11.25.2008

First Sunday of Advent

...Into the unknown...

The weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas fly by many of us as a blur. It is a season of lists and deadlines and expectations and waiting. But what do we expect? For what are we waiting on pins and needles? Do we really know?

A Christ child - but what is that? What does it mean to us, really, today, to expect God with us - our own Emmanuel?

Are we looking to be liberated from oppressors as Israel was? Who are our oppressors--are they literal or figurative? Political? Social? And, if so, to what are we hoping to be liberated?

...into the unknown...

Isaiah 64: 1- 9

What we know today as the "book" of Isaiah was believed to actually be a prophecy written in three parts, by different authors at three different points in Israel's troubled history. This selection is from the third set of writings, after the return to Judah from the Babylonian exile. The community has returned, after bitter trial, and recognized that God is present and able. The author offers up a confession...we know what this God is capable of, and we remember this God as our Father - please do not be angry. We know what your presence meant in ages past, both good and bad. You are the potter and we, the clay - we are the work of your hand. God, this is your creation, is it not?

...into the unknown...

Psalm 80: 1 - 7; 17 - 19
"Give us life, and we will call on your name." This is a petition for delivery. It is full of the desperate promises of a society sorely afraid - afraid of where they had been and not really sure of what was next.

...into the unknown...

1 Corinthians 1: 3 - 9
This greeting from Paul's first letter to the church of Corinth is full of hope and addressed to a waiting community - a community who knows of Christ's death and resurrection, but anxiously awaiting his return as they understood the promises of generations. Waiting. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of His Son.

...into the unknown...

Mark 13: 24 - 37
This reading from the Gospel of Mark reflects Jesus' teaching even as the plot to kill him is taking shape. His words are reminiscent of the greatest Hebrew prophets and reflect dark images of dark time. There is mystery, and imagine what it must have felt like, not quite understanding this man who taught with such wisdom and had gathered such a committed following and gave hope for the least and the lost. They are tossed into the unknown, and must
have wondered what was meant, "But about that day or hour no one knows....Keep awake."

...into the unknown...

Like generation upon generation over thousands of years we enter this season of watching and waiting. We may think we know for what we are waiting. But really, can we know? God with us? What does that mean today?

And so we wait.

11.18.2008

Reign of Christ Sunday

Ezekiel 34.11-24
Psalm 100
Ephesians 1.15-23
Matthew 25.31-46

So this Sunday is referred to in the lectionary cycle as "Christ the King" or "The Reign Of Christ" Sunday. With that in mind and looking at this week's scriptures, there are three things we feel are important to think about: How this Sunday fits in to the Liturgical year; The relationship between Sheep and Shepherd; And what does it mean to be subject to a King?

Christ the King Sunday is the very last Sunday of the Liturgical year. The next Sunday marks the beginning of Advent and a change in the tone and direction of our reading and our attention. This Sunday celebrates the role of Christ as the ultimate ruler. If you think about where we have come, both in terms of the Hebrew scriptures and the teachings and miracles and parables of Jesus throughout the gospel of Matthew read throughout ordinary time, we've learned a lot about leadership. Along the way, we've learned a lot about who the ancestors were as human beings, and we can probably draw some conclusions about who we are as well. And, even in our popular political culture, we've just spent a full year trying to determine what makes a good leader. We've got definite ideas of what works and what doesn't...and perhaps of the limitations of our humanness to lead, to reign, to be supreme. Christ the King Sunday is a reminder that no human leader draws near the divinity or supremacy God's incarnate Son. This is a bridge Sunday – the bridge between our Ordinary time journey through history and teachings to a season where we watch and wait for incarnation...for God with us.

Important to gaining insight to the Ezekiel passage is understanding the relationship between Sheep and Shepherd. Because of the inherent natures of sheep and humans, this is not a democratic relationship. Sheep, while possessing many endearing qualities, are not "smart" (at least according to traditional human standards). They are almost completely defenseless (they can jump, but they have no upper teeth), they are prone to disease and infection, they do not have a good sense of direction, and they cannot even lay down on their sides and get back up again easily (they mostly crouch down). Especially in the arena of sheep being domesticated by humans for their wool and meat, sheep are heavily dependant on human care and intervention. Sheep need someone to look out for them and help them find food, water, and a safe place to rest. When they are given a Shepherd, Sheep loyally respond and follow; but without one, they often find themselves lost and unsafe.

With all of this in mind, read the description Ezekiel offers of how God will be a Shepherd for God's people--God's sheep. It reads like a paternalistic love story. Ezekiel is writing to the Israelites as they are in exile in Babylon. He is reminding them God will not leave them lost and on their own, but will search them out and offer protection. However this will evidently not be blindly offered because there will be a judgment between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. This likely refers to the folks who, as they were conquered by Babylon, chose to side with the Babylonians and prospered while the bulk of Israel went in to exile.

In the Matthew passage we get more sheep references, but this time to being separated from the goats in a time of judgment. We are told that one of the primary reasons this division falls along these lines is because of the willingness to follow found in sheep. Now part of this has also to do with the greater intelligence (and as a result, greater stubbornness) of goats. Another way to read the passage is, "those who heard my voice and followed me will be at my right hand, and those who heard my voice and did not follow me and chose to go their own way will be at my left hand."

Another important part to understanding this passage is the power / dominance / authority / judgment offered by a King. We do not have much experience with Kings / Queens / Ultimate Authorities in our day. It is hard to imagine (for most of us) what it is like to be completely under the power of someone who can decide if we live or die. Jesus was sharing this teaching in a time and place where folks understood what it meant to be under an authority (the Romans) and their families had recent histories of what it meant to be under the authority of a King. The deeper explanation of this judgment that we get from the mouth of Jesus does not need much interpretation--the ones who fed the hungry, gave water to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, and visited the imprisoned will be blessed by the Father and inherit the Kingdom; those that offered no food, no water, no welcome, no clothing, and no visitation will be sent into the eternal fire.

Are we willing to be subjects? Are we willing to let a Shepherd guard the flock to which we belong?
This week, how do these readings and their topics / concepts / ideas work together? What do they tell us?
Do you feel the changing of the season? What are you anticipating?
What potential will rest under the surface until a warmer day?


Psalm 100
Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth.
Worship the LORD with gladness;
come into his presence with singing.
Know that the LORD is God.
It is he that made us, and we are his;
we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
and his courts with praise.
Give thanks to him, bless his name.
For the LORD is good;
his steadfast love endures forever,
and his faithfulness to all generations.

11.12.2008

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Judges 4: 1 – 7
Psalm 123 1
Thessalonians 5: 1 – 11
Matthew 25: 14 - 30

Obedience.
Readiness.
Preparation.
Responsibility.

The themes that come up this week are fairly closely connected to those from last week's readings. As we near the end of the liturgical year there is a definite looking ahead to what might be next and a flurry of scriptures that encourage us to reflect on our roles in the future.

First we find the the book of Judges an example of the Disobedience--Punishment--Repentance--Forgiveness--Obedience--Disobedience cycle that we see throughout human history and specifically replayed over and over again with the people of Israel. The really interesting thing in this passage is the way God speaks through the current Judge of Israel--Deborah--and tells the country to prepare for battle to liberate themselves from the oppression of the Canaanites. An interesting note on this text is that the place Deborah directs the Israelites to gather to meet their oppressors in war is one of the most fought on pieces of property in all of history--The Valley of Megiddo (same site as the proposed end battle of Armageddon). Mount Tabor overlooks the valley which is the main flat thoroughfare from the Mediterranean Sea over in to the resource-rich lands further east (modern day Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia). It is an immense plain surrounded by mountains on both sides that was hotly contested because it was a primary transit / trade route from the Sea to points East and whomever controlled that valley controlled a lot of resources. Following the direction of God through Deborah put the Israelites in the best position to try and take their freedom back. Be Obedient to God and you will be Liberated.

Psalm 123 is a prayer for help by the whole community. While the first stanza is written in the first person point of view, the second stanza focuses on the need of the community, asking for God's mercy on "us." It refers to a collective soul – a whole comprised of many parts. Not only is the community asking for help; it is also asking for dependence upon the Lord. Obviously, they have a deep desire to be Obedient, and at the same time they recognize their own anxiety and temptation to be Disobedient.

Paul continues his counsel to the Followers in Thessalonica as to how they are to live to "Be Prepared" for the Day of the Lord. His words echo the words of Jesus found in other spots in Matthew of That Day coming like a thief in the night, not knowing the day or hour, and to Stay Awake. Also in Paul's encouragement he gives a shorter version of the dressing instructions found in Ephesians (Full Armor of God). He is telling these folks that they need to continue on as they are doing so that as the Day of the Lord will come unexpectedly they will always be prepared. A constant state of readiness. Hyper-vigilant. You are responsible for keeping yourself and your community prepared for the day to come.


The words of Jesus found in Matthew can be read as quite harsh. His take-home message here seems to be "don't be lazy or stupid"...and "to all those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away." Jesus has been accused of being a socialist, but this does not seem to match up! Actually, this story comes in the middle of several parables and sayings describing the End of Days / the Day of the Lord / etc. It does not seem wise to take these words as literally speaking to those in our society who do not have many resources and those that do. It appears he is attempting to make a point similar to the one Paul makes in Thessalonians--you must be responsible for yourself and know that your actions today may / can / will have consequences in the future. In order to be Prepared to be Judged, you must take Responsibility for yourself and choose to either Obey or Disobey God.

So it feels like this week it is even somehow more important to ask What Are We To Do With These Scriptures? A quick answer can be that we should make sure we are Obedient to God today because we have no idea when the next Tomorrow will be our last one. But even so, what does Obedience to God look like for you? Is it strict adherence to laws? Is it living in to the spirit of the teachings of Jesus? How are we to be Responsible with who we are and what we have?

Things to Do in the Belly of the Whale

by Dan Albergotti

Measure the walls. Count the ribs. Notch the long days.
Look up for blue sky through the spout. Make small fires
with the broken hulls of fishing boats. Practice smoke signals.
Call old friends, and listen for echoes of distant voices.
Organize your calendar. Dream of the beach. Look each way
for the dim glow of light. Work on your reports. Review
each of your life's ten million choices. Endure moments
of self-loathing. Find the evidence of those before you.
Destroy it. Try to be very quiet, and listen for the sound
of gears and moving water. Listen for the sound of your heart.
Be thankful that you are here, swallowed with all hope,
where you can rest and wait. Be nostalgic. Think of all
the things you did and could have done. Remember
treading water in the center of the still night sea, your toes
pointing again and again down, down into the black depths.

11.04.2008

Twenty Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Joshua 24: 1 - 3a, 14 - 25
Psalm 78: 1 - 7 1
Thessalonians 4: 13 - 18
Matthew 25: 1 – 13


As we write today (Tuesday) we are well aware that record numbers (we hope) of voters have stepped up to a voting machine and cast a vote – a vote that represents their hope and their commitment to something or someone or some way, a way that is different from the way that we are currently living and working and chasing. In our position as casual observers, we feel like there is a different charge in the air, a critical mass, a Tipping Point.

Do we really know what life will look like under whatever new leader is elected? Do we know that the economy will improve, that energy prices will fall, that global warming will be reversed, that wars will end and that the US will begin to reach across the oceans and mend broken fences with new humility (ok, certainly that list of desires is rife with our own opinions, but we're tapping the keys). And really, if we are all being very honest with one another, any change will not depend wholly on any vote cast or majorities won, but it will depend upon people who continue to care with the passion that they have mustered for this particular election. If we all go back to business as usual tomorrow or whenever the outcome is known, we will not find our lives or world any more peaceful and compassionate.

There is some prophetic wisdom for today in our readings this week. Through the lens of right now, each writer has something for us to think about.

In the Hebrew scriptures, Joshua has finally led the tribes of Israel to the Promised Land. We're wrapping up this "exodus" story very quickly at this point. Joshua is basically closing his term, and he is reminding the people of all that Yahweh has done and been for them. He challenges them to set aside the many gods of their collective past and to choose to Serve this One God, Yahweh. There is almost a call and response pattern, and Joshua doesn't seem altogether satisfied with their initial commitment. And so, he rebukes them. He reminds them that this God is powerful and capable of great harm. Notice how many times either Joshua or the People use the word "Serve". They are not just committing because of what God has done; they are committing to a life of service, changed by what God has done. As the story continues these people suffer tumultuous times again and again. And always, there seems to be a question of whether the people fulfill their part of the Covenant with God. Do you think they had any concept of what they were committing to at the time?

The Psalmist speaks a bit about teaching, about passing things from generation to generation so that children might know their story and tell it to their own children, and thereby continue to know and relate to Yahweh, keeping the commandments and beholding the mighty works. The two of us have spent a lot of time discussing "our times" this season with three bright and young minds that roam through our home. Their questions are difficult, and force us to examine our own understanding of our country, our leadership, our allegiances, our values and our resulting actions. In telling, we are also told and in telling we shape the future.

Paul's continuing letter to the church at Thessalonica is full of comfort and encouragement. Remember that this is an early letter – perhaps the earliest written. This community is living in a time not terribly far past (perhaps 20-30 years) the teaching, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This church was established amidst protest from the Jewish community. It is believed that Paul actually fled Thessalonica because he had stirred such a controversy within the Jewish community. He is reassuring these people about Christ's return – about Jesus' role as Messiah. People patiently waited for Jesus' return and the fulfillment of the messianic promise, but with each passing year, their hopes must have waned. He is reminding the community of the stories they know (the very stories that they heard read in the Psalms), and he is encouraging them to comfort one another with their faith and their hope for what the faithful God has done in the past and will do again in days to come. Again, he is encouraging them to commit themselves to a hopeful and encouraging worldview.

Finally, in Matthew, Jesus is teaching about a difficult topic – the end times – the time when God appears and whisks away the "saved" and leaves behind the heathen. Now, frankly, this idea of the end of time makes us a little uncomfortable. There has been a lot done with these images of being "left behind" to create fear and affect obedience. But really, is that where great behavior comes from? Fear? Jesus isn't necessarily suggesting that people be fearful, but rather that they be "awake." This theme of wakefulness runs through the previous parable and continues into the garden at Gethsemane, where Jesus is struck by his disciples inability to keep awake to watch and pray with him in his final hours. Being Awake can mean so much. We're well aware that the body’s depressed response is to sleep – to retreat from the present moment into a suspended state. But Jesus teaches that we must keep awake. It seems to us that maybe it is important to look at crises and impending doom (global warming, for example; economic tumult, for example) and not to turn away and curl up in a ball of denial but to "keep awake."

Tonight, we will sit, with millions of Americans (and citizens of the world, from the sound of things) and watch in awe and wonder as history is made, as change is sought, as people act out of their place of passion, of vision, of hope. It has been our experience that some disagreements about our current societal state have been ugly, unyielding, unChristian. What do we know that we can hold on to in the midst of all of this? What we can share with our neighbors, in spite of differing views, to keep our vision set on a better world?

It is easy right now to be wrapped up in this election, but our allegiance is to God and that requires more of us than just civic responsibility. Hmmm. We're called to be in service to a hurting world – one that will not be fixed by our elections – only by our actions. May we all be walking with a wakeful Kingdom vision. And may our footsteps continue even after the election is complete.

Source of all we hope or dread
Sheepdog, jackal, rattler, swan
We hunt your face and long to trust
That your hid mouth will say again
Let there be light
A clear new day

But when we thirst in this dry night
We drink from hot wells poisoned with the blood of children
And when we strain to hear a steady homing beam
Our ears are balked by stifled moans
And howls of desolation from the throats of sisters, brothers, wild men
Clawing at the gates for bread

Even our own feeble hands
Ache to seize the crown you wear
And work our private havoc through
The known and unknown lands of space

Absolute in flame beyond us
Seed and source of Dark and Day
Maker whom we beg to be
Our mother father comrade mate

'Til our few atoms blow to dust
Or form again in wiser lives
Or find your face and hear our name
In your calm voice the end of night
If dark may end
Wellspring goal of Dark and Day

Be here
Be now

James Taylor, New Hymn