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Thursday, January 31, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures: Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 71:1-6, I Corinthians 13:1-13, Luke 4:21-30

We often offer excuses when faced with challenges that seem beyond our capabilities.  We don’t believe we have what it takes.  Biblical stories of people God called show the same tendencies.  Moses was hesitant.  “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”  (Exodus 3:11)  “O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”  (Exodus 4:10)

Jeremiah’s response to God’s call is similar.  “Ah, Lord God!  Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”  (Jeremiah 1:6)  There are many angles from which to view this passage.  Verse five has been used in the abortion debates:  “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.”  We could also go from that verse into a discussion of predestination---how and when our destiny is shaped.  Do we have but one clear and single destiny?  Is each step of our life determined in advance?  My answer to those questions is negative, but matters of destiny, the purpose of our lives, etc., are certainly worthy of our attention.

The main message I hear from the lectionary readings for the coming Sunday is that each life matters.  We cannot dismiss the challenges of life with declarations that “I am just this” or “I am just that.”  In God’s scheme of things, we are never “just” this or that.  Each life is worth something.  We are of infinite value in the living and loving heart of God.

Each of the readings has at least some reference to birth and childhood, the humble and helpless beginning from which we all spring.  We think of children as dependent, not yet able to care for themselves, yet the prophet Isaiah catches a glimpse of God’s peaceable kingdom and says, “ . . . a little child shall lead them.”  (Isaiah 11:6)  When Jesus’ disciples are offended by people bringing their children to him, Jesus says, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”  (Luke 18:16)

The Psalmist, in Psalm 71, says, “Upon you I have leaned from my birth; it was you who took me from my mother’s womb.” (vs. 6)  We may think we don’t have what it takes, but God’s promise is always that God will be with us.  He said it to Moses.  He said it to Jeremiah.  “Do not be afraid . . . for I am with you . . .”  (Jeremiah 1:8)

One of the responses to Jesus when he preaches in his hometown (Nazareth) is the question, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”  (Luke 4:22)  How can it be that the simple boy we saw working with his father is speaking so eloquently?  It’s another way of saying, “He’s only a boy in our minds.”  Jesus notes that a prophet is not often accepted in his hometown.  (vs. 24)  Many of us can identify with the experience of going home to the place where we’re still treated as a little boy or girl, where people remember every stumble and misdeed of our past, where we may never be seen as amounting to anything.  Besides, this is Nazareth, of which Nathanael asks, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46)

Jesus quickly shows he is not a child by deftly using some biblical stories to demonstrate that God’s work reaches beyond their small vision.  (Luke 4:25-27)  His words in fact stir them to “rage” and they are about to “hurl him off the cliff” when he passes “through the midst of them” and goes on his way.  (vss.28-30)  What I’m underlining today, though, is that God’s good can originate and work through the unlikeliest of persons and the most unexpected of places.  If that is so, we should never count ourselves out by saying, “I am only this” or “I am only that.”  Each of us is a child of God destined to significance in God’s scheme of things.

The “child” reference in I Corinthians 13 comes in verses 11-12.  “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.  For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.  Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”  Childhood is seen as full of potential, the beginning of a time of growing into the realization of that potential.  Consider the words of Ephesians 4:15-16---“ . . . speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”  Just two verses earlier the writer of Ephesians has spoken of growing “to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.”  (Ephesians 4:13)

These verses from Ephesians remind us of the larger context of I Corinthians 13.  First the context is “love.”  This is the great poem of love in the New Testament.  In terms of my focus this week, is it too much to say that the worth of each individual is rooted in love?  When the writer speaks of having “been fully known,” is he referring to what it feels like to be loved unconditionally?  We are never only this or only that.  We are surrounded by an immeasurable and accepting and affirming love.

I Corinthians 13 must also be seen in the context of the discussion of gifts that starts in chapter 12 and ends in chapter 14.  From previous weeks we’ve seen that each of us has a contribution to make to the functioning of the whole.  No one of us can be dismissed as unimportant.  Things won’t be the same without us.  And now what is it that holds us together?  It is love, the greatest gift.

I had the happy experience last week of reconnecting with someone from my past.  I received a notice of the upcoming concert of The Portland Gay Men’s Chorus---“Jazzify” (March 16-17 at Reed College).  With them will be Louise Rose, internationally acclaimed jazz pianist, composer, and singer.  Can it be, I asked, the same Louise Rose who was Minister of Music in a church I attended in the 1970s, who was such an inspiration to me then?  I researched the internet and sure enough it is.   Among other things I found a YouTube video of her accepting the Royal Roads University (Victoria, British Columbia) Chancellor’s Community Recognition Award in 2012.  In introducing her, the Chancellor quotes one of her frequent comments:  “You are worthy simply because you are breathing.”  I offer this and the closing words of her acceptance speech as an inoculation against selling ourselves short.

“Love is the answer.  When you find it, make it your life.  Fall in love with something, folks.  If music is your metaphor or politics is your metaphor or taking care of people’s feet or healing their hearts . . . Affecting large numbers of people is a lovely thing.  We would all like to think we could do that.  Affecting the life of one other person changes the world.”

Let’s go out and change the world!
Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Lectionary Scriptures: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-7, 8-10; Psalm 19:1-14; I Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21

One of the texts I memorized as a child is found in I Timothy 316-17:  “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”  While it’s not part of the lectionary for the coming Sunday, it provides a good starting point as we read this week’s passages.  Several of them focus upon the power and place of scripture in our lives.

We each have our stories to tell about how the Bible has shaped our lives---for both good and ill.  Most of us have grown in understanding, often rejecting what we see to be the limits or distortions of what we have been taught.  If we have been deeply steeped in the life of the church, we cannot escape the influence of the Bible.  It is a book to be reckoned with whatever interpretation we put upon it, even if we reach a point of dismissing major portions of it.  Even if we have not been schooled in the church, with its wildly varying interpretations, the Bible is deeply imbedded in our culture, phrases and images (sometimes below the level of our conscious awareness) permeating our expressions, our literature, our art, etc.

Between the covers of that book which may have been read by a mother or grandmother so many times that, if it were any other book, it would have been thrown out, or which may have only sat in some visible place, dust-covered but unopened, there are only words. They’re just words, mostly the same words we use in everyday conversation.   (We’ll just skip over, for the time being, that the original words were in other languages, that the Bible has been translated into a variety of languages most of us would not understand as well as a multitude of versions in English, and that what was for years the most popular Bible in English, the King James Version, is far from the everyday English of today.)

Yet many of us keep coming back to those words.  Many of us have been deeply moved and shaped by those words.  It contains writings that have changed the lives of people and history for thousands of years.  It has brought people together in common cause and torn them apart in conflicts over interpretation or in confrontation with opposing “holy” books.

This week’s readings don’t help us much in understanding the why and how of the power of scripture.  They demonstrate the power of words to bring people to their feet in wonder and awe.  We see people motivated and guided by these words.  As children, we used to say, “Stick and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”  We might be inclined to extend it to say, “ . . . but words will never hurt me.”  In reality, words have the power to hurt, to comfort, to induce guilt, to arouse hope and expectation, to motivate, and much more.

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell of the Jewish people returning to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon where they had been held captive---some for as long as 80 years.  Many of them had integrated into Assyrian society, including Nehemiah, who was cupbearer to Artaxerxes, king of Persia.  They had grown away from their religious practices and texts, but they still longed for the homeland and the temple where God was present.  (After all, how could one worship without a temple?  All one could do was sit by the banks of the river and weep.  These words from Psalm 137 perhaps capture something of the mood:  “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion . . . there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’  How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?  If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!  Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.”)

Nehemiah hears about the devastation back in Jerusalem, how “the survivors there . . . are in great trouble and shame; the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been destroyed by fire.”  (Nehemiah 1:3)  He sits down and weeps for days, fasting and praying (Nehemiah 1:4), finally asking the king for permission to go to inspect and begin to rebuild the city.  (Nehemiah 2:7-8)  While the order of things in the books of Ezra, and Nehemiah raises many questions about the sequence of events, most are pretty sure that Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem before Ezra, a priest/scribe.  Whatever the sequence, today’s reading finds the rebuilding of the walls and temple completed.  For the first time in years, old rituals are observed and the people gather to hear the reading of scripture.  (Remember that it is only in relatively modern times that people had their own copies of scripture to read.)

Ezra is the reader.  (Nehemiah 8:1-2)  He read “from early morning until midday.”  (vs. 3)  How’s that for attention to something that is “just words” on a page---or papyrus, as the case may be?  They obviously placed great value on these “words.”  What value do we place upon them?  “And,” we are told, “when he opened it, all the people stood up.”  (vs. 5)  Okay, maybe I could listen for several hours, but standing up?  The words, however, did not stand alone.  Those who stood before the people offered “interpretation.”  “They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.”  (vs. 8)  Even here we are reminded that the words on the page require interpretation and understanding.  Upon hearing the words, the people “wept.”  (vs. 9)  They were sent on their way with the instruction, “ . . . do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”  (vs. 10)

The Psalmist shows a similar awe in the presence of God’s voice, whether it be through nature (Psalm 19:1-4) or scripture (“the law of the Lord”).  Verses 7-10 offer a poem in praise of scripture, reflecting a high view of the power of words to inspire and offer guidance.  “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is clear enlightening the eyes; the fear of the lord is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.  More to be desired than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.”  We might wonder whether one has to be in such awe that one views scripture as perfect and inerrant as is held by some and seems to be implied here.  Notice, however, the emphasis upon results.  The heart is rejoiced, the eyes are enlightened.  Scripture is not found to be a bitter burden, pressuring one into obedience.  It brings the sweetness of honey to life, something that is greatly desired.  Oh my!  The power of words.

The epistle lesson is a continuation of the gifts passage from last week.  Our working together for the common good is described in terms of the parts of a body.  We are all different parts of the same body, and the body doesn’t work unless each part works in the way it is supposed to.  One part cannot say to another, “I don’t need you.”  The passage does not speak directly to my focus for this week, although it does mention apostles, prophets, and teachers, all of which would have had some role in the reading and interpretation of scripture.  Those who are the caretakers and communicators of scripture are to be given due honor, neither more nor less than anyone else who is part of the body.

Finally, the Gospel records what is often spoken of as Jesus’ first sermon.  Jesus comes to his hometown, enters the synagogue on the Sabbath, and is invited to read and interpret the scripture.  (vs. 16)  The words he read from Isaiah have become a touchstone for those who focus on peace and justice.  Jesus, we say, is our ally.  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” Jesus reads, “because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  (vss. 18-19)

The kicker, however, comes when he sits down---with the eyes of all “fixed on him,” we are told---and says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  (vs. 21)  This is but a beginning.  “He began to say . . .”  The beginning is that the words of scripture are not dead lines from the past.  Unless they live and have some relevance---and continue to live and have relevance---they remain “only words.”

The full power of the story cannot be realized without reading the rest of the story (vss. 22-29) paying close attention to, interpreting, and conversing about its details.  For now, it is sufficient to reflect on our own response to the power of scripture.  Do we tolerate the reading of scripture in boredom because “they’re just words”?  Do we dismiss the words because they don’t apply to us?  Do we split hairs about the accuracy and factuality and truth of the words?

We are also called to gather in awe standing in expectation.  Who knows?  We may even hear a word for “today.”  After all, God is still speaking.
Thursday, January 17, 2013

Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 62:1-5, Psalm 36:5-10, I Corinthians 12:1-11, John 2:1-11

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. may be best remembered for his “I Have a Dream” speech delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., in August, 1963.  His life, of course, was about much more than a speech, but his life was rooted in a book full of dreams and visions---the Bible.  The visions he found there inspired him, and a whole movement of oppressed people and their supporters, who knew the innate worth of each individual in the sight of God.  They knew that justice and equality were not just their cause; they were the promise of God.

On this Sunday when we remember and seek to keep alive Martin Luther King’s dream and work, it is appropriate that we ask what our dreams are.  I could have used some form of the word “dream” in the title of my musings, perhaps asking, “What is your dream for the future of society and this world?”  All possibility of positive change is rooted in some kind of dream or vision, conscious or unconscious. 

Instead, I chose a phrase from the epistle lesson---“The Common Good” (I Corinthians 12:7).  The reading tells us that we all have different gifts, given to us by the Spirit of God.  (vss. 4-6 & 11) They are intended to be used “for the common good,” and it takes all of us working together for that to be achieved.

So, I come to today’s readings thinking about dreams and visions and the future and the common good.  Such things may not be the main focus of each of the readings, but there are things to notice in each.

Throughout much of the Bible we see a longing for justice and righteousness.  Things are out of kilter and need to be made right.  It is not right that people should go hungry, live in poverty, be oppressed, etc.  For many of us, it seems almost as if we were born with this longing for a world in which all people are treated with dignity and worth.  Sometimes we feel we have been treated unfairly and there is almost an element of revenge in our attitude.  (Remember Pastor Rick’s sermon last Sunday.)  For others, it’s more a sense that the very fabric of creation is being violated.  In the Bible, it is an expression of people who feel that things fall short of what is truly right.

It’s there in the reading from Isaiah 62, words addressed to people who were feeling oppressed, living in foreign lands, perhaps feeling abandoned by God.  The first two verses promise “vindication,” a word that may sound like it has an element of revenge.  Most translations speak of “righteousness.”  The promise is that things will be made right again.  (Isaiah 62:1-2)  “You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate.”  (vs. 4)

A similar vision is presented in Psalm 36.  It speaks of “righteousness . . . like the mighty mountains.”  (Psalm 36:6)  Biblically, the promise is often of a great feast at which all nations come to dine in the presence of the Lord.  The Psalmist speaks here of feasting “on the abundance of your house” receiving “drink from the river of your delights.”  (vs. 8)  Two declarations particularly catch my eye and tickle my brain.  “ . . . you save humans and animals alike, O Lord.”  (vs.  6)  The peaceable kingdom of God always includes the animals.  Predator and prey live together in harmony.  “ . . . in your light we see light.”  (vs. 9)  If we are to see and pursue dreams and visions of significance, they will be illuminated by the light of God’s righteousness, justice, and love.

The epistle reading, as we’ve already noted, turns our attention to “the common good.”  To be open to, to seek, God’s vision is to focus on the common good.  What is it that we are called to be---together?  God’s kingdom is never just about what is best for me.  God’s love calls us into relationships in which we are all enriched and build up the lives of all around us.  The discussion continues on through chapters 13 and 14, where the emphasis specifically turns to “building up.”  (See I Corinthians 14:12 & 17)  Near the end of the discussion, we find these words:  God is a God not of disorder but of peace.”  (vs. 33)  Would that all our visions be guided by that truth!  In between, chapter 13, follows the discussion of gifts with the observation that love is the greatest gift.  (See I Corinthians 13:13)  Imagine a world in which love and peace were among the central guiding principles---and behaviors!

Actually in our weekly breakfast the discussion quickly took a turn toward gun control.  I’m not sure how we got there, but we all agreed that our hopes and dreams included a world free of the kind of violence that has devastated schools and malls in recent weeks and years.  The discussion was mostly conciliatory, seeking to avoid polarization.  We realize that there are few simple answers and that motives are complex, but the very concept of an “assault” weapon seems like a major obstacle to the achievement of a peaceable kingdom.

Finally, there’s one remaining image in today’s readings.  If last week’s readings included the image of God as a loving parent to God’s children, this week we have God as the loving bridegroom to the bride whom God finds delightful.  Isaiah 62:4-5 says of the ones no longer forsaken, “ . . . you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married.  For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.”

The Gospel lesson is a more extended story about a wedding feast.  It’s a fun story, perhaps even humorous, about the interaction of a mother and son.  This being the Gospel According to John, however, it’s much more than that.  Whoever the actual writer of this late Gospel is, we are dealing with a theological document which uses a series of images (miracles) to explain the spiritual significance of Jesus.  They are called “signs.”  “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him.”  (John 2:11)  In this case, Jesus is the new wine, or perhaps even the bridegroom (as he is in some other stories and texts---the church, for instance, has been seen as “the bride of Christ”).
 
Note here that we also have another "feast" at which two formerly separate families celebrate together.  Is it a small illustration of the feast we saw in Isaiah 36:8?

In thinking about our relationship with God as one of marriage, some of us have to struggle with the male and female imagery.  If we look deeper into the nature of mutual commitments, however, they can apply at any place and time human beings make commitments of love and faithfulness with one another.  Marriage, at its best, is a microcosm of what a relationship of commitment to “the common good” means.  Some speak of the Judeo-Christian tradition as a “covenant” tradition, a faith based on an mutual commitment (agreement or covenant) between God and humanity.  As I meditated upon the imagery of marriage, I came to the question, “What if all humanity acted as if we were all married to one another?”  Jesus, in his teaching, certainly hints at a much bigger understanding of family than the usual lines we draw.  But I guess I’m just a dreamer.  If dreams came true, I would seek a world in which we all lived in one big harmonious marriage.

Maybe dreams come true.  At any rate, let’s keep on dreaming.  Notice that one way to read the Gospel lesson is to see it as a call to focus upon the new rather than the old.  The steward, surprised at the water which has become premium wine, says “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk.  But you have kept the good wine until now.”  (John2:10)  It’s almost as if the story is saying, “The best is yet to come!”  We can hope!
Friday, January 11, 2013

LAYERS OF LOVE—THOUGHTS ON THE LECTIONARY PASSAGES FOR THE FIRST SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY---BAPTISM OF THE LORD, (JANUARY 13, 2013)—BY JIM OGDEN

 Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 43:1-7, Psalm 29:1-11, Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

 The last couple of weeks I have been “grabbed” by the first of the lectionary readings, both from the book of Isaiah.  This week it offers us an outpouring of love, love which, in this case, might be seen as the love of a parent for his or her children and the love of a creator for his or her creation.

 “I have called you by name,” the Lord says.  (Isaiah 43:1)  How powerful it is when someone knows, and uses, our name!  It is a sign of caring and love.  The love the Lord expresses in these verses is love which goes with us through troubling times.  “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you . . . you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you . . .”  (vss. 2 & 4)  The phrases and words cry out for attention and interpretation.

 The reading is, of course, about restoration, coming home from being dispersed and held captive.  “I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, ‘Give them up,’ and to the south, ‘Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth.’”  (vss. 5-6)  The words reverberate in the heart of every parent whose children are scattered around the globe---as are ours.

At the end the passage returns to the naming, this time noting that the children are “called by my name.”  (vs. 7)  Children sometimes literally bear the name of a parent or grandparent.  Even when they don’t, they carry the imprint of parental DNA.  In this case, the Lord speaks of the ones “whom I formed and made,” “whom I created for my glory.”  (vs. 7)

Psalm 29 is the song of a choir of “heavenly beings” who are in awe of the “splendor” of the Lord.  (vss. 1-2)  Love is complex.  Is awe a dimension of love?  Have we ever witnessed nature in all its wonder, or a display of fireworks, and said, in a tone of awe, “I love it”?

Love means many things to many people.  It is easily distorted.  Some people, even the people of Israel, can come to believe that because they are loved they are better and more deserving than others.  Loving relationships can take on an exclusivity that draws lines that, intentionally or unintentionally, keep other people out.  These two readings hint at a love that is less than fully inclusive.  Love can be jealous.  Even the biblical God is at times depicted as being jealous.  Love can easily become a cover for using, or controlling, people.  Sometimes, though, we have to turn off all those concerns for a moment and just let the love pour out to others, and back in when it pours over us.  That was my first response to the reading from Isaiah.

Those who’ve been schooled in biblical understandings of love are aware that there are a variety of words for love in both Greek and Hebrews.  I want to highlight only one distinction right now.  Love in the Hebrews scriptures is often seen as an expression of God’s Covenant with God’s people---God’s agreement, God’s promise.  God loves us because that is what God promised and God lives up to agreements and commitments made.  It is the daily living out of such love that keeps relationships going.  Behind that “mundane” love, however, is an unconditional love which first chose to reach out, the love which enabled one to enter into relationship, a love rooted in the very nature of the lover.  Both kinds of love are essential if the effects of love are to be known in our world, but we must never lose sight of the excitement and wonder of that love which just seems to come out of nowhere---unsolicited, unconditional, beyond understanding.

When one is struck by that kind of love, one is never the same again.  One wants to sing.  One wants to share the empowerment that comes with that experience, reaching back to and embracing the love and reaching out to and including others in the embrace.

The readings from Acts and Luke have a different, although not unrelated tone.  Before looking at them, I don’t want to skip over the final verse of Psalm 29.  This powerful hymn of worship and awe ends with a prayer:  “May the Lord give strength to his people!  May the Lord bless his people with peace.”  (Psalm 29:11)  This love-relationship we are in with God is, at its best, a source of strength and peace, reaching both inward and outward.

In the lectionary readings for this Sunday, Acts and Luke both address baptism.  In the flow of the church year, some will celebrate the baptism of Jesus on this Sunday.  Rather than start there, however, I want to note that both passages speak of the nature of baptism.  More precisely, they speak of two kinds of baptism---physical ritual baptism and spiritually-experienced, emotionally-expressed baptism.

In Acts the apostles find that those beyond the usual boundaries (the Samaritans) have “accepted the word of God.”  (Acts 8:14)  Peter and John go down to check things out, to see if they have received that baptism of the Spirit.  (vss. 15-16)  Note the interesting comment, “ . . . they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.”  (vs. 16)  “Isn’t that enough?” some would ask.

John the Baptizer, when many come to him to be baptized, also makes a distinction, although this time it appears that it is Jesus who will offer a baptism of the Spirit.  “John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming . . . He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.'”

The distinction, in both cases, seems to move from a ritual and literal interpretation (washing with water, e.g.) to a deeper spiritual experience and reality.  Going through the motions, observing the rituals, while having its importance, will not necessarily be life-changing.  Both these New Testament readings speak of an experience that has the power to change lives.

Is it too much to leap from this back to the discussion of the layers of love?  Is it not love that is the underlying life-changing power behind all doctrine and ritual?  Is the distinction in these readings about baptism perhaps parallel to the two kinds of love mentioned earlier?  The love that is expressed in outward routines and activities is rooted in a deeper unconditional spiritual reality.

Finally, focusing in specifically upon the story of Jesus’ baptism, we find that it is another love story.  We could note the slight variations in the telling of the same story by Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but all three end with Jesus being identified as God’s Son.  As this week’s reading from Luke puts it, “ . . . the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.  And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”  (Luke 3:22)  We could speculate on who heard and saw what.  Was this primarily an internal experience?  Does this mark a turning point in Jesus’ awareness of a special mission to which he is called?

Today, I want us to think simply about how much Jesus must have felt loved at this moment  I experienced baptism in that way.  I realize that not all do. Whether at baptism or at other times, I hope that we all have moments when we realize that we are deeply and unconditionally loved, so much so that we might say, “The very heavens are pleased with us.”  When our hearts at touched by that truth, life (and the world) will never be the same.
Friday, January 04, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 60:1-6, Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12

We’ve entered a new year in the calendar of this world and moved into a new season in the church.  Not only have we come to the Epiphany Season, this Sunday falls on the actual Day of Epiphany.  Many churches at one time celebrated this day as Christmas, hence the 12 Days of Christmas---the days between Dec. 25 and Jan. 6.  The word “epiphany” literally means “manifestation” referring here to the revelation or manifestation of God in human form in Jesus. Today it focusses more upon the visit of the Magi (Wise Men) or Jesus’ baptism than upon the birth itself.  Mostly we think of it as a season of light, when all of human life becomes bathed in light.

Epiphany is, in a sense, a season of “Enlightenment.”  In everyday usage (although who uses “epiphany” everyday?), “epiphany” means a realization, an awakening, becoming aware of something previously unseen.  We might say, “It came to me in an epiphany.”  Suddenly something makes sense that didn’t make sense before or one gains a new perspective on the meaning of one’s life or of life in general.  The period of history we call “The Enlightenment” was a time which particularly emphasized the search for knowledge and understanding.

The lectionary readings for this Sunday, taken in their natural order, begin with a call to “enlightenment,” an ecstatic celebration of the power of light to overcome darkness.  It moved me and set me to wondering how I could invite you into that experience.

Light is so powerful.  The days have started getting longer. There is less darkness in each 24 hour period.  When I awaken in the early morning hours, I don’t look first at the clock.  I turn in my bed and look toward the sky, judging what time it is by how far along it is in the process of “enlightenment.”  As the seasons change, I have to adjust, knowing that morning light this week is earlier than it was last week.  Some years ago we were in Alaska for two weeks in early September when the change is quite dramatic.  The length of a day changed more than an hour during our short stay.

Whatever the hour, what a wonder it is to walk into our east-facing full-windowed living room and find it bursting with light.  Some mornings as I walk down the hall in that direction, I first think, “Oh, I must have left the light on last night.”  Then I realize that it is so much brighter and full of color.

The prophet is overcome, speaking not just of physical darkness but of spiritual darkness.  “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.  For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.” (Isaiah 60:1-2) He talks about kings coming to “the brightness of your dawn.” (vs. 3)  It is not just light that illumines the exterior.  It penetrates and becomes part of us so that we too are “radiant.”  (vs. 5)  Do you get it?  Light is all around us, even within us if we but take notice.  “Lift up your eyes and look around . . . (Y)our heart shall thrill and rejoice.”  (vss. 4-5)  I stopped and read Isaiah’s words again.  By the time I was done I was almost glowing.  Epiphany is a season to remember that we have all been filled with a divine light that enables us to glow if we are but “enlightened,”

After all that ecstasy, we notice that the last verse speaks of “a multitude of camels” and people who “bring gold and frankincense.”  (vs. 6)  That’s probably why the reading is included.  The Gospel lesson from Matthew, the story of the coming of “wise men from the East” (Matthew 2:1), concludes with them “opening their treasure chests” and offering the child (Jesus) “gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”  (vs. 11)

There as many directions to go with this story as there are readers.  It is full of political intrigue and significance, a wrenching story that leads to the slaughter of innocents by a “frightened” king.  Powerful and wise men bow down in wonder experiencing an “epiphany.”  Today I want to note that there is light in this story as well.  It begins with a star.  (vs. 2)  The star (the light) leads them.  “. . . there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising . . .” (vs. 9)  When the star stops, they are “overwhelmed with joy.” (vs. 10)

We could search for a scientific explanation of this astronomical occurrence, which many have done to their (and my) satisfaction, but such explanations may miss the wonder of the story.  Even in the midst of all the darkness of human politics, there are still stars shining in the sky.  Light is still there with the power to overcome darkness and cause us to leap with joy.  When we follow the light it may take us to unimaginable places filled with wonder and possibility.  May Epiphany be a season where that happens!

The epistle reading from Ephesians does not specifically mention light but it speaks of mysteries revealed and hidden things coming into plain sight. (Ephesians 3:3-5, 9)  I’m not going to offer much interpretation of the mystery, or this reading, other than to say that Christ is seen as both mystery and revelation.  In this Ephesians passage we read of “the mystery of Christ” being “now revealed.”  (vss. 4-5)  The revelation is that we are all in this together, recipients of grace beyond measure.  (vss. 5-7)  When are we going to become enlightened enough to start acting on that truth?

Finally, the reading from Psalm 72, another flight of the poetic imagination, can be seen as describing the “enlightened” society.  One definition of The Age of Enlightenment speaks of adherence to "democracy; racial and sexual equality; individual liberty of lifestyle; full freedom of thought, expression, and the press.”  The Psalm, in a prayer for a king, asks that “he may judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice . . . May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor . . . May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth.  In his days may righteousness flourish and peace abound.”  (Psalm 72:2, 4, 6-7)  This king is one who “delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper.  He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy.  From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight.”  (vss. 12-14)  The Psalm expresses a dream of “enlightenment.”  Can we see it as providing guidance for presidents and nations, an entire world?  The season of Epiphany holds out such hope, because our light has come.

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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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