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Wednesday, December 24, 2008
A DO-IT-YOURSELF CHRISTMAS EVE EMERGENCY KIT Dear friends in Christ, My dad spent several weeks in a foxhole in the Ardennes with artillery shells exploding overhead snapping off the tops of pine trees, and sniper fire limiting mobility to a slither and crawl. So what’s a little snow and ice in the suburbs of Portland? Still … it feels like defeat to have to announce the cancellation of our Christmas Eve service tonight (and this after my boasting about how neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow nor hail could ever stop a pastor with chains). But the latest word, even with today’s melting, is that our church parking area and walkway are still inaccessible with seven inches of snow on a layer of ice. Although some are willing to brave it, many can’t and shouldn’t even think about trying, so I say stay warm and cozy and I promise we will worship together again soon … Easter? As a consolation I read that The Chronicles of Narnia is on TV tonight. Or you could try a church closer to home (just this once). Or if you’re desperate for a Christmas Eve sermon … call me up and I’ll lay one on you …or better yet come on over !!! Best of all -- create your own service: Sing ~ Shout ~ Laugh ~ Dance ~ Light Candles ~ Break Bread ~ Lift Your Glass in Gratitude and Wonder Here are a few of my favorite poems to get you going … INTO THIS SILENT NIGHT by Ann Weems Into this silent night as we make our weary way we know not where. just as night becomes its darkest and we cannot see our path, just then is when the angels rush in their hands full of stars. A SWADDLING GOD by Zach Kincaid In the old days, the sky roamed much closer. Legend speaks of people peeling it off and eating it for food. Its abundance created a peace in all corners of the earth because no one wanted for anything. But time eroded the gift into assumption, and assumption into ungrateful expectations. People began to plan and plot for ways to store it up and keep it only for themselves So the sky retreated into a far off place above the earth. As the sun dipped low the people saw the holes spread out, dotting the sky with light from somewhere beyond. Then they realized how large a canvass once covered them. Loneliness and uncertainty became commonplace. No one knew the intentions of heaven and few understood why she kept her distance. They didn’t suspect that the sky must parachute open in order for true sustenance to fall inside it. Years produced lines in the sand. But the earth finally bloomed. Wild orchards and lilies marked the fields with an array of color, hinting back to the sky’s magic still dripping down. And then it happened all over again. The mountains knelt into the valleys. The parachute descended. An unassuming daughter swaddled God underneath a sky ripped open to show a love unwavered from generations of guessing. Eternity reordered time, radiance put on skin, heaven walked the earth, and the kingdom of God … is now. Glory to God in the highest. His arms are long enough to embrace us still today. AMAZING PEACE by Maya Angelou Into this climate of fear and apprehension, Christmas enters, Streaming lights of joy, ringing bells of hope And singing carols of forgiveness high up in the bright air. The world is encouraged to come away from rancor, Come the way of friendship. It is the Glad Season. Thunder ebbs to silence and lightning sleeps quietly in the corner. Flood waters recede into memory. Snow becomes a yielding cushion to aid us As we make our way to higher ground. Hope is born again in the faces of children It rides on the shoulders of our aged as they walk into their sunsets. Hope spreads around the earth. Brightening all things, Even hate which crouches breeding in dark corridors. In our joy, we think we hear a whisper. At first it is too soft. Then only half heard. We listen carefully as it gathers strength. We hear a sweetness. The word is Peace. It is loud now. It is louder. Louder than the explosions of bombs. We tremble at the sound. We are thrilled by its presence. It is what we have hungered for. Not just the absence of war. But, true Peace. A harmony of spirit, a comfort of courtesies. Security for our beloveds and their beloveds. We clap hands and welcome the Peace of Christmas. We beckon this good season to wait a while with us. We, Baptist and Buddhist, Methodist and Muslim, say come. Peace -- come and fill us and our world with your majesty. We, the Jew and the Jainist, the Catholic and the Confucian, Implore you, to stay a while with us. So we may learn by your shimmering light How to look beyond complexion and see community It is Christmas time, a halting of hate time. And finally this. A young girl was so afraid to sleep every night she kept calling for her mother to come and finally her mother said, “Just let go and try to sleep because you know that God will be with you all through the night until the morning comes.” The girl replied, “Yes I know, but I need someone with skin on.” For me, Jesus is God with skin on. In Jesus we see divine love in a human face with eyes of compassion and sorrow and joy and welcome. Emmanuel ~ God With Us Merry Christmas
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
Scripture bears witness to God’s activity among humankind. To Mary, to David, to Paul, assurance of God’s presence is clear. As we ground ourselves in the story of God’s faithfulness, we join them in awe and wonder, rejoicing that God continues to give birth to grace, hope, new possibilities, and salvation for everyone. In Luke 1:26–38, it is clear that God’s purpose is unfolding in ways that people in Luke’s time, and in ours, might not expect. The young woman, Mary, receives news that she is to play an important role in God’s purpose for the world. Luke is one of four gospels, a particular kind of story that contains history, yet focuses more on the meaning of God’s word and God’s reign than on historical facts. Luke uses historical information to set Jesus’ birth in political time – Jesus was born when Herod the Great was King of Judea and Augustus was Emperor. The birth also is set in relative time. Six months after Elizabeth and Zechariah have been told that they will be parents, the angel who brought this good news to them appears to Mary. After establishing the timing within the political context as well as the timing relative to God’s people, Luke explores the significance of Jesus’ life. No historical records of the type to which we’re accustomed today exist to give details of time, place, and circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth. Perhaps, for Luke, such details were secondary to the fact that Jesus was born to a young Galilean woman named Mary – living in a country occupied by the army of the Roman Empire – as part of God’s plan of salvation for God’s people. In Luke 1:47–55 we hear Mary’s song of rejoicing as she responds to her part in the ongoing work of God’s purpose. The Magnificat, as Mary’s song is called, may take the place of a reading from Psalms for today. With the psalmist who sings of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness for all generations in Psalm 89:1–4, 19–26, Mary praises God’s promise of saving love and care for all time. Gabriel’s announcement to Mary confirms the greatness of the “house of David.” In 2 Samuel 7:1–11, 16, King David, having united the people of Israel, celebrates by bringing the Ark of the Covenant (an ornate box said to contain the stone tablets with God’s law and other religious items) into Jerusalem. The prophet Nathan brings word to King David that God does not want a structural house for the Ark, and that God will make David’s “house” – descendants – part of God’s promise and faithfulness. Reflecting on God’s purpose revealed in Jesus, the concluding verses in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, Romans 16:25–27, praise God’s purpose in Christ. Many scholars believe that a later writer added these verses – perhaps they are an endorsement of Paul’s message by a later generation of Christians. Whatever the source, these verses are a fitting summary of the gospel message: in the Christ, God’s promise for all is birthed. Our rejoicing this Advent season expresses confidence that God continues to make things happen – a confidence in God’s promise to reshape and restore in unexpected ways. We respond with faith and praise, as did Mary, David, and Paul. How will you respond to God’s promise that continues to be born among us this Advent season?
Tuesday, December 09, 2008
God promises restoration and healing. God has done great things for God’s people in the past and is doing great things in our own lives today. With the community of God’s people, we proclaim that God is faithful. We rejoice in God’s promises and continue to work and pray for the fulfillment of this vision. We shout for joy. Psalm 126 Imagine a crowd of pilgrims making their way up to Jerusalem and the temple. They have come from far and near to celebrate a festival. At last their destination is in sight. From the crowd come songs of praise and thanksgiving. God has brought them to the center of Israel’s worship – to the place where God’s presence comes very near to them. Zion is an ancient Hebrew name for the area around Jerusalem and for the hill on which Solomon’s temple stood. Psalm 126 is a “psalm of ascents,” one of a group of 15 psalms (120–134) to be sung by those on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. It is a song of thanksgiving for all God has done for the community of Israel. This is a psalm about exile and return, about the restoration of God’s people. When those who were exiled in Babylon return to Zion, they can hardly believe it. They are filled with joy. Though Solomon’s temple has been destroyed, it will be rebuilt. The people will once again come to give thanks for God’s great gifts. God has restored their lives just as God sends rain to water the Negeb desert, an arid area in the south of ancient Palestine. God, the psalmist says, can send rain to make the desert blossom. The psalm ends with a metaphor of planting and harvest. We sow seeds into the arid soil and water them with our tears. Perhaps these are all the seeds that are left to us. We might have ground them into flour from which to make a meal. Yet we plant them with hope that something more will come. And God gives a rich harvest. We return with joy, bringing home not just a few plants but sheaves of grain. God gives abundantly. This news of God’s abundant grace is known “among the nations.” The psalmist tells that the nations see what God has done and acknowledge God. The message of hope is clear. God has done great things in the past and will continue to do them today. With the psalmist, we continue to work and pray for the fulfillment of this vision. In Isaiah 61:1–4, 8–11, the prophet also speaks of return from exile. Those who mourn will rejoice; they will rebuild the ruined cities and restore the community. God’s prophet is called to bring good news to the oppressed and comfort to those who mourn. God’s everlasting reign – marked by righteousness and peace – will be seen by all nations. Luke 1:47–55, offered as an alternative to the psalm, is known as the Magnificat or Song of Mary. It is a song of great rejoicing as Mary remembers all that God has done and will do. Through the child she will bear, there will be a new raising up of God’s people and new hope for those who are poor and oppressed. All nations will see it and rejoice. John 1:6–8, 19–28 introduces John the Baptizer, sent by God as a witness to the Light of God that was coming into the world. John is not the Messiah, but one who prepares the way for God’s coming among us. Looking to the future, the gospel recalls God’s past activity in sustaining the people of Israel. In 1 Thessalonians 5:16–24, Paul gives a brief list of instructions for new Christians. God is faithful and we rejoice. This Sunday, observed by some as “Rejoice Sunday,” is a time to give thanks for God’s restoring and healing power as we have seen it in our own lives and in the life of our community. Where do you see seeds of love and care – planted in hope – beginning to flourish and come to harvest? What signs of God’s faithfulness cause you to rejoice?
Tuesday, December 02, 2008
When God’s people are in distress, messengers of hope come to remind of God’s steadfast love. Isaiah speaks a message of comfort to God’s people in exile: God will bring them back to the land of promise. The other scripture passages remind us of the good news of God’s faithfulness. We, too, are called to be messengers of hope. Isaiah 40:1–11 The book of Isaiah contains at least three sections, each speaking in and out of a particular era in Israel’s history. The first 39 chapters, dating from the 8th century BCE, are a series of warnings of coming disaster for the people of Judah. Chapter 40 begins the section of God’s word to the Judahites after their kingdom fell in 586 BCE. At that time many people were carried into exile in Babylon, perhaps even the prophet who delivers this message. After years in Babylon, many Hebrew exiles had built homes and established comfortable lives there. But empires rise and fall, and Cyrus of Persia came to threaten Babylon. Cyrus was thought to be more tolerant of the Hebrew exiles. There was hope for a new beginning. In Isaiah 40:1–11, the prophet speaks to persuade the exiles to go back to Jerusalem. Cyrus will be God’s instrument in fostering their return. Indeed, Cyrus eventually did provide for rebuilding Jerusalem and the temple. In this passage, God sits in the midst of the divine council and speaks a message of comfort to the people of Judah and to Jerusalem. Their suffering is coming to an end; they have paid double the penalty for their sins – their defiant acts against God’s ways. The exiles hope there will be a way for them to return to the land of promise. The prophet calls on the leaders of the people to prepare this “way of the Lord,” to make possible the return of God’s people. God is creating a new geography, raising valleys and lowering mountains, smoothing the path that leads the exiles back to Jerusalem – back to the heart and center of their religion. God’s people can confidently proclaim that God is faithful. Even though humankind is transitory, like grass in a field, God endures. The word of God stands forever. Verses 9-11 answer last week’s question: Where is God? God is here, Isaiah reminds the people. God the shepherd is coming with strength and with tenderness. God’s glory will once more be seen among the people. And, after this time of exile, God’s glory and presence will not be revealed to only Israel and Judah. “All people shall see it together” (verse 5). The psalmist echoes Isaiah’s proclamation that God’s salvation is near at hand. Psalm 85:1–2, 8–13 recalls that God has acted in the past to forgive and restore. And God’s “glory”– the light of God’s presence – will be seen again. The marks of God’s salvation are steadfast love, faithfulness, righteousness, and peace; these define the path for those living into God’s reign. In 2 Peter 3:8–15a, Peter writes to counter the claims of those who say that the present age will continue forever. Peter calls readers to prepare immediately for life in God’s reign by repenting and leading lives of holiness and godliness. Mark 1:1–8 begins the story of Jesus by introducing John the Baptizer. Like Isaiah’s “voice crying in the wilderness,” John is a messenger preparing the way for God’s coming. And, as in the other readings, the desired response of those who hear the message is repentance – turning from disobedience and turning toward God’s way. When we are despairing, when we feel far from our true center, we need the message of hope contained in the lessons for this Sunday. God is faithful. God will restore and guide. Isaiah, Cyrus, and John all were God’s messengers of this hopeful word. When have you encountered such messengers of hope? What message about God’s love and care do you want to tell others?
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
This Sunday is Reign of Christ/Christ the King Sunday, the end of the church year. This day we proclaim the hope of God’s eternal realm of justice and peace. Christians are called to imitate God’s love for all creation, and especially for those who are vulnerable, weak, and oppressed. God is at work through us, as we find Christ in one another. Matthew 25:31–46 Jesus’ teaching in this passage tells how, when God’s reign comes in its fullness, the nations will be separated in the same way a shepherd separates sheep and goats. In Jesus’ day, flocks of sheep and goats together were common. Shepherds would count their animals at the end of the day, separating the sheep – which needed more attentive care – from the goats. In the Hebrew Scriptures, sheep sometimes are an image of God’s people (for example, Psalm 100:3 and Isaiah 53:6). In the New Testament, the image of sheep often refers to those who follow Christ, the shepherd (for example, John 10:1–11 and Hebrews 13:20). On the day Christ reigns in full glory, Jesus says the nations will be separated based on whether they have fed the hungry ones, clothed the naked ones, and so forth. In this way Jesus announces the judgment of all nations, both Jewish and Gentile, according to how they have responded to the call to follow and serve the cause of Christ. First-century Antioch, where the first readers of Matthew may have been located, had no “social safety net” of shelters, food banks, public hospitals, and social services. The streets would have teemed with the kind of people Jesus names in this passage – people who struggled to survive. Very few people would have avoided the painful sight of so many in need. There are challenges for modern readers in understanding this text. First, we might hear the truth of Jesus’ teaching, but find it difficult to leave our personal comfort zones to enact the mandate. Second, the text can lead individuals or congregations to approach those who are in need as objects of their good works. They may, in this way, donate money or volunteer time all with an eye toward “us” helping “them.” What is key, therefore, is to recognize the encounter that is at the heart of the passage. Jesus’ disciples today are called to perform acts of mercy and justice for those in need – to live out God’s great compassion. We do these things, however, not simply to “help,” to assuage our guilt, or to justify ourselves. In such action, we also encounter the living presence of Christ in one another. In other words, those who have plenty are as much in “need” (of God) as those with little. The encounter with one another may lead to relationships. Acts of compassion may become experiences of God’s presence. As we see Christ present in other people, perhaps they will see Christ present in us as well. The image of Christ as the one who reigns is emphasized in Ephesians 1:15–23. We who call ourselves members of Christ’s church are indeed the Body of Christ in the world. The primacy of God’s justice and compassion are also apparent in Ezekiel 34:11–16, 20–24. God cares for each member of the flock, seeking out those who are lost. At the same time, God judges between “fat” and “lean,” accusing the “fat” of depriving the “lean” of what they need to live well. The singer of Psalm 100 celebrates that we are God’s sheep. God’s love endures and we can trust God’s care. As we use our hearts and hands to share the love of God, we open ourselves to encountering Christ in others and having them encounter Christ in us.
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Jesus used provocative images to encourage his disciples to seize opportunities to serve neighbors and strangers. God’s extravagant, life-giving love is not limited by traditional boundaries. It is found in unexpected and surprising places. Faith, hope, and love empower us to live as though the fulfillment of God’s reign is imminent. Matthew 25:14–30 Matthew 25 continues with another of Jesus’ parables about the reign of God. Jesus uses money to visualize the power of God released in the world. It further develops Jesus’ command to love God and neighbor, and provides a picture of God’s Spirit at work. The parable encourages us to let God’s life-giving grace and compassion flow through us as a power for good in the neighborhood and beyond. In Jesus’ time, a talent was a huge amount of money – about 15 years’ wages for a common laborer. Thus, the first servant received more than a lifetime’s wages. Jesus reveals God as being ridiculously extravagant. The first hearers likely found this parable controversial. Imagining God’s reign as money at work would have been disturbing. Money often was an instrument of exclusion and oppression, and not associated with God’s activity. Such a controversial image alerted his listeners to Jesus’ interpretation of God’s law. The parable tells of the owner’s successful investments beyond the usual agents and clients. The plot does not follow Matthew’s usual sequence of Israel first, then the Gentiles. Could God’s reign be wider and more inclusive than previously thought? This would have been a dangerous idea to the first hearers. The third servant buried the “life of God,” fearing punishment for underachieving. The judgment for this servant’s lack of trust urges disciples to a radical change of heart and behavior. God’s life-giving power let loose in the world brings a richly expanded capital of love and compassion. God’s presence is acknowledged where disciples might not expect or even desire it. Disciples who take the risk to live as God directs will be shocked and surprised in the best possible ways by God’s compassion and people’s response. Dare we allow God’s love to push us into adventures beyond our imaginations, investing the gifts we receive for the sake of God’s reign? Some scholars offer a subversive reading of this text, suggesting that the parable offers the possibility of an “anti–hero” interpretation, pronouncing the third servant a hero. This servant refused to charge interest, which would have oppressed those who might have used the funds. This reading suggests that the reign of God is about God’s justice and equity. This is how communities of disciples are called to behave. Notice, however, that this servant did not give the funds to those in need. God works where God will work. In Judges 4:1–7, when the situation seemed hopeless, God was already at work to provide a leader and deliverance. God judges, but also sees and saves. The psalmist of Psalm 123 brings together the interests of a master and a servant in the context of God’s power for mercy. In 1 Thessalonians 5:1–11 Paul imagines Christians clothed with the virtues of faith, hope, and love as they resist pressure to conform to society. Living and working as though the fulfillment of God’s reign is imminent, disciples bring God’s grace and compassion to all. God’s life-giving love flows through the people of God into the wider community. Churches are called to embrace neighbors and strangers with extravagant acts of compassion and grace, working together to find ways to reach out to a universal community. How are we being called to take part in God’s reign? How will we continue to use God’s gifts in faithful and extravagant service to God and neighbor?
Tuesday, November 04, 2008
Those who bear the light of Christ are called to give constant attention to tending the source of this light within. God’s Spirit is the life given to each disciple. As we wait for the fulfillment of God’s reign, we are to tend to the things that sustain and nurture our faith, and tend to the ministry and service to which God calls us. Matthew 25:1–13. Matthew 25 includes two parables about the coming of God’s realm in its fullness. Parables are wisdom stories. Jesus’ parables challenged the disciples to consider matters of faith through well-known, everyday experiences or cultural practices. Jesus’ parables gave wise responses to this question of early Christian communities: How shall we live in God’s reign in relationship with God and one another? In engaging Jesus’ parable in these verses, it is helpful to know that tradition required the bridegroom to arrive at the home of the bride’s family, claim the bride, and take her to his own house. The bridesmaids waited at the groom’s house, ready to welcome the couple and celebrate their new beginning. Waiting for the bridegroom meant being prepared, not merely passing time. In this parable, some bridesmaids neglected their oil lamps. A trimmed wick ensured maximum light and minimum smoke. Having lamps that once burned well did not mean that they would burn well again. Constant attention to the lamps ensured the light would be available when required. In Bible times, oil was associated with anointing and indicated the presence of God’s Spirit with a person. Oil also was a metaphor for God’s presence, displayed in one’s compassion and acts of love and mercy. The gospel of Matthew strives to keep the community of disciples grounded in Christ. The parable speaks to being ready whenever God’s reign comes in its fullness. God’s life is birthed in each person. Each person is responsible to tend the light of God’s life within – one person cannot pass her or his inner spiritual strength to another. Jesus’ parable speaks to God’s desire for relationships with disciples that have continuing life and consequence. An untended life of faith runs the risk of smothering the God-given flame within. Disciples can be seduced by religious “highs,” particular teachings, even ministry and service. The life of faith is dimmed through inattention. Tending to our faith – having trimmed wicks and plenty of oil – means attending to the practices of faith that form and grow us into the faith of Christ. Matthew’s reference to judgment in verse 10 may appear moralistic to modern readers. Experiencing God’s compassion seems a more effective motivation to attend to the practices of Christian faith. While we engage in the ministry and service to which God has called us, we must also tend the things that sustain and nurture our faith. Joshua, as described in Joshua 24:1–3a, 14–25, could not choose for others to follow God. To follow God meant living in relationship with God according to the covenant, and each Israelite needed to choose to do so. Psalm 78:1–7 lays out the importance of passing on past learning to future generations. Paul’s friends tended the light of their faith, but some died during persecution. In 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18, Paul’s hope in God’s grace imagines them continuing in community with Christ, in God’s eternal presence. Jesus’ parable invites us to prepare for full participation in God’s reign. Such preparation and participation – tending God’s light – is grounded in our faith. What practices nourish and sustain our faith? What is the basis for our hope as we seek to live in Christ, now and in the time to come?
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
Jesus insisted that word and deed corroborate each other. Disciples are credible witnesses when their loving actions mirror their words. Religious leaders have authority when their teaching takes form in their love toward God and neighbor. Disciples are called to be partners in service, learning and growing together as they love God and neighbour. Matthew 23:1–12 In this text, the scribes and Pharisees claim Moses as the authority for their teaching. In Jesus’ time, scribes served as religious lawyers, scholars, and teachers. The Pharisees were influential Jewish religious leaders who focused their lives on learning scripture and following religious practices. After the Jerusalem temple was destroyed in 70 CE, the Pharisees exhorted the community – who included the first readers of the gospel of Matthew – to live as God’s holy people, distinct from the surrounding Roman society. This account of Jesus’ teaching speaks to how Matthew’s community experienced the scribes and the Pharisees. Jesus noted the lack of congruence between the teaching and the practice of certain scribes and Pharisees. Their teaching was acceptable as it was grounded in the Law of Moses. Jesus was not critical of God’s law. However, the regulations about what would mark the Jews as “holy” or “separate” had become more than ordinary people could bear. Jesus preached that God’s love invites confession and assures forgiveness. This was how the law removed guilt and debt, putting people in a right relationship with God. Jesus speaks against religious leaders who would place barriers between God and God’s people. Jesus’ teaching about the law preserved God’s grace and compassion, the essence of God’s law. Jesus enacted this teaching each day, interpreting the law with compassion (Matthew 11:28). In their zeal for a holy people and holy nation, some Pharisees preferred the benefits of power to a reputation for godly compassion, enjoying the attention their garments and religious practices attracted. Jesus observed that the outward signs (phylacteries and prayer shawls) displayed by certain leaders to mark them as God’s holy people were not supported by their actions. They were not practicing what they taught about God’s way of justice and compassion. For Matthew’s church and our church today, such use of power can mislead, corrupt the reputation of God’s law, and cause oppression. Leadership practices evolve to suit situations and communities. Moses’ leadership identified him as a charismatic, servant leader. He was both prophet and priest. As noted in Joshua 3:7–17, Joshua appointed tribal councils and priests to share the work of leading the people of Israel. With the transition to Joshua, institutional leadership replaced charismatic leadership. Moses knew God’s presence on personal basis. Joshua knew God’s presence in the Ark of the Covenant. In Psalm 107:1–7, 33–37, the psalmist declares that leaders find their authority by honouring God’s work. Paul knew that godly leadership empowers others. In 1 Thessalonians 2:9–13, Paul gives a clear account of how his use of power reveals congruence between word and deed. The Faith community – ordained leaders and laity alike – are called to learn and work together as partners in service of Christ. Honoring everyone’s contribution helps the community to grow in faith and deeds of love. To what extent does our church operate as a community of partners in service of Christ? In what ways does our church honor the contribution of each member?
Tuesday, October 21, 2008
Extravagant, unrestricted compassion marks living in God’s way. What helps us to stay faithful to living in this way? Some rules promote growth, and energize positive relationships. Others limit, exclude, disempower, harm, and hurt. The gospel of Matthew reminds the emerging Christian community of Jesus’ rules: unconditional love for God and neighbour. Matthew 22:34–46 This scripture continues conversations about Jesus’ authority recorded in Matthew. The gospel of Matthew shows that Jesus was not critical of the temple or temple worship. Jesus did confront some religious leaders for their support of an elaborate system that required expensive purity rituals prior to entry into God’s presence in the temple. At the temple, people purchased and sacrificed animals. To do so, they often needed to exchange currency or take loans. This system could create economic, social, and spiritual debt. The people who could afford prescribed animal sacrifices benefited by being allowed to enter into temple worship. Others found the debts prohibitive, and some could no longer afford this prescribed way of coming into God’s presence. Jesus opposed this corrupted system. Jesus taught that God’s law intends to bring God and people into life-giving relationships. Living God’s way – loving neighbours with selfless compassion and justice – was of greatest importance to Jesus. The lawyer’s question in verse 36 seems genuine, though Matthew notes it is asked as a test. Jesus supported God’s law. It was the practices of some religious leaders to which he objected. Israelite prophets noted God’s desire for justice and compassion (feeling the pain of another as one’s own). Jesus sought to restore the law’s intended focus on the community’s relationship with God. In Jesus’ comment in verse 40, the gospel writer emphasizes that Jesus’ interpretation preserves the essence of the law. Jesus affirms that God’s law is not about regulations, rules, and punishments. It is about just relationships between God and people, and between neighbours. Love of God and love of neighbour are bound together. Jesus’ interpretation reinforces his identity as a prophet, a common image in Matthew. According to Jewish tradition, Jesus’ interpretation of the law required two witnesses to give it authority. Jesus offered his role as Messiah and David’s declaration of Jesus’ superiority. Neither witness convinces the sceptics among those listening to Jesus. The Pharisees made the connection, but limited their expectation of Messiah to a liberating political figure. Jesus probably was not what the Pharisees expected in the Messiah. Jesus was more than a political liberator. The Messiah is the resurrected Christ, who sits at the right hand of God, sharing God’s power. Jesus leads us by example to live according to the law of God’s compassion – loving God and loving our neighbours, even strangers. Moses experienced God’s compassion first-hand in a face-to-face encounter, as described in Deuteronomy 34:1–12. God’s steadfast love is the background for the communal lament in Psalm 90. The psalmist trusted God, knowing that God’s undeserved compassion would come in God’s time. In 1 Thessalonians 2:1–8, Paul’s gentle, compassionate approach shows his motivation is from Jesus Christ. His behaviour is evidence of God’s love in action. As the community of Jesus’ disciples, we are called to find ways to proclaim the love of God to our neighbours. Congruence between our words and our deeds may be the most convincing witness. Loving with unlimited compassion, as God loves us, is a compelling way to tell the good news of Christ. When have you extended compassionate love to others? What might happen as you and your church share the gospel with your whole being?
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
NOTE: I'll be away for the next few weeks. Next posting will be in late -October. As the Israelites learn to live as a community of God’s people, they encounter frustration and anger, and then hope, as God’s compassion comes in a surprising way. God’s people today still encounter God’s grace in unexpected places and persons. Taken together, these texts challenge us to discern God’s abundant provision and our response. Exodus 17:1–7 The people of Israel are still wandering in the wilderness, led by Moses and Aaron. In the story last week, the hungry community called out for food, and God fed them day-by-day with bread from heaven. Sunday’s focus scripture begins as the Hebrews set up camp at Rephidim, and discover there is no water. Their reaction to this dilemma is a familiar one – they lash out at Moses. How could they be sure that God was still with them? In spite of their deliverance from Egypt, their reliance on God’s sustaining presence falters once again. The people accuse Moses of intending to kill them all along. Moses, in turn, cries out to God for guidance. “What shall I do with this people?” Moses and the Hebrew people are not left alone in this wilderness of frustration and anger. God responds with grace and the journey resumes: “Go on ahead of the people…I will be standing there in front of you.” God’s faithful presence and provision sustains them once again. God’s faithfulness prevails over the Hebrews’ lack of trust and faith. Moses strikes the rock as God directs, and water rushes forth. The springs that are created there are named Massah and Meribah, Hebrew words that recall the Israelites’ quarrelling and testing. This may seem like a reminder to not raise complaints to God. Or, perhaps, the names are more a judgment of their lack of trust in God’s willingness or ability to hear and to act. The text concludes with the question: “Is God among us or not?” This question remains critical for all who journey in faith. So does the response given in this text – water springs from a rock to bring life in the wilderness. This will not be the last time that the people of Israel grow anxious and fearful on their journey to the Promised Land. Still, as is often the case for them, this time of crisis pushes them to re-affirm their trust in God’s presence. Trust that God is among us is evident in Psalm 78:1–4, 12–16. God’s provision of good things is celebrated with joy. The lectionary skips over 78:5–11, the memory of the people’s rebellion against God and their refusal to keep covenant. As a remedy against this happening again, the psalmist calls the people to remember and recite accounts of God’s powerful works. Paul, in Philippians 2:1–13, declares, “God is with us!” And to live in God’s name is to be of service to all. When Paul implores the community to “work out your own salvation” (v. 12), he is not saying salvation is earned, but that the community must take the steps necessary to reach and express their complete wholeness. God calls; humans respond. In Philippi, some favoured Caesar and some Jesus as their lord. In Matthew 21:23–32, Jesus faces religious authorities who refuse to take a stand either way. Jesus responds to this time of testing by declaring the importance of standing with God’s truth, regardless of the consequences. As we live between frustration and hope, we call out to God and to our human leaders. We long to know we will be heard, that there will be a response. Assured by Christ, we can be confident of God’s sustaining presence. What does it mean to trust in God alone in the midst of test and struggle? How might we support one another as we grow in trust of God’s compassion and provision?
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
TENSIONS IN THE WILDERNESS God listens and responds, providing through nature, other people, and communities. After the Hebrew people fled from Egypt, they were tested by unfamiliar territory, hunger, and lack of knowledge. In the midst of such tension, God provided for their needs. In Matthew, Jesus responds to a time of tension with a parable about God’s care and generosity. Exodus 16:2–15 Sunday’s story follows songs of praise and thanksgiving for God’s deliverance in Exodus 15. After crossing the sea and escaping from the Egyptians, the Hebrews entered the Wilderness of Sin, known today as the Sinai Desert. Their journey was not along the main trade routes. The region was arid. Food sources were unfamiliar. Their secure supply of food in Egypt was replaced by the need to hunt and gather food in unfamiliar territory. The hardship the Hebrews faced in the wilderness was the result of struggling to find food and water in an unfamiliar place. However, the wilderness was also a place of experiencing God’s abundance and a time of self-discovery. This wandering time reoriented the Hebrews from life in Egypt to life with God. God was present with them in captivity, in freedom, and in the wilderness. The people’s complaint was against God’s creation. God’s provision came in an image of creation – bread from heaven. The name for the bread, man-uh, is from the Hebrew question: “What is it?” Each time the Hebrews spoke the name of this bread, they recalled their own question, and remembered who had supplied the food. Man–uh was probably a sticky, protein-rich substance excreted by insects. God also supplied quail, a small ground bird of the region. All creation is good, as God is present in it. Moses and Aaron received the people’s complaint. God responded to Moses, who played a priestly role as mediator for the people. Moses and Aaron expand upon God’s instructions. Aaron called for hope and belief. The voice from within the cloud was a powerful reminder of God’s presence. The people understood that the God who delivered them also provided. When the Hebrew people complained about the lack of food, the complaint was against God. Would their memories of food and water in Egypt shake their belief in God? It seems the Hebrews had left Egypt, but Egypt had not left them. Until they had truly left Egypt behind, it would not be possible for them to accept God’s covenant, to be given in the law at Sinai (Exodus 19–20). Accepting God’s provision of food was part of getting ready to accept a new kind of relationship with God. Moses and Aaron helped the people to move on from Egypt, and get ready for God to give the law. There is completeness in this story. The entire company complained, then received God’s response, and knew of God’s presence and care. Such glory of God’s saving presence also was celebrated in the Passover feast. Long after these events, those who recorded the stories in Exodus included detailed instructions in these stories to make sure that the Sabbath continued to be observed. As noted by the psalmist in Psalm 105, each generation has a role to play in passing on these great stories of faith. God is generous with the community of God’s people. Paul writes, in Philippians 1:21–30, that the struggle to claim and sustain our identity in Christ is worthy of great effort. Jesus’ story in Matthew 20:1–16 about the wilderness of unemployment and the landowner who acts in surprising ways reminds us that God’s generosity does not follow human reasoning. God’s generosity is unlimited. In such generosity, God’s justice is seen. God listens and responds. Sometimes we are part of God’s response. When have you sensed God’s presence in your own times of tension or wilderness struggles? In what ways are you and your church agents of God’s abundant generosity for others?
Tuesday, September 09, 2008
God acted to liberate the Hebrew people, and they responded with joyful celebration. They saw God’s saving work, and believed. Then, as now, God hears the cries of oppressed people and acts. This God is worthy of trust and loyalty. The gift of such compassion strengthens faith for the lifelong journey toward living in freedom in God’s reign. Exodus 14:19–31 Exodus 14 continues the story of the Hebrews’ journey to freedom. Following the Passover meal (Exodus 12), the Hebrews fled from their homes, stopping for instruction and consecration of the first-born (Exodus 13). They avoided the main military route between Egypt and Canaan; a daytime cloud and nighttime pillar of fire confirmed God’s leading presence. When trapped in their campsite between the sea and the Egyptian army, Pharaoh seized the opportunity to recapture his escaped workforce. In today’s passage, God directs the action, moving the cloud to protect the Hebrews as they camp by the sea. God directs Moses, and moves the sea. God creates “water walls” that provide a dry crossing for the Hebrew slaves. When God restores order to the sea, there are devastating results. The storyteller shows that God is responsible for the freedom of the Hebrews. God’s action frees and saves. The people see and believe. God’s actions serve to continue the formation of the people of Israel, who grow in understanding that faith in God is well-placed. Water is significant in stories of God’s saving work. Water recalls God’s work in creation. God’s promise to Noah was to never again destroy with water. Water also is a physical barrier. Water-crossing imagery is found again in the story of Joshua leading the Israelites into the Promised Land. Crossing through water becomes a metaphor for transformation – a symbol of God’s deliverance. Water, as a sign and symbol, is used in baptism today as a means to rehearse God’s freeing love through Jesus Christ. For modern readers, Exodus 14 often raises questions about God’s character. Couldn’t God have saved the Egyptians, too? Remember that the storyteller who recorded the stories in Exodus was a person of that time and worldview. Pastor Martin Niemoeller, imprisoned in concentration camps during World War II, said, “It took me a long time to learn that God is not the enemy of my enemies. [God] is not even the enemy of [God’s] enemies.” A Jewish legend tells of God’s words to an archangel, who was celebrating the defeat of the Egyptian army in the sea: “Why do you celebrate while the work of my hands is being destroyed?” The Exodus stories explore God’s relationship with the Israelites. They help to shape them into a people with mission and charge. These stories become a lens for understanding later events in their history, and shape their self-awareness, values, and faith. Their understanding of God as I AM (“I will cause to be”) becomes clearer. The exodus journey is associated with God’s grace, compassion, and salvation, and becomes a metaphor for hope. Two other readings for today – Psalm 114 and Exodus 15:1b–11, 20–21 – affirm the importance of God’s actions in the lives of the people at this time. For Jesus, the road to freedom was forgiveness. Jesus’ story in Matthew 18:21–25 lifts up the essence of God’s law as God’s gracious, extravagant, unlimited compassion. Paul, in Romans14: 1–2, calls Christians to be accountable to Jesus’ standards and example of forgiveness, while living with confidence that we are God’s. Jesus’ disciples today continue to journey toward the freedom of God’s reign, striving to live in ways that honor God.
Thursday, September 04, 2008
REMEMBER, RESTORE, RENEW Community is formed in ritual, learning, service, and worship. The Hebrew people received God’s grace and compassion in the gift of the Passover and in remembering this experience of liberation. Today, Jesus’ disciples continue to remember and celebrate God’s saving works in loving, disciplined, worshipping communities. Exodus 12:1–14Sunday's lesson follows after God’s action to achieve the Hebrews’ release from Egypt through Moses’ repeated pleas to Pharaoh for liberty. The stories in Exodus imagine a test of the gods. In the ancient world, a diverse group of gods were thought responsible for the fate of humans. The Passover story recalls and celebrates God’s identity as the one, true God who acts to save. On this first Passover, the enslaved Hebrew community prepared for an epic journey. It was to be a political journey, from slavery to freedom. It also was to be a journey toward community culture and identity. At the beginning of the journey, the Hebrews were a diverse people. After receiving God’s law at Sinai (Exodus 19–20), they became God’s covenant people. By the end of the journey recounted in Exodus, the Hebrews were established as Israelites. Subsequent generations remembered Passover through worship. The account in Exodus 12 was likely recorded and shaped during the Israelites’ later exile in Babylon (587–536 Bce). It reflects how Israelite priests regulated worship through ordinances (v. 14). The ways to select and prepare the lamb, and dispose unusable parts, are detailed. Directions about cooking the meat and making sure everyone participates are very particular. Instructions about using the blood are specific. These instructions helped to maintain the form of the annual Passover worship and ritual. In telling the Passover story each year, Israelites remembered their identity. Ritual and worship worked together to renew and restore the people. Blood painted onto the frames of the house doorways was a sign of hope for a restored relationship with God. Blood did not save. When God saw this sign, the tenth plague passed over that household. God’s liberating justice revealed who God was. God saved. The deaths of Egyptians were due to Pharaoh’s persistent injustice. God did not require life to be taken in order to give life. God’s creating and saving acts meet in this story. Israelite time and all remembrance festivals begin from this first Passover (vv. 2, 14). This sense of “beginning again” recalls creation. Also, people often recognize cataclysms – such as devastating earthquakes, storms, or acts of war – as times of new beginnings. Immediately after the Passover meal and final plague, God leads the Hebrews out of Egypt toward new life in the Promised Land. Passover is associated with deliverance. God keeps God’s promise to save and restore. In the Passover, the community of Hebrews experienced God’s restoration and renewed relationship. In Psalm 149, the psalmist remembers such mercy, and expresses praise for being God’s people. Paul, in Romans 13:8–14, reminds readers of what it means to live as God’s people. Relationships with one another and with those outside the community are to be guided by Jesus’ interpretation of God’s law. In Jesus’ time, God’s presence was closely linked with well-disciplined communities. In Matthew 18:15–20, Jesus teaches that God’s forgiveness is never limited. God always seeks “lost ones” with compassion. When Christian communities live by Jesus’ words, God’s glory shines through. God’s deliverance restored and renewed the Hebrew people; later they remembered this gift in Passover worship. In what ways does your community proclaim what God has done in your lives? What rituals help your church remember and celebrate God’s promise and purpose?
Thursday, May 29, 2008
NOTE: This will be my last entry for awhile. I'm taking a break through the summer. I'll be back blogging in September. Genesis 6:9–22; 7:24; 8:14–19 The book of Genesis took form when the Hebrew exiles were in Babylon, between 586 and 536 BCE. The exiles discussed their experiences and God’s activity in Hebrew history as they reflected on their current situation. These reflections brought hope for a different future. Each time the stories were told, people learned more about God: God was present. God listened and watched. God was not a bystander. God was involved. God was not against them, but for them. In Sunday's focus passage, God is imagined as having already seen the results of people’s wickedness (Genesis 6:11–12). The earth – once good – is now corrupt. When the earth was created, God spoke all creation into being and then saw that it was “very good” (Genesis 1:31). This story seems a “reverse” of that account of creation. God sees, then speaks (Genesis 6:12-13). Human sinfulness leads to Earth’s destruction; but, in an act of grace and compassion God will re-create and redeem. Destruction will not be final. Noah is obedient to God, and witnesses God’s renewal of creation after the flood. God’s covenant with Noah is evidence of God’s commitment to faithfully protect the earth (Genesis 8:21). In an ancient worldview, where gods were considered responsible for the future, destruction provided a way to clear away the past and allow a new beginning. This story of the great flood conveys immense hope for the future. Human responsibility for destruction is admitted, but God has a righteous person and a plan. Noah listens and obeys God’s instructions. People will once again enjoy a relationship with God, beginning with Noah’s family. Having received God’s plan (Genesis 6:14–21), Noah stays the distance and plays his part. God involves people in bringing about the redemption that only God can accomplish. Such action is a witness to God’s grace and compassion. Imagine you are a Hebrew exile. How might you feel as you hear this story of God’s re-creation and redemption? Perhaps you would recall the creation story because it echoes in this story. Maybe you would compare God to the Babylonian gods. Likely, you would hear that God is different than the gods of your captors: God is able to re-create and redeem; God is gracious and compassionate; God enjoys relationships with people. In this reflection, you are reminded of God’s identity and your own. In this story, water is the means of God’s cleansing and rebirth. Christian tradition associates such living water with Baptism, recalling the power of water to cleanse and make new. The other readings affirm that God’s presence with us is certain and that the possibility of new beginnings is found in relationship with God. Psalm 46 offers an image of God who strengthens us through waters that “make glad” in the midst of waters that threaten. In Romans 1:16–17; 3:22b–28 (29–31), Paul reminds us that we cannot earn God’s saving work in our lives. We can only receive in faith. Jesus taught with authority about living in God’s way. In Matthew 7:21–29, the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus implores disciples to trust his teaching and take action based on God’s word. God continues to redeem and transform, offering the gift of new beginnings in our lives and in all creation. How might we respond to such opportunity in your worship and service? In what ways can we cooperate with God’s ongoing work of creation?
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
Sunday's lessons proclaim that God cares for us and provides for our needs. The realm of God, which Matthew calls the “kingdom of heaven,” is now; we are formed by God’s ongoing relationship with us. When we are distracted by the requirements and details of everyday living, Jesus invites us to entrust our lives to God’s Spirit and follow in God’s way. Matthew 6:24–34 This text is set within the section of Matthew called “The Sermon on the Mount.” This sermon, found in chapters 5–7, follows Jesus’ call to the disciples. It summarizes Jesus’ teachings about living as a community of God’s people. Earlier, Moses taught God’s law to the Israelites, to form them as a community of God’s people. Matthew’s first readers would have seen links between Moses and Jesus in this “Sermon on the Mount.” Images such as going up the mountain were clues. At the heart of the law revealed to Moses is God’s covenant with God’s people (Exodus 20–32). Jesus affirmed the principles of the law that Moses taught, but interpreted it differently than many of the religious authorities of that time. This caused confrontations between Jesus and some religious leaders. Jesus’ teaching about the meaning of the law might have seemed revolutionary, but the law remained central for Jesus as he taught the disciples about what it means to seek God’s way and live in the present and future reign of God (Matthew 5:17–19). No one can serve two sources of authority equally. Those who follow Christ, including Matthew’s community, must make a choice (6:24) between the presence and character of God and that of wealth. Wealth can be the focus of one’s trust and love, becoming an idol that distracts from knowing and serving God. God’s presence empowers disciples to focus on compassion for the neighbour. Wild lilies grow prolifically. Their brilliant flowers clothe brown Palestinian hillsides in beauty. King Solomon was famous for his ornate possessions, but Jesus teaches that these were nothing compared to the God-given beauty of the lily blooms. In Jesus’ time, grass clippings were used as fuel for cooking. How surprising that he says God cares about grass. In this text, Jesus is teaching the disciples, and us, about knowing God’s character, God’s righteousness. Jesus teaches that our character can reflect God’s righteousness when we live in God’s way. Worry about our own needs leads us to seek security in possessions, power, or beauty. These distractions divert our attention. Distracted, we might ignore others’ need for the abundant gifts that God gives. Being alert and open to God’s grace and compassion can overcome worry about being acceptable to God. Living in God’s way can relieve worry and build character. For Matthew, the church would grow as anxious people could find healing in Jesus’ teaching. Worshipping God would be the natural response to such gifts. The other readings lift up how seeking God’s way shapes our lives. Isaiah 49:8–16a affirms that we need not worry–God will not forget God’s covenant relationship with us. Psalm 131 rejoices that God’s presence helps us to calm our distractedness, reassuring us of the reason to hope. In 1 Corinthians 4:1–5, Paul tells how awareness of God’s presence in his life has formed him as a servant of Christ and steward of “God’s mysteries.” Knowing that God alone will judge and commend, Paul is freed to reflect and express God’s gracious and compassionate character in his living. Living in God’s presence forms character and inner beauty, nourishing our worship of God. What does it mean that God knows you and is involved in your well-being? What distracts you from acts of grace and outrageous compassion?
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
The Confluence of recent events involving a pastor, a historic presidential candidacy, and a sister church in our denomination (Trinity UCC in Chicago), has prompted the leadership of the United Church of Christ to call for a "sacred conversation" among Amiercan church people about race and ethnicity in our culture. Why talk about this at church? Because corporate media outlets seem more interested in generating heat than light on the subject. Because the one place still the most segregated by choice in American life is the church sanctuary (and other houses of worship). Diverstiy is an unchanging fact in our culture. It is important for peole whose life journeys, political perspectives, and relgious experiences differ sharply, to speak openly and honstly with one another about issues important to everyone. We can live with respect, understanding and empathy, or we can live in scorn, division and acrimony. Join us this Sunday, May 18, and share in this sacred conversation. Lessons: Genesis 1:2-4; Psalm 8; Matthew 28:16-20; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13.
Tuesday, April 29, 2008
John 17:1–11 Jesus’ farewell discourse in John 14–17 prepares the disciples for Jesus’ departure. It closes with a prayer, the first half of which forms our focus scripture. This is sometimes called Jesus’ “high priestly prayer.” Like the high priest who prayed on behalf of Israel, Jesus prays for others on the eve of his death on the Passover. In John’s gospel, Jesus dies when the Passover lamb was slain in the temple. The other gospels place the death a day later. Jesus offers this prayer immediately before entering the Garden of Gethsemane. Unlike the other gospel accounts where Jesus’ prayer in the garden struggles with his impending death, John’s gospel describes Jesus as affirming the hour that has come as one of glorification. Jesus prays in the hearing of the disciples, for while the prayer is addressed to God, its concern is for the disciples. The immediate focus of this prayer is the disciples of that time and those who will follow. The wider focus encompasses the world. Taken out of context, concern for the world in this prayer might appear to be cast in negative expressions (see especially verses 14–16). John 3:16–17 provides the balance. Jesus’ coming has been generated by God’s love for the world. The purpose of that love is the world’s saving. Jesus prays for those called to embody that love in his absence. If God’s love is to be seen in this world, it will be through their (our) witness. “Glory” and “community” are key themes in Jesus’ prayer. “Glory” in John has to do with the revealing of God. The cross and the Resurrection together form the “hour” when God is revealed through Jesus. “Community” is understood in several ways. Jesus prays for the immediate community of disciples who follow him. Jesus prays for the later community of those who will believe through the witness of these first disciples. Jesus prays that these communities will in turn know the intimacy of relationship that Jesus enjoys with God. Community’s hope is relational. Community’s hope is also missional. “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21b). Jesus’ prayer intends to empower those who follow. Likewise, empowerment for witness is a backdrop in the other readings. Acts 1:6–14 awaits the witness made possible by the coming of God’s Spirit. The mention of Samaria and the ends of the earth hints this witness will go far beyond traditional borders and limits. Psalm 68:1–10 witnesses with praise and awe to a God concerned for those who are vulnerable. 1 Peter 4:12–14, 5:6–11 sees suffering as the context of the church’s witness. That context is said to be shared with “brothers and sisters in all the world.” God’s empowering Spirit is another common theme in these texts. Jesus’ words in Acts 1:7–8 steer disciples away from end-time speculations to preparation for God’s presence in Spirit now. The psalmist praises God, who brings power and strength to God’s people. The writer of 1 Peter celebrates the Spirit who rests upon us, and the God whose power is without end. To be a community of faith is to be a community of prayer. In what ways does our congregation function as a community of prayer? When have you prayed for, or been prayed for by another, in memorable ways? Where do you experience the connections between prayer and hope; prayer and witness; prayer and power?
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
God has listened to our searching for holy presence. Spirit’s gift comes as response to that listening. The language of relationship with God is Spirit-ed love. Love keeps this relationship in word and deed. Love casts out fear. Love does not abandon. Love is eager to do good. Love provides place. Through love we find, and are found, by God. John 14:15–21 Sunday's passage continues Jesus’ farewell speech to the disciples. It is the first of four teachings in the gospel of John about God’s Spirit. Here, the Spirit is described as “advocate,” from the Greek parakletos. “Paraclete” has a range of meanings that communicate who Spirit is by what Spirit does. Among other things, paraclete can mean to encourage, help, or comfort. The use of “advocate” here comes from the way the word is used in other settings to convey the equivalent of a defence attorney. Spirit comes as a gift from God, just as John earlier portrayed Jesus as God’s gift (3:16). The emphasis in this passage is not so much belief in Jesus as it is love for Jesus. The importance of the Paraclete as “advocate” is one who supports and helps us as we seek to love. Such love is revealed in this passage through action. All five occurrences of love in this passage are verbs. The same is true of the remaining five uses of love in the rest of this chapter. Here the exercise of love is connected with keeping Jesus’ commandments. Jesus had announced a new commandment in John 13:34: “love one another.” Disciples keep Jesus’ commands in acts of love in and for the community. Power in Christian community is given a fresh understanding by Spirit’s gift and love’s command. Power is not the ability to coerce. Power comes in Spirit’s gift and our openness to that gift. Our love does not earn God’s love. Instead, our love is the way we keep faith with Jesus’ expression of God’s love. Jesus’ revealing of power comes in the revealing of love. The language of family is applied here to a variety of relationships. The imagery of God as “Father” continues. A new expression identifies the community as not being left “orphaned.” “Orphan” makes several connections. John declares that Jesus gave us “power to become children of God” (1:12). Jesus addresses his followers as “little children” (13:33). The language makes an interesting connection with Paul’s word that we are “God’s offspring” (Acts 17:29). This longing for intimate relationship with God, and God seeking such relationship with us, flows through the other readings. Acts 17:22–31 asserts a universal human longing for God. Psalm 66:8–20 names the psalmist’s approach to God in worship and God’s openness to that seeking. 1 Peter 3:13–22 describes God’s seeking in the farthest of places in its imagery of Jesus visiting the “spirits in prison.” God’s reach includes the places and people others might write off as hopeless. God’s love knows no bounds. Witnessing to faith is also an aspect of these additional scriptures. Paul’s sermon in Acts 17:22–31 communicates faith to those of another culture in a way that takes social context seriously. Psalm 66 opens and closes with witness to God’s actions and grace. 1 Peter 3 not only relates Christ’s witness, but encourages our own witness. We are to seek good with gentleness, reverence, and fearlessness. God seeks to create community by the gift of Spirit and the exercise of love. We, in turn, find the means to live in community by Spirit’s gift and through love’s call.
Tuesday, April 15, 2008
In word and deed and character, Jesus shows us God. In that revealing, Jesus assures us we have a safe place with God. That promise remains secure in times of joyous presence and of troubled absence. Such hope takes shape in the psalmist’s trust of God as rock and fortress, and in Stephen’s dying graciousness. This is the way, and the One, we follow. John 14:1–14 Two contexts are at work in the focus passage. The immediate context is the time before Jesus’ death and resurrection. These verses are the beginning of Jesus’ farewell discourse and prayer, a section that runs through John 17. In these words, Jesus prepares the disciples for what is to come. The wider context involves the community to whom this gospel was first addressed. What for them (and for us) does Jesus’ “absence” generate? What will their (our) “place” be with God? The first verse hints that Jesus’ absence created anxiety for those first disciples and likely John’s community. It is interesting to note that John uses the verb troubled three times to describe Jesus (11:33, 12:27, 13:21). Thus, Jesus speaks these words with empathy, as one who knows such distress. The key is not to dwell on the trouble – or in it. Jesus offers the hope and promise of a dwelling place in verses 2–4 as a way to move beyond being troubled. Our place with God is assured in words that describe on ongoing relationship. Verse 6a offers another in a series of Jesus’ “I am” statements in John’s gospel. The name God gives at the burning bush (Exodus 3:14) is believed to be some form of the verb “to be” (“I am who I am,” “I will be who I will be”). The “I am” statements in John suggest strong ties between Jesus and God. They also point to the ways in which Jesus reveals God (“I am” the bread of life, light of the world, good shepherd). In our text today, way, truth, and life can each stand as separate assertions of who Jesus is. The words also can modify one another. For example: Jesus is the way and truth that lead to life; Jesus is the way that leads to truth and life; Jesus is the true way of life. Cautions are in order about several elements of this passage. Often in John’s gospel, Jesus refers to God as “Father.” The exclusive use of this name for God proves difficult for many. In John, the point of its imagery is intimacy, not gender. Even so, intimacy can be terrifying. Verse 6b (“no one comes to the Father except through me”) is another challenging statement. Is this about Christian exclusivity or about Jesus making relationship possible? Verses 13 and 14 invite careful consideration. Asking “anything” is not the point. The gift and discipline is to ask in Jesus’ name, which invites thought of how the request aligns with Jesus’ way. The gift and role of “place” runs through the other readings. Acts 7:55–60 recounts how a vision of God is opened to Stephen as he faces death. That vision enables Stephen to offer forgiveness to his executioners. Psalm 31:1–5, 15–16 uses the image of God’s hand to reveal our place of refuge in God. 1 Peter 2:2–10 reveals our place in community, as those graced with the standing of now being God’s people. Stones that build and destroy form an intriguing connection within these texts as well. Stephen is put to death by stoning. The psalmist speaks of God as “rock.” The writing in 1 Peter 2 quotes Psalm 118 about a rejected stone now made the cornerstone. How we view and use stones is revealing of our place before God. Jesus shows us God, and invites us to trust that in life and in death, our place with God is secure. We need not be anxious.
Tuesday, April 08, 2008
God shepherds by providing all that we need, which is not the same as all we may want. The good shepherd does not abandon us in times of suffering and danger. God stands with those who enter and dwell in such places. Even there, especially there, God leads as a companion whose presence may still our fears. God’s steadfast love is trustworthy. Always. Psalm 23 The beauty of this psalm is deepened by layers of symbolism about shepherds in Judaism. Shepherds were away from community and worship ritual for long periods, which led some to view shepherds with suspicion and some to consider them “unclean.” Central to this psalm is that shepherds had long been associated with kings and other public leaders. That symbolism is not always positive. The prophets had charged Israel’s “shepherds” for failing to care for the flock entrusted to them. What do these traditions add to your understanding of the meaning behind this psalmist’s affirmation of God as shepherd? The voice and structure of the psalm fall into three main sections. Verse 1 opens with a first person (“my,” “I”) declaration of God as shepherd. Verses 2–3 shift to a series of third person (“he”) statements that describe the actions by which God shepherds. Verses 4–6 move into a personal address (“I,” “you”) of God that affirms the results of God’s shepherding. At the centre of the psalm, and the “hinge point” between affirmations and personal address, is this word: “you are with me.” God’s presence is at the core of this psalm, even as the name of God opens and closes its verses. We live and trust in the midst of God’s presence. Two words merit special attention. “Want” in verse 1 has a meaning in Hebrew closer to “lack.” It is the same word used in Deuteronomy 2:7 and 15:7–8. There, God provides in the wilderness for what the people truly need. The psalm invites distinction between desires and needs for the sake of understanding what God promises to provide. The second word that draws our attention occurs in verse 8. Translated there as “mercy,” the Hebrew hesed is a covenant word that has to do with the tenacious loyalty or fidelity of one partner to another. Hesed moves beyond what is obligated for the relationship to whatever needs to be done to sustain it. It is often translated “steadfast love.” Near its close, the psalm offers the intriguing image of sitting at table with one’s enemies. Is this simply another affirmation of God’s providential care that will keep us safe even in the presence of those who might wish to do us ill? Or is the psalm subtly hinting that another act of God’s providential care is reconciliation of those once estranged? What do you think? Images of community flow through the other texts. Acts 2:42–47 portrays the religious and social practices of early Christian community. 1 Peter 2:19–25 addresses a community who knows such suffering as the psalm’s “darkest valley.” John 10:1–10 witnesses to community gathered by recognition of the One who names them. The theme of guarding and keeping also mark these texts, along with the psalm. The community’s sharing of goods in Acts 2:42–47 provides shepherd-like care for the poor and vulnerable. 1 Peter 2:19–25 affirms God in Christ as “shepherd and guardian” in the context of trying times. The image of Jesus in John 10:1–10 as the “gate of the sheep” suggests sheltering and guarding the flock. Our safe-keeping is promised, even when God’s absence seems more pronounced to us than God’s presence. God provides for our needs. That truth – not material excess – defines life abundant. What in this psalm is most comforting to you; most puzzling; most promising? In what ways have you experienced God’s shepherding in good times and not-so-good times?
Monday, March 17, 2008
We can rejoice in Easter’s news because of its first witness: Mary Magdalene. Resurrection was not that day’s prospect. The voice of the Risen Jesus calling her name surprises Mary into recognition, then prepares her for surprising witness. Christ is among us. So said Mary, so say those who follow her lead. Christ is risen. Alleluia! John 20:1–18 The Easter account in John differs somewhat from Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Mary goes alone to the tomb in John. In the others, she goes with one or more other women. John says Peter and the beloved disciple go to the tomb after Mary’s witness. In the other gospels none of the male disciples venture into the tomb. Mary Magdalene plays an extraordinary role in John’s Easter story. She alone goes to the tomb and returns to tell the disciples that Jesus is not there. Her later encounter with Jesus in the garden qualifies her as the first witness to Jesus’ resurrection. Beyond that, Jesus sends Mary to the other disciples to announce that she has seen the Risen Jesus. As with the Samaritan woman in John, Mary not only sees and believes – she sees and witnesses. Her words are the first Easter sermon. Small details shape John’s message. In the first eleven verses, “tomb” occurs nine times. The scene is a place of death. From verse 12 on, tomb is not mentioned. An empty tomb is replaced with the Risen Jesus. The transition between verses 8 and 9 is awkward if “believed” is taken as Easter faith. The next two verses rule out that view. At best, Peter and John believe Mary’s earlier word that someone had taken Jesus. Unlike Mary, they do not linger outside the tomb; they return home. “They did not understand.” Belief in resurrection does not come from an empty tomb. Belief in resurrection comes in a restored relationship. Belief in resurrection comes in Mary’s gospel preaching: “I have seen the Lord!” A still unrecognized Jesus asks Mary, “Whom are you looking for?” (verse 15). Jesus asks a similar question of the first two followers in John 1:38. That was a call story. So is this. It is a call story for Mary Magdalene to be the first one to announce the news. It is a call story for John’s community and for us, to witness with Mary to what and whom we see and trust. The other readings also bear witness to the power of God’s love as a source of new life. Jeremiah 31:1–6 affirms God as one whose love enabled Israel to find “grace in the wilderness.” Psalm 118:1–2, 14–24 celebrates God’s steadfast love that empowers the hope of life. Equally clear in these texts is the importance of witness and revealing. Acts 10:34–43 narrates Peter’s witness to the God revealed in Jesus Christ, whose impartiality offers acceptance to all. The psalmist witnesses to God’s choice of the “stone” rejected by others. The twice-spoken “do not be afraid” of Matthew 28:1–10 reveals resurrection not to be a matter of fear, but of joyful faith. Colossians 3:1–4 links the revealing of Christ in God’s realm with our hope. The Easter story continues to be told in the words and deeds of the faithful. Mary started the procession. We are invited to continue it. What do you most identify with in Mary’s experience of Easter; why? When have you found yourself “named” and called by Christ? By whom might Easter’s gift and news be most needed – how might we bear that witness?
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
Questions. Doubt. Belief. The readings for Holy Week hold these in tension, even as God holds us. God hears our voices and tends to our needs along this journey to the cross, as we shout “Hosanna” and cry out “Why?” Even when there are no words to express our wondering, God invites our trust. We are safe in God, whose hands hold all our times. Matthew 26:14—27:66 On this Sunday, some churches focus on Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:1–11) in a celebration of Palm Sunday. However, it is the voice of lament that pervades this focus passage for what many churches observe as Passion Sunday. Matthew’s account of Jesus’ last days of earthly life include Jesus’ cry: “My God, my God, why…?” (27:46). These words are more than Jesus’ cry from the cross. These are our words as we encounter Judas’s betrayal, the disciples’ desertion, and the women’s faithful vigil at the cross and the tomb in this reading. It seems that Matthew portrays Jesus’ twelve disciples in a harshly revealing light. Though Jesus asks them to keep watch with him in prayer (26:36), they fall asleep repeatedly. When Jesus is arrested, they flee into the night (26:56). These disciples are not at the cross or the tomb as the women disciples keep vigil. Matthew treats the religious and civil authorities involved in these events in an equally frank manner. In Matthew’s account, the problem is not the religious beliefs of the leaders involved – the problem is leaders who are driven by fear and rush to judgment. The difficulties arise because of the choices made by certain leaders. Pilate chooses to “go along to get along.” In doing so, he reduces hand washing from the powerful symbol described in Deuteronomy 21:1–9 to an empty gesture. Matthew’s Jewish readers would have recognized this symbol and in it heard Pilate’s declaration of Jesus’ innocence. Matthew strives to show how Jesus’ words or life fulfill the Hebrew Scriptures. For example, the tearing of the temple curtain in 27:51 heralds the end of the old temple system and the saints rising from the tombs in 27:52–53 hearken back to Ezekiel’s dry bones. Matthew uses several titles for Jesus. “Son of Man” is the title that Jesus uses most often. Jesus is declared to be the “one who comes in the name of God” in the account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem in Matthew 21:1–11. The title “Son of God” is used in the High Priest’s questioning of Jesus (26:63–64). Jesus’ answer – which does not deny this identity – sparks the capital charge of blasphemy. “King” or “Messiah” (christos in Greek, meaning “anointed one”) takes precedence in the trial before Pilate (27:11), because a “king” represented a political threat to Roman authority. “Son of God” is the confession by the Roman guards and centurion (27:54). In spite of all that death can strip away, God’s people declare with the psalmist in Psalm 31:9–16 that “my times are in your hand.” The acclamation, “The Lord God helps me,” is spoken twice in Isaiah 50:4–9a, a statement of extraordinary trust when made in the midst of insults and physical abuse. Philippians 2:5–11 declares that Jesus’ death is not a loss of hope. Jesus chooses God’s way over all. Jesus’ life is lived in love and obedience to God. On Palm Sunday, we shout our praises before quieting our voices to enter into the passion of our God. This Holy Week, as we reflect on Jesus’ journey to the cross, God continues to hear our praise, our lament, and our wondering. God’s presence can be trusted along this way. What words of praise and lament do you long to release from the depths of your heart this week?
Thursday, March 06, 2008
Doubt and belief abound when death asserts that life and hope have boundaries. This sunday's readings assure individuals and the community of God’s people that the life, hope, and comfort we find in God’s care are boundless. Our song, even in the midst of tears, gives witness to such amazing grace and love. John 11:1–45 Martha and Mary are faced with the serious illness, and then the death, of their brother Lazarus. Even while the community supports them in this time of trial, they call to their beloved friend, Jesus, to come and save Lazarus. While most Bibles call this story “The Raising of Lazarus,” the focus of this account is on Jesus preparing the disciples for what is to come. Verses 24–27 form the heart of this story. Martha’s confession of faith proclaims Jesus’ identity with confidence. Jesus’ conversations with Martha, and then Mary, are gospel in both proclamation and consolation. The actual raising of Lazarus in verses 43–44 reads like a footnote at the end of the story. Lament is received. Hope is offered. Pain is shared. Faith is proclaimed. Prayer is raised. A dead man is summoned. Jesus’ compassion restores life to Lazarus’s “soul-less” body. (In Jewish thought at the time, it took three days after death for the soul to leave the body, so this is clearly a situation beyond resuscitation.) The community is told to unbind Lazarus from the grave cloths and “let him go” back into the life of the community. Jesus says that Lazarus’s illness is “for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (verse 4). How can illness and death work for the greater glory of God? The text itself does not answer this question. This gospel invites us to journey into the face of death and grief, and see for ourselves whether God can be trusted to make a way out of no way. The first half of John’s gospel is presented as a book of signs. Wine from water, a multitude fed from a handful of bread and fish – none of the signs reveal the whole truth of Jesus as God among us. The raising of Lazarus forms the last of these signs, and comes at a time when the relationship between “the Jews” (John’s term for Jewish leaders who opposed Jesus) and Jesus was nearing its breaking point. New life also seems impossible in Ezekiel 37:1–14. The Spirit of God leads the prophet to what reads like the site of a terrible battle. Bones lay scattered; death appears to have had the final victory here. To those in Ezekiel’s time who grieved the separation of exile in Babylon, did the images in this account serve as a metaphor for their own struggle to find renewed life as God’s people? When God’s people today feel weighed down by separation and death, what hope do we draw from this image? As in the story of Lazarus and in the story of Genesis 1, when God speaks, new life arises. The Spirit (in Hebrew, ruach means both “spirit” and “breath”) gives life to hope. Paul, in Romans 8:6–11, writes that to live in Christ is not to live in denial of death, but to live with hope in the face of death. We are safe in the hands of God, who breathes into us the same Spirit that breathed life into dry bones. Daily, we are raised to new life. In that hope is our life and peace. In Psalm 130, the psalmist cries out in despair, trusting in a love powerful enough to save. Such hope is also expressed by Martha, Mary, Ezekiel, and Paul. The psalmist’s cry for deliverance (life) is their cry, and ours. Though we will die, in Christ we will live. The witness of Scripture invites us to trust that there are no endings that stretch beyond God’s boundless care and power to redeem. When in your life have you found hope in the steadfast, saving love of God? How might our congregation offer such hope to those who grieve?
Monday, February 25, 2008
Rules and traditions intend to set helpful limits. Yet even the best-intentioned may be narrowly viewed so as to lose sight of what is needed: love. God sees and works beyond constricted perspectives so that opportunities to restore and anoint are not lost. Do we see and act that way? Or does fear of breaking with the old – or being open to the new – blind us? John 9:1–41 Blindness and other ailments were often viewed in ancient times as punishment for sin. The disciples of Jesus and the leaders who oppose him assume this. Biblical scholar Richard Rohrbaugh speaks of an ancient custom of spitting in the presence of the blind in order to protect oneself from the “evil eye.” Jesus transforms that act of disdain into one of healing. Sabbath keeping was the most visible mark of practicing Judaism. Its weekly ritual of renewal reflected – even as it worshipped – the God who “rested” (translating the Hebrew shabath) on the seventh day of creation (Genesis 2:2). In this story, Jesus’ healing on the Sabbath creates the initial controversy (verse 16). At issue is what can or cannot be done on Sabbath. Many oral traditions had developed to provide guidance. “Kneading” was technically forbidden. Jesus’ making of mud (verse 6) could be viewed as such activity. The larger question involves Sabbath and healing. Has Jesus broken or kept the law by performing this act? The healing creates division within the community. Neighbours divide over whether this is the same man they had known (verse 9). Pharisees divide over whether Jesus is from God or not (verse 16). The man’s parents distance themselves from their son for fear of the religious leaders (verses 21–22). The divisions within the narrative hint at divisions between church and synagogue in the author’s time. Verse 22’s threat of expulsion from the synagogue can be heard as reflecting that later state of affairs. The transformation of the one who is healed is not just from blindness to sight. Initially, he is a passive recipient of Jesus’ actions. The healed one becomes more active as the story goes on. By reporting what has happened, he becomes a teacher of theology to the teachers of theology. Eventually this healed one becomes a disciple of the one who healed. The story begins with Jesus seeing this man. From that seeing comes healing. Later Jesus finds this man, and from that finding comes belief. The story does not end there. Jesus and the religious leaders speak. On the surface, Jesus’ words levy judgment. The leaders’ presumption of seeing is interpreted as indication of sin (verse 41). But is that not where the text began? Did Jesus not heal and restore sight to one presumed to be a sinner? The text leaves it open as to whether these leaders, and the rest of us, may yet find healing. God’s sight and oversight are central in the other texts. 1 Samuel 16:1–13 affirms that God sees beyond the superficial and into the heart. Psalm 23 witnesses the psalmist’s reliance upon the watchful care of the shepherd. Ephesians 5:8–14 uses the language of light and darkness to speak of coming in Christ to faith and new life. Out of God’s seeing comes God’s providing. In 1 Samuel 16, God provides a new leader for Israel. The psalmist declares that God’s presence assures life even in the face of danger. The writer of Ephesians 5 celebrates the change God in Christ brings us. God is in the business of seeing what others overlook and restoring life that has been overlooked. Who are the ones “overlooked” today that remind us of the blind man’s situation and potential? In what ways might love be calling our congregation to revisit and perhaps reinterpret some of our established ways of doing things, in order that God’s love might prevail? REFLECTION Gracious God, we encounter and follow you in ways long practiced before us. So keep us open and alive to meeting and following you in ways unexpected and untravelled. Keep us open to the ones we might otherwise overlook. Keep us open to love. Amen.
Thursday, February 21, 2008
Is God Still Speaking? Listen to these stories’ witness of water and word. Water flows from need to gift. Words shift from misunderstanding to revealing. The confluence of water and word in the Samaritan woman’s story witnesses to who Christ is and who we can be. Our need for living water is quenched by the God who is with us. John 4:5–42 Samaria was a region south of Galilee and north of Judah. The hatred between Samaritans and Jews went back to when the northern kingdom of Israel was overrun by Assyria. The Assyrians resettled Samaria with foreigners loyal to them, along with Israelites not taken captive. While Samaritans continued some Jewish practices and beliefs, they were viewed as outsiders to Judaism, little better than Gentiles. This separation grew over the centuries. By the time of Jesus, the enmity between Jews and Samaritans was severe. The gospel of John includes several long narratives, of which this is the first. Verse 4 is revealing: “But he had to go through Samaria.” Other routes were available for Jews to bypass Samaria. So for John to say Jesus had to go through Samaria suggests other reasons. At the head of that list would be Jesus’ ministry among those considered to be “outsiders.” Jesus enters Samaria, initiates conversation with a Samaritan woman, and accepts hospitality from the Samaritan community. Such reversals continue through the story. Jesus asks this woman for water. In Psalm 95, God provides water; in Samaria this woman is placed in the role of providing water to Jesus. Even more surprising is the way in which Jesus and this woman engage together in theological discussion. She knows her traditions. She awaits the coming Messiah. In the synagogues of that day, men and women were seated in separate locations. Here at the well, Jesus and this woman sit and speak together about the things of God. Wordplay occurs around the meaning of water. The woman misunderstands Jesus. She confuses Jesus’ offer of “living water” with “running water.” There are no streams here, only a well. Jesus turns the discussion from literal meanings to deeper ones. Living water is Jesus’ way of speaking about the gift of “eternal life.” As in John 3:16, “eternal life” has to do with the gracious possibility of life lived in the presence of God. Such life begins now in the recognition that Jesus is the gift of God (verse 10), who offers such life-giving water to our spirits. The passage ends on the theme of witness. There is first the woman’s witness to her community. Her expression of both doubt and hope (“He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”) leaves room for the community to respond. And respond it does. Their confession of Jesus as the “Saviour of the World” offers one of the clearest statements of faith in the entire gospel. Water and word interplay in our other lections. Exodus 17:1–7 begins with a need of water that finds answer in the promise of water. Psalm 95 offers a warning word – a caution against repeating the error of those Israelites who “tested” God in the wilderness. In Romans 5:1–11, the word of salvation takes form in God’s “pouring” love into our hearts. These texts also witness to how God is with us. Exodus 17:1–7 testifies that God “stands” by the rock that provides the life-giving water. Psalm 95 invites us to enter God’s presence with thanks. Romans 5:1–11 witnesses to the peace and grace and reconciliation that are ours in Christ. In the gifts of water and word, God reconciles and makes peace. We encounter these gifts in Jesus. What can we learn from the Samaritan woman about how Jesus makes a difference in your lives? What “witness” do you make when life around you – or within you – raises the question: is God Still Speaking?
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
One teacher ventures out at night to meet another. Respect and challenge mark their encounter. Ambiguous language opens rather than closes conversation. At stake, then and now, is the potential for birthing to new life and opening to God’s blessing. Faith beckons us to go out from what is known and journey toward the One whose promises are trusted. John 3:1–17 Most of the focus passages through the seasons of Lent and Easter this year are from John. Today’s scripture introduces a pattern that is common throughout this gospel: Jesus speaks, but his words are misunderstood. The misunderstanding leads to further teaching by Jesus that reveals deeper meanings. Key words like believe, see, know, life, and send provide a framework for action and dialogue, here and in later texts. Jesus’ conversation partner in this passage is Nicodemus, a leading Pharisee of the day. Later, we encounter Nicodemus as one who defends Jesus and helps with his burial (see John 7:50; 19:39). Examples of the open-ended nature of Jesus’ language in John are found in two words of this text. First is anothen in verse 3. Coupled with the verb born, this Greek word can mean “born again,” “born from above,” and “born anew.” The question is not which meaning is right. All are. A second example is in verse 8. In Greek and Hebrew, one word serves for both “wind” and “spirit.” In both languages, it is also the same word for “breath.” Such language encourages openness to layers of meaning in what Jesus says. Nicodemus misunderstands, as others do later, by settling for only one meaning. One major difference between the gospel of John and the other gospels comes in the use of “kingdom of God.” In John, “kingdom of God” occurs only in John 3:3, 5. In John, the content and decision of faith are not focused so much on God’s coming realm or how persons align themselves with it. Rather, the issue is how people (we) respond to Jesus, whom God has sent. The lifting up of the serpent in verse 14 alludes to Numbers 21:8–9. The people of Israel in their wilderness sojourn complained against God. A plague of poisonous snakes had been sent as punishment. Healing would come only by looking up at a bronze serpent lifted up on a pole. John 3:16–17 stamps the gospel of John – and Christian faith as a whole – with the theme of God’s blessing. Love is declared to be God’s fundamental disposition toward creation. God’s love sets the stage for Jesus’ later commanding of love for the practice of faith. These verses also invoke words that John will return to continually: believe, eternal life, send, save. All will be further developed in later passages to invite the readers and hearers into faith. The theme of God’s blessing runs through all the texts. Genesis 12:1–4a identifies Abram and Sarai (later named Abraham and Sarah) as not only blessed of God, but as the source of blessing for all of Earth’s families. The second half of Psalm 121 is a benediction that pronounces God’s blessing. Romans 4:1–5, 13–17 speaks of blessing as our being reckoned with “righteousness,” a word whose meaning has to do with our acceptance before God. Trust connects us to God’s blessing. Genesis 12:1–4a implicitly narrates the trust of Abram and Sarai as they journey. Romans 4:1–5, 13–17 makes that trust explicit on Abraham and Sarah’s part, and on our own. The opening four verses of Psalm 121 assert the psalmist’s trust in God. Place yourself in the shoes of Nicodemus. What questions or affirmations would you bring to Jesus? In what ways have you experienced birthing to new life, or life from above? Where, and with whom, might faith be calling you to venture through this Season of Lent?
Tuesday, February 05, 2008
Lent opens with stories of testing and trusting. In parched wilderness and in lush garden, temptation comes. Sin or faithfulness follows, not because of the testing itself, but by what gets chosen in response. Live out of traditions whose truth we have experienced. Trust God’s steadfast love. Rely on grace that ministers to our needs. Matthew 4:1–11 Matthew places this story between Jesus’ baptism by John and Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. Forty days in the wilderness parallels Israel’s forty years in the desert. Before land is entered or ministry proceeds, preparation in the presence of God begins the way. Tests and choices follow. The forty-day journey we make in Lent invites similar movement, leading us through the wilderness of Jesus’ passion to the lush garden of resurrection. Tests and choices are ours as well. Three other figures play roles in this passage. The Spirit “leads” Jesus into the wilderness. It is God, not the tempter, who directs the course of action. Matthew variously identifies the second figure as tempter, devil, and Satan. In the gospel of Matthew, this figure had evolved (devolved) from something of a prosecuting attorney in the heavenly court to a personification of evil. Within this story, the tempter puts a face on the presence of evil in the world by tempting ends that overlook the means used to achieve them. The third figure(s) are the angels at the story’s end. Their “waiting on” Jesus translates a Greek verb (diakoneo) that also means “minister” or “serve at table.” The magical transformation of bread is an easy remedy for physical need. But will magic or compassion be the way Jesus responds to human needs? The stunt of a miraculous rescue might attract attention. But will God’s deliverance and providence come in stunts or self-giving? A gesture of worship seduces with the promise of extending Jesus’ realm to all nations. But will God’s realm come by cutting deals with powers-that-be or living in witness to the One who is the power and the glory? Similar temptations faced Matthew’s first readers. In an era of persecution, survival might take precedence over faithfulness. In an era of emperor worship, bowing the knee to Caesar might not seem such a bad idea. Jesus’ choices set the tone for his ministry to follow. Jesus responds to each of the temptations by quoting from the Hebrew Scriptures. Each quote is from Deuteronomy, a book whose passages reflect on Israel’s time of wilderness testing. Story and tradition shaped Jesus’ life and the choices he made. Likewise, we als to live out of the scriptures and traditions that bear truth to us. The results of human choices weave through the other texts. Genesis 2:15–17, 3:1–7 tells of the hazard of choosing for oneself part of the mystery that belongs to God. Psalm 32 warns of the consequences of choices that lead to sin, and the restoration that comes by choosing to confess our need of God. Romans 5:12–19 affirms the deadly consequences of wrongful choices. These passages also witness to God’s choice of grace on our behalf. Psalm 32 speaks of that grace in the language of forgiveness. If one reads further in Genesis 3, judgment is tempered in the imagery of God making garments to clothe the man and the woman (3:21). God’s steadfast love is God’s choosing on our behalf. Whether sought out or fled from, testing will come; we may face it with trust in God’s steadfast love and care. What are the wilderness places for you? Where do you see evil today in the world, and in the choices that tempt you? What traditions and practices might you and your congregation explore this Lent that would encourage or provide guidance for your own faithful choices?
Tuesday, January 29, 2008
As Advent opened, so the Season after the Epiphany closes: on a holy mountain where God may be found. It is a place of sacred mystery, where shining and shadow convey holy presence. It is a place of community across time, where God’s people of past and present meet. It is a place of silence and witness, where visions are kept quiet and God says of Jesus: “Listen to him.” Matthew 17:1–9 Matthew often links the stories of Jesus with allusions from Hebrew Scriptures. The story of the transfiguration of Jesus echoes the story of Moses on Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:29–35). Both are encounters with God on a cloud-covered mountaintop; in both, God’s voice is heard from within the covering cloud. Jesus’ face shines as Moses’ did on his descent from Mount Sinai. The symbolism of Moses and Elijah in this text connects with key themes in Jesus’ life and destiny. Both Moses and Elijah endured rejection by the people, but had support from God. Both were supporters of the Torah (law) and performed miracles. Elijah was taken up into heaven without having died (2 Kings 2:11). Legends in first-century Judaism suggest Moses also was taken up into heaven before death. “Transfigured” in verse 2 translates the Greek verb metamorphoo. Elsewhere in the New Testament, that verb is used to suggest changes deep within a person. For example: “Be transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Romans 12:2). The story of Jesus’ transfiguration uses outward details to hint at the deeper mystery of metamorphosis. The face of Jesus shines. The clothes of Jesus become like light (“dazzling” translates a word that literally means “light”). Jesus takes James, Peter, and John with him up this mountain. Jesus later asks these three to remain with him while praying in Gethsemane. All three were major figures in the early church. Peter became a leader among the disciples. John, whom many believe is the one referred to as “the beloved disciple,” served as a model for closeness of relationship with Jesus. Matthew does not tell us if this was James the brother of John or James the brother of Jesus. James the brother of Jesus was a leading figure in the Jerusalem church. In the four lists of the twelve disciples in the New Testament, the name of James the brother of John always appears among the first three named. The voice from the cloud makes the same affirmation that Jesus heard at his baptism (Matthew 3:17). The one difference is the command: “listen to him.” “Listen to him” clarifies that this holy encounter is meant to lead to obedience and following. Jesus’ words, “do not be afraid,” likewise make it possible to take up the challenging call of discipleship. Listening to Jesus reveals what is required to follow Jesus on the journey to Jerusalem. Sunday's other texts share themes of encounters with God that are rich in mystery and awe. Exodus 24:12–18 tells of Moses ascending Mount Sinai. God’s glory meets Moses in shadow and light. The words of Psalm 99 balance God’s holiness with affirmation of God’s justice. The “holy mountain” of the Temple on Mount Zion continues to offer a place of holy encounter. In Psalm 2, the psalmist warns against those who act with indifference toward God. God cares, and out of that care comes invitation to faithfulness. In 2 Peter 1:16–21 we hear of God’s majesty in an account of Jesus’ transfiguration. This witness summons our attentiveness to God. The Season after the Epiphany closes with Jesus’ holy encounter on a mountain. Transfiguration reveals Jesus not merely in the details of “shining,” but in the words of God’s favour and our summons to “listen to him.” What have been your experiences of holy encounter and transformation? In what ways do you and your faith community listen to Jesus; how has such listening changed you?

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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