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Thursday, December 27, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: I Samuel 2:18-20, 26, Psalm 148:1-14, Colosians 3:12-17, Luke 2:41-52

Good parenting means taking care of one’s children—seeing that they are fed, clothed, sheltered, loved, etc. Parental concern can, of course, be excessive, but it usually arises from good instincts. It’s also true that events intervene—via gunshot, health issues, war, famine, etc.—reminding parents that they cannot provide complete protection and security. In such situations, the anguish of parents is but another reminder of that deep caring connection which is the source of great pain when it is broken.

In two of this week’s lectionary readings, we see concerned parents. The parallels between Mary and Hannah (Samuel’s mother) and the birth of Jesus and Samuel have long been noted. The only parallel in these two readings is the concern of parents. In I Samuel, chapter 2, we see a mother who faithfully makes “a little robe” for her son each year and takes it to him where he is serving the priest Eli. (I Samuel 2:18-19)

I’m not sure kids always enjoy receiving articles of clothing as gifts. I grew up in a culture of hand-me-downs. Clothes went from my older cousins to me and then back to younger cousins. Yes, somehow we made them last that long. I remember one Christmas my parents splurged and got me a brand new suit to wear to church. Those were the days when we “dressed up” to go to church—not just for other people but because we thought it somehow showed respect for God. When I opened the suit, my first question was, “Whose was it?” I didn’t know that clothes could be brand new or that I might be the first owner of some article of clothing. I still think I look pretty “spiffy” in pictures I have of me in that suit.

The Gospel lesson tells about an outing taken by Jesus’ family when he was 12 years old. They went to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. (Luke 2:41-42) Traveling as a group of relatives and friends, children running this way and that, Jesus’ parents are on their way home before they notice that Jesus is missing. In our day, they probably would have been immediately “blamed” for losing him, but they knew what it was to be a whole “village” taking care of their children. The highlight of the story is probably where they found him, “in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” (vs. 46) It says, “And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.” (vs. 47)

I suppose some parents might identify with the experience of having a precocious kid whose understandings moves beyond them. “ . . . they did not understand what he said to them,” we are told. (vs. 49) This week perhaps we can just note the important role of parents in Jesus’ life, in the life of any child. I once titled a sermon on this text, “Jesus Had Parents.” The story notes that Jesus went back home with his parents and “was obedient to them.” (vs. 51) There is also the touching observation showing us that Mary was a proud parent. She “treasured” the experience of watching her child grow, holding those shared times “in her heart.” (vs. 51)

At the end of each child’s story----Samuel and Jesus—we see growth. “Now the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with the people.” (I Samuel 2:20) “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” (Luke 2:52) Isn’t that ultimately what parenting is about, encouraging and enabling our children to grow? Perhaps we can broaden it to talk about the role of adults and communities (including communities of believers) as they minister with and to children. Birth (and Christmas) is but a beginning. Notice that both children are described as growing in divine and human favor. Growing includes entering into fuller relationship with God and with those around us, learning how to get along in this world and in our connection with God—perhaps putting on new clothes with each passing season.

The epistle reading specifically talks about spiritual clothing. “ . . . clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience . . . Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (Colossians 3:12 & 14) Other verses spell out the details, speaking of forgiveness and peace and gratitude, ending with the admonition, “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.” (vss. 13 & 15-17) I once preached a sermon titled simply, “Whatever.” What a powerful all-inclusive word.

Rather than dwell on the details right now, though, I want to call attention to Paul’s simple declaration in Galatians 3:27—“As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” Is it possible that the clothes so neatly gift-wrapped under the tree are Christ himself? I’m not sure whether the clothes he offers are hand-me-downs or not. If that means used and worn, I suspect not. These are clothes that give us a brand new chance. But if it means that they are part of his very being passed on (handed down) to us, maybe hand-me-downs will serve us quite well. And if it means that they come from one who had tested their durability on all the highways and byways of life, that probably adds to the value of the gift. Maybe now he has even become like Hannah, seeking to cloth his children. Look where thinking about parenting and clothes has taken us.

The Psalm doesn’t seem to address the theme of our reflections—or does it? If we think of all creation as part of the clothing God provides for us, we are apt to burst into a song of praise like the one we have in Psalm 148. Maybe we need to look beyond the gifts under the tree and look heavenward, thinking of all nature as a gift for which to be grateful—at Christmas time and all year. As I read it, these verses repeat the word, “praise,” thirteen times. In the story of Jesus’ birth as told by Luke, we read, “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’”

Praise God for parents and clothing, for all things great and small, for the sustaining beauty of nature, for love embodied in a child, and in all relationships human and divine!
Saturday, December 22, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: Micah 5:2-5a, Psalm 80:1-7, Hebrews 10:5-10, Lke 1:39-55

Where do we look for the meaning of Christmas? In brightly decorated trees with flashing lights or in jovial belly-laughing Santas? Where does the world direct its adoration—not just at Christmas time but all year? Toward power brokers, sports heroes, and stars that populate the various entertainment media, or perhaps the winners of all the talent or reality shows—maybe even the Kardashians who seem to just be popular for being popular?

Many biblical texts, including some for the Sunday before Christmas, remind us to set our sights a little lower—where we may be surprised by seeing deeper and higher and farther. The effects of God’s transforming love may emanate from unexpected, off the beaten path, places.

Micah talks about “Bethlehem of Ephrathah . . . one of the little clans of Judah.” (Micah 5:2) In a prophecy which was later applied to Jesus, we are told of “one who is to rule Israel . . . He shall be great to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace.” (vss. 2 & 4-5) Never forget that last part. He shall be one of peace, not a power-wielding dictator who sees the world as weak and powerless peoples to be dominated.

The Gospel lesson records a song sung by Mary as she celebrates the one to whom she will give birth. The story is prefaced by the touching story of Mary’s trip to visit Elizabeth who is also expecting a child. We are told simply that Elizabeth is a “relative.” Many of us grew up assuming they were cousins as is indicated in the King James Version of the Bible. (Luke 1:36) The child (John, the Baptist) in Elizabeth’s womb leaps when Mary arrives, and she says to Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me.” (vss. 41-44)

It is at this point that Mary begins to sing what has come to be called “The Magnificat” for its first line: “My soul magnifies the Lord.” (vs. 46) Who would have expected great things to come from this humble peasant girl who speaks of herself in terms of “the lowliness of his servant”? (vs. 48) And what kind of child does she sing about? Is it one who is going to bow down before the power brokers and rich of the world? No, his concern is not for those who seem to loom large in the affairs of this world. The ones who are “proud in the thoughts of their hearts” are going to be scattered, and the powerful and rich are going to be brought down. The lowly are going to “lifted up” and the hungry will be fed. (vss. 51-53) This child born to a surprising mother in an unexpected place, whose very being is reminder that small things matter, will offer significance and purpose to all who have been held in contempt and abused by the powers that be.

It may be a stretch to connect the other two readings with this theme—but you know by now that I do a bit of stretching from time to time. The Psalm is a prayer by people who are feeling alienated, neglected, and put upon. (Psalm 80:1-2) They speak of their food and drink as “tears.” (vs. 5) People who are crying, though, have a right to have the Lord’s face shine on them. (vs. 7) In fact, it has been my experience that it is often those who have lived through times of deep trial that have the deepest faith, that find the power of God’s Love present in desparate times. I am more apt to trust such “little” people as guides to the meaning of life than I am to expect some powerful political orator to “save” me.

The reading from Hebrews continues to develop the theme of Jesus as one who lays down his life for us. In other biblical writings the emphasis is upon the “servant.” The one long-awaited, whether a king or savior or heavenly being, was sometimes described as a “suffering servant.” “The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.” (Isaiah 53:11—See all of Isaiah 53) Israel itself is described as a servant who is “a light to the nations. (Isaiah 49:6—See also the entire chapter, especially vss. 3 & 5) Jesus, in Matthew 23:11, says, “The greatest among you will be your servant.” In another place, he defines his ministry by says, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45) It may be noteworthy that Mary says, in the verse just before this Sunday’s Gospel reading, after the angel has told her about this unexpected birth, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1-38)

The Christmas message is about humble people who are willing to serve—even a savior who comes as a servant, a baby born in a manger. If we are to hear the message, we are called to look in unexpected places, and to live in unexpected places and ways. Christmas is not just about the family feasts for which we gather. It is about hungry people being fed and downtrodden people finding their worth. All these people in all these unexpected places—the message is that God is one of them—and, if we do not think too highly of ourselves—one of us.

Christmas has come! Christmas is coming! Christmas will come! “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

In what seems to be a footnote but may be the “heart” of the matter, I comment on two things that have permeated my thinking and feeling during the time I was writing this blog—the school shootings in Connecticut and my wife’s major back surgery. I don’t intend to put them on a par but both are events containing incredible pain. One is a tragedy; the other a road to healing. It would belittle both events to focus only on the good acts of people who have given above and beyond the call and duty in the midst of the pain and suffering. It would be equally irresponsible to ignore the many acts of kindness, even heroism, by the “little” people in such situations. I have been personally touched by the many who gave support and comfort to my wife and myself (in a healing process which is continuing to unfold well). Caregivers can surprise one at the most unexpected moment in the most unexpected ways. When that happens, the Christmas spirit breaks into unexpected places at unexpected times.
Tuesday, December 11, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: Zephaniah 3:14-20, Isaiah 12:2-6, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18

When I presented the lectionary readings for this Sunday to our Tuesday morning breakfast, I suggested three at times overlapping themes for discussion: going home/experiencing restoration, joy and rejoicing, and how we live when we are in the midst of crisis. Each has a Christmas connection in our life experience. Christmas is a time when many go home or think about home and experience both the joys and conflicts that may be part of it. We sing “Joy to the World” and think of Christmas as a time of “happiness” and celebration. (As we passed the Pendleton Woolen outlet on our way to breakfast this morning their sign read, “Joy is a Gift of Pendleton.”) The birth we celebrate this time of year took place in a world in the midst of crisis. The child was heralded by some as the ushering in of a new age, with all the strains associated with the downfall of the old.

So we discussed unions and Fundamentalism and Socialism and universal health care and I don’t know what all else. I think at one point around our table of 13 there were at least four different dicussions going on. I’m not going to comment on how we got to all those places in our discussion.

As I listened and later reflected, I heard some longing for a time when belief was simpler and clearer. A number of us come out of more conservative—even fundamentalist—personal histories. (What we who are now in the more “progressive” stream of Christianity call “fundamentalism” is more varied than many of us are willing to admit—and doesn’t the term “progressive” have a hint of arrogance about it? Those variations sent me down another stream of thought which provides grist—to mix metaphors—for another blog.) We are so glad that we have moved on from that and that we have found a church which accepts us where we are and helps us grow into new understandings and expressions and experiences. Still, there are times when the shaking of the old foundations makes us long for solid ground on which to stand. Part of the appeal of the churches from which some of us have come is their clarity about authority. Coming at faith without that kind of authority can leave us in a place that seems ambiguous as our faith is constantly being reshaped.

Beyond explicitly “faith” questions, I think there are many who long for times when life didn’t seem so uncertain and shaky—if such times ever really existed. We live with “fiscal cliffs” and shifting world politics and changing understandings on what had seemed to be settled moral questions. Even when there are changes we celebrate, keeping up with the pace of change can be unsettling.
In the reading from Zephaniah I see the promise of restoration. Whether this “minor” prophetic writing which appears near the end of the “Old Testament” comes out of the turmoil associated with the succession of kings or from the later experience of exile makes little difference. The book claims that it is “the word of the Lord that came to Zephaniah son of Cushi son of Gedaliah son of Amariah son of Hezekiah, in the days of King Josiah son of Amon of Judah.” (Zephaniah 1:1) Amon’s reign ended in less than two years with his murder. He was followed by Josiah who brought reform. Some suggest that Zephaniah was Josiah’s cousin. Wherever it fits in this or subsequent history, Zephaniah speaks of a time of restoration and going home. Sounds like a vision born out of exile to me. It is summarized in Zephaniah 3:20—“At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you, for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord.”

When things around us are shaking, maybe even crumbling, we long for the safety of some place we call “home.” We want what we may think of as the security of “the good old days.” (I recognize that not all have good images of “home” and some are glad to have “escaped” the good old days.)

Much of the Bible speaks of or addresses people who are living through the shaking of the foundations. Psalm 11:3 cries out, “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” Isaiah 24:18 speaks of a time when “the windows of heaven are opened, and the foundations of the earth tremble.” In the Gospel reading for Sunday, John warns the people: “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:9) The end of the reading tells us that John with this and “many other exhortations . . . proclaimed the goods news to the people.” (vs. 18)

How this is “good news” is a question worthy considering, but what leaps out of the entire reading is the people’s response and how John answers them. They want to know what they should do. (vs. 10) In the midst of troubling times isn’t that a question many ask. We are looking for the clear and reassuring answers we were offered some time in the past. There must be some kind of singular answer that will cure all ills and make everything all right.

And what does John tell them? He tells them to go about their business with honesty and fairness and caring. If you have extra clothing or food, share it with others. (vs. 11) Don’t take advantage of people or be dishonest in your dealings with them. “ . . . be satisfied with your wages.” (vss. 12-14) Just because you’re going through a time of crisis doesn’t mean you have to give up your commitment to the ideals of peace and justice. Perhaps we can be the yeast that leavens the situation and helps bring new life to the whole. Remember that Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” (Matthew 13:33)

There’s another thing we can do. We can rejoice. Without denying that there is crying and judgment and lots of other things, the Bible is full of rejoicing. Two of this Sunday’s readings speak of that joy. Isaiah promises a day when “with joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.” (Isaiah 12:3) It exhorts us to “sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously . . . Shout aloud and sing for joy . . . for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.” (vss. 6-7)

The joyous epistle of Paul to the Philippians is a testament to the triumph of attitude over circumstances. I don’t mean to be pollyannish, but there are always things for which we can be thankful. The epistle reading begins with words which have been put to music so that we have the delightful little chorus, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, Rejoice.” (Philippians 4:4) My wife, Margie, who is living through a period of intense pain and awaiting surgery, says she loves to sing songs of joy because they help her endure. Joy doesn’t make the bad stuff go way. It doesn’t dispel the crises we may be living through personally or globally, but it lifts our spirits as we walk through difficult times. Thanksgiving dominates in the praying Margie and I do, even when the going is tough. Paul says, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplications with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (vss. 6-7)

Whatever the route we have traveled, whatever days we remember (maybe even long for), what we have are these days. We can dwell upon and fear all the troubles that may be coming our way—or we can keep on living honestly, justly, peaceably, and caringly, singing songs of joy and thanksgiving. Christmas celebrated in that spirit is probably more in keeping with biblical history than is the shallow glitter and canned lyrical songs about reindeer and Mama kissing Santa Claus that surrounds our shopping at the mall weighed down by consumerism.
Thursday, December 06, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: Baruch 5:1-9 OR Malachi 3:1-4, Luke 1:68-79, Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 3:1-4

When I introduced this week’s lectionary texts at our Kairos-Milwaukie Tuesday morning breakfast, I thought we might give our attention to such things as “preparation” and “completion,” both at a personal and societal/political level. As sometimes happens, the discussion took an unexpected turn.

Before getting into that, let’s look a little bit at “preparation” and “completion.” In life there is always something ahead, something we are waiting for or hoping for, something we anticipate. Advent calls us to be particularly aware of that anticipation. It can be seen as a time of preparation. The thing toward which we are moving can also be seen as a point of completion. Life is moving toward something. Some purpose drives our living. We are seeking a sense of completion, a time when that purpose is fully realized. Both “preparation” and looking ahead to “completion” are part of the Advent experience. This week’s lectionary readings touch on both.

Now—let me tell you where the discussion went. The night before, the Portland Blazers NBA basketball team came from 18 points behind with 5 min. 17 sec. remaining to win the game 118-112 in overtime. It was the greatest comeback in Blazer history and most of us had watched it. Many of us are passionate fans and couldn’t keep the amazing game out of our discussion.. We made a little effort, not much, to try to tie it in with the lectionary readings—talking about what it takes to prepare for games like that, what it means to never give up hope, what it means to play “on the road” (in exile?) for seven games, etc. Mostly we just wanted to talk about the incredibly exciting game and victory.

Earlier the lectionary texts had stirred some reflections in my mind on lesser names in scripture and the supporting role they play. There are lots of such people in the Bible. There is Barnabas, known as “The Encourager.” One of my favorites is Tertius, who pops up at the end of Paul’s letter to Romans and says, “I Tertius, the writer of this letter, greet you in the Lord.” (Romans 16:22) Many of these helpers are unnamed, but each made an important contribution. After the basketball discussion, I thought about the importance of “assists” in that sport, important enough that “assists” are counted and kept as statistics which measure the contribution of each player to the game. The Blazers (and most teams) are at their best when there are lots of “assists.” The Blazers have a number of players who are pretty good at “assisting.”

Christmas, and living into the reality of the Good News, doesn’t happen alone. Even Jesus needed a few “assists.” If the hope of peace and justice is to come to “completion” it will take lots of people—some just a passing name in one verse of life, some unnamed, some widely known, even famous. That’s the connection I finally made—sometime after breakfast—between the texts and the table discussion this morning.

(There’s yet another direction discussion could have taken—a focus on the leveling of mountains and valleys. What is the significance of that image in the journey from beginning to middle to end? As I take a quick look at the various texts, I leave it to you to reflect on any or all of the above themes, or find another that speaks to you.)

Baruch (not in the Hebrew or Protestant scriptures) is included in the Catholic Bible. Baruch was Jeremiah’s scribe and, at times, spokesperson, one of those who provided an “assist” to someone more well-known. In Jeremiah 36:4-8, we read, “Then Jeremiah called Baruch son of Neriah, and Baruch wrote on a scroll at Jeremiah’s dictation all the words of the Lord that he had spoken to him. And Jeremiah ordered Baruch, saying, ‘I am prevented from entering the house of the Lord; so you go yourself, and on a fast day in the hearing of the people in the Lord’s house you shall read the words of the Lord from the scroll that you have written at my dictation . . .’ And Baruch son of Neriah did all that the prophet Jeremiah ordered him about reading from the scroll the words of the Lord in the Lord’s house.” Although the book of Baruch bears his name, it is generally thought that it was not written until about 100 years before Christ. The portion in this week’s lectionary is another vision of the hoped for restoration God would bring to people who were in exile or battling powerful enemies. It includes this statement:“God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low and the valleys filled up, to make level ground,” an image that has come to be applied to preparation (and a sign of) the coming of the Messiah (Christ).

Malachi is the last book of what we call The Old Testament, a prophetic writing mainly addressing the importance of giving God what God is due in the form of sacrifices and tithes. Just a few verses beyond this week’s reading, we find these words; “Will anyone rob God? Yet you are robbing me! But you say, 'How are we robbing you?' In your tithes and offerings! You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me—the whole nation of you! Bring the full tithe into the storehouse . . .” (Malachi 3:8-10) Even in the short reading from the lectionary we find reference to an “offering” that “will be pleasing to the Lord . . .” (vs. 4) It is the first verse that is commonly read in Advent, a verse of preparation. God says, “See I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me . . .” They are to be prepared for judgment upon those who are robbing God. It will be a time of refinement and purification when justice is restored. (Vss. 2, 3, & 5)

We have two readings from Luke this week. The first is Zechariah’s ecstatic utterance upon the circumcision of his son, whom we know as John the Baptist or John, the Baptizer. John is another of those who “assists,” a figure overshadowed by the dazzling light of a star player. Zechariah articulates the vision of a reign in which “those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” will see light and be guided “into the way of peace.” (Luke 1:79) Zechariah speaks to his son, saying, “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.” (vs. 76) Here is the one who prepares the way of the Lord. Indeed, in the other reading, when John begins his ministry, Luke writes, “He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 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; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”’” (Luke 3:3-6)

Finally we have the reading from Philippians. Paul had a profound sense of connection with those who “assisted” in the work of the Gospel, never forgetting to thank them. “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.” (Philippians 1:3-5) In terms of an Advent focus, I see verse six as central. “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion . . .” (vs. 6) Advent is a time for confident hope that the purposes of God will be fulfilled in us and in the world, that God’s will will be done “on earth as it is in heaven.” I would also note that this reading moves on to a prayer which expresses the attitude that works in the heart of all who would truly give “assists” in the ball game of life. “ . . . this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best . . .” (vs. 9-10) It goes on to speak of a “harvest of righteousness” when all things come to completion.

May it be so, and may all of us recognize the importance of the “assists” of every player as we prepare and play and move to completion—even if the game goes into overtime.

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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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