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Thursday, December 30, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Jeremiah 31:7-14 or Sirach 24:1-12, Psalm 147:12-20 or Wisdom of Solomon 10:15-21, Ephesians 1:1-4, John 1:1-18

The Christmas season is a time when some feel particularly grateful for the blessings of family as well as material comforts and pleasures. I recognize that there are those for whom Christmas is a “blue” time. We even had moments of feeling blue in recent weeks, when we have been unable to reproduce some treasured experiences of Christmases past. Most, however, even in the midst of down times can recognize or identify some blessing in their lives.

Feeling blessed may lead to a sense of entitlement. I must have received this or that blessing because I deserved it. The other side is a feeling of blame or unworthiness if blessings are not received or perceived.

Receiving blessings can even lead to feeling privileged or superior. Theologically it may be expressed as a sense of being “chosen.” “I have been specially chosen.”

In the Bible, God’s people often felt that way. Scriptures, in fact, describe them as a chosen people, selected by God from among all people. And when things got tough, they wondered what happened to their “chosenness.” Some of the founding fathers even saw America as heir to that tradition of being chosen.

There is danger when people or nations begin to feeling that they have been specially chosen, especially if they feel chosen to dominate other nations, deserving a privileged place in the scheme of earthly relationships. Even in the Old Testament there are two understandings of what it means to be chosen. Oversimplified, the distinction is between being chosen for privilege or chosen to serve. In Genesis 12:2, God tells Abraham (Abram), “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” “Blessed to be a blessing.” It is something God’s people in every age have too often forgotten.

Many of us would probably just as soon discard the doctrine of “chosenness.” Before we do, perhaps we might consider expanding it. We often talk about every child being “special,” about each of us having a calling, being put on this earth for some purpose. There is a sense in which we are all “chosen,” not in a narrow, privileged, sense. Every one of us matters as a beloved creature of God. It might be worthwhile to reflect on that from time to time, asking what it is that we have been chosen for. In what ways are we special and how does that “specialness” get applied and used in daily relationships and activities?

Most of the lectionary readings for this Sunday speak of feeling blessed or chosen.

The reading from Jeremiah comes as a word to those who wondered whether God had forgotten his special relationship with them. It speaks of a time of joy and celebration, addressing the people in exile as “the chief of the nations.” (Jeremiah 31:7) They are to be gathered and led back. (vss. 8-9) Their will be dancing and mourning will be turned into joy. (vs. 13)

We are given the choice between two apocryphal readings, from Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon. Without getting into a dissertation on these writings which are not included in the Protestant Bible, it is sufficient now to know that both come from about two centuries before Christ. They are part of what is called Wisdom literature, collections (like Proverbs, for example) intended to give guidance for right living.

In some of this literature, including these passages from Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon, Wisdom is embodied in a feminine spirit. Is she an Old Testament aspect of the Holy Spirit?

In Sirach she comes from heaven searching for a resting place. (Sirach 24:3-7) Is this in the Christmas readings because there is the suggestion of the divine coming to earth? The Creator chooses a place for her, saying, “Make your dwelling in Jacob, and in Israel receive your inheritance.” (vs. 8) So, Wisdom says, “I took root in an honored people, in the portion of the Lord, his heritage.” (vs. 12) It is a passage about “chosenness.”

In Wisdom of Solomon, Wisdom is the one who “entered the soul of a servant of the Lord,” guiding the “holy people” through the Red Sea,” etc. (Wisdom of Solomon 10:16-18) As a result, there is celebration. “ . . . they sang hymns . . . and praised with one accord . . .” (vs. 20) The people are blessed and they celebrate.

The words from Psalm 147 are also a celebration of blessings: peace, the blowing wind, the flowing water, etc. (vss. 12-18) At the end we see that the blessings are taken as a sign of being special. God “has not dealt thus with any other nation.” (vs. 20)

Ephesians explicitly speaks of being chosen by God, connecting it now with Christ who was there “before the foundation of the earth.” (Ephesians 1:4) The blessing is that we have been adopted as God’s children. (vs. 5) Being children means there is an inheritance, which calls forth praise. (vss. 11-14)

The Gospel from John is one of the traditional readings for the Christmas season, presenting us with Jesus as the embodiment of the eternal “Word.” In Greek, it is “logos,” which can be translated as “word” but also was a concept used in Greek philosophy to represent something of an eternal principle or force energizing the cosmos. We could also look at the significance of “Word” as a living expression of God in Hebrew scripture and theology. In the reading from John, “the Word became flesh and lived among us.” (John 1:14)

This eternal dimension is present in the reading from Ephesians, which speaks of our being chosen “before the foundation of the world.” (Ephesians 1:4) It may not be too much of a stretch to see the eternal Logos as something like “Wisdom” in Sirach, which “came forth from the mouth of the Most High” (like a word spoken by God?). (Sirach 24:3) In both Sirach and John we have God’s Spirit coming to live in our midst. It’s enough to make anyone feel special. John expresses it by saying, “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” (John 1:16)

Do we feel blessed and special? The coming of the New Year is sometimes seen as a time for making resolutions. May it also be a time for counting of our blessings and knowing that we are special—not in the sense of being given special privileges but in the sense that each one of us counts and has a place in God’s scheme of things. We are blessed to be a blessing. We are loved to be instruments of love. We have been given so that we can pass it on.
Tuesday, December 21, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 63:7-9, Psalm 148:1-14, Hebrews 2:10-18, Matthew 2:13-23

In scripture, and in Christian theology, we find the birth of Jesus means a Savior has come, after all these long years of waiting.

We don’t talk about saviors as much as we used to. The word “salvation” itself is pretty simple. It means health, well-being. As an English word it is derived from the word “salve,” a healing ointment—“balm” in the Bible. As I look around, this world---its politics, its relationships--- needs a lot of healing. I need healing—from self-centeredness, injured ego, short-sightedness, and a myriad of other inward and outward conditions that I could let torment me if I didn’t tuck them away out of sight.

What are some of the things that characterize this savior as we read the lectionary for Sunday? In the Isaiah and Hebrews readings, this savior is not someone we seek on high. It is someone who identifies with us, comes into our midst, lives with us—Emmanuel—God with us—as an earlier Advent reading had it. Isaiah 63:8-9, speaks of a God (“the Lord”) who “became their savior” in the midst of “all their distress.” Then we are told that it not the “messenger or angel,” angel being the Greek word for “messenger,” who brings salvation. It is God’s “presence that saved them.”

We look to eloquent politicians or personable pastors or brilliant economists or insightful therapists or gifted superstars to save us, forgetting that they are but messengers. Their power, personality, brilliant insights, gifts, are but signs of something more profound—divinity among us. And the messenger too often gets it distorted, even misuses it.

The book of Hebrews interprets Jesus through the lens of Old Testament teachings and practices (still very much alive in Jesus’ day) involving the offering of sacrifices on the altar for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus is presented as the ultimate sacrifice making all others unnecessary. This reading from Hebrews contains another reference to “angels.” Jesus, “did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham.” (Hebrews 2:16) Whatever we believe about angels, they are not the ones in need of healing; we humans, “descendants of Abraham,” are. And, in this passage, it can only be accomplished by some who is like us, fully human, who knows what it means to suffer and be tested. “ . . . he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect . . . to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.” (vs. 17) “Because he himself was tested . . . he is able to help those who are being tested.” (vs. 18) A couple of chapters later it says that he is “one who in every respect has been tested as we are . . .” (Hebrews 4:15)

In unwrapping our Christmas presents we probably will not find as many layers of interpretation as those which could be, and have been, spun out of verses like these. For now, let’s just take it as another declaration about a savior who is “God with us,” the key being with us, like us, entering into the fullness of human experience, internalizing it all and somehow bringing healing. We might think of it as having our very existence in God’s “body.” After all we are told, “In him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28) Compare it to the human body. If our big toe hurts, we feel it and it likely affects our entire being. In some mysterious way, I believe that our feelings are borne in that way by a higher consciousness (God?), that our health (salvation) is derived from his very being, from the empathy of the cosmos that is God’s consciousness. This “God with us” is as near as the air we breathe.

The reading from Matthew presents a rich and complex story, telling of the immediate aftermath of the visit of the Magi to worship the child. Matthew, attempting to show Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah, uses references that would have reminded his readers of their status as an oppressed people, often living away from their homeland in a foreign country. Jesus’ birth is depicted as a threat to the power of King Herod. Herod—and those in political power—are the saviors, are they not? How could the birth of a child under obscure circumstances threaten the power of a king? How could such a one be an alternative for the saving of the people?

Herod, though, perceives a threat. An angel warns Joseph to flee to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath. (Matthew 2:13-14) Here we go again, says the early reader. I remember another Joseph in Egypt. Even though that Joseph fared pretty well, I remember what eventually happened in Egypt. We always end up fleeing one pharaoh or another.

The story turns to what some have called “The Slaughter of the Innocents.” Herod ordered the killing of “all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under,” hoping, of course, to assure Jesus’ death before he ever got near a cross. (vs. 16) In speaking of the slaughter, Matthew quotes the prophet Jeremiah who speaks of Rachel’s “wailing and loud lamentation . . . weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” (vss. 17-18) In Jeremiah’s writing, Rachel represented the nation of Israel, weeping over its children sent into exile. The reader would again think, “Here we go again, always being persecuted, always ending up in exile. Now our hope has come and it’s happening again.”

Why is it that “innocents” so often suffer at the hands of the powers of this world? Is health, salvation, always gained through the sacrifice of the innocents? I don’t have an easy answer, or much more than a fragment of any answer. We’ve come to see Jesus as one of those innocents. God with us comes in the form of innocence, and too often corrupt power cringes in the presence of innocence. Their manipulative grasping for power and wealth is revealed. Such light must be eliminated.

But what if those thousand points of light (as someone called them), all those innocents, rose up and said, “We’re not going to take it any more.” Would that start us again on the road to health? There’s a sense in which we are all called to be “saviors.” I know that it sounds a bit sacrilegious, but are we among the “innocents.” The divinity that was in Jesus is also in us. Paying attention to that divinity is risky because the more we pay attention to it the greater threat we are to the prevailing culture values. The powers of this world may be no more tolerant that Herod was. Their devices may be more subtle, but the children, the weak, the needy, the oppressed are too often the ones that suffer.

Christmas announces that a Savior has come. It is a sobering thought, but also an occasion for rejoicing and praise, the kind of praise that, in Psalm 148, arises from all creation. “Young men and women alike, old and young together! Let them praise the name of the Lord.” (vs. 12-13)
Wednesday, December 15, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 7:10-16, Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19, Romans 1:1-7, Matthew 1:18-25

Centuries of debate and discussion have gone into trying to explain how Jesus could be human and divine. In the early years of the church there was even intense debate over two Greek words that differed in only one letter. Out of that debate came the Nicene Creed considered by many to be the standard of orthodoxy. It spoke/speaks (still recited in many churches today) of Jesus and God as being “of one substance.” The alternative was “of like substance,” hardly distinguishable in Greek.

Here’s my take. People who met Jesus sensed that they were in the presence of some kind of divine power when they were with him. As human beings are so prone to do, they tried to capture that experience in words and images they could hold onto as absolute truth. The “virgin” birth which appears in this week’s lectionary readings was one such effort. After all, there were stories of other “gods” born of virgins. Ours is at least as good as theirs.

Our reading from the prophets looks ahead to a “young woman” who will bear a son. (Isaiah 7:14) Notice that it does not say, “a virgin.” When Matthew, in the Gospel lesson, quotes this verse however, he uses the word, “virgin.” (Matthew 1:23) The manuscript from which he was reading Isaiah had been translated into Greek, where it seemed to mean “virgin.” Even that, however, has been debated. We love to debate rather than stand on holy ground and rejoice in the presence of mystery.

The focus in both stories is upon one to be named Emmanuel—or Immanuel in the Isaiah reading. (Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew 1:23, again). In Matthew, it also says that the child will be named “Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21) “Jesus,” the same name as “Joshua” and a common name in those days, as it still is in some cultures—say Hispanic, means “God saves.” In Isaiah, Immanuel is described as a child who knows "how to refuse the evil and choose the good.” (Isaiah 7:16) In both cases, the child is seen as one who represents God’s presence in the midst of humanity as a sign and bearer of the harmony and justice God’s people long for.

Other attempts at explaining the combination of divine and human have asked about Jesus’ sense of his own identity. Who did he think he was? Did he think of himself as divine? Who made him into God and when did he know it? The reading from Romans, an introduction to that letter by Paul, makes a stab at telling about Jesus’ identity. He was “promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures,” a descendant of David, who “was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead . . .” (Romans 1:2-4) Some have suggested that Jesus came to some awareness of who he was and his special mission when he visited the temple as a young boy. Others have suggested it happened at his baptism, or on the mountain when he was seen as a shining light. Who really knows how Jesus would have resolved this divine-human debate?

The reading from Romans sees the resurrection as the sign that he is the “son of God,” and it says he “was declared to be the Son of God.” Isn’t that an interesting turn of phrase? Who did the declaring and when? All we know for sure is that Jesus’ early followers, and the church early in its history, made that declaration.

Isn’t it too bad that instead of sitting (or standing or serving) wide-eyed, we debate the details?

We got into a discussion this morning at our weekly breakfast at Mehri’s about how one tells the Christmas story to children. Following that discussion Ethelyn forwarded that following link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ki8EcnVbd-Q Check it out and notice how unconcerned these children seem to be about accuracy of detail, yet they seem to sense the greatness of what is happening in the story. They know that it is about God being present in the lowliest of circumstances, and about God touching and changing human hearts and lives. What more could we want than an account of the Christmas story with that result?

One other aspect of the divine-human discussion has to do with the divine spark even in us. We too are sons and daughters of God. Romans 8:14 says, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” (There are other references in Romans and Galatians as well.) Martin Luther and C.S. Lewis both spoke of us as “little Christs.” The focus here is not on how we differ from Christ but how we are called to be vessels of God’s Spirit (the divine) in this life. It is God’s intention, I believe, that we are to be the Spirit of Christmas to those around us, “Little Christs” as Luther and Lewis put it, to our neighbors.
There is divinity loose among us, folks. Merry Christmas and Good will to all!

As is often the case, I have a couple of afterwards.

1. I did not mention the Psalm. It is a Psalm of longing, the same longing for God in our midst making things right that is found in the other scriptures. The prayer, “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be save,” is repeated three times. (Psalm 80:3, 7, & 19) It can be, for us, an Advent prayer.

2. I didn’t talk about Joseph who is a central character in the reading from Matthew. It would be another whole blog entry to begin to do justice to this often overlooked character. He may have, at times, been, as Pastor Rick said Sunday, “clueless.” Aren’t we all? Yet God uses “clueless” people. Joseph steps up to the plate and becomes a father to this child, however we interpret the actual birth. Jesus may well have learned a lot about God from what was in Mary’s heart, expressed in her song among other places. I suspect he also learned a lot from Joseph about being human. Can we see Joseph and Mary as representing the human and divine influences even from his earliest years? Anyway, let’s not forget Joseph.
Tuesday, December 07, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 35:1-10, Psalm 146:5-10 or Luke 1:46b-55, James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11

Sometimes I feel like I was born with a passion for justice. Where did it come from? My father’s income was always below the official poverty line, although we didn’t think of ourselves as “poor”. We definitely lived on the wrong wide of the “divide” in our community, living sort of on the margins of those with power and social acceptability. My father was physically handicapped and my mother battled mental illness. We never dwelt upon it, but we knew what discrimination felt like, or at least what it felt like to be different.

Beyond our own family, the place I probably had the most intimate view of poverty was among the migrant workers who lived on the margins of our community. Eventually I spent some time working for the Migrant Ministry of the Council of Churches—both in Oregon and Washington. During my first year of higher education, at Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon, that ministry had me living among the migrant workers of Yamhill County, in a migrant labor community called Eola Village (run by the Yamhill County Housing Authority). It no longer exists, but at its peak it housed about 2000 people in simple but adequate two-bedroom homes as well as tents on foundations. I shared one of the two-bedroom homes with a fellow student. I remember my shock at discovering 13 year old girls running a prostitution operation out of one of the tents.

The question remains, “Where did that passion come from, and why does it not seem to burn as brightly now?” How do any of us come by such a passion and how does such a passion get engendered and maintained? At this morning’s breakfast discussion we all agreed that guilt doesn’t work too well. We also agreed that our church gives generously and supports a variety of worthy causes, but we feel there may be a deeper challenge calling some of us to another level.

The vision of justice pervades the scriptures, some of them coming especially to prominence during the Advent season, the promise of a coming Messiah seen as the arrival of a society where all things are put right. On my best days, I like to think that the passion for justice comes from those religious roots, those scriptures that have shaped my life since childhood. The vision is not just something we learn from our circumstance, or inherit in our genes, or catch like a passing virus. It is the groaning of God’s Spirit all around us, hard-wired into the synapses of the cosmos, sending spurts of passion into our dreams not unlike visions of sugar plums (although, I hope, more profound).

The visions are there in the lectionary readings for this Sunday, and, guess what! They are presented not so much as pulpit-thumping tirades. They are offered as gifts, promises, something for which to be grateful and to sing about. If there is a call, it is a call to participate in God’s reality, rather than a message that here is something we have to go out and create by sheer effort as something against our own wants and needs.

Isaiah talks about something that “shall be.” (See Isaiah 35:1, 5, 8, 9, & 10, for instance, all of which contain that phrase.) The vision includes good news for the blind and deaf and lame, the oppressed and hungry, prisoners, strangers, orphans and widows, all those in need. (See Isaiah 35:5-6, Psalm 146:7-9, Luke 1:43, & Matthew 11:5) Sometimes it includes the blossoming of the desert, highways that are made straight and safe, etc. (See Isaiah 35:1-2, 8-9)

The vision is something that engenders singing and gratitude and joy. (See Isaiah 35:10, Psalm 146:5 & 10—The Luke passage is a song with ancient roots sung by Mary in anticipation of Jesus’ birth, a grateful response to a God who does not forget the needs of lowly people.)

So what if, instead of thinking of justice as something we have to work at, we were to experience it—even its possibility—as something to sing about and be thankful for? I know it’s a bit idealistic, but passions are often expressed in songs and prayers of gratitude. If we could but start from that place, perhaps we would come closer to the place where true justice exists. Maybe we need to start by singing and praying our way through Advent, with gratitude.

A few additional comments temper all that I have said so far. Justice is somehow also connected with “judgment.” Our system of justice today, with all its limitations, requires that those whose behavior is destructive stand in a court of law to be held accountable. Well, at least that’s the way it’s supposed to work, and sometimes does. The biblical vision has the oppressors being brought to account. The proud are scattered; the powerful are brought down; the rich are sent away empty. (Luke 1:51-53) James writes of a “judge . . . standing at the doors!” (James 5:9) What is good news to the poor and hungry weighs heavily on those who seem to have been working against God’s vision.

If we ask, where does the passion for justice come from, we might also ask, “Why do some people just not seem to get it?” We have certainly seen examples in recent years—and in all ages—of the high and mighty (and maybe some everyday citizens) who seem to care about little but their own comfort and ease and profit. In fact, the reading from Matthew implies that they are not where we need to look for a vision of justice. Jesus asks what the people expected when they went out to hear John the Baptist. Were they looking for someone in fancy robes, living like a king? What they got, and what they needed, was a prophet to announce the coming of a new way of walking together on this earth. (Matthew 11:7-10)

Interestingly, Jesus ends his words about John the Baptist with the declaration that “the least in the kingdom is greater than he.” (Matthew 11:11) I take that to mean that Jesus is calling every one of his followers to be a messenger preparing the way.

Finally, it seems almost contradictory, but James’ instruction is to “be patient.” (James 5:7-8) Let yourself be surrounded by, comforted and encouraged, even empowered, by God’s vision of justice, but be patient walking along the highway leading toward its full realization. Take time to sing and pray along the way, remembering, as someone once said, that “all the way to heaven can be heaven,” if we just notice it and live it as best we can right now. Let’s keep walking all the way through Advent and beyond, passionate about God’s vision of justice.

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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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