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Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Lectionary Scriptures: Jeremiah 31:7-14 or Sirach 24:1-12, Psalm 147:12-20 or Wisdom of Solomon 10:15-21, Ephesians 1:3-14, John 1:1-18

Our two “optional” scriptures this week are from the Apocrypha writings—included in Catholic scriptures but not in the Bibles we most commonly use. Both Sirach and Wisdom of Solomon are what is called “Wisdom” literature, not unlike parts of what we know as the Book of Proverbs in our Old Testament. They were probably written in the second century before the time of Jesus. Christians have often taken them as anticipating the coming of Jesus as “Messiah,” i.e., Christ.

I see them as providing a theme for this week’s reflections, a theme that can be seen in some, if not all, of this Sunday’s scriptures. It is the theme of “incarnation,” embodiment, the theological focus of the Christmas message. Christmas tells us that Jesus is the “incarnation,” the embodiment of God’s love, Love made flesh, dwelling among us. (John 1:14)

At the heart of scripture is the sense that God is with us, working out divine purposes, even in us. Ecclesiastes 3:11, Ecclesiastes being another piece of “Wisdom” literature, implies that there are sweeping purposes at work in us that we will never fully understand. The New International Version perhaps puts it most clearly, saying. God “has . . . set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” Wow! Eternity in our hearts. It was there in Jesus and it is in us. Philippians 2:5 says, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” the same mind being, in my opinion, the eternal mind of God. Ephesians 4:13 speaks of us coming “to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” Growing up is to become an “incarnation” like Christ.

Mind-boggling? Eternity is at work even in us. God is always trying to find a way to express divine purposes through people and events in this world. Those purposes have been at work since the beginning.
The most familiar expression of that truth as it is applied to Jesus is found at the beginning of the Gospel according to John. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” going on, in John 1:14, to say “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”

What are we going to call the eternal principle, the eternal reality, that is at work in us? “Word” in John is a translation of the Greek “Logos.” It’s an accurate literal translation, but “Logos” was much more in Greek philosophy. It was the “divine animating principle pervading the universe.” Jesus was an expression of the creative Spirit giving life to the universe—and so are we. To designate Jesus as “Christ” is not only to say that he is the long-awaited Messiah; it is to say that he embodies an eternal reality that has been there from the beginning of time.

In the “wisdom” literature, the eternal principle is “Wisdom,” the feminine presence that is sometimes thought of as similar to what we call the “Holy Spirit.” In Sirach 24:2 and following, she says, “I came forth from the mouth of the Most High.” As she looked out over all of creation, all peoples and all nations, she “sought a resting place” and made her dwelling among the Hebrew people. In words that sound much like those of John, she says, “Before the ages, in the beginning, he created me; and for all ages I shall not cease to be.” This eternal spirit “took root in an honored people.” (Sirach 24:12)

In Wisdom of Solomon, she (Wisdom) enters “the soul of a servant of the Lord,” a phrase some Christians have applied to the Messiah (Christ). Jesus is an expression of this divine eternal Wisdom.

Life, the life of each one of us, is about so much more than the present moment. In us, in each one of us, in Jesus, all of history comes alive in the present moment. This week’s passage from Ephesians speaks of God choosing us “in Christ before the foundation of the world.” (Ephesians 1:4) Can we bear it? Can we live up to it?

In the tradition in which I grew us, we talked about having Jesus “in our heart.” All kinds of jokes were told about children wondering how Jesus could fit in there. We know, of course, that we didn’t literally mean in our physical heart, but the purposes of God Jesus embodied still sometimes seem too big for us. An acquaintance of mine used to tell a story about growing up with a younger brother. Whenever he went out to play, his parents would say, “Take your little brother with you.” As he grew older and became a Christian, his parents began to say, when he went out, “Take Jesus with you.” He said he always had a little bit of resentment when he had to take his brother along and now he felt some of that same resentment toward Jesus.

In today’s reflections, we see Jesus not as something to be dragged along with us. Jesus is something we are to embody and live. We are to have the same mind in us that he had in him. That’s much bigger than simply taking him along with us—and much more scary, but also full of promise and hope.
Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Lectionary Scriptures: I Samuel 2:18-20, 26, Psalm 148, Colossians 3:12-17, Luke 2:41-52

You almost got the wrong scriptures this week. Yesterday, after writing this week’s blog entry, I noticed that I had the scriptures for a year from now. Fortunately I hadn’t posted it yet.

Interestingly, the Psalm is the same. Psalm 148 calls the entire cosmos to praise God—sun and moon, sea monsters, snow and frost, mountains, fruit trees, creeping things and flying birds, kings and princes, all people, male and female, young and old. I suppose we could spend some time asking what it means for each of these, and all the others named in the Psalm, to praise God. With our concern for justice and peace, it might we worth asking what it might mean if kings and princes truly lived and governed in an attitude of praise. Is not passionately pursuing peace and justice a way of praising?

The Gospel reading skips us right over the birth stories. Jesus is twelve years old amazing the teachers in the temple with his understanding (2:46-47). We also see a very human side of Jesus. He has wandered off from his parents to do his own thing (2:43), throwing them into a panic as they have to go back to Jerusalem and find him (2:44-45). When Jesus’ parents find him, he asks if they don’t know that he must be about his Father’s business (2:48-49).

This could set us off on a discussion about who indeed is our father—the place of both human parents and a divine parent in the scheme of our lives. Even his parents didn’t understand what he was saying (2:50).

The fact that Jesus had parents, needed parents—parents who went through the usual panics and worries of parenthood—is perhaps what is most significant for us in this story. At the end of the story, he went home with his parents and “was obedient to them.” (Luke 2:51) The story tells us that, like any other child he grew. In the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, used as our pew Bibles, it says that he “increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” Here are a couple of other translations that are nearer what I learned in earlier years: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.” (King James Version)—“And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.” (New International Version).
They echo the words used to describe young Samuel in our reading from I Samuel, chapter 2. Verse 26 says, “Now the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with the people.” We won’t get into the story of Samuel and the particular occasion described. The point is that spirituality in our tradition is not a static thing. Even Jesus grew in wisdom. He didn’t have it all figured out from day one. Furthermore, growth, if one is faithful to ways of the God of love and justice, involves not only a mystical inward spiritual connection; growth is also measured in our relationships with one another as human beings. What does it mean to grow “in favor with God and man”—“in divine and human favor”? It’s a question worth pondering as we move away from the manger. Life and the possibilities of life don’t end in a manger. Christmas is but a symbol of beginning. Where are we going from here? How will we grow “in divine and human favor”?

The epistle reading from Colossians, chapter 3, may give us further perspective on the question. It is about putting on new clothes—“compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” (vs. 12) “Above all,” it says, “clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” It talks about the peace of Christ and forgiveness, and thankfulness, and ends, in verse 17 (one of my favorites), with these words, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” A recipe for growing in favor with God and with those around us? Galatians 3:27 speaks of being “clothed . . . with Christ.”

With Christmas being a time when many think about what they are going to wear for church or for special occasions or even for family gatherings, perhaps we need to examine what is the true clothing of Christmas. What is the message of Christmas calling us to wear? When we have grown enough to climb out of the manger and dress ourselves, what are we going to put on? Will we notice that outfits of love and peace and justice—and a host of other virtues of relationship—have already been laid out for us?
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
Lectionary Scriptures: Micah 5:2-5, Psalm 80:1-7, Hebrews 10:5-10, Luke 1:39-55

At one point in my early years I belonged to a denomination which spoke of being “saved and sanctified.” You got saved through an emotional conversion experience in which you felt yourself forgiven of past sin and found yourself in full communion with the Spirit of Jesus and his Love. To be “sanctified” was to enter into a higher degree of holiness, perhaps even sinless perfection.

On one of the college campuses where I spent a year, there was a young man who used to roam the campus at night with a flashlight. He would come up and shine it in your face and ask, “Are you saved?” Kind of scary, huh? Today they might lock him up as dangerous or unstable.

In contrast to those two situations, the more “progressive” wing of Christianity tends to shy away from, or laugh at, the notion of “being saved.” Why is that? Is it because of the associations we have with that kind of language? Is there nothing we need to be saved from?

Certainly there have been those at many periods in history who have felt a deep need to be saved, not just from inner sin and immorality, but from social abuse and injustice. They were people in deep pain, trampled upon, ignored, physically beaten down. They had reason to cry because, as the Psalmist screams out to God in Psalm 80:5, “You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure.” They desperately needed to be saved, and they cried out to God to rescue them from what Pastor Rick might call “the tyranny of empire.” Are we so far removed from that kind of desperation that we no longer need to be saved?

Throughout history there have been those who lived with heartfelt expectation, believing in a promise that there would indeed come one who would save them from all this. In the prophet Micah (Micah 5:5) it is said that “he shall be the one of peace.” After the two pregnant cousins meet (Mary and Elizabeth) and Elizabeth’s child (John, the Baptist) leaps within her, Mary sings her great song, known throughout the Christian world today as the Magnificat. It is more than a thing of choral beauty to be sung in the vaulted chambers of elite music halls. It is a song of radical deliverance wrought by a Mighty God, who “has brought down the powerful . . . and lifted up the lowly; . . . filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

The most basic meaning of being saved is to be “safe,” to be healthy and whole. The English word “salvation” derives from the word “salve,” a healing ointment. Salvation, biblically, is understood to be a state of “shalom,” harmony, peace, where all things work together for the good of the whole. It is a place where we, again as Pastor Rick says, “all take care of one another.”

I haven’t arrived at that place yet. Have you? I don’t feel safe all the time in this world which often feels pretty chaotic. How about you? Although I don’t use the language of being “saved” any more, I still want to live in a world where I feel safe, and that world will never be as long as those with great power lord it over the lowly, leaving many feeling powerless. Even I feel pretty powerless as times. And you?

I would no longer separate being “saved” and being “sanctified." Sanctified simply means to become holy, like a “saint.” Following a God of Love and Justice whose Spirit moves in our midst is a continuing process toward great “holiness,” greater faithfulness to the things that make for peace and justice. The reading from Hebrews speaks of sanctification as something that happens through the sacrificial offering of one’s life in service, like the sacrifice made by Jesus, not through various ritual acts of worship. While not part of today’s epistle reading, Romans 13:1-2, expresses it quite clearly. “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

One of my colleagues, in using the language of being “saved,” used to talk about being saved “from” and being saved “to.” The journey of faithfulness is not so much backward looking as it is looking ahead, starting with the now. We are always awaiting the next sign that will indicate where God is taking us and what God wants us to do to “prepare the way of the Lord,” and “make his paths straight,” so that “every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth . . .” (Isaiah as quoted by John the Baptist in Luke 3:4-5).

Not your usual message for the Sunday before Christmas, but we have not been into the usual comfortable Christmas message during the Advent season at Kairos. I’m glad! I’d rather take a stab at the kind of holiness the prophets envisioned than the holiness of a warm glow of a candlelight service. Don’t get me wrong! I like to feel a warm glow as much as the next person, but God wants more for and from us than that. The promise of Advent is that there is more, much more—that a Merry Christmas is a hope which, when realized, will shake things up so much that we and this world will never be the same. Are we up to it? I hope so. The prophets hope so. God believes so—that is, that if we are faithful to the Spirit of Jesus Christ we can live in a world where there is peace and justice. What a Christmas hope!
Wednesday, December 09, 2009
Lectionary Scriptures: Zephaniah 3:14-20, Isaiah 12:2-4, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18

Did you know that this Sunday, the third Sunday in Advent, is often called Gaudete Sunday? Gaudete means “Rejoice”—it’s the first word in the Roman Catholic Latin Mass for the third Sunday in Advent—the Sunday on which most churches using Advent wreaths light a pink, rather than a purple candle.

Advent is a somber season of waiting, maybe even penitence, isn’t it? Now we are called to rejoice. When pastoring, I sometimes used the candles to represent the sweep of history: First Sunday—Creation; Second Sunday—The Patriarchs; Third Sunday—The Prophets, through whom a great light of hope brightened the sky from deep purple to pink, the glow of impending dawn.

Some have simply noted that we have passed the halfway point of Advent, so we take a moment to rejoice. Whatever the reason, it is true that waiting often alternates between hope and despair.

This Sunday’s epistle from Philippians, with its clear call to “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice,” is often read on Gaudete Sunday. Joy is present at some point in the message of each of the prophets, the prophetic message being prominently visible during Advent. Joy almost always shines through somewhere when we are touched by the message of a God of Love, but it is a joy rooted in a deep sense of the tragic in human lives, in society, in each one of us.

In general, the prophets addressed three situations: (1) a time when threat was on the horizon, with a message of warning to the people to repent and change their ways; (2) a time when collapse was actually happening, or imminently near, a time to be prepared for disaster; and, (3) a time after the disaster, in exile, with a message of hope for restoration and strength of live through these times, sometimes with some restoration already underway, leading to rejoicing. Whatever the historical times, such patterns recurred in the life of the Hebrew people and the early church—and have, in a sense, been with us always. Trying too hard to figure out the exact historical circumstances addressed by each biblical message can distract us from the universality of these cycles and the messages needed in each.

If we take the book of Zephaniah at face value, we see that Zephaniah traces his lineage to King Hezekiah, a reforming king. He is also a distant cousin of Josiah, another reforming king. Does he find hope in such a tradition of reform? Who are the reformers that give us hope? Zephaniah is often seen as a contemporary of Jeremiah, and/or one who is prophesying while the Scythians are a threat to Jerusalem. My favorite commentary goes on for several pages trying, unsuccessfully in my opinion, to sort it all out.

Today’s reading from Zephaniah offers a message of joy as judgment and oppression are removed, the outcast and lame, and all those who need hope, find it. It is a time to “Rejoice and exult with all your heart.” Isaiah’s message, although almost certainly not from the same time or circumstances, looks to a coming time of joy, when God’s people will be able to shout and sing.

Gaudete Sunday—a Sunday to celebrate joy in the midst of our waiting, because, through it all, God will be our strength—even our home. In all circumstances, we can drink deeply from the wells of God’s salvation.

But where are we, right now, as those cycles of history continue to grind their way through the years of our live? John the Baptist, in the reading from Luke, brings us back to earth, reminding us that reform is a dangerous undertaking. It will mean the downfall of some. The way things work now will be challenged. Where will we land when it is all over?

John’s call, in the midst of all this, is to focus on what we are to do in the here and now. Begin now, even in these days of waiting, to share what you have, to treat people fairly. When people do that, true reform will take hold, and that will be good news indeed. Hope is no longer a pink candle, a glimmer of light on the horizon. It walks the city streets and the poverty-stricken hollows in the rural hills, saying today is a day to start rejoicing.
Thursday, December 03, 2009
Lectionary Scriptures: Malachi 3:1-4 or Baruch 5:1-9, Luke 1:68-79, Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 3:1-6

All of this week’s scriptures can be seen as addressing situations in which hope and encouragement are needed in the face of despair. That’s the spirit that prevails in Advent, what some have called hope against hope. We cry for peace when there is no peace, but we do not give up hope.

Malachi is the last book in the Old Testament. The setting is probably after the exile when rebuilding has begun and people are still returning to the homeland from Babylon. Things certainly don’t seem to be what they used to be. In fact, they are a mess. It doesn’t even seem like God is there when one goes to worship, because, the people think, the temple is in pretty sad shape. Will things ever be the same? Malachi suggests that part of the problem is not the building but their own attitude. This one who is coming will prepare the way by refining the people like gold and silver is refined, all that is not glittering and shining burned away.

Some thought the “preparer” would be a resurrected Elijah, a belief that led some to think John the Baptist or Jesus might be Elijah. A “preparer” passage from Isaiah is quoted in the New Testament reading from Luke 3, used to describe John and his message. Both scriptures from Luke refer to John as one who prepares the way.

The point I want to highlight, though, is that the coming one does not just magically change everything from misery to bliss. People in all ages have often overlooked that the promise includes a cost. There is hope, but, for the hope to be realized, we may have to look inward and open ourselves to costly, maybe even sacrificial change. I’m not sure I’m ready for that, but God’s love, great comfort that it is to me, challenges me like a refiner’s fire, expecting more of me, and empowering more in me, than I ever thought was possible. Such staggering, mind and being stretching, possibilities in each one of us are part of the Advent hope.

Now, what about this “Baruch”? It is a “prophetic” writing included in Catholic Bibles but not in Hebrew or Protestant scriptures. It is written in the name of Baruch, secretary who took down the words of Jeremiah and read them to the people.

The “book” of “Baruch,” however, from which one of this week’s passages is taken, was probably not written until another time of destruction, the fall of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The writer wanted the despairing folk of that day to remember Jeremiah who helped the people of another day find hope when the symbols of hope seemed to be gone. “Take off the garment of you sorrow and affliction,” he begins, “and put on forever the beauty of the glory of God.” This passage and both readings about John the Baptist from Luke are full of hope. The promise is that there will be great leveling—no more highs and lows yanking at our sanity and stability. (See Baruch 5:7 and Luke 3:5) There will be light in the darkness and our feet will be guided into the way of peace (Luke 1:79).

The reality is that the promise is still in front of us. We live in the time between. God isn’t finished yet, with us or with the world or with history. The reading from Philippians contains one of my favorite verses. Paul’s ministry was among young churches facing persecution and struggle. Again and again, he spoke words of encouragement to them. In Philippians 1:6, he says, “ . . . the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion . . .” It is part of the promise associated with the power of Jesus at work in their midst.

All the good in us, a gift from God, is still developing and growing and coming to completion. In our reflection during Advent perhaps we could focus on what the good is that has been begun in us, what it is that we hope will be brought to completion in us. What is it that God is calling forth in us during this season and on into the future? What is the refining that is occurring, or needs to occur?

The reading from Philippians concludes with a prayer similar to the one last week from I Thessalonians. It is an Advent prayer that can undergird the good work that is waiting to spring forth in our being, in our relationships, in our church, in our community and world. “ . . . this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and insight, to help to determine what is best . . .,” assuming that the power of Christ at work in us will produce a “harvest of righteousness . . . for the glory and praise of God.”

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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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