Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Lectionary Notes for Epiphany Sunday, Year ABC

Readings for Epiphany Sunday, 1/1/12:
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."
  • Saturday, December 17, 2011

    Aunt Clara

    My great Aunt Clara died yesterday, after a year long battle with lung cancer. The cancer was already pretty advanced when she was diagnosed, and she has been on a slow but steady decline all year. In the last few weeks, she became more confused, way too thin, and increasingly physically uncomfortable. After a week in the hospital, she died early Friday morning. 

    My aunt was the youngest of my grandmother's siblings - nine years younger than grandma, actually, who is herself a tough cookie, so we were all surprised, I think, to lose Aunt Clara at 77. 

    What can I say about Aunt Clara? She had some real ups and downs in her life, and whether she was living in a tiny apartment, or what I considered as a child as practically a mansion, she was always generous. You could not leave her home without her trying to give you something - cookies, clothes she actually loved, food, trinkets, whatever. Anything and definitely something. 

    One year for my birthday, maybe, Aunt Clara asked what I wanted. I told her I wanted a pony, jewels, and lots of money. She brought me a tiny box with a tiny horse figurine, some shiny pennies, and a fake jewel. She had such humor, and loved to joke and laugh.

    I have heard my cousins talking about how quickly Aunt Clara would welcome someone new into our family fold. She would make you feel comfortable and relaxed into our crazy family on first meeting. Over the years, we have introduced Aunt Clara to many important people in our life, and whether they were shy, or tattooed, or of a different color, or of a different sexual orientation, or whatever, it never seemed to matter to her. She could put people at ease. 

    One of my favorite and more recent memories is when Aunt Clara came to be a mystery guest at my church. We were doing a study with our Evangelism Committee on how to be more welcoming, so we set up some people to masquerade as visitors to the church, including Aunt Clara. She had so much fun, but was a horrible actress! She had a cover story that was way too elaborate, about her granddaughter and visiting her and wanting to find a church for when she visited. During joys and concerns she raised her hand and said how wonderful everyone was and how welcomed she felt - very untypical visitor behavior! But she loved every minute - she even made my mom drop her off a block away from church so she could walk in and look authentic. Then afterwards, she worried and worried that people would be mad at her for lying! But of course, everyone loved her, and enjoyed her theatrics.   

    I am a bit in denial that she has died, which I suppose is not unusual. She has just been such a part of all of us, my whole life. I don't know if most people know their great aunts so well, but I feel blessed by the closeness of my family. I miss her. 


    Wednesday, December 14, 2011

    Sermon for Fourth Sunday of Advent: Sing We Now of Christmas: Mary’s Song

    Sermon 12/11
    Luke 1:26-55

    Sing We Now of Christmas: Mary’s Song

    Today our scripture brings us three vignettes, woven together. First, Mary is visited by God's messenger Gabriel, who tells her that she is favored, and that she will give birth to a son, a child conceived by the Holy Spirit, who is the Son of the Most High. He tells her nothing is impossible with God. Mary has a couple of questions, naturally, but ends by saying, ʺI am God's servant – let it be with me as you have said.ʺ Next, we see Mary travel to visit her cousin Elizabeth, an older woman who is also pregnant. Elizabeth is pregnant with John, who we know as John the Baptist. Mary visits her, and when Elizabeth sees her, John in her womb seems to leap for joy, and Elizabeth calls Mary and the child she carries blessed. And, she concludes, blessed is she who believes that there will be a fulfillment of God's promises. Finally, we find Mary’s song, what we call the Magnificat, a joyful response at what God has chosen to do, through her, for all people.
    You know, of course, that I love music, but I must admit that the books of the Bible that are considered song – like the Psalms – are really not my favorite. The poetry, Psalms and Proverbs and Song of Songs, and the poems and hymns sprinkled throughout the scriptures – most books of the Bible contain some hymns or poetry – Paul’s letters, the law, the prophets, the gospels. So I love music, and it’s not that I don’t like poetry. I do, I really like poetry. I even went through some angsty times in junior high where I tried to write poetry! Bad poetry, that you could probably use to blackmail me with rather than me let someone read it, but poetry nonetheless.
    It’s just that, frankly, I don’t usually find the poetry of the scriptures particularly moving. I know that many people love the Psalms in particular, and I do have a couple of favorites, but if I were in charge, I might have cut the collection down to about 25 instead of a hefty 150 entries. My tendency when reading poetry in the Bible is to skim – quickly glance over the words. But I’m not sure poetry is meant to be read this way. Poetry is meant to be savored, word by carefully chosen word.
    But one song in the Bible I love – Mary’s song – this Magnificat – the first song in the New Testament – the first justice song of the gospel. I love Mary’s song. Mary responds to her visit with Elizabeth and Elizabeth’s words about Mary being blessed among women with a song – a song that today we call “The Magnificat” because Mary begins by saying that her soul magnifies the Lord. She sings about rejoicing in God because God has chosen her, even though she is lowly. She believes she will be called blessed by all generations because of what God is doing for her. Mary goes on to describe God as merciful and strong. She talks about God scattering those who are proud and powerful and rich in earthly things, and instead favoring those who are without all these earthly things. And she finishes her song by saying that God is helping her because God remembers the promise made to her people, the promise that lasts forever.
    “My soul magnifies the Lord.” That is how Mary begins her song. The word in this context means to make great, to exalt, but we most often use the word ‘magnify’ when we’re talking about making something bigger. We use a magnifying glass to help us better see something that’s otherwise too small. Something magnified is something that has been enlarged, made bigger, easier to see. In Mary’s case, she is saying that her soul magnifies God. In other words, Mary, her soul, her spirit, is making God larger, more visible. I think these are pretty daring things for Mary to sing about. She can clearly see herself, even though she is a woman in a male-centered society, even though she is very young, even though she is unwed, even though she is pregnant and in a risky situation, she can clearly see herself as a powerful person – made powerful by God’s action in her life and her willingness to respond – and a person who has the power then to magnify God for others, to make God more visible by serving as a vessel for God, a disciple for God.

    Mary trusts that God would choose someone like her because she sees that God is always using unlikely people. Throughout Mary’s song, she makes reference to God being a God who cherishes the weak, the lowly, the hungry, the otherwise overlooked. In fact, her song is similar to another song in the scriptures: the song that Hannah sings to thank God after she finally gives birth to Samuel in the Old Testament. Hannah was barren, and prayed for a child. When she finally had Samuel, she delivered him to the temple to serve God, and she sang a song of thanks where she talked about God lifting up the lowly and overlooked. Mary, like Hannah, understands that God who is her Savior is a God who turns the tables, who looks out for the weak first, giving power to those who are powerless, and humbling those who would exalt themselves. Mary believes that God has looked at her and seen faithfulness, looked at her, and seen a servant, looked at her, and given favor and blessing. Mary believes, trusts, that in her, God is fulfilling a promise long-spoken, a promise that God would redeem God’s people. Because Mary believes this, she doesn’t shrink or cower from the great, mysterious, practically unbelievable news that Gabriel brings to her. Instead, she rejoices in the news. She lives the news – sings it. Mary’s soul will magnify God – her actions, her carrying of the Christ child will make it easier for the whole world to see God, because through Mary, the whole world will have access to a God who is this close to us, close enough to touch, close enough to carry in our hearts. Mary magnifies God for us, and so we can see this larger-than-life God, contained in a tiny baby.
    We, too, are meant to magnify God with our souls. By our lives, by our witness, by our response to our experience of God, we are called to make God more visible to the world. That means that like Mary, we must understand the power that we have as human beings. A bit of prose from author Marianne Williamson: She writes, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” We’re created in God’s image, born to “make manifest the glory of God that is within us.”
    That’s a powerful task we have in our hands. The question isn’t whether or not we have power, but what we’ll do with it. When God calls us, we should boldly respond, because God knows us, and knows how very much we are capable of, and we have responsibility and power given to us. Others, by our actions, can learn something about who God is, what kind of God we serve. What will people learn about God from you? You have the ability to magnify God – to make God larger for others, easier for others to know and see and draw near to. How big can you make God? How much can you let your life work to make God visible to others?
    Finally, it means that we must learn something about what can happen to the world if we really take Mary’s song to heart. As I was reading about the Magnificat, I discovered that during the 1980s, the dictators of Guatemala actually outlawed the public reading of the Magnificat because of its “revolutionary tones” – indeed, Mary talks about a change in the world order that would certainly upset the way things work. The words of a pregnant young woman, spoken two-thousand years ago, banned, because of the power, revolutionary power in them. What might happen if we speak the truths that we know with boldness? When we work together with God, when we let God use us, and when we trust that in us, God can fulfill promises, even in us – when we let others see God more clearly because of us, we can actually change the world.
    How big can we make God? My soul magnifies the Lord! Amen.

    Sunday, December 04, 2011

    Sermon for Second Sunday of Advent: Sing We Now of Christmas: O Come, O Come Emmanuel

    Sermon 12/4/11
    Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8

    Sing We Now of Christmas: O Come, O Come Emmanuel

    O Come, O Come Emmanuel is one of the oldest hymns you’ll find in our hymnal. The melody itself is a bit younger – written in the 15th century – but the words are much older – dating back at least to the 9th century, written in Latin. These verses are all based on prophecies from Isaiah, and you might recognize the verses as corresponding to some of the passages from Isaiah we usually read during advent. Actually, the original form of the lyrics is not the hymn itself, but is found in your hymnal on the right side of page 211, where you see what are known as the “O Antiphons.” Antiphons are a spoken response that would alternate between verses of a chant or hymn. And these antiphons, in Latin, make up a kind of word game – a backwards acrostic. See, each antiphon is a title for the Messiah – Emmanuel, Wisdom, Adonai, Root of Jesse, Key of David, Dayspring, King of the Gentiles. And if you take the first letter of each of these words (in Latin), and put them in reverse order (are you still following me?), you come up with another Latin phrase, Ero Cras, which means, Tomorrow, I will come. It’s meant to be Christ’s response – we say the antiphons, calling for Christ to come, and Christ responds, yes, I will come. We long for the Messiah, and the Messiah responds. (1)
    That’s the theme of both of our scripture lessons today. We long for Christ, or, even if we can’t name it is such, we are certainly longing for something. Hoping for something. Waiting. And we hear in the scriptures that something, someone is coming. The people are lost in a wilderness, and in the wilderness, a way is prepared, a path is cleared, and the Christ comes. That’s what Isaiah and John the gospel writer and John the Baptist are all talking about. We long for the Messiah to come. And he comes.
    It’s this idea of wilderness that particularly captures my attention in these texts. Our scriptures are filled with stories of Gods’ people finding themselves in the wilderness. We spent a little time talking about this at our Wednesday night Advent gathering at my home last week. Today we might think of a wilderness as being out in the woods, in nature, kind of a peaceful, beautiful retreat. That is in part because of our local geography, and in part because of our society. We live in bustling places and work indoors and spend most of our lives indoors, and then retreat to nature to draw close to God. But in the scriptures, the word wilderness means desert – a solitary place, a lonely and desolate place, possibly a dangerous place. It is not a place that many choose to spend their time, except maybe those like John the Baptist, and since he was dressed in camel hair and eating locusts and wild honey, he isn’t really a good example of typical behavior.
    We find this wilderness featured in the Old Testament, particularly in Exodus, as God’s people are led from a land of slavery to a land of hope and promise. In the forty years that it takes them to get from Egypt to the promised land, they spend their days traveling through the wilderness, the desert. These forty years bring them through some hard times with God and with one another and with Moses, their leader. The wilderness is a place of struggle for them, the in-between place they must traverse to get to their real destination. In the gospels, we read about Jesus spending time in the wilderness before he begins his preaching and teaching. It is there, in the desolate wilderness, that he is tempted by satan to reject God’s plan for his life and instead choose an easier path. The wilderness is a risky place to be in the scriptures. It’s a place where one is both alone, and exposed and vulnerable, this desert place.
    So no, we don’t live in a desert climate here in Central New York, but I think that in the midst of the season of Advent, it is not too hard for us to see ourselves in the middle of a wilderness, wandering in a desolate place. Christmas begins in just three weeks, and though we are in the midst of a season of preparation, journeying towards a season of joy, a celebration of Christ’s birth, sometimes, on the way, things can get overwhelming. We may – in the midst of all the hustle and bustle, in the midst of trying to buy presents, preparing our homes, finalizing travel plans, and planning and attending activities at home, school, work, and church – we might feel a bit like we’ve lost our way, and that we are just wandering in the wilderness, waiting for someone to show us the way out and beyond this exhausting season. The holidays may be meant to be a season of joy. But actually, people often experience them as a season of distress, a season of loneliness, a season of marked financial strain, a season of depression. Sometimes the holidays highlight people's pains instead of highlighting their anticipation. You know what personal wilderness you are facing, and you know it doesn’t pause just because Christmas songs on the radio are telling you to be jolly!
    It is just when the wilderness threatens to swallow us up that prophets are called to speak, to give a message of hope. Today, we read two passages, each with words from a prophet meant for people struggling through a wilderness, to remind them of the hope of the Messiah, the same promise we hear in our hymn: Tomorrow, I will come. Through the words of Isaiah and the preaching of John the Baptist, we find messages meant for those who find themselves in the wilderness, wondering what to do. The prophet Isaiah speaks to the people during a time in Israel’s history when the people had been taken from their homeland and exiled to Babylon, as the first verse of today’s hymn mentions – captive Israel. It was for them a time of deep pain as a people, when they were separated from their homes, when they were jumbled together and living in a foreign land under unfriendly rule. They longed for the day that they could return home and end this time of limbo, this time of waiting, this time of wilderness. Where was God? How would God get them out of this situation and to their destination – back home, back to the holy land and the holy city. And so God speaks to the prophet Isaiah and tells him, “Cry out!” “What shall I cry?” Isaiah wants to know what he could possibly say to the people. The response comes, “Comfort, O comfort my people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem . . . In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God . . . the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together . . . Here is your God, God will gather the lambs in God’s arms.”
    In our gospel lesson, Mark starts things in a hurry and maintains his pace through a short but packed gospel account. Unlike Matthew and Luke, who talk about Jesus’ birth, describing the Christmas story, Mark gets right down to business. Who needs a nativity story when you can get straight to the point? Mark writes, The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God as his first verse, and in it he says who Jesus– he is the Christ, the Son of God. And his gospel certainly attests to why Jesus came. Of the birth of Jesus, Mark simply has no comment. John the baptizer appears in the wilderness, in the way of Isaiah, proclaiming baptism, repentance, and forgiveness, and announcing that someone was coming, the kingdom had arrived. Like during Isaiah’s time, again the people of Israel find themselves in a wilderness time. Israel was then under Roman occupation, and the Roman government was ruling over the people. Though the Jewish people were in their own homeland, still, they weren’t at home, because their lives were monitored and controlled by these occupying forces. A wilderness time. So people were coming to John, repenting of their sins and being baptized in anticipation of the one John said was coming, the one who would bring with him God’s kingdom.
    So what do these words from prophets say to those who needed (and need) to hear those voices? Let’s think again of the Israelites when they were wandering, led by Moses, in the wilderness. I think one of the reasons why the Israelites had such a hard time when they were in the wilderness is that they were always trying to get out of it, so that they could get on with their lives, reach their destination. Forty years is a long time to live in transition with no set home. And it certainly doesn’t seem that the Israelites tried to make the best of it. Forty years is a long time to live in transition, but it is a good amount of time to live. You can do a lot of living in forty years. But the Israelites seem only to have done a lot of wishing they were somewhere else, wishing they were already at their destination, in the Promised Land.
    I think the prophets’ message is to tell us that we don’t have to wait to find God at our destination points. If you are in the wilderness, good news: so is God. God is in the journey. God is in the wandering. God is with you in the desert. The words of our hymn equal the promise: I’m coming to you. John the Baptist says, “he is coming, I’m just preparing his way.” Isaiah cries, “Here, here is your God!” That, indeed, is the comfort that God seeks to bring to us, in the midst of a season that can fill us with so much anxiety. We don’t have to wait until Christmas to experience the God-with-us that will come in the Christ child. We don’t have to wait until we exchange presents. We don’t have to wait until the candlelight communion. We are waiting, waiting for the baby, but while we wait, God is already here. So let us prepare, right here, in the wilderness, for God to come, already, again, and soon. O Come, O Come Emmanuel. Amen.