Monday, December 27, 2010

Lectionary Notes for Epiphany Sunday, Year ABC

Readings for Epiphany Sunday, 1/2/11:

Isaiah 60:1-6, Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12

Isaiah 60:1-6:
  • On Epiphany Sunday, we use many light/dark images which correspond to good/bad, and sometimes, unfortunately, white/black. Make sure to double check your language for overtones that may be perceived as racist or convey a message that you don't intend!
  • "Lift up your eyes and look around." Sometimes things that we need/want/pray for/hope for are right in front of us, we just fail to see them because we are not looking. During seminary, I had the chance to travel to Ghana, West Africa, and walk across high-suspended canopy bridges in Kakum National Park. I had to remind myself to stop, breathe, and look around at the rainforest that I was crossing high above!
  • This passage is addressed to Israel, as the people have been permitted by the Persian King Darius to return to the Holy City Jerusalem. This is a homecoming story, an image of a big party thrown for Israel's return to itself.

Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14:
  • Judgment and Justice - To me the word justice is so powerful because of its double meanings. We want to bring criminals to justice, to make sure they get what they deserve in terms of punishment, but we want to bring the oppressed justice, to make sure they get what they deserve: equality, shelter, food, health, etc. I'm reminded of the Newsboys song with the lyrics, "When you get what you don't deserve, it's a real good thing . . . when you don't get what you deserve, it's a real good thing."
  • This psalm is written as a sort of call for blessings on a king, perhaps at the beginning of his reign/coronation/special ceremony. In my NRSV translation, some of the phrases sound quite demanding of God. "Give the king your justice, O God." Are we willing to demand of God so boldly when we have wants/needs? When is or isn't this appropriate?

Ephesians 3:1-12:
  • "This is the reason": Paul has been writing in the previous chapter about how both the circumcised and the uncircumcised are now one in Christ, who has broken down the dividing wall. This is the purpose of Paul's ministry, to bring the Good News to the Gentiles.
  • "Although I am the very least of all the saints." When I was younger, before I came to better terms with my good friend Paul, these statements of self-debasing always irritated me to no end! :)
  • "Mystery", from the Greek musterion, a secret thing or secret rite. Not so much in a 'whodunnit' sense, but in an awe and intrigue sense.

Matthew 2:1-12:
  • Matthew emphasizes the importance of this event because the visit of the Magi (the Latin term) symbolizes recognition from non-Jewish figures of prominence who recognize the kingship of baby Jesus.
  • Note that there is no mention of 3 Kings. A lot of common thought about the wise men is something of Bible mythology, such as their number, their names (traditionally Balthasar, Caspar, and Melchior), and their royal status. Of course, the wise men would not have arrived at the birth of the Christ child, as depicted in nativity scenes, but well after the birth, hence Herod's decision to kill male babies of two and under, to make sure the job was done.
  • What makes this story of the wise men the day of Epiphany? Writes Dennis Bratcher in this article, "The Wise Men or Magi who brought gifts to the infant Jesus were the first Gentiles to acknowledge Jesus as "King" and so were the first to "show" or "reveal" Jesus to a wider world as the incarnate Christ."

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Lectionary Notes for Christmas Day, Year ABC

Readings for Christmas Sunday, 12/25/10:
Isaiah 52:7-10, Psalm 98, Hebrews 1:1-4, (5-12), John 1:1-14
Isaiah 52:7-10:
  • "beautiful feet" - I've known this verse, though not where to find it in the Bible, since I was in a summer-camp production of "Sandi Patti and the Friendship Company" in junior high, where "Beautiful Feet" was one of the songs. Lyrics here. Beautiful feet - what a great image! Are your feet beautiful? What message do your feet carry from place to place? Do you bring peace with your feet? Salvation?
  • Isaiah speaks of the joy of Israel returning back home after exile to Babylon. When have you experienced your most joyful homecoming? When have you been away from home and not wanted to be away from home? Homesick? Without a home?
  • According to Chris Haslam, the reference to "God's arm" is a reference to God's power. Sort of envisioning a God-flexing-muscles picture.
Psalm 98:
  • Oof - watch out - there's "God's arm" again, twice on one Sunday!
  • "Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy." Great imagery. How would you create this image?
  • This is a psalm of joy and thankfulness for God's action in someone's life, in the life of a whole people. How do you celebrate as an individual? As a community? Do we celebrate as nations? A world? How do we express our joy in God? Through worship? Action?
Hebrews 1:1-4, (5-12):
  • Hebrews talks of Jesus as the reflection of God's glory. I think we are also reflections of God's glory, if we let ourselves be, let God makes us into these reflections. This is what it means to be created in God's image, isn't it?
  • "exact imprint of God's very being" - This makes fingerprints come to mind, or plaster casts of babies' feet.
  • The argument here seems to be: Jesus is better than angels. Was this a question in the early church? Chris Haslam says it was (sort of), actually.
  • think this passage from Hebrews may be the only non-gospel place that refers to Jesus' birth in the scriptures. But Hebrews' description sounds more like Revelation and less like Luke 2!
John 1:1-14:
  • This is John's take on a birth narrative. No shepherds, no angels, no Mary and Joseph, no manger. This is how John describes Jesus' coming into the world. The language is rich in metaphor, and though it lacks the characters of the traditional nativity, the point is still communicated without a doubt: 'And the word became flesh and lived among us'.
  • This is one of my favorite passages in the Greek New Testament, not only because of the easy, repetitive vocabulary :) but also because it is poetic and lyrical through the simple, repetitive structure. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."
  • Passages like this from John provide the strongest basest for our Trinitarian Christian Creeds. Jesus was "in the beginning with God."
  • I think we are all, like John the Baptist, meant to testify, or witness, to the light. How do you do it? Witnessing means telling what you know about something, like at a trial. What do you know about the light that is Christ? 

Sermon for Fourth Sunday of Advent, " Redefining Christmas: Recreate"

Sermon 12/19/10, Matthew 1:18-25

Redefining Christmas: Recreate

            Sometimes when we get what we want, we don’t know what to do with it after all. Sometimes Advent can seem like a long time, when you’re at the beginning of it, reading those strange world-catastrophe texts a few days after Thanksgiving. But then, what seems like just a few hours later really, we’re at the fourth Sunday of Advent, and in our text today from Matthew Jesus is born, and maybe we wonder a little: now what do we do with this? I know for me, at least, I found it a little easier to preach about those other strange texts, less familiar texts, than I find it to preach about a text so much more familiar and seemingly simple.
Let's look at our passage. The text we read from Matthew is notable because here, it is really Joseph's story, not Jesus' or Mary's. Poor Mary, the mother of the Christ Child, hardly gets a mention from Matthew. This passage is about how Joseph handled everything that was happening to him. Joseph and Mary are engaged. But before their marriage, before they are living together, someone it is discovered that Mary is pregnant. We don't know how this information was known - we just knew that Joseph knew she was pregnant and knew that he was not the father of the child. Having a child outside of a marriage in those days wasn't just frowned upon. It was a criminal act, and it was punishable, punishable by death to one or both persons involved. Joseph, having made a covenant to wed Mary, could have brought charges of adultery against her, for which she would have faced death by stoning. But Joseph, a 'righteous man', chooses instead to quietly break off the covenant to be wed before it is too late. But, we read, "just as he had resolved to do this," a messenger from God appears to Joseph and tells him that the child Mary bears is from the Holy Spirit. The messenger tells him not to be afraid, but to wed Mary as planned. This child, the messenger says, is one who will save the people from their sins. Joseph did as the messenger commanded. We don't hear of any arguments he put forward, or hard time he gave Mary, or questions he wanted answered. He wed Mary as promised, and she bore a child, and they named him Jesus.
It is hard for us today to realize the precariousness of Jesus’ birth and the whole Christmas story. We think of the birth of Jesus as such a sweet thing – at least that’s my gut instinct. So sweet – a baby being born! The baby Jesus, asleep on the hay. But everything about childbirth in those days was risky. In the best of situations, giving birth was a risky thing. And in Mary and Joseph’s situation: there are some life and death circumstances at play. Today perhaps we don't find this story as shocking - a man finds his fiancĂ©e pregnant, and he knows that he is not the father. So he wants to remedy the situation by quietly divorcing her, something that was necessary even to break an engagement. In today's world, such a thing might still be disliked or looked down on by some, but it certainly is not something punishable by death. But in Joseph's day, it was of critical importance. Children and lineage and family lines and sons being born - this was important, critical stuff, issues that meant survival and success. Joseph had the facts in front of him - Mary was pregnant and he was not the father. He dreamed of God's messenger telling him it would be alright. But if I took everything I dreamed at face value, I'd be in big trouble!
But Joseph seems satisfied that he has heard God speaking to him, and he knows what he must do. He must risk it. No doubt he loved Mary already - he must risk trusting her and trusting God even though he felt betrayed and confused. He must risk believing what the visions of his dreams told him - that this baby would be the Messiah. He must risk the ridicule he would face when others would inevitably get wind of what was happening. So much that he must do. And for what? Our gospels rarely speak of Joseph after this. He is not the parent that Jesus relates to, the father he depends on - Jesus calls God his Abba – it is God that Jesus speaks of as his parent. Mary plays a bigger role in Jesus' ministry and life, at least. But Joseph disappears from the scene. Such a big risk, and no seeming rewards, no benefits for himself, no glory, fame only in Church Christmas pageants. Why would he do it? For love of Mary? No - he loved Mary, but he would have divorced her if he could. No, I can only deduce that it is Joseph’s faithfulness that helps him act so selflessly. Because of his love for God, and God's love for him, Joseph is willing to put himself in last place, disregard any action that would be in his own best interest. Jesus is not even yet born, the child he will raise, but already Joseph is embodying what Jesus will teach – putting himself last, letting himself be humbled, being servant of all. God's love seems to make us do the craziest things sometimes. Only with God's love and Joseph’s in response, woven through this story, does Joseph's behavior make any sense.
Joseph, following God, is able to do what I think is one of the hardest things of all – and that’s to get out of the way, let the story be, really, about everyone but him. Many of us would say we don’t like being the center of attention. I’m a pretty introverted person, even though I have a very public vocation, and I can tell you I generally try not to draw attention to myself. But, if we are all honest with ourselves, when it comes to making decisions, we’re usually going to protect ourselves, make choices that are ok with us, take actions that are for our own benefit. It’s very hard for us to move ourselves to the sidelines, to make choices that are risky, will cause us pain or harm. To act selflessly – unfortunately, we sometimes limit that impulse for only those whom we love most dearly – our family, maybe our best friends. Joseph acts selflessly for the sake of an unborn child that is not his. But more simply, he acts selflessly because God asks him to.
Christmas, despite our best intentions, often turns into a selfish rather than a selfless time. We don’t mean to be, but somehow we get so worried about making sure things go just right, making sure we can get just the right gift, making sure things are perfect, or at least the best they can be. And sometimes in the quest for the special Christmas, we forget to get out of the way, move to the side, so that the focus can be where it belongs – a child named Jesus is born. Christmas is just a few days away. But there’s plenty of time, always time, to act a little more like Joseph.
“Joseph . . . did as the angel of the Lord commanded him . . .and he named [the child] Jesus.” Amen.  

Monday, December 13, 2010

Sermon for Third Sunday of Advent, "Reveal"

Sermon 12/12/10
Matthew 11:2-11

Redefining Christmas: Reveal


            Have you ever had your expectations completely shattered? Have you ever been totally off base in your expectations about something? Well, I guess I can answer that for you. Of course you have. We all have, I’m sure, in our many experiences had a time when what we expected, and what we got, were two completely different things. A trivial example: In seminary I took my United Methodist history, doctrine, and polity classes online. My seminary was big into embracing technology, and taking the class online was convenient. (I have to also tell you it involved a lot more work than some of my traditional classes!) Anyway, the professor was a professor who was based right on Drew’s campus. I’d just never seen him before. He worked mostly with Doctor of Ministry students, and I was a Master of Divinity student. His office wasn’t in the main seminary building. And I’d just never seen him before. So as I was taking this online class, I only had a picture in my head of what Dr. Savage might look like. And then, one day, there he was, right in front of me. And he was absolutely nothing like I'd pictured at all. He was a different age, height, had a different style, voice. He was nothing like what I expected, and I had a very hard time reconciling my mental picture with the actual.
            Sometimes the different between our expectation and reality is more significant though. I’ve occasionally met with folks in my ministry who are surprised to discover that I’m the pastor. This was particularly true in my first parish. In my first two appointments, I was the first clergy woman to ever serve that church. But I found it wasn’t being a woman that threw people for a loop – it was my age. When I started in Oneida, I was just 24. My office was the first one you would reach in the church. It had a sign over it: Pastor’s Study. It had one desk in the office, and one person at the desk: me. And yet, still, people would come in, look in the office, look at me, and say, “Is the pastor in?” I wish I could capture in pictures the look of surprise on the faces when I responded, “that’s me!” And yet, I found myself doing the same thing: when I was attending a conference on social justice ministries, I attended a workshop with the executive director of one of the organizations. To my surprise, she was very young. I could feel my surprise and wonder. I had to remind myself: isn’t that the very reaction I get all the time? When it comes to people meeting or shattering our expectations, we have to work very hard at not judging books by their covers, lest we miss the important message someone has to reveal to us.
Today our gospel text again focuses on John the Baptist, although we skip ahead a bit, farther into the gospel of Matthew, and at issue is expectations. Are they being shattered? Fulfilled? Both? John is in prison – he was put there for criticizing King Herod Antipas for his adultery – Herod married his brother’s wife – causing both Herod and new wife Herodias to divorce – Herod from his wife, Herodias from Herod’s own brother – Herod Phillip. Today such an action might be considered questionable but legal. In Herod’s day it was both immoral and against Jewish law. John the Baptist spoke out and spoke the truth, as was his custom, and it landed him in jail.
While he’s there, he sends some of his followers – yes, John had followers of his own – he sends some of them to Jesus to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” John, who has risked so much, and will ultimately give his own life in order to stand for the truth, to preach the message of repentance and forgiveness – he wants to make very sure the person he’s put it on the line for is the person he thinks. Jesus and John may be cousins, but they’ve travelled in very different words, Jesus always among the crowds, and John in the wilderness, in a place set apart. Their approaches are so very different, and by now, by this point in Matthew’s gospel, it should be apparent to John that the one he described in our text last week as wielding a winnowing fork, like an ax lying at the root of the trees – well, this Jesus is very different than John expected. He must be sure. Is Jesus the one?
Jesus tells them to return to John and tell him what they’ve seen: “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Jesus is paraphrasing words from the prophet Isaiah, words that he read from the scroll at the beginning of his preaching ministry. They’re words that indicate that Jesus sees himself fulfilling Isaiah’s vision. And they say to John: what does the evidence tell you? What do you see? You see the results – the good fruit perhaps – and that should tell you who I am.
As John’s disciples leave, Jesus turns to question the crowd, now turning the conversation to who John is, what John’s identity means. Jesus wants to know what the people were hoping to see when they went out to see John. A spectacle? A sham? The real thing – a prophet? Yes, Jesus says, a prophet, and more than a prophet. One announcing the arrival of the kingdom of God. Our passage closes with someone confusing words – Jesus says that even though John is the greatest of those born of women, yet still the least in the kingdom of God is greater than John. How can that be? Well, it seems that Jesus is trying to draw a line – to show that while John was announcing the kingdom – actually being part of this kingdom of God that’s at hand – that’s the best thing of all.
Is Jesus what John expected? Is John the messenger that the crowds expected? Does Jesus act in our lives as we’ve expected? Perhaps you’ve heard this little joke, this fable of sorts. A person was trapped in their house after a flood, waiting for help. He prayed and prayed for God to rescue him. He had faith God would hear his prayer. The water started to rise in his house. His neighbor urged him to leave and offered him a ride to safety. The man yelled back, “I am waiting for God to save me.” The neighbor drove off in his pick-up truck. The man continued to pray. As the water began rising in his house, he had to climb up to the roof. A boat came by with some people heading for safe ground. They yelled at the man to grab a rope they were ready to throw and take him to safety. He told them that he was waiting for God to save him. They shook their heads and moved on. The man continued to pray, believing with all his heart that he would be saved by God. The flood waters continued to rise. A helicopter flew by and a voice came over a loudspeaker offering to lower a ladder and take him off the roof. The man waved the helicopter away, shouting back that he was waiting for God to save him. The helicopter left. The flooding water came over the roof and caught him up and swept him away. He drowned. When he reached heaven and asked, “God, why did you not save me? I believed in you with all my heart. Why did you let me drown?” God replied, “I sent you a pick-up truck, a boat and a helicopter and you refused all of them. What else could I possibly do for you?”
Can we hear God’s voice if God doesn’t call us exactly the way we expected? The season of Advent is about longing, waiting, but I think it also about what is revealed to us – the things that we discover that shatter our expectations in the best of ways. God is so much more than we expect. But there’s more to it than that. If Jesus is different than we expect, if God shatters our expectations, it is so that we can be different than we expect of ourselves too. That’s what John preached about. That’s what Jesus taught about and longed for – for the people – for us – to be different than the low expectations we set for ourselves. Actually, throughout the New Testament, the writers of the epistles talk about what and who we really are in God being revealed. Paul says, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” And in 1 John we find words often part of funeral liturgies: Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him.” That’s exactly what I think Advent is, as we move into the blessings of Christmas – Jesus is revealed – and as it turns out, we are in fact revealed to be like him, made in God’s image, imitators of Christ. At least, we can set that as our aim, our purpose, our hope.
In the unexpected, God is revealed to us. Examine your life. In what situations is God showing up in unexpected ways? In what people can you catch glimpses of God revealed where you weren’t even looking? How can you be more than you expected of yourself, as the changing power of God’s love is at work in you? Sometimes things aren’t as we expect. And thank God for that. Amen.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Sermon for Second Sunday of Advent, "Redefining Christmas: Repent"

Sermon 12/5/10
Matthew 3:1-12, Romans 15:4-13


Redefining Christmas: Repent


            As you might know, a small group of us are currently enjoying a Bible study called, “Christmas from the Backside,” written by J. Ellsworth Kalas. Kalas takes different themes: Christmas, Easter, Parables, Old Testament Stories, etc., and tries to help the reader look at them from new points of view. His first chapter in our study was called, “The Scandal of Christmas.” Kalas says that although the idea of the tiny baby in the manger is a lovely idea, Christmas really begins with a scandal that we don’t like to own up to. Christmas only happens, we only needed, and need Christmas, he says, because of the scandal, and the scandal is that we’re sinners. He argues that we try to think of sin as things that other people do – sin as drugs or crime or adultery or addictions – things that other people do, but in reality sin is being disobeying God. When we disobey God, we sin. We might try to give it a softer name – like, “we’ve made mistakes.” But we’re sinners. We sin. “When we live below our best potential,” he says, “when we’re mediocre when we ought to be fine, cheap when we ought to be noble, shoddy when we should be upright – this is sin. When we’re anything less than godly, it’s because we’re involved in this scandal called sin.”
            So we’re caught up in this scandal of sin, and that puts us in need of Christmas, because we need saving. We need a Savior. Our Advent hymns reflect that – the meaning of Christmas that we long for – think of our opening hymn today – Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus. In it we sing, “From our sins and fears, release us. Let us find our rest in thee.” Whether we realize it or not, the longing of Advent, the waiting with anticipation – we wait for someone that can free us from the mess of sin we find ourselves in.
            With that preamble, maybe John the Baptist in the wilderness starts to make more sense as an Advent text. John the Baptist definitely seems to stir up scandal. He’s a dramatic figure, causing a scene, not one to go unnoticed. And he’s ready to talk about the scandal of sin. John arrives on the scene preaching the same gospel that Jesus will preach: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” although Jesus will preach it with a very different tone. People were coming out into the desert to hear John, and they were being baptized by him, a symbolic act showing that they were confessing their sins and changing their lives. But when the Pharisees and Sadducees came to John, he had no welcome words for them, perhaps suspecting that they were there to check up on him and test him as they would so often with Jesus. “You brood of vipers,” John exclaims, “who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
Still, John calls them to repent too: “Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” he says. In other words: Are you confessing your sinfulness? Has your life changed? Show me. He tells them they won’t be safe just because they are Jews by birth – they have to bear their own fruit from good living, and can’t rely on their ancestors, or anything external. Repentance has to come from within. John goes on to describe what it is like with the messiah just about to arrive. “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees,” John says, “every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. [The messiah’s] winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and . . . the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” John leaves us challenged: what kind of fruit are our lives bearing? When Jesus does come, does begin his own preaching ministry, his calls for repentance carry a perhaps more compassionate tone than John’s. But I feel like we need John’s voice too, his sense of extreme urgency. John wants us to act and act now. Has your life changed? Show me.
If the scandal of Christmas is that we’re sinners, in need of saving, then the work of Advent is repentance, so that when Christmas comes, we have the fruit of our changed hearts to offer to the Christ child. We’ve talked before about the meaning of repentance – remember? It means, literally, to change your mind. Not just change your mind, say, about what you wanted to have for lunch today, but to change your mind, change your mind so that you’re going not in the wrong direction, but in God’s direction. That’s what John asks. For repentance.
The Pharisees and Sadducees show up to see John the Baptist too – even they come to be baptized. But John has harsher words for them. Because they want the newness of baptism, the forgiveness of baptism, the fresh start of baptism, without the work of repentance. John says to them, “Do not presume to say to yourselves, We have Abraham as our ancestor.” In other words, it seems, they’re trying to count themselves in on the shirttails of their ancestors, trying to take credit for the faithful living done by those before them. But one tree can’t bear fruit for another. Each one is accountable for their own good fruit. Each one has to choose repentance – or not, and let the good fruit – or otherwise, tell the story of the choices.
This week my home will go through a bit of a transformation. I wouldn’t say I’m a terribly messy person, but if you’ve seen my office, you get an idea of what my home is like. I tend to have piles of things here and there. Clutter. And sadly, at home, I don’t have a Bill Jacques that comes in and cleans up after me. So this week, I will spend a lot of time cleaning, getting ready for Open House next Sunday. I’ll spend a lot of time preparing – shopping, baking, decorating. And a lot of time doing things like dusting and mopping and vacuuming and other unpleasant things. You don’t expect to have a party without preparing. Getting ready. Cleaning up before. And then cleaning up after. All my preparation isn’t required – I could let you all show up at my house next week and see what happened. But you’d all have to help clear off space at the table. And there might not be enough chairs for everyone. And if you could only eat food that was already in my cupboards, you’d be in big trouble, unless you really love cereal as much as I do. It just doesn’t make sense not to prepare for something I know is coming. Especially when my preparations will make the party the joy I know it can be.
Advent is a time to prepare our hearts. We know what’s coming – who is coming. Why wouldn’t we prepare? This season is filled Christmas classics on TV. You probably have a favorite. My favorite is an 80s classic – Santa Clause, the Movie. Anybody remember that one? It starred Dudley Moore as an elf that gets caught up in mass producing toys? Anyone? Anyway, you should take a look at some of the Christmas specials this year, even, maybe especially ones aimed at children. They’re remarkably on task in telling the story of repentance. How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a perfect example – the Grinch finally realizes, well, his sinfulness, repents, takes his life in a new direction, has his heart grow bigger and bigger, and shows the fruit of his repentance in his actions – he reconciles himself with the community, makes repayment for his wrongdoing, and showers others with his newly-found love.
If these children’s shows and stories can figure out repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation, why do we have such a hard time with it? I wonder if, like the Pharisees and Sadducees, we just get stuck right at the start, trying to find a way around repentance, trying to find a way that doesn’t have us admitting the scandal – we’re sinners, as bad as the rest. We need Christmas, because we need saving.
The good news is Christmas is coming. Not even three weeks away. Prepare. Prepare the way of Lord. Make the paths straight. Bear fruit worthy of repentance, for the kingdom of God is coming near. Amen.