4:4-7

This week we continue with Paul's letter to the Philippians.  Paul's message is one of clarity: the second coming of the Lord is near, so be at peace rather than be divided.  Not unlike our own congregations or our own church, the church community at Philippi was concerned that perhaps the coming of Christ was not so near.  Perhaps they would die before its coming.  Paul himself finds himself in the midst of being mediator with other congregations who are in conflict.  Here in Philippi he finds a peaceful community and I believe he intends to capitalize on their faith and care for one another in order to persuade them to fear not and stay united as they work and wait for the Lord.
The idea that the "lord is near" is not a new one is scripture.  Paul here writes:
"5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.8Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.9Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you."
Yet as we think about the whole of scripture we might remember that Adam and Eve knew the Lord was near and they hid.  Abraham was told that the Lord was near, so he prepared himself.  Moses found out that the Lord was near, and was told to free God's people.  Ruth heard that the Lord was near, so she was faithful.  Kind David found that the Lord was near, so he built a temple.  Mary was told the Lord was near, and she named him Jesus. Andrew was called and found that the Lord was near so he became a fisher of men and brought others to Jesus.  Peter was near to the Lord, and became the Lord's rock.  Mary Magdalene and Joanna were told that the Lord is nearby in Jerusalem, and they rejoiced.  Paul himself came upon the Lord in a flashing light and became the Lord's messenger.  Indeed the whole of scripture is a narrative which describes for us the response of human beings to the nearness of God, the nearness of the Lord. 

Paul says, if you believe the Lord is near, then act with gentleness to everyone.  When we believe that our God is present we should not worry or be anxious for anything.  Instead when we believe God is present we are to pray, be thankful, and speak to God.  Only then, I believe, do the lions of life seem not of so great a concern.

God's presence in the Lord Christ brings the follower peace, a peace that at times does not make sense given our surroundings and context.  It will not be the most obvious response given our culture or our economy.  But when the Christian believes and acts out of their belief that the Lord is indeed near then the world is changed. We are changed.  We are part of the change in the lives of other people.  Out of habit the Christian is to believe and wait upon the Lord and his presence. 
For the Christian Church, now living in the several centuries from the community at Philippi, we are to be ready to greet our lord in the pew at church and in our lives and workplaces. We are to be ready to greet the presence of the Lord in our neighbor and in our enemy.  We are to seek out the presence of the Lord in every human we encounter.  In so doing we are at peace and we bring a peace which makes no sense into the world. 

How will we respond to the presence of the Lord? This seems to be the question our text offers us this week.  How will we respond (not to a God of a far off place or a God who is not yet here) to a God who is present now. 

In this passage I am challenged not so much to focus upon the waiting of Advent for a Christmas return of Christ, but rather to be challenged to see that what I am waiting for, the one I seek, the peace I crave, the reality of very-God is already present in my life.  The waiting isn't over so much as a Christian I don't have to wait any longer to respond to the Good News of God in Christ Jesus that is present in the here and in the now. Moreover, I have the opportunity to shift my life lens from seeing not enough to being thankful for all I am and have.  Surely, these are the thoughts that are true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent and worthy of praise.

Some Thoughts on Zephaniah 3:14-20

Resources for Sunday's Old Testament Lesson

"This reading from Zephaniah is marked by hope, rejoicing, and reprieve, but it comes from the end of a three-chapter book in which the first two chapters consist of horrific warnings."

Commentary, Zephaniah 3:14-20, Melinda Quivik, Preaching This Week,, 2012.

"This Sunday, we speak of joy, the joy of a people redeemed and restored, but also the joy of a God who is deeply invested in the life of the world."

Commentary, Zephaniah 3:14-20, Kathryn Schifferdecker, Preaching This Week,, 2009.

Our selections for Advent for the Old Testament readings are taken, as you have now discovered, from passages that remind Israel of God's hope for them. A number of reflections on line focus on the idea that "joy" is a particular part of the present circumstances for Zephaniah and his people. 
14 Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! 15 The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. 
However, I think that the first several chapters indicate the difficult challenges and fears of the people. We only get to the joy in the midst of the warnings and through redemption.

As a culture we are continually attempting to find and purchase joy somehow. Even now our culture is in the midst of a great buying frenzy. Yet these purchases and actions will bring little fulfillment in the end. So we, like those who receive Zephania's message are in need of a little redemption. The church is in need of redemption.

Melinda Quivik, liturgics and homiletics scholar writes:
Zephaniah's announcement of the Lord's resolve to save the people carries line-by-line descriptions of why this renewal is necessary. The promise rests on the need for rescue. The flip side of the joy that is to happen on the Day of the Lord is present as each phrase of promise is coupled with the negative it implies, reminding the hearer that disaster has come as reproach for failings, oppression exists, the lame and the outcast suffer alone, shame needs to be changed into praise, an in-gathering is required because the people are scattered and fortunes have been taken away. This is an accounting of the inevitable inability of human life to follow the commands of the Lord. This is an accurate depiction of our need for God. Law is not just command but reality.
What is difficult is to believe, I think, as the church or as individuals that our salvation truly lies outside of ourselves. I believe it is so hard to think that God might really have a hand in it all. So it is that this passage reminds us. On that day when all that you purchased fails you... On that day when all your plans come to nothing...On that day when your machinations for self preservation and self reward are found lacking... On that day when you, if you can get to the bottom, on that day then you can hear for the first time:

"Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing 18as on a day of festival. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. 19I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. 20At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord.
Part of the power of the readings and their combination together is that we are not only receiving the hope of God in the incarnation and salvation birthed into the world, but we are understanding that none of our efforts have brought us to any sense of betterment, none of our work has had the end results planned. No, in fact only in having a good look at our present circumstances do we see that God is with us and there to save. 

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Advent 2C, December 6, 2015

Quotes That Make Me Think

 "There’s an audacity to today’s Gospel reading that’s easy to miss. But if you listen closely and read between the lines just a little, you’ll hear a promise that at first is easy to overlook but ultimately is as transformative as it is outrageous."

"A Promise That's Easy to Overlook," David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2012.

"[Paul] shows what thing we ought to chiefly desire, that is, first of all that we may increase in the true knowledge of God (so that we may be able to discern things that differ from one another), and also in charity, that even to the end we may give ourselves to truly good works, to the glory of God by Jesus Christ."

From John Calvin's the Geneva Notes.

General Resources for Sunday's Lessons

God of everlasting glory and eternal love, from west and east you gather the humble, leading them withjoy to the glorious light of your kingdom.  Make straight your path in our hearts; bring low the heights of our pride; and prepare us to celebrate with ardent faith the coming of our savior.  We ask this through Christ, with whom you have raised us up in baptism, the Lord who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.

From Prayers for Sunday and Seasons, Year C, Peter J. Scagnelli, LTP, 1992.

Some Thoughts on Luke  3:1-6
Oremus Online NRSV Gospel Text

The opening words of our Gospel for Sunday give us  a reminder that Christ comes in the midst of the authority of the world: vs 1 "Fifteenth year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius".  At the same time Luke is keen to show us that what is coming is nothing less than a divine rebelous God - the very word of God. This new authority is one inaugurated in very real time and is measured by grace and not power.  His teachings will challenge the historical peopel of God and the authority of the world.  It is a time of renewed salvation history deeply linked to the past and intimately connected with readers, and our own, present.

It is all enough to unnerve us if we take John the Baptist's words to be words for us and not only for a people long ago.

Who cannot relate to the feeling of "wilderness." While we might know of John's possible connection to Qumran and other wilderness communities it is not this that connects us but rather the feeling of being followers of Jesus in a strange land with competing stories about the nature and values of culture. We relate to the ancient Hebrews in Israel, we relate to the occupied Israelites of Jesus' own time. We relate to the gentile mission and what it will mean to struggle to have a place in God's kingdom.  We relate because we too struggle with a captivity which is hallmarked by consumerism and debt and recession; not to mention the stress and strains of family and relationships. We struggle perhaps wondering of the church is for me? And for many who have not church we struggle with the idea of not being welcomed to rest despite our desert wonderings.  The world is a wild place and we find our home in it as foreigners in a strange land, longing for the Kingdom of God present, and not yet fully realized. We long in that wilderness to hear the voice crying out.  We long to hear that we are welcomed.

We as Christians understand John the Baptist as the agent to fulfill the ancient prophesies: Isaiah 40:3; Malachi 3:1; 4:5 (“Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes”).  He is the one who comes and baptizes but it is not the batism by water that Luke offers that God is most interested in. No, Luke is clearly setting the stage even in these early chapters for the Pentecost baptism that is to come.

Baptism we are shown in Luke's Gospel is at once seen as the ancient and present way of deliverance and entrance into the kingdom of grace with a prophet king and rebel named Jesus. To the Jews of the time and to Luke's reader John is proclaiming and acting out a preparation for the coming of Jesus. It made them all very uncomfortable to be sure; a discomfort that will be played out in Acts and the Epistle letters in the first Christian communities. John's is a proclamation being made to the whole world - a proclamation we know as the Gospel.  This preparation will lead to the greater manifest of God in the resurrection.  We will see that in the baptism of fire and spirit the whole of creation will be remade.  The world of authority will be turned upside down.  The word of salvation will raise up new children of God and even the stones will shout as the kingdom message becomes (post resurrection and Pentecost) not one of preparation but a message of embrace and love.  Rebelling against the order of the ruler and embracing a new order of family and kinship.

The expansion of the kingdom, the growing fruit tree which will bear great fruit, is to include not only the prepared historical people of God but the greater gentile world.

I will be thinking this week of how the time and the season of Advent offer us a time to connect with the real world wilderness of the people in and outside of our congregations. How do we as people already baptized, already living within a kingdom without walls, take a Gospel of grace into the world around us, proclaiming Jesus and proclaiming the opportunity of hope and joy and transformation that awaits those who choose to follow him and work under his Lordship? What are the real world differences we as Christians can make?  How is our rebellion to be staged and offered to a world hungry for good news.

Perhaps I will ponder the reality of what it means to prepare myself; having already received the good news.  I want to think about how my eyes and ears need to be opened to see God's ever broadening family of God.  God help me to see the oppression and the way in which the ways of authority and power pervert the intended kingdom.  The missionary church may even begin to see that God is already pouring his spirit out into the world and upon the "gentiles" of our day.  And, we might have cause to ask ourselves what are the things that keep us from embracing the other and the spirit work that is already underway.  We have a faith opportunity to see not a withering church tree in the midst of Egypt or a Babylonian captivity but a church that is being rebirthed and disturbed.

We are reminded in the words of John the Baptist, this Jesus is a rebel and is going to turn our world upside down.   It is a sobering notion to think that the babe we worship brings a ministry that will by a living word bring transformation and change.

A friend once reminded me of Jackson Browne's song Rebel Jesus. Find it on YouTube here. That has me thinking of the challenge we face. It has me thinking of how the mission field can really challenge us to be better at our work as a church.

Some Thoughts on Philippians 1:1-11
Oremus Online NRSV Epistle Text

This Sunday we read from Paul's letter to the church community at Philippi.  The letter itself is one of the most positive and encouraging letters of all the Pauline epistles. 

Paul's opening words to the letter are more formal than any Emily Post required introduction, yet there is something more here than simply a Helenistic introduction.  In fact Paul's words are powerful and visionary.

In the beginning Paul simply is saying, "I know who you are."  He is telling his readers, and those of us who read some centuries later, that as baptized members of God's church we are marked as Christ's own forever. We belong to God. God has claimed us. Paul is reminding us we are "the saints of God."

With his blessing (Grace to you and peace) Paul reminds us who he is.  he tells us that he is someone passionately in love with Jesus Christ. He is someone who enters community by means of the name of God.  And, it is as if out of the reaches of history he is calling to us as well. 

Who does not want to hear such words?  Who does not yearn to hear we are beloved of God and saints of God?  This is the formative vision of the community of the baptized.  It is a reminder that for Christians the hallmark of our community is to be grace and peace.  This is one of the unique monicers of Christian community rooted in the Gospel of Good News of Salvation.

We are inheritors of this Godly vision for community.  While we might all agree that we are nothing like the church in Philippi; for certainly we might all say the times have changed. Nevertheless, it is this eternal grace, this eternal peace, which binds us to our ancient faith ancestors and Paul. 

Philippi was Paul's first mission on the continent of Europe.  It would become an important satilite of the Gospel and of the emerging Christian community in a world that did not yet know the Christ or the message of salvation.  Not unlike a seed sown whose roots would spread, like a great maple or oak, our congregations today are the offspring and shoots of the grace and peace offered so long ago.  As the Philippians themselves turned to neighbors and offered the good news of belovedness so we recognize we are the individual inheritors of this Gospel. 

Paul writes, "this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God."

Paul, in his letter, offers us a vision of what church is to be - the very kingdom of God on earth. He believes in a world transformed and reordered by love and grace; in response to love and grace.  He believes that in Christ our love will overflow ourselves to one another. Paul reminds us that God is the one who bring plenteous redemption. God is the one who is watering and nurturing his offspring.  God is mulching and fertilizing his vineyard. This began with the incarnation and as baptized followers of this Jesus we are marked as his.  Paul encourages us to live in response to this beloved nature for in our response we will find the harvest.

It is less about us chosing and more about us recognizing we have been chosen.  Churches do not bring people into their community but rather recognize in people that they belong to God and they are saints of God.  Paul's vision of church is one wherein we the church recognize that Jesus is doing good work in the lives of the other.

Baptism is certainly a mark of membership in Christian community and fellowship.  But it is more than saying, "you are one of us now". It is the public recognition by the community that this person is God's.  How different would our baptismal instruction be if it were about the embrace of one of God's people? How different it would be if it were an act of grace for the person being baptized and an act of remembrance for the people gathered?

Some Thoughts on Baruch 5:1-9
Oremus Online NRSV Epistle Text

The book of Baruch is written during the time of the exile to Babylon. It is often believed that the author was the companion/secretary to the prophet Jeremiah. Baruch is crying out to Jerusalem in exile.

We might pause and think about the passage from our perspective of a church in exile. We are a church separated out disbursed across a culture not our own and we are also turned inwardly not unlike a people holding on to what they have left from the past.

Here Baruch has some words for us.  It is time he says to end the mourning. Reaching back into his own tradition Baruch speaks to the people and invites them to consider putting on their best. 

Would this not be true for us? Would we not profit from truly putting on our best within our congregations? Our worship and ministry, all to the glory of God, would be infused with energy. Our work would begin to shine out as work that was holy, that was just, and as work of reconciliation - brought about peace. 

Baruch is then prophesying a return to the city of Jerusalem. He uses words that harken to Isaiah's prophesies.

Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height;
look towards the east,
and see your children gathered from west and east
at the word of the Holy One,
rejoicing that God has remembered them.
For they went out from you on foot,
led away by their enemies;
but God will bring them back to you,
carried in glory, as on a royal throne.
For God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low
and the valleys filled up, to make level ground,
so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God.
The woods and every fragrant tree
have shaded Israel at God’s command.
Here then we might wonder what would we see if we rose up? What would we see if we stopped looking back and began to look forward? What pain and sorrow might be cast down while joy and life are raised up. We might indeed, in our work, in our renewal of mission, discover and find that God is in fact leading us. We might discover, if we were to look into the future and see - that God is even now with us, preparing a way, and eagerly awaiting our reimaginings. We might understand that God has forgiven us for our backward looking, God has raised us out of sorrow, and God has offered us a path of life.

In putting on our best, in the engagement of our context and mission, we would discover that, like the Israelites in Babylon:
For God will lead Israel with joy,
in the light of his glory,
with the mercy and righteousness that come from him.