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Wednesday, January 27, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 71:1-6, I Corinthians 13:1-13, Luke 4:21-30

The readings from Jeremiah and Psalm 71 might turn us to questions of life and destiny. The reading from Jeremiah is about this man being called to his prophetic task. It begins in verse four with the Lord speaking these words to him, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” This and similar verses are favorites of those who call themselves “Pro-Life” or “Anti-Abortion.” At the end of the reading from Psalm 71, in verse 6, the Psalmist says to the Lord, “Upon you I have leaned from my birth; it was you who took me from my mother’s womb.”

I don’t like the labels used by the parties to the “abortion” debate. I have always been on the “Pro-Choice” side, for which many would damn me to hell. Over the years, however, I have become more and more clear that this is not an easy, knee-jerk, issue. Most who face abortion decisions up close and personal do not usually reach easy conclusions, living with the consequences of their decisions, either way, for years to come.

We are faced in this, and in a few other circumstances in life, with the question of what defines life? We’re talking here about more than physical existence. End of life issues sometimes involve similar considerations. Some have noted the inconsistency of those evangelicals who are adamantly “pro-life” on some issues, but slow to oppose capital punishment. At the same time, they say, some who are “pro-choice” seem inconsistent when they oppose the death penalty but not abortion. Some have sought to bring the sides together in a shared affirmation of the incredible value of life—life, I would suggest, full of meaning.

Playing on the old question, “Is there life after death?,” some have asked, “Is there life before death?” In the abortion debate much energy is expended on the nature of life before birth. I would also want to ask, “Is there life after birth?” Some who come into this life have little prospect of a meaningful existence. Others reach the end of life without, apparently, discovering any real purpose and meaning.

Whatever one’s stance on the debates going on around us, it is always appropriate to seriously consider questions about the meaning of life, what it means to be “alive.” Such questions are also often connected with matters of “destiny.” The reading from Jeremiah ends with a powerful commission to Jeremiah, words put in his mouth with the power “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” His destiny weighed heavily upon him throughout his life, bringing him literally, at times, to tears.

Do we see “destiny” at work in any way in our lives? To what extent are we creatures of destiny? When and where did our destiny begin? Is there a defined path for our lives, or is it something that sort of emerges “on the job”? “Life” and “destiny”—important questions often put before us by scripture—and by life itself.

This week’s epistle is the familiar love poem drawn into Paul’s writing as the thirteenth chapter of I Corinthians. It includes a reference to childhood, one which perhaps expands the images above from Jeremiah and Psalm 71. It talks about growth into adulthood when one has a perspective which moves beyond what is “childish.” (I Corinthians 13:11) We are given an image which is much less fixed than that of a destiny decided while still in the womb. Perhaps destiny is worked out along the way and never finally fully realized or understood until we see God “face to face” in another dimension. (vs. 12)

The Gospel lesson is a continuation of last week’s story from the 4th chapter of Luke. Jesus, you may remember, has gone to his home synagogue in Nazareth. After reading a strong text from Isaiah about a world in which righteousness and justice prevail, he tells them that it is about “today,” not just a historical record or a hope for the remote future. He goes on from there to insult them, implying that they want miracles and magic, but not the hard work needed to bring about justice. He refers them to a couple Old Testament stories, suggesting that they are arrogant and self-satisfied, thinking it’s all about what God can do for them.

The two stories involve God’s blessing reaching out even to those who were not of the “chosen” people. Throughout the Old Testament there are occasions when that happens, sometimes to the consternation of those who think if all belongs to them. I suspect that Luke wants us to see this inaugural appearance by Jesus as an announcement that he is part of the more inclusive approach to religion. At any rate, it can be an occasion to ask what boundaries God might be expecting us to cross, politically, religiously, socially.

The book of Ephesians (not one of this week's readings)describes the work of Christ as breaking down walls that divide. When we join in that task perhaps we are well on our way to discovering the meaning and destiny at work in every living cell and tissue, breeze and kiss and legislative endeavor on this earth. If one wants to go back to I Corinthians, perhaps we can see it as a call to become part of the Love that is, or could be, involved in all of those places.
Tuesday, January 19, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10, Psalm 19:1-4, I Corinthians 12:12-31a, Luke 14:14-21

This week we begin with a story from the book of Nehemiah, about Ezra reading scripture at the completion of the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. I apologize to those who were discussing the lectionary texts this morning at breakfast. I momentarily confused this story with another about lost scrolls being found in the temple wall (in II Kings 22:8 and following) significantly earlier in Jewish history. Having just turned seventy I’m aware that the synapses sometimes make hugely erroneous leaps and connections. Sorry, about that!

In this story, the Jewish people have been in exile in Babylon. Nehemiah (cupbearer to the king) and Ezra (a priest) have been allowed/authorized, separately, to return and rebuild the city walls and the temple in Jerusalem, as the people begin to repopulate that city. It is probable that it has been some time since they have heard such a complete reading “from the law of God” (Nehemiah 8:8)—“with interpretation.” They are so moved that they weep. (vs. 9)

Here are a couple of foci for reflection. 1. Finding renewing power in old words that perhaps have been overlooked or ignored or forgotten for a while can sometimes be the occasion for an epiphany. Where and when has that occurred in our lives? 2. There has been much discussion over the years about the place of “law” in religious and spiritual experience. In our tradition we tend to resist a “legalistic” approach, but are there ways in which reflecting on basic principles (laws) of human relationship can be an occasion for growth, even epiphany?

Psalm 19 certainly suggests that that is so. After waxing eloquent again about seeing (and hearing) God in nature, it declares that “the law” revives the soul, rejoices the heart, enlightens the eyes. (vss.7-8)

This week’s Gospel lesson, from Luke 4:14-21, is another story of the reading of scripture, this time by Jesus in his home synagogue. If one continues into the next few verses, we see that it is a story that doesn’t end well. The people know this kid and have a hard time believing that his ministry can be of any significance. “Is not this Joseph’s son?” they ask. (Luke 4:22) It is here that Jesus utters the words, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.” (vs. 24) Indeed, they are soon “filled with rage,” driving him out of town intending to throw him over a cliff. (vss. 28-29)

To what extent did Jesus choose the particular words he read? The scroll of Isaiah was handed to him, but he “found the place” where these words about justice were recorded. Was this reading, or the one in Ezra for that matter, connected with a sense of “jubilee,” the Old Testament ideal of a restoration every seven years—a time when slaves are freed, property returned, forgiveness afforded, etc. It was an ideal little followed then—or now. Maybe we need to be recalled to it on a regular basis, maybe even more often than every seven years.

Then Jesus says something utterly remarkable, giving rise to their rage. He says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21) In Luke’s Gospel this is Jesus’ inaugural public address. Luke, with his emphasis upon those who are so often marginalized, would have particularly appreciated the words. Jesus is somehow saying, “These words define my ministry, are a statement of whom I am.”

I suggest, though, that it would be worthy to reflect on a simpler human dynamic in this encounter. We often seem to want to leave things in the past or push them forward as hopes for the future that we don’t have to deal with now. Those would probably have been two common reactions to the words from Isaiah. Jesus comes along and says they are something you have to deal with right now, today. They are meant to take life in your everyday living now.

This week’s epistle lesson is a continuation of last week’s focus on the gifts we have received from God’s Spirit. We are challenged with the metaphor of the body. We are the body of Christ, many parts with different functions and gifts—eyes, hands, ears, noses, etc. The whole body works only if each part does what it was designed to do. Part of the power of the metaphor is its reminder that Jesus’ ministry is not just something in the past. The resurrection occurs again and again as we become Christ’s living body to one another and to the world. We may be the only Christ someone encounters. It is how that Divine Love takes on flesh “today,” “now,” that matters.

The truths, the ideals, that many of us hold dear, are as old as eternity, and they are part of the eternal manifest in the now, in our time and place, if they break forth and touch and move and empower us anew. Each time that happens they are still being “fulfilled.” The Word (and “the Law”) takes on flesh and we becoming “living words.”
Tuesday, January 12, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 62:1-5, Psalm 36:5-10, I Corinthians 12:1-11, John 2:1-11

This week’s reading from Isaiah, chapter 62, picks up a central piece of Pastor Rick’s message this last Sunday—and a central truth often lifted up during the season of Epiphany. We are a delight in God’s eyes. “ . . . you shall be called My Delight . . . for the Lord delights in you . . .” (vs. 4)

The Psalm (36) is another Psalm which speaks of God’s love in all the manifestations of nature and humanity. We are held in God’s steadfast love. The phrase, in verse 9, “in your light we see light,” is appropriate for the Epiphany season. It’s kind of description of an “epiphany”—seeing life illumined by the light of God.

The scripture that most catches my attention this week is the Gospel lesson which tells the story of Jesus’ presence at a wedding in Cana. Some would see it as simply another manifestation of Jesus’ humanity. He went to a wedding and partied with the crowd there, even spicing it up with some unexpected new wine at the end.

We may get off track if our primary focus is on the story, or miracle, itself. The passage is probably best seen in the context of the unique approach of this Gospel. In John, what happens in the “miracle” stories is presented as a “sign” of who Jesus is. At the end of this story, in John 2:11, it says, “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” Somehow, it was a sort of epiphany for them.

So, what is it a “sign” of? These stories in John often include a tag line in which Jesus says, “I AM . . .”—living water, bread of life, etc.—“I AM” perhaps drawing the readers to one of the Old Testament names for God, YHWH (Yahweh or Jehovah), which means, “I am what I am” or “I will be what I will be.” If this story ended with such a line, it would probably be “I AM the new wine.”

In Luke 5, Jesus, talking about another wedding feast warns against putting new wine into old wineskins because they will burst, the skins being destroyed and the wine being lost. The theme of newness runs through much of scripture. What God offers is a new lease on life, new beginnings. In Isaiah 43:19, God says, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

This week when I reread this story of the wedding at Cana, it caused me to think about and ask about the new and the old in my life. What have been the occasions when newness has burst in? How have I reacted? How have I been changed? What happens to the old when the new occurs? How do we integrate the old and the new? In Matthew 13:52, Jesus speaks of the kingdom of heaven (or kingdom of God) as a place where one “brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

Perhaps the story is about radical change. How does such change occur? How do we not lose hope when change is drastically needed? Jesus reminds us to cling to the hope for something new.

This Sunday is also a time for celebration of the life and ministry of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Steeped in the lessons of the prophets and the Gospels, it was in his bones to believe that something new could be born in American life. In any movement for change, some of the old still hangs on. Sometimes we even need some blend of the old and the new. We just need to be careful that we don’t drink so much of the old that we don’t even recognize the new and its possibilities.

Some get hung up on questions of a physical miracle in this story. The miracle it points to, however, is so much bigger. Any time we experience new life in our inner being, in our relationships, in our society and world, it is a true miracle, an epiphany to be celebrated.

A quick footnote about the epistle lesson from I Corinthians, chapter 12. It speaks of the need to recognize and use our different gifts. Verse 7 and following says, “ . . . there are varieties of activities, but is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” In this epistle, God’s Spirit is at work in us stirring up in us gifts that can be used to build up one another and the community around us. Those gifts are epiphanies of sorts, maybe even part of the “new” to which God is calling us.

God wants us to enjoy to its fullest the party that is life, to drink the wine of newness by opening ourselves to the Divine Spirit at work in us. Are we ready and able?
Wednesday, January 06, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 43:1-7, Psalm 29:1-11, Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

I’m writing this on Epiphany. So what is Epiphany? It’s a somewhat twisted tale—or trail.

In the Eastern Church (Russian and Greek Orthodox mainly), tomorrow (Jan. 7) is Christmas. I like that because it’s my birthday. Then there’s the Armenian Church that celebrates Christmas on Jan. 6 (Epiphany). The earliest reference to Epiphany as a Christian feast was in A.D. 361 by Ammianus Marcellinus, who described it a “Christ’s birthday, that is, His Epiphany.”

The most obvious explanation for the difference in the dating of Christmas is that the Eastern Church uses the older Julian Calendar, which differs from our Gregorian Calendar by 13 days.

The point is that Epiphany may be nothing more than another celebration of Christmas. I thought maybe it’s placement in the calendar of the church year was an attempt to accommodate or reconcile the two Christmases 9 (the twelve days of Christmas and all that), but it turns out that the Eastern Church celebrates Epiphany on Jan. 19, still using the Julian Calendar.

So, here we are, entering the season of Epiphany, starting with a day on which we traditionally remember the coming of the Wise Men to bow down and worship before Jesus, and a day which, in the Eastern Church focuses more upon the birth and baptism of Jesus. In our Western church calendar, this Sunday, Jan. 10, is labeled, “The Baptism of Our Lord.”

The word “epiphany” comes from the Greek, and simply means “manifestation.” It’s still all about “incarnation” or embodiment, the central focus of our celebration of Jesus’ birth—at least when we get beyond the tinsel and bright lights and reindeer.

My take on “epiphany,” though, is that it is more inner and spiritual than “incarnation.” In every day life, if we ever actually use the word “epiphany,” it is probably when we say something like, “That experience was an ‘epiphany’ for me,” an experience that opened my eyes, touched my spirit, helped me understand myself, the world around me, God, better. An epiphany is a moment when we are surprised by the welling up of eternity within us.

In the broadest sense, there is not just one epiphany in the stories of Jesus. If one were to look for a specific moment in Jesus’ life to call “The Epiphany,” it might be his baptism (described in this week's Gospel reading from Luke 3), when a voice from heaven said, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Jesus’ whole life, though, was a “manifestation” of eternal truth, the stories of his life drawing us in to inspire and challenge, to move and open, us—his birth, the transfiguration on the mountain top, his teaching moments and his touching (sometimes literally) encounters, his death and resurrection.

As the story continues, the experience of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is another epiphany. It is no surprise a scripture about receiving the Holy Spirit (from Acts, chapter 8) is included as one of the readings for this Sunday. Both that passage and the story in Luke deal with baptism, both of them suggesting that it is not the water that makes the difference. If one wants to get to the heart of things, experience a true epiphany, one has to pay attention to inner workings of God’s Spirit.

Isaiah 43 also connects, in a way, with baptism. “When you pass through the waters,” God says in verse 2, “I will be with you . . .” He talks about us being “precious” in his sight. “Do not fear, for I am with you . . .” Psalm 29 speaks of the voice of the Lord over the waters, in the thunder, shaking the wilderness, and so much more. Epiphanies all around us.

A footnote: I haven’t said much about the visit of the Magi, which most informed Christians know wasn’t part of a time gathered around the manger. They came later, when Jesus was in a “house.” Look it up in Matthew 2:11. Although their story is not one of the readings for this Sunday, they are central to the Western Church’s celebration of Epiphany. Some have seen them as the first Gentiles (“non-Jews”) to worship before Jesus. They symbolize the reach of his truth beyond any nationalist and/or parochial boundaries. This week's reading from Acts has some of the same dynamics. Even the Samaritans “accepted the word of God” and “received the Holy Spirit,” although they had to wait for the arrival of Peter and John for the Spirit to come. Therein is another story for another time—about church politics and authority.

Finally, while Epiphany is a time to keep our eyes and ears and hearts open for moments of revelation, epiphanies and theophanies that may be all about us, might it also be a time to realize and live out the fact that we ourselves are and/or can be epiphanies, revelations of God to those around us.

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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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