Saturday, January 22, 2022

Epiphany 3C

Psalm 19

1The heavens tell of the glory of God;
And their expanse declares the work of God's hands.

2Day to day pours forth speech,
And night to night reveals knowledge.

7The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul;
The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.

8The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;
The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.

10They are more desirable than gold, yes, than much pure gold;
Sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.

New American Standard Bible (NASB), Copyright © 1960, 1971, 1977, 1995, 2020 by The Lockman Foundation.

Nehemiah 8:1-12

1All the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel. 2Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. 3Ezra read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. 4The scribe Ezra stood on a wooden platform that had been made for the purpose; and beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand; and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hash-baddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam on his left hand.

5And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. 6Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, "Amen, Amen," lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. 7Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places. 8So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. The interpreters gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.

9And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, "This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep." For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. 10Then he said to them, "Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength."

11So the Levite priests stilled all the people, saying, "Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved." 12And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.

Torah

Today's post-exilic Hebrew text from the book of Nehemiah writes Torah for every instance of the English translation "law." Torah is the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament; Torah is all of the spoken and written history, poetry, songs, liturgies, and sagas God used to call and claim a people, to shape a common life to the fullest extent possible before Jesus Christ. Torah includes the ten words or commandments of the Sinai Covenant—Exodus 20:2-17; Deuteronomy 5:6-21.


Ezra-Nehemiah

Ezra and Nehemiah originally were a single book on one scroll. Similar to the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, they got separated because available scrolls weren't large enough to write all the text onto only one. Some of Ezra-Nehemiah probably belongs to early on when some of the people who'd been exiled to Babylon returned to their former home turf in Judah; some may reflect centuries later. Babylon had been cultural, geographic, religious (probably culinary, too) displacement. By the time of the New Moon Event in Nehemiah 8, they'd rebuilt the city walls (safety) and the temple walls (identity), yet the people found themselves subjects of Persia—another empire. During this general time period scribes and scholars assembled, edited, and codified much of the current Old Testament. Nehemiah and Ezra both were employees of Persia that actually sent them to provide spiritual and political leadership to God's people.

Ezra 7 tells us Ezra (who traced his heritage back to Moses' brother the high priest Aaron!) was a "scholar of the text of the commandments of the Lord" and "had set his heart to study the law of the Lord, and to teach the statues and ordinances in Israel." As priest and scribe, Ezra would have been among the approximately 3% of the people who could read and write. Ezra's heart for scripture and his position as spiritual advisor to those he'd known from exile would have qualified him to interpret Torah to the community.

Today's reading is the only time the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) features Nehemiah in its 3-year cycle, though the Anglican Communion (that sometimes differs slightly) has two additional ones.


History

You know the story! After God's people left slavery in Egypt they technically were free and on their way to the place God first promised Abraham. As they wandered across the desert they needed to trust God's daily provision because (without technology) no one could build, manufacture, count, or stockpile anything in any desert. Along the way they received God's gift of the ten words or commandments with guidelines and boundaries for continuing together in freedom. Scholars consider both the nomadic desert lifestyle and the commandments of the Sinai Covenant constitutive events, similar to how the constitution of an organization or a country defines individuals and communities.

You may remember there were several water features along the way to the Land of Promise, starting with the sea that overwhelmed the enemy, finally arriving at the river they had to cross. Water is life!


Today's Scripture

Around this time of Nehemiah 8 previously spoken or orally transmitted texts were starting to be written down. Around this time of Nehemiah 8, most of those who asked Ezra to read Torah had returned from exile in imperial Babylon; though they'd had some familiarity with scripture and carried their devotion with them, very few could read or write, and we know how forgetful humans can become, especially when engulfed by a different culture and religion.

At the start of today's account everyone (men, women, children) gathered at the Water Gate. Near Gihon Spring? On the way to the pool at Siloam? Water is life! Almost definitely many of Ezra's listeners had forgotten Torah because they'd been exiled from the Exodus' identity-forming embrace of the Sinai Covenant. As Ezra read, "The interpreters gave the sense, so that the people understood the [interpreted] reading."

Every time I've read and loved this passage, I've imagined "all the people wept when they heard the words of the law" must have been tears of joy, yet the half-dozen commentaries I read all said tears of grief from being convicted of their sins and wrong-doings. Yet again… although we know the commandments as gifts of grace; we sometimes talk about the bitterness of the law, the sweetness of the gospel. Could those tears have come from mixed feelings of sorrow and joy? Nehemiah and Ezra both told the people don't weep! Celebrate with rich food and extravagant drink! In a preview of Jesus' welcoming and feeding all comers, the governor and the priest charged them to provide festive food for everyone who didn't have any.

This interactive communal experience of reading, hearing, interpreting, understanding, and living the words of scripture was very much the same as we do in preaching, teaching, and in our own individual study. Hebrew Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann talks about being "fully texted people" who know and who live scripture: People of the Book who interpret scripture for their own context.


Keep On Reading!

Immediately they celebrated the Feast of Booths or Sukkoth, a festival of double thanksgiving for the exodus and for the commandments. Sukkoth re-enacted the exodus in tents that offered some shelter yet stayed somewhat open to weather and elements. Scholars consider both the nomadic desert lifestyle and the commandments of the Sinai Covenant experiences that formed Israel as God's people. At this Sukkoth, former exiles who likely had forgotten a whole lot claimed trust and obedience in God of the Exodus, God of the commandments, in the same way as people of the original exodus. In a real, physical, tangible sense they became People of the Book! Read, heard, interpreted, and lived.

14They found it written in the law, which the Lord had commanded by Moses, that the people of Israel should live in booths during the festival of the seventh month. 17And all the assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and lived in them. … And there was very great rejoicing. 18And day by day, from the first day to the last day, Ezra read from the book of the law of God. They kept the festival seven days; and on the eighth day there was a solemn assembly, according to the ordinance.


Where We Live: Keep On Reading!

The interactive experience of reading, hearing, interpreting, understanding, and living the words of scripture is exactly what we do in preaching, teaching, and in our own individual study. I've mentioned the gospel in one word? "Remember!" When they heard Ezra read, some within the assembly gathered at the Water Gate started to remember; some probably learned for the first time because the community had been exiled a long time. Contrary to many popular purveyors of self-improvement, instead of forgetting the past, rather than concentrating solely on the future, scripture tells us remember, remember, remember. Recall and recollect by telling the stories of liberation and resurrection—re-enact, them, too. Bring them to life!

Fully texted People of the Book? Read, heard, interpreted, known, and lived!

God called and claimed Ezra's listeners by the Water Gate. God called and claimed Israel amidst seas, springs, streams, and rivers. How about us?

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Epiphany 2C

MLK Day Prayer

Holy God,

Today, we remember Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s struggle for equality, justice, and dignity for African Americans that inspired so many other reform movements that seek to highlight the plight of the oppressed in society.

We pray that all of those in civil and religious authority be reminded that we all have been created in your image, and that there is an intrinsic dignity in each of us that calls for uplifting every man and woman, young and old.

We pray that your Holy Spirit remind us all that you show no partiality with regards to nationality, race, ethnicity, or gender, and to do so is to go against your great commandment of love toward one another.

We pray that the church will not be complicit of injustice by being silent, but that it can rise up with a prophetic voice that speaks truth to power and advances the values of your Kingdom.

We pray these things in the name of our blessed redeemer, Jesus Christ.

Amen.

From Bread for the World

1 Corinthians 12:1-13

1Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. 2You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak. 3Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says "Let Jesus be cursed!" and no one can say "Jesus is Lord" except by the Holy Spirit.

4Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; 6and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. 7To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

8To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.

12For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

Epiphany: the Season

We're in the season of Epiphany with its emphasis on light and revelation. In Advent we wait for, hope for, and expect Jesus' arrival as God-with-us. Advent begins as nights grew longer, days became shorter. We celebrate Jesus' nativity just after the Winter Solstice; increasing daylight, decreasing night promise spring's fresh new life soon will be on the way. Depending on which lectionary year we're in, Epiphany Sundays reveal (uncover and show us) a different aspect of Jesus. Lent happens next in the Christian year; the word "lent" refers to lengthening days and literally means Spring in old-fashioned parlance.

The church's year of grace follows Jesus' birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and then for about six months after the fifty-day long season of Easter, we count Sundays after the day of Pentecost. During the Pentecostal Season of the Spirit, the church year tracks ministries we accomplish in Jesus' name through the Holy Spirit.


Today's Epistle

Maybe surprisingly, today's second reading for this Second Sunday of Epiphany isn't about revelations of Jesus; instead it reveals characteristics and gifts of people who follow Jesus. That's us!

This week of Epiphany 2 happens not long after many of us engaged in gift-giving on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. For some cultures and church traditions, the Feast of Epiphany on January 6th is the day to give gifts because that's when Visitors from the East brought gifts to young Jesus. Writing to the Church at Corinth, apostle-pastor-theologian Paul discusses particular gifts within the church itself, gifts the Spirit grants the people of God for the well-being of everyone. Either Unity in Diversity or Unity and Diversity could be the buzz-phrase for this scripture. This passage follows instructions on worship and sacraments in chapter 11 and comes before the love chapter 13. In his Message translation of verse 7, the late pastor Eugene Peterson succinctly describes the purpose of all God's gifts—including the gifts of Jesus and of the Spirit: "everyone gets in on it; everyone benefits." Not only those who consider themselves God's people, but all humans everywhere. Because of these gifts, humanity flourishes, and so does all creation.


Gifts of the Spirit

One commentator clarified that verse 1, "Now concerning spiritual gifts," more accurately reads "matters related to the Spirit," with gifting a subset of that Spirit-related category. Every ability God graces us with is a gift in the Spirit and of the Spirit, so that would include skills like carpentry, cooking, music, accounting, caregiving, and farming. However, today's Pauline list (the apostle Paul LOVES to make lists!) is about ones that can't easily be measured or quantified. This is about more clearly spiritual rather than tangible, physical abilities. However, none of those gifts is free-floating; every one of these gifts of grace is embodied. This weekend we especially remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who used his amazing spiritual gifts for the good of the church and for the world.

Friday, January 07, 2022

Baptism of Jesus C

Isaiah 43:1
But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: "Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine." Isaiah 43:1-7
Luke 3:15-17; 21-22

15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

21Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

Intro

Baptism of Jesus initiates the season of Epiphany, a variable length segment of green and growing Ordinary (ordered, structured) Time. Every year during after the Great 50 Days of Easter we have a long stretch of Ordinary Time when we count Sundays after the Day of Pentecost that's the 50th day of Easter. The Epiphany season begins and ends with a trinitarian theophany—a showing-forth, manifesting, displaying divinity. Today we celebrate the first theophany with the Baptism of Jesus; three days before Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, we'll experience Jesus' Transfiguration.

Very few events are in all four gospels; surprisingly, all of the gospels don't even have a birth story or a resurrection narrative. But we find John baptizing Jesus in all four. Sit up and take notice!

• Mark 1:9-11
• Matthew 3:13-17
• Luke 3:21-22
• John 1:29-34


Trinity

The word and concept of Trinity – Tri-Unity, three in one – is not in the bible, but scripture implies a Triune God—maybe especially in scenes like today's Baptism of Jesus and in the Transfiguration we'll celebrate to conclude the Epiphany season before Lent begins. Early on with the epistles and later when the four gospels were compiled, questions of Jesus' divinity hadn't yet started circulating. Because those concerns belong to a couple of centuries later, no one would have drawn upon "our" baptismal theology and wondered why the sinless Son of Heaven needed to be baptized.

The Council of Nicaea convened in the year 325 and gave us the Nicene Creed, the council of Chalcedon in 451 wrote the Definition of Chalcedon. Both statements affirm Jesus' full humanity and complete divinity.


"John's Baptism"

Inevitably we read a whole lot backwards when we interpret scripture. We've been living the rest of the story, so that's only natural. We interpret scripture in the same way we look back and then understand (or maybe not) our own experiences. Sometimes the pieces finally start to fit together. (And sometimes they really don't.)

After God's people left imperial Egypt and trekked through the desert, they had to cross the Jordan River in order to enter Promised Land Canaan. The Jordan formed a border and boundary between their old existence as Pharaoh's slaves, decades of desert wanderings, and new lives of freedom, obedience, and grace in covenanted community.

Like God's people Israel before him, Jesus stepped into the Jordan River that was border and boundary between his earlier, more private life and his public life of obedience, grace, and keeping righteous covenant. John's baptism wasn't as much about individuals as it was another political, religious, and economic new beginning. Jesus' baptism continued the Jewish practice of the bath – washing, mikvah – that may have started at Mount Sinai during the Exodus from Egypt, before Moses went up the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments. [Exodus 19:10-14] Twenty-first century Jews still have a practice of mikvah that's a cleansing bath or immersion.


Our Baptism

Although it has similarities to Jesus' baptism by John, our trinitarian baptism is into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus was not baptized a Christian! God's affirmation of Jesus as beloved son is mostly about Jesus' call and purpose rather than about Jesus' nature. Jesus did not begin his public ministry until his baptism with God's call and claim on him. God's claim on each of us as beloved daughters and sons also is about God's call and purpose for us. For us also, living waters form a border and a boundary between our more private lives and our public lives of obedience, grace, keeping covenant with creation, and advocating for justice. In the same way the Holy Spirit filled Jesus at his baptism, the heavens open at our baptism and fill us with the Holy Spirit. In his Small Catechism Martin Luther asks, "How can water do such great things?" It is not only water, but water combined with the Word of God…

My header illustration from Isaiah 43, the traditional OT reading for this day announces, "But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: 'Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine.'" God has Created – Formed – Redeemed – Called – Named – Claimed us.

Friday, December 24, 2021

Nativity 2021

Nativity 2021 candles
Intro

The pastor asked three of us to share our testimony of Christmas for the proclamation on the Sunday after Christmas: where do we find Jesus, the Christ child? Here's approximately what I plan to say.

During this time of the year the northern hemisphere experiences more night than it does day, we first observe the advent season of waiting for, hoping for, and expecting the birth of Jesus, light of the world. We don't know the actual month or day of Jesus' birth, but the early church wisely calendared it at the winter solstice that also coincided with the Mithric Feast of the Unvanquished Sun. Jesus, Son of Righteousness spelled with an "o" also is the Sun of Righteousness spelled with a "u" who is Light of our Lives. After Advent and Nativity, the day and then the season of Epiphany continue with Jesus as light to all.

Martin Luther particularly loved the New Testament book of Titus. The anonymous author tells us, "The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all." [Titus 2:11a] Jesus is that light-filled grace, our grace-filled light.


Nativity Prayer

Root of Jesse, Son of Heaven, Mary's Child.
Cradle of Joy, Word in the Manger, Astonishing Gift.
Lord of Creation, Abundant Promise, Dayspring of Peace.
Be with us here in this place; make us shepherds of your grace.
May our lives season the world with salt;
Nurture our neighbors with leaven;
Light a path to show your way.
In your name we pray—
Amen!


Valley Winter Song – excerpt

You know the summer's coming soon
Though the interstate chokes under salt and dirty sand
And it seems the sun is hiding from the moon
And late December can drag a person down

[While] the snow is falling down
In our New England town
What else is new?
What could I do?

I wrote a Valley Winter Song
To play for you.

by Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger


Christmas in this Valley 1

So sang Fountains of Wayne in a song LL Bean gave lots of airplay to in a commercial during 2008. In these days of endless pandemic in a different valley on the other coast, besides Jesus light of the world and the created lights of sun, moon, and stars, what brightens our days better than music? Music in church and on the street is a huge part of December's identity and festivities. Even people with no experience of clinical depression typically have a lower mood during the winter months. Have you ever heard a song or a symphony that instantly gave you hope? I'll mention two major pieces of music and a recurring event that always bring the grace and hope of Jesus into my world.

Along with a few million others across the centuries, Handel's oratorio The Messiah is a December perennial for me. Especially the opening solo for tenor from Isaiah 40 with its announcement, "Comfort Ye, My People – Every Valley Shall be Exalted." Our God. God's people. My second concert-type composition that takes a trained university or professional choir is the Christmas Cantata by Daniel Pinkham, a Boston area composer and church musician who lived during the mid-twentieth century.

My recurring event is [Scripture] Lessons and Carols that can take many forms. We had a participatory Lessons and Carols here on Christmas Eve; this morning on the first Sunday of Christmas it's Lessons, Testimony, and Carols. When I lived on the east coast, as an undergrad at Boston University I sprung for the free tickets people needed to enjoy Lessons and Carols at Harvard's Memorial Church. I believe they presented it three times each year back then, but it was so popular you still needed a ticket. Later on when I was a seminarian across the river from Boston University, at Lessons and Carols I often ran into classmates or friends I hadn't seen in a long time due to our schedules and because days and months pass so fast. That became a time we'd resolve to get together first of the new year, which virtually always happened.


Christmas in this Valley 2

In addition to music, as we celebrate the nativity with God born in Bethlehem as a baby formed out of created stuff from the earth, what is Christmas without all that special yummy food? What you enjoy depends somewhat on your current place on the planet along with traditional winter holiday foods of your home country or home region, or maybe what your grandparents and great grands considered necessary for Christmas.

Besides feasts with friends and families, food also has got to be the best ever Christmas present because in itself it's a gift of creation. From my perspective, giftable foods ideally are things like home baked cookies or quick breads or homemade jam, preserves, or pickles. Maybe home brew, if there's a brewer in your household. These days supermarkets, specialty shops, and farmer's markets offer a whole lot of tasty food. They're a live option if you won't or don't bake or can or brew.


Outro

What else can we do but sing and play valley winter songs to brighten lives and remind us of Jesus in our midst? We can create and enjoy culinary gifts of creation. Grace has come to the entire world in Jesus; many of us know grace and glory and joy through music and edible gifts from the earth.

• What's your favorite Christmas music?

• What Christmas food is absolutely a necessity?

Friday, December 17, 2021

Advent 4C

Luke 1:46b-55

And Mary said,
magnificat mary icon by Scott WardI'm bursting with God-news;
I'm dancing the song of my Savior God.
God took one good look at me, and look what happened—
I'm the most fortunate woman on earth!

What God has done for me will never be forgotten,
the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others.
God's mercy flows in wave after wave
With a bare arm God showed strength,
scattered the bluffing braggarts.
Knocked tyrants off their high horses,
pulled victims out of the mud.

The starving poor sat down to a banquet;
on those who are in awe before this God.
the callous rich were left out in the cold.
God embraced the chosen child, Israel;
God remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high.
It's exactly what God promised,
beginning with Abraham and right up to now.

The Message (MSG), alt. Copyright © 1993, 2002, 2018 by Eugene H. Peterson

Magnificat icon by Scott Ward Art

Magnificat

Both the responsive psalm and the gospel for Advent 4 feature Mary/Miriam's Magnificat we sing every day at Evening Prayer/ Vespers; in addition, the appointed gospel reading begins with Mary's visit to her cousin Elizabeth—pregnant with John the Baptist. When churches use the Magnificat as the response in place of an OT psalm, they sometimes omit the Magnificat section of the gospel, though it's so glorious, why not read it or sing it twice?

Although we have words Luke wrote, it's very likely Mary sang a very similar song because this passage closely evokes Hannah's song in 1 Samuel 2:1-10. Mary would have been familiar with large chunks of scripture, so she'd have been able to recite and paraphrase them, making those texts her own.

Magnificat is Latin for making larger, magnifying, making greater, like a magnifying glass does. It has the same root as "magnificent." The office of Vespers/Evening Prayer in the liturgy of the canonical hours always includes a spoken or sung Magnificat.


Mary

Coming out of the theological traditions of the Reformation, I need to remember that Martin Luther had a great devotion to Mary, though I still haven't learned how to have an attitude of devotion and reverence toward a person or place without making it more central in my life than Jesus Christ. In my previous city of San Diego I served on the Ecumenical Council's Faith, Order and Witness committee, and moderated one of our discussions of the Anglican-Roman Catholic agreed statement Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ, though when I checked my blog archives I realized that was one I didn't blog. I think Mary is awesome… and as a model for us to follow Mary said, "Yes! I will, yes!"

• What are your thoughts and feelings about Mary, Mother of Jesus?


Musical Settings

Sometimes speech simply isn't enough. Consider how pale "And His Name shall be called, "Wonderful! Counselor! The Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace," comes across on the printed page or read aloud once you've heard "For Unto us a Child is Born" from Handel's Messiah!

I've quit blogging links to YouTube videos because they don't necessarily have a long shelf life, but I'm happy to list three musical settings of the Magnificat that fully capture its promise:

• J.S. Bach, Magnificat in D Major, BWV 243 for 5-part (2 sopranos, alto, tenor, and bass) chorus and orchestra that includes trumpets and timpani.

• Dale Wood, "My Soul Proclaims the Greatness of the Lord" from Evening Prayer in the Lutheran Book of Worship. I'll never be able to comprehend why this powerful setting didn't get into the denomination's most recent generic hymnal, Evangelical Lutheran Worship.

• Rory Cooney, "Canticle of the Turning," set to a traditional Irish tune – Star of the County Down – is in almost all recent English language hymnals. YOU NEED TO DANCE to this song!
Advent 4 Candles

Thursday, December 09, 2021

Advent 3C

Advent 3 Candles
Zephaniah 3:14-20

14 So sing, Daughter Zion!
    Raise your voices, Israel!
Daughter Jerusalem,
    be happy! celebrate!
15God has reversed judgments against you
    and sent your enemies off chasing their tails.
From now on, God is Israel’s king,
    in charge at the center.
There's nothing to fear from evil
    ever again!

16Jerusalem will be told:
    "Don’t be afraid.
Dear Zion,
    don't despair.
17Your God is present among you,
    a strong Warrior there to save you.
Happy to have you back, God will calm you with love
    and delight you with songs.

18 "The accumulated sorrows of your exile
    will dissipate.
I, your God, will get rid of them for you.
    You've carried those burdens long enough.
19At the same time, I'll get rid of all those
    who've made your life miserable.
I'll heal the maimed;
    I'll bring home the homeless.
In the very countries where they were hated
    they will be venerated.

20On Judgment Day
    I'll bring you back home—a great family gathering!
You'll be famous and honored
    all over the world.
You'll see it with your own eyes—
    all those painful partings turned into reunions!"
    God's Promise.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 2002, 2018 by Eugene H. Peterson

Advent 3

The third Sunday of Advent historically takes a break from the somber, penitential tone of the first two Sundays. Although Advent now mostly emphasizes waiting, hope, and expectation, the season that initiates a new church year still retains some sense of judgment and repentance. Aside from the gospel reading from Luke with John the Baptist's call to repentance and his rude comments to onlookers, today's scriptures all focus on the joy that gives the day its traditional gaudete or "rejoice" designation that comes from the opening of the prayer of the day or collect.


Zephaniah

Scholars don't know a lot about Zephaniah or even if someone by that name actually wrote these writings that bear his name. From the Book of the Twelve that's sometimes referred to as "Minor Prophets," much of Zephaniah conveys a feeling of judgment and near-despair. Because of that, parts of the whole may have originated in the southern kingdom Judah before the exile of many leaders to Babylon, or it could have been composed retrospectively during the exile itself. As another option, Zephaniah could have been assembled from assorted documents after the exile as Jerusalem was being rebuilt and restored, during the time existing scrolls were being edited, codified, and canonized into a coherent body of texts that led to Jews becoming a People of the Book. Yet another possibility? The burst of optimism and joy in the first reading for today makes a case for this poetry coming from the actual exilic period as it parallels the hope for a future we find in Isaiah 40-55, who's sometimes called Second Isaiah or the exilic Isaiah.


COVID-19 – COVID-21

Claiming a scripture as God's Word to you because it sounds good and you want it to apply to your situation can be "downright irresponsible," but providentially the lectionary recently has featured quite a few passages that give us hope for a restored future despite the pandemic and its many related restrictions continuing. I live in the city of Los Angeles that recently mandated showing your vaccination card if you wanted to eat inside a restaurant. How inconvenient—or is that "how bureaucratic?" Because of a high rate of unvaccinated immigrants in my particular area, some fast food places have reverted to takeout only. Yet I know how far we've come because I even included my first time lunching inside a restaurant during early July in my monthly summary pictorial blog—it was a true milestone, yet I realize some people have been understandably cautious and haven't returned to indoors dining (except at home, of course).

The church has made today's reading a Messianic prediction of God's loving, healing embodied presence in the midst of God's people that we know in Jesus of Nazareth, born in Bethlehem, the Little Town of House of Bread. When you love someone, you want to be with them, and being with those you love makes you happy: it really is that simple. Glancing backwards over the various iterations of denominational lectionaries and later common ones shared across traditions, the image of a creator, redeemer, sustainer God's joy in being with the people and journeying alongside them becomes irresistible.

Immigrants and exiles would glory in God's promise of homecoming in verse 20, but those of us who haven't been physically displaced by the pandemic still have been exiled and displaced from our usual normal and even our expectations for a future. This has gone on so long and to such an extent it's hard to trust in the future scripture tells us God is preparing for us.

Zephaniah's Day of the Lord that Pastor Gene Peterson renders "Judgment Day" (in continuity with some others) becomes a time of human joy, of ingathering and homecoming so intense that people actually are able to forget the bad stuff. Christmas is two weeks away! Rejoice!

Saturday, December 04, 2021

Advent 2C

Advent 2 All Earth is Hopeful
Prayer

God of all creation, again this year we anticipate your Holy Presence among us in the Bethlehem manger. We also find you in our neighbor next door, the homeless family in the park, the clerk at the convenience store, frontline medical and municipal workers, scientists studying COVID, and conflicts across the world, may we bring to all of these the joy of the Bethlehem baby. We pray in the name of the Bringer of hope and Author of peace, amen!

© Leah Chang, 2006, 2021

Luke 3:1-16

1In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah:
"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.

5Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;

6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"

7John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."

10And the crowds asked John, "What then should we do?" 11In reply he said to them, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise." 12Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, "Teacher, what should we do?" 13He said to them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you." 14Soldiers also asked him, "And what should we do?" John said to them, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages."

15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire."

Prophetic Predictions

For this second Sunday of Advent I've included verses from the gospel for next Sunday, Advent 3. Here we catch the famous scene of Jesus' unconventional cousin John the Baptist alongside the Jordan River. Far removed from the Holy City Jerusalem and its temple that people believed connected heaven and earth, John offers a baptism of repentance for new beginnings. After John more or less quotes the prophet Isaiah who wrote hope and a future to the exiles in Babylon, a future that would happen because everyone – "all flesh"– would see God's salvation, onlookers (waiting for their turn to be baptized?) asked John what they needed to do to get ready for the inversion and subversion of the status quo that would happen with God's arrival in their midst.


Preparing for Christmas

In response to people asking how on earth they could get ready for God's wrathful judgment, John says, "If you have two coats—share. If you have food—share." The root of the Greek word translated share means "gift giving." To religious types (like us?), this is astounding! Foretelling God's fiery arrival, John didn't say, "run and hide" or "go and pray," nor did he remotely suggest, "make costly sacrifices to atone for your sins."

John the cousin of Jesus the forthcoming Messiah said, "Share, give a gift." Go beyond yourself and get beyond yourselves! If you have more than you really need, share it with the have-nots. If you have two coats, give one to someone who has no coat. If you have more than enough food (how much do we really need?), give food to the hungry—and there are many ways to do that. Because when you share, if you give gifts, you prepare for the coming of God, our Judge and Redeemer by being a bearer of gracious gifts. When you give your excess (how much of everything do we really need?) to others, you help create a kindred community of equals. You become a big part of making God's reign happen right here, right now.


Getting Ready to Give

Be givers of gifts? Be the gift? Yes! But first, before we can be gifts or give gifts, we need to receive. No one can give what they don't have, and God never asks us to part with what we need in order to be well.

With almost two years of COVID-19, everyone has lost time and opportunities. Some have lost family and friends, or their own physical health has taken a big hit. In addition, I doubt if anyone is as emotionally and mentally whole as they'd like to be (note: but when are we ever?). We can celebrate and take advantage of the resources for mental health and emotional wellbeing that happily have circulated the interwebs. Despite the pandemic, let's still give gifts. If our wardrobe is minimal or our food budget is so stretched we truly can't donate any or share a simple meal, we still can give our neighbors the gift of our gracious, un-condemning presence.

Back in the days of John the Baptist, people believed the Jerusalem temple connected heaven and earth. These days God's people help bring heaven to earth like Jesus did. We can show everyone we are an inclusive rather than an exclusive community. We can listen to them and hear their stories. We even can invite them to Advent or Christmas worship. Amidst so many consumer-focused days like Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Giving Tuesday (maybe originally an afterthought, but an excellent one), how counter-cultural would that be to show and tell them how Jesus still is the reason for this season?