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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Lectionary Scriptures:  Micah 6:1-8, Psalm 15:1-5, I Corinthians 1:18-31, Matthew 5:3-12

The reading from I Corinthians talks about the foolishness of the cross.  (I Corinthians 1:8)  From a human point of view anyone who believes strongly enough in something to sacrifice his or her life for that cause seems to have a screw loose.  If the cause is sinners, the oppressed, justice, peace, etc., i.e., giving one’s life to better the conditions of others, it seems to some laughable.  I leave it to others to pursue the significance of the cross in terms of sin and salvation.  Whatever spin one puts on it, Paul is clear that it seems to the mainstream to be foolishness.  “For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise . . .’  Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? . . . God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe . . . We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles . . . For God’s foolishness is wider than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”  (Vss. 19-21, 23, 25)

There’s more with many layers of possible interpretation.  The thrust of the passage, though, suggests a contrast between the message of the Gospel and values that are prevalent in the world.

If someone were to come from another planet and observe our TV programming, our business operations, our sports, the public figures who are admired, etc., what would they conclude about our values?  We see a lot of emphasis upon getting rich, having possessions, competing and winning, etc.

Very early in my life I realized that taking Christianity seriously might mean being countercultural, resisting some of the dominant values of the larger culture.  I didn’t yet have the language to develop a theory about it, and sometimes, as I look back, my resistance seems trivial.  Much of it focused on things like dancing and drinking.  As one of my colleagues, reflecting on those years, puts it, “We didn’t drink; we didn’t dance, and we didn’t go with girls who did.”  I literally sought and obtained permission to opt out of dancing when it was part of the Physical Education program.

The important thing is that, very early, I learned that I didn’t have to go along with what everybody else did.  I learned it was okay, maybe even desirable, to be counterculture.  My education and growth over the years, began to apply that to larger and, I believe, more significant issues---eventually landing me in a stream of church life that took stands and actions related to peace and justice.  I also explored, flirted with, alternative countercultural communal groups.

I’m also aware that I continue to be influenced by the mainstream values around me, probably more than is consistent with my understanding of what it means to be a Christian.  Through the ages, there have always been Christians who were part of a counterculture movement.  Many stories and teachings in the Bible illustrate that. 

This week’s readings offer values that call us to live according to a “foolish” alternative set of values.  I’m not going to offer much comment on the context of the various readings.  I’m simply going to list some of the values to encourage us all to consider ways in which they challenge us, our way of life, and the values that seem to rule in our culture and world.

Micah asks a question about what God wants from us.  “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?  Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?  With the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?  Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”  (Micah 6:6-7)  His response is recorded in verse eight which includes words we sing each Sunday as our offertory response at Kairos-Milwaukie United Church of Christ.  “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”  We are given a broad values framework---do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly.  Understanding and living them may take a lifetime, but I can’t think of a better place to start.

The Psalm feels a little rigid and judgmental when it suggests that only those who are “blameless” are welcomed into the presence of God.  “O Lord, who may abide in your tent?  Who may dwell on your holy hill?  Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right . . .”  (Psalm 15:1-2)  It is nevertheless worth noting the values that are deemed to constitute “what is right,” even if we do not wish to make them an absolute measure of who is welcomed, who is included.  People who “do what is right . . . speak the truth from their heart; . . . do not slander with their tongue, and do no evil to their friends, nor take up a reproach against their neighbors; . . . stand by their oath even to their hurt; . . . do not lend money at interest, and do not take a bribe against the innocent.”  (vss. 2-5)  Wouldn’t it be nice to be part of a community where such values prevailed, made the headlines, daily?  But I talk foolishness.

Finally, perhaps the most foolish of all, we come to the values with which Jesus kicks off the Sermon on the Mount.  (I suppose we should note that this is probably not a single sermon preached by Jesus on a particular occasion, but it is how Matthew presents his understanding of the core teaching of Jesus.  It has been part of how we have understood Jesus over the years, struggling with whether or not it is realistic to live according to such values.)  Here are the people to be admired:  “the poor in spirit . . . those who mourn . . . the meek . . . those who hunger and thirst for righteousness . . . the pure in heart . . . the peacemakers . . . those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake” and those who are reviled and persecuted and spoken evil of falsely.  (Matthew 5:3-11)  Would our world be likely to call such people “blessed”?  That’s what Jesus calls them, identifying rewards for each.  Values like these define “the beloved community” about which Pastor Rick spoke last Sunday.

The descriptions of these “blessed” and the “rewards” are worth much thought and discussion, hopefully followed by action.  Those who dig deeply into scripture, taking it seriously but not literally (as our pastor sometimes says), are likely to discover a call to live by values which challenge those which dominate relationships and policies in the world around us.  They call us to “consider the alternatives.”
Thursday, January 23, 2014


DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK!—THOUGHTS ON THE LECTIONARY PASSAGES FOR THE THIRD SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY (JANUARY 26, 2014)---BY JIM OGDEN

Lectionary Scriptures:  Isaiah 9:1-4, Psalm 27:1, 4-9, I Corinthians 1:10-18, Matthew 4:12-23
                
In this epiphany season of light, we talk a lot about the light.  It’s almost as if we are afraid to talk about the darkness.  Are we afraid it will depress us?  Would we rather ignore it?  It certainly seems more uplifting to talk about resurrections than crucifixions.

At our lectionary breakfast this week, we tried to talk about the darkness---with surprising success.  The discussion ranged from childhood fears of the dark to the social darkness of oppression.  We talked about darkness as a feeling that weighs down upon us, about selfishness and self-centeredness, about division and conflict and fear---and many other things.

There’s plenty of darkness around us to talk about.  At the same time, some who would attempt to comfort us remind us that darkness has no substance in and of itself.  When you look up definitions of darkness, most of them define it negatively as “the absence of light.”  When light is shined into the dark the darkness disappears, is overcome.  Sometimes just naming the darkness can make it seem less frightful.

I could fill up several pages quoting scriptures that tell us not to be afraid.  One might argue that the words “Be not afraid!” are a central message of what we call “Good News.”  Since the lectionary Gospel lessons have us now in Matthew, I’ll just list a few of the many times fear is addressed in that Gospel.

When Jesus is sleeping through a storm that is pounding the disciples’ boat, they are afraid and wake him, pleading with him to do something.  His first words are “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” (Matthew 8:26)  On another occasion we read, “ . . . when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified . . . and they cried out in fear.  But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”  (Matthew 14:26-27)  When the women come to the tomb to prepare Jesus for burial, an angel appears to them and says, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, . . .”  When Jesus suddenly appears, he greets them and says, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”  (Matthew 28:5-6, 9-10)

This week’s readings can help us understand light and darkness directly or indirectly.

Isaiah 9 is part of one of the great Messianic passages delivered by God’s prophets.  Beyond the four verses of this week’s reading, we have the majestic description of a king who will be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  (Isaiah 9:6)  The words have been engraved in the minds of many who have heard or participated in the frequently performed Handel’s Messiah.  The context in Isaiah is one of great darkness.  “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them has light shined.”  (vs. 2)

If we went back to the end of the preceding chapter (chapter 8), we would read of a people who “will see only distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish; and they will be thrust into thick darkness.” (Isaiah 8:22)  The message to these people is one of hope.  They don’t need to be afraid of the dark.  The very next words, at the beginning of chapter 9, are, “But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish.”  (Isaiah 9:1)

The Messianic words of Isaiah 9 were probably used as part of the ceremony when a new king came to the throne.  We live in hope that each new leader who comes along will make things better.  Some do; some don’t.  Inaugurations remind us that new beginnings are always possible, and in that is hope.  Eventually this hope got applied to a Messiah who would come to inaugurate a whole new era.

Early Christians looked upon Jesus and felt this hope arise again in their hearts.  It is no accident that our Gospel lesson from Matthew quotes the first two verses of Isaiah 9 (see Matthew 4:14-46), applying them to Jesus.

So, what do we make of the reference to Zebulun and Naphtali in Isaiah 9:1 (and repeated in Matthew 4:15)?  One can find significant commentary on the matter.  The reference seems to be to Assyrian invasions into Syria and northern Palestine.  It describes, as one commentator puts it, “a land where people have been suffering from injustice and oppression at the hands of a foreign power, not to mention their own villainous leaders.”  The darkness here is oppression, a darkness that continues to this day, in Palestine as well as other places.

It’s equally important to notice the reference to “Galilee of the nations’ (Isaiah 9:1) or “Galilee of the Gentiles” (Matthew 4:15).  The Gospel lesson may be calling our attention to the wider, inclusive, scope of Jesus’ message.  The Gentiles are included.  Whenever anyone is assumed to be outside the love of God, it is a dark day indeed.  Light always reaches out to include.

Now, what about the other texts?

The Psalm begins with a declaration of not being afraid.  “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?  The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”  (Psalm 27:1)

The epistle speaks of the darkness of division that invades so many of our human affairs.  We claim to belong to this party or that party.  In I Corinthians 2:12, those who follow Paul or Apollos or Cephas seem to be in competition.  In our day, political parties or denominations or nations can sometimes be substituted.  So often, it becomes a matter where we seem to be saying, “If he or she, or that group, are for it, I am against it.”  We lose sight of higher purposes and refuse to seek common ground.

Note that one of the leaders listed is “Christ,” as if some were claiming that it is only they who are the true followers of Christ.  That would never happen would it?  Oh, I guess there are those who go around saying, “I’m a better Christian than you are,” measuring others by their own standards of what it means to be a Christian.  When darkness goes around disguised as light, we are really in trouble.

There are other avenues you may wish to explore.  Here are a few:

1.  Foolishness and wisdom in I Corinthians 1:17-18.  Someone at breakfast suggested that ignorance is a form of darkness, but it’s worth reflecting on what is true enlightenment.  Do we define wisdom and foolishness according to the world’s standards or does a crucified Christ alter our understandings?

2.  The Gospel lesson moves on to tell of Jesus calling the first disciples to follow him.  It is rich in things to ponder and act on.  For instance, the call begins with Jesus’ words, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 4:17)  What does it mean to repent?  What is the kingdom of heaven and what does it mean to say it “has come near”?  I have my thoughts, but here I’m just offering another opening you might want to walk through.

3.  The invitation to follow is described as fishing for people.  (Matthew 4:19)  When I was a child, we used to sing, “I will make you fishers of men,” complete with the motions of casting and reeling in.  (The fishermen in Jesus’ day used a net, of course, not a rod and reel.)  As a fisherman, that image has troubled me more and more over the years.  One tricks the fish into taking an artificial lure and drags in the leaping and pulling fish against its will, taking it home to devour it.  Being entwined in a net isn’t much better.  What images would you use to stress the importance of sharing the inclusive love of God?  Underlying the passage is a reminder that we are part of a larger mission.  “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.”  (vs. 23)

4.  Twice we are told that they “immediately left” (their nets, their boat, their father---Matthew 4:20 & 22).  Immediately seems kind of sudden.  If Jesus issued to us an invitation to follow, how and when would we respond?  Jesus’ call comes to every one of us one way or another.  The light means we can respond without fear.

We are among the people who have walked in darkness and seen a great light!  Of whom shall we be afraid?  Certainly not the dark!
Wednesday, January 15, 2014


Lectionary Scriptures:  Isaiah 49:1-7, Psalm 40:1-11, I Corinthians 1:1-9, John 1:29-42

This week’s lectionary readings are rich in their ability to trigger images or associations for me.  There are so many lines we could go down.  One set of images had me thinking about navel gazing and star gazing and other related gazing.  In fact, I tried to find a creative way to include the word “gazing” into the title of this blog entry.  Didn’t succeed!

The word “gazing” appears in our English translations of scripture, sometimes interchangeably with the word “looking.”  Some of the references seem to imply that we are looking in the wrong place.  When the women come to the tomb “two men in dazzling clothes" ask, "Why do you look for the living among the dead?”  (Luke 24:4-5)  When Jesus ascends into heaven, we read, “While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.  They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?’”  (Acts 1:10-11---The King James Version with which some of us grew up, asks, “Why stand ye gazing up into heaven?”)  Now, in this week’s Gospel lesson, Jesus asks, “What are you looking for?”  (John 1:38)  Sometimes the questions asked are the most important things to notice in scripture.

Reading the lectionary texts made me think of “navel-gazing” and “star gazing.”  While some have applied “navel-gazing” in a positive way to spiritual meditation, it is most often used in a derogatory way, defined as “the activity of thinking too much or too deeply about yourself, your experiences, your feelings, etc.” or “useless or excessive self-contemplation.”  Is that what’s going on in Isaiah 49:4 when the servant seems to be wallowing in self-pity?  “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity . . .” 

The term “star-gazing” has a more positive history referring to the activity of studying and enjoying the stars.  The Magi were among the star-gazers of history.  Nevertheless the term has also sometimes been used in a more negative way, defined as “daydreaming.”  Maybe it’s a little like looking into the heavens when the place of God’s work is nearer at hand.

I don’t want to dismiss the power of meditation, the beauty of the heavens, the importance of self-examination and the inward journey, but scripture, including today’s readings seem to call us outward in our journey of faithfulness.

Another series of associations, from my seminary days, came to me after my initial readings of these passages.  After extensive internet research, my memory was not enhanced, but the basic insights are important enough (although not particularly startling today) that I’m going to wing it.  Early in the life of the World Council of Churches there were discussions about the relationship of the church to the world.  The discussion started with the popular notion that God’s avenue for mission to the world is through the church.  The sequence is God-church-world.  The mission of the church is taking God into the world.  These World Council of Churches' discussions upended things, saying that God is already at work in the world.  God’s mission is going on out there already.  It is our job and the church’s job to notice where God is at work and join God there.  The sequence is God-world-church.  I remember a series of books made available in the U.S. through the National Council of Churches, most prominently one entitled, Where in the World?  It was one of a series by a known theological name of the day, which I cannot pull up anywhere.  I believe one of the others was What in the World?  Other titles may have asked Who, How, and/or Why in the World?  Despite my limited memory, you get the idea.  The World is where we are to look, to gaze, to engage in mission.

The reading from Isaiah is one of a series of chapters with images of a “suffering servant.”  Christians through the ages have applied them to Jesus.  Others, at various times, have applied them to an expected Messiah, kings at their inauguration, prophets, etc.  Here the servant is named:  “Israel”  (Isaiah 49:3)  The nation (and by extension, the church?) is seen as God’s servant.  For me, at least this week, the central verse is number six.  The Lord says to Israel, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach the end of the earth.”  Stop your wallowing in self-pity.  Longing for restoration from exile is not even a big enough vision.  Look outward, beyond your narrow boundaries.  My mission isn’t just about you and your comfort.  It’s about all nations and all peoples.

As I’ve noted before, the idea of being “a light to the nations” has been misused as an excuse for imperialism.  If we can look beyond the misuse, perhaps we can hear a call to turn our gaze outward and join God in mission in the world.

In our discussion this morning, Psalm 40:8, which speaks of God’s law “within my heart,” reminded some of us of another verse from the Psalms, memorized during our childhood:  “Thy word have I hid in my heart, that I might not sin against thee.”  (Psalm 119:11)  We got into a brief discussion of things hidden and things revealed, puzzling over verse two from the Isaiah reading: “ . . . in his quiver he hid me away.”  (For those who want more, further research placed this phrase in the context of the mouth of the servant being “like a sharp sword,” speaking of the power of the servant’s message which is like “a polished arrow.”  Read the verse again.)

The thing that is particularly noteworthy in the Psalm is its reversal of the hiddenness.  “I have not hidden your saving help within my heart, I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation; I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness . . .”  (Psalm 40:10)  God’s love is not something to be stored away for our private contemplation; it is to be released into the world.  In fact, that is where God’s love is to be found, at work among the outcasts and oppressed and needy of the world.  The call is to join God there, and in so doing, love is multiplied.

To treat the epistle reading fairly would probably change our direction and subject.  It is a typical Pauline greeting at the beginning of a letter.  He introduces himself and his mission and gives us a summary of his theology.  He speaks of “the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift . . .”  (I Corinthians 1:4-7)  If we were to examine other Pauline writings we would see that being gifted and equipped by God is important to his understanding of mission.  We have been given what it takes, strengthened “to the end.”  (vs. 8) 

The Gospel lesson follows up on the baptism of Jesus which was the focus last week.  Just before today’s reading we find John out there baptizing.  (John 1:19-28)  The writer of this gospel does not specifically record the actual baptism of Jesus.  Jesus comes walking toward him and John starts talking about him.  “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!  This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’” (vss. 29-30)  He seems to recall Jesus’ baptism, saying, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.”  (vs. 32)

The focus of the reading for this week is on the next day when Jesus again walks by.  (vs. 36)  Two of John’s disciples follow Jesus.  (vs. 37)  The exchange which follows is rich and deep.  “What are you looking for?” Jesus asks them.  “Where are you staying?” they respond.  Jesus says, “Come and see.”  (vss. 38-39)  Is it too much to think of this as an exchange about where God is at work.  Jesus wants to know where they are looking.  They want to know where they should look.   Jesus says, “You have to come with me, go where I go, join me in mission along the highways and byways of life.”  They do go with him, staying the rest of the day.  Somebody must have been paying attention to the time because we are told that “it was about four o’clock in the afternoon.”  (vs. 39)

Many have commented on the revealing ending of this story, the reason it perhaps was included.  One of the two was Andrew, Peter’s brother.  (vs. 40)  We’re not told who the other one was.  We are told what happened next.  Andrew went and got his brother, whom Jesus immediately names “Cephas” or “Rock,” Peter. (vss. 41-42)  If Andrew had just reveled in this experience, hugging it closely to himself, Peter might never have become part of this new movement.  His vision was bigger than that, as is the vision to which God calls us.  God is always calling “Come and see!”
Friday, January 10, 2014


Epiphany (Jan. 6):  Isaiah 60:1-6, Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12
First Sunday after the Epiphany (Baptism of the Lord):  Isaiah 42:1-9, Psalm 29:1-11, Acts 10:34-43, Matthew 3:13-17

We’ve entered the Season of Epiphany in the calendar of the Church Year.  It runs from January 6th until Lent (which begins with Ash Wednesday on March 5th.

Technically, epiphany means “manifestation.”  It celebrates those moments in Jesus’ life when God’s light seems to shine through in a special way.  Some think of it as a season of “light.”  In the northern hemisphere it is literally a season when the amount of light available to us lengthens with each day.

In popular usage we associate “epiphanies” with “aha” moments---moments when things seem to come into special focus, when we find ourselves agape with wonder as little doors open onto the mysteries of life.  If the season is about “light,” perhaps epiphanies are times when we “see the light.”

I’d like to go further and suggest that we celebrate epiphany as a time when we do more “see the light.  We realize that we are the light.  It is not just that the light shines in and through Jesus; it shines in and through us.

When I was a child we used to sing a song in which we held up our first finger as if it were a candle, the words declaring, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.”  We sang through stanzas which identified the places where we were going to let it shine, including “all around . . .,” adding the name of our town.  The theology of the church where I grew up made it perfectly logical to sing, “Don’t let Satan blow it out.”  On the word “blow,” we would all blow across the end of that upright finger as if we were blowing the candle out.

There’s a more contemporary version of the song in the United Church of Christ hymnal, right across the page from the older one.  We sang it last Sunday to kick off the season of Epiphany.  The hymnal includes three stanzas, including “Everywhere I go, I’m gonna let it shine,” and “All through the night, I’m gonna let it shine.”

Our two sets of lectionary readings (for Epiphany Day and the First Sunday after The Epiphany) both contain passages, from Isaiah, which focus upon the light.  The first verse of Isaiah 60 celebrates the coming of light:  “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.”  (Isaiah 60:1)  Notice even here that the appropriate response is to “shine.”  By verse five, we are told, “Then you shall see and be radiant.”

The other reading from Isaiah is from an earlier time, but both speak words of hope to the people of Israel.  The light in Isaiah 60 signals restoration to a people in exile.  Isaiah 42 speaks of the people as a “suffering servant” upon whom the spirit of God rests.  It is a promise of justice.  The early church began to apply these words to Jesus, the servant who “would not cry or lift up his voice,” a “bruised reed” which would not break or “be crushed until he has established justice in the earth.”  (Isaiah 42:1-4)

Without getting into the various debates and interpretations of the identity and nature of this “servant,” the move into the Epiphany Season draws my attention to God’s covenant with God’s people as a call to be “a light to the nations.”  (vs. 6)

I’d rather think of it as a universal call rather than a call to a particular nation.  Both Israel and the United States have at times arrogantly claimed it as a name applying uniquely to them.  If we take a more universal view, so that it applies to all of us, to all churches, to all who would seek to live “according to the light,” we might begin to ask what it means to be a light to others, to let our light shine, to be radiant with the spirit of God.

In Isaiah 42, clearly light and justice are linked.  In addition to the references to justice in the first part of the passage, those who are “a light to the nations” are “to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.”  (vs. 7)  An epiphany life style brings to light those who seem trapped in darkness.

While most of the other readings don’t speak directly of light, we find other references to the reign of justice.  In Psalm 72 is a prayer for a king:  “May he 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 . . . In his days may righteousness flourish and peace abound . . . May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service.  For he 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 . . .”  (Psalm 72:2, 4, 7, 11-14)  What if the politics of our nation, and other nations, had a sudden epiphany and led us through a season in which such a prayer were the focus?

The readings from Ephesians and Acts, if they are taken as addressing what it means to live in the light, highlight the inclusiveness of the message of God’s love.  In Ephesians, it is the Gentiles who are included.  They “have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”  (Ephesians 3:6)  In Acts, Peter proclaims the same truth:  “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”  (Acts 10:34-35)  There is so much more in these two passages, but it is sufficient to note that God’s Light is the kind of light that spreads out encompassing everything that comes into its path.  To live according to the Light is to be as inclusive as that Light.

At some point in my life I was taught to use light as a visualizing tool in my prayer.  I would picture the situation I was concerned about and imagine a beam of light coming from above offering illumination.  Once I had that image in mind, I was just to let it develop on its own.  It was amazing how often the light spread out to show what was on the fringes, what I was excluding or not noticing.  Light has a way of doing that.

Before moving on to the Gospel lessons, note that the reading from Psalm 29 might be read as an invitation to celebrate God’s light at work in nature, ascribing “glory and strength” to him as we notice the “waters,” the “cedars,” the “calf,” etc.  (Psalm 29:1-3, 5-6)  The images are not all warm and fuzzy.  Living in God’s Light is not all calmness.  It may shake up things we’d rather leave in the dark.  Looking directly into the light can be painful.  Living in the light may have us wondering what is hovering just beyond the edge of the forest.

Certainly the story of the Wise Men contains threat.  They are guided by a great light.  While it leads them to the “house” where Jesus is, it also takes them into the seat of oppressive power where Herod plots to kill all children, making sure that he doesn’t miss this one who might threaten him.  There is much to consider in terms of these interesting men who bring gifts, what their gifts represent, etc.  (Note that, contrary to popular images, the wise men went to a “house,” not to a manger.  They probably came as much as two years later, since Herod’s decree was to kill all children two years of age and under.  See Matthew 2:16.  Note also that reading from Isaiah 60 references camels from Sheba coming bringing “gold and frankincense . . .” See Isaiah 60:6.)  It is sufficient as we enter this season of Epiphany to see them as men of light who help overcome the darkness.  Warned by a dream, they choose to have nothing more to do with Herod.  (Matthew 2:12)  Another dream leads Joseph and Mary to flee with this child of light to Egypt.  (vss. 15)  We are told that Herod had been “tricked.”  (vs. 16)  One version says “outwitted.”   Whenever abusive power is outwitted, it is a good thing.  That’s what light makes people, us, capable of doing.

The Gospel lesson specifically for the coming Sunday is Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism.  It doesn’t actually mention light although the heavens open and a voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  (Matthew 3:17)  I have always imaged a beam of light shining upon Jesus in this moment, although there’s no mention of it in any of the Gospel accounts of his baptism.  More importantly, I believe this story can remind us that all of us are children of light.  Jesus, in John 12:36, says, “ . . . believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.”  In Ephesians 5:8-9, we read, “For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light—for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.”  (See also I Thessalonians 5:5)

We sometimes have such a high view of Jesus that we can’t imagine a voice from heaven speaking and saying, “You are my children, children of light.”  The Kairos congregation has a ritual for the renewing of our baptismal vows on the Sunday we celebrate the baptism of Jesus.  Perhaps it can be a ritual in which we declare and claim our identity as children of light.

Thinking about light got me to considering The Enlightenment, a time in history when reason took us beyond tradition in our philosophy and behavior.  Science was on the rise.  Enlightenment, however, is more than science.  Various religious traditions speak of the enlightenment of our spirits, a spiritual awakening, an “inner” light.  It need not be in contest with the values of The Enlightenment, but spiritual enlightenment is often left in the shadows when we think of ourselves as “enlightened.”

May the season of Epiphany be a season of deeper enlightenment, spiritual enlightenment which brings injustice and oppression out of the shadows, which arouses awe as we look to the stars of heaven and the streams and forests of earth, which calls us to a new identity and mission as children of light.
Thursday, January 02, 2014
Lectionary Scriptures: Jeremiah 31:7-14 OR Sirach 24:1-12, Psalm 147:12-20 OR Wisdom of Solomon 10:15-21, Ephesians 1:3-14, John 1:1-18

Christmas is a season when we especially focus on the nearness of God.  In many ways the lectionary readings for the coming Sunday simply elaborate on the discussion begun in last week’s blog entry.

There is an expression about searching near and far (or high and low) for something.  Some stories seem to have the moral that after searching near and far (i.e., everywhere) for something, it shows up right under our nose.  God is a bit like that. After making great efforts to find God, we find that divine presence is very near, up close and personal.

This week’s readings celebrate that presence, singing praises for what God has done, how God has come near to, been with, God's people.  It is easy for celebrations of God’s presence to cross over into the belief that we and ours are special, that God has chosen us for special treatment.  It sometimes carries with it a notion of coming home, coming into possession of a special homeland.  It’s there in the reading from Jeremiah when God says, “See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, and those with child and those in labor, together; a great company, they shall return here.”  (Jeremiah 31:7-14)  Notice that there is a certain level of inclusion here, i.e., the blind and the lame, but the words are primarily about those in exile returning to their homeland.  “They come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden . . . the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry.  I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.”  (vss. 12-13)  Not only do such celebrations lead easily to a sense that I have an exclusive claim on God, but that what matters in our relationship with God are all the material blessings we receive.

The reading from Sirach is one of two optional readings from ancient writings that are not included in most Protestant Bibles.  They are treated as scripture in the Catholic tradition and by some others, leading them to be included in lectionary readings from time to time.  This is not the place for further exploration of their origins or the debates around them.  Both of this week’s selections celebrate God’s presence in the life and history of the Israelites.  In Sirach, the Spirit of God is expressed through a female presence (“Wisdom”) who “sought a resting place.” (Sirach 24:7)  “ . . . in whose territory should I abide?” she asks.  (vs. 7)  The Creator answers, telling her, “Make your dwelling in Jacob, and in Israel receive your inheritance . . . so I was established in Zion.  Thus in the beloved city he gave me a resting place, and in Jerusalem was my domain.  I took root in an honored people . . .” (vss. 10-12)

The reading from the Wisdom of Solomon celebrates Wisdom’s guidance of the people in the escape from Egypt and as they wandered in the wilderness.  “ . . . she guided them along a marvelous way, and became a shelter to them by day, and a starry flame through the night.  She brought them over the Red Sea, and led them through deep waters . . .”  (Wisdom of Solomon 10:17-18)

This week’s Psalm celebrates God’s blessing upon “your children within you” and “peace within your borders.”  (Psalm 147:13-14)  “He fills you with the finest of wheat . . . He gives snow like wool; he scatters frost like ashes . . . He has not dealt thus with any other nation . . . Praise the Lord!”  (vss. 14, 16 & 20)

Many Christians have struggled with this idea of specially chosen nations and people.  Sometimes the discussion is assumed to be over after we have been reminded that the choosing was done not because of some special merit but simply as an expression of divine love (see Deuteronomy 7:7-8) and that the blessings they received were meant to be used to bless others (see Genesis 12:2 as well as Isaiah 42:6 & Isaiah 49:6 which emphasize being a “light to the nations”).  Those are important reminders but don’t eliminate the problems of thinking about a particular people as God’s special chosen.

Even beyond the history of nations and occupied lands, those who think of God’s nearness in mystical and mediational terms often speak as if God were their own personal possession.  I thought about using “My God!” as an alternative title to this week’s blog entry.  Thinking of God as near, even within, can easily make me begin to think that God somehow “belongs” to me, or that I “belong” to God in a way that makes me better than others.

Another way Christians have responded to the notion of chosenness is to extend it to include Gentiles.  Sometimes even the “church” becomes God’s chosen people.  Paul made his contribution to that way of thinking.  The reading from Ephesians, although probably not written by Paul, is in that tradition.  God “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before in love.  He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will.”  (Ephesians 1:4-5)  It was part of “a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him.”  (vs. 10)  Like Sirach, Ephesians speaks of an “inheritance.”  (Sirach 24:8 & 12 and Ephesians 1:11 & 14)  When we go on into the second chapter of Ephesians, we read, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ . . . he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near . . .” (Ephesians 2:13 & 17)---the near being the Jews and the far off being the Gentiles.”

It’s great to be told that I’m included, to feel that I’m included, but this interpretation still doesn’t quite do it.  If God’s vision was so big “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4) where did we go wrong?

The Gospel reading from John also takes this cosmic approach.  This same Spirit of God, now embodied in “the Word” rather than in “Wisdom”, was at work from the very beginning.  (John 1:1-2---Note the parallel to Sirach 24:9 which also goes back to the beginning.)  This great hymn which the writer applies to Jesus, is an embodiment of that “light to the nations” we spoke of earlier.  “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  (vss. 4-5)  One of the better known statements of scripture comes in verse 14:  “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”  It is another statement of the Christmas truth that God is near.  Notice, though, the breadth of that nearness in this reading.  “The true light, which enlightens everyone was coming into the world . . . From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.”  (vss. 9 & 16)

I sometimes find all the arguments about chosenness and inclusion to be clutter on the landscape.  It is enough to declare and experience again and again that God is as near as the air that we breathe, that in him we live and move and have our being.  Christmas is about one to whom I look to raise my awareness of that nearness.  This reading from John’s Gospel clearly states that “no one has ever seen God.  It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”  (John 1:18---Is this somehow connected with Wisdom in Sirach making “the tongues of infants speak clearly”?)  When I look to the Christ child and the man he grew into I see that God is found wherever Love and inclusion are at work.  God has chosen all of us, all of humanity and creation, and calls us to live into the fullness of all the possibilities in that humanity and creation.

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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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