Saturday, February 17, 2024

Lent 1B

peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks
Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks, circa 1846


Overview of Mark's Gospel

Mark 1:9-15

9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.
11 And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 Jesus was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."

Days Lengthen…

…in the global North. Lent comes from old English for spring with its gradually longer days. The slow music tempo, Lento, comes from the same root. During Lent we slow down, breathe, often take on spiritual and direct service practices and projects, sometimes "give up" a pleasure like chocolate, desserts, or social media. Lenten liturgical colors of purple and lavender reflect that seriousness.

There's an individualistic aspect to Lent because if the micro-level doesn't function well, how can the whole be healthy? However, Lent especially emphasizes our position within the gathered people of God, as persons baptized into the body of the crucified and risen Jesus Christ. Lent is a season of preparation for baptism or renewal of baptism at the Easter Vigil.

Lent was one of the church's first set-apart seasons that probably began not long after Jesus' death and resurrection, possibly as only a several days long observance. Currently Lent goes from Ash Wednesday through Wednesday in Holy Week for churches that celebrate the liturgy of the Three Days or Triduum (Maundy Thursday – Good Friday – Resurrection Sunday); for those that don't, Lent usually is from Ash Wednesday through Holy Saturday evening.


The First Sunday in Lent

Every year the gospel reading on the first Sunday in Lent is Jesus' post-baptismal wilderness testing. Sunday "in but not of Lent" because every Sunday is a festival of resurrection, although we buried the alleluias last Sunday on Transfiguration. After his baptism, the Holy Spirit takes Jesus from wilderness alongside the Jordan river into deeper, denser wilds. Matthew and Luke detail the challenges to Jesus' identity before he returns to begin his public ministry, but Mark describes all forty days with one verse of twenty-one words in Greek.

Matthew 4:1-11

Mark 1:9-15

Luke 4:1-13


Baptism, Identity, Resistance

The world has seen an endless series of political and economic empires that oppress persons, impoverish society, bankrupt creation. The Roman Empire is the context for Jesus and his disciples.

For this year of Mark, the lectionary peeps included Jesus' baptism before telling about his approximately one month in the wilderness—because the wilderness testings in Mark are only two verses long, one that announces the Spirit catapulted him there, a second that says what happened there? Possibly, but (even realizing Jesus' baptism was not trinitarian as ours is) Lent also emphasizes and somewhat tests our baptismal identities.

Martin Luther says in baptism we renounce the unholy trinity of sin, death, and devil to live bathed in grace for the sake of the world. As we follow Jesus, our baptism calls and enables us to resist empire in a multitude of ways.


Today's Gospel Account

Mark's story of Jesus is renowned for the word immediately, its brevity, and its non-stop action. On Epiphany 4 we experienced Jesus' first act of public ministry when he expelled an unclean spirit from a synagogue visitor to set the style for what comes next. Jesus in Mark confronts, engages, and disarms religious, political, social, cultural, economic (make your own list) powers and forces.

Mark's Jesus is right in line with Colossians 2:15, He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.

• Some Baptismal theology in Colossians 2:8-15.

• How does a person resist empire, corruption, deceit, poverty, and death? Can an entity such as a church, a school, or a manufacturer resist?

• How do you interpret Jesus in Mark 9:29 telling us "this kind [of demon] can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting." Political prisoners refusing to eat? Communities of faith fasting for a cause?

• What can we make of the death on Friday of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny? Will his life of resistance and hope make a difference for Russia and for the world?


More for Lent 1

The first reading for today, Genesis 9:8-17, describes God's covenant with Noah, his sons, their descendants, and with "every living thing." It says every living thing three times! Although we refer to this as a covenant, a covenant has two parties, but God alone makes this agreement, which makes it a Promise by God rather than a covenant between God and humanity. Surprisingly, Genesis 9:15-16 tells us the rainbow is a sign so God will remember. As twenty-first century people we often use rainbows with their full range of colors as icons or symbols of inclusiveness.

Mark 1:13 says Jesus was "with the wild beasts." Richard Bauckham, in The Bible and Ecology: Rediscovering the Community of Creation points out that elsewhere in Mark's gospel "being with" is language of love and it conveys close friendship.

Bauckham suggests portraying Jesus where the wild things are evokes the Peaceable Kingdom in Isaiah 11:1-9. This vision of messianic peace or shalom encompasses all creation, with humans and animals living together in harmony. It belongs to the many ways God's reign comes near in Jesus—and in us, Jesus' present-day disciples.

Psalm 25:6
Remember, O Lord, they tender mercies
and thy lovingkindnesses
for they have been ever of old.
Psalm 25:6

Saturday, February 10, 2024

Transfiguration 2024

Mark 9:7
This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him!
Mark 9:7

Mark 9:2-10

2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.

4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!" 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10 So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.

Up Until Now

All three synoptic gospels narrate the Transfiguration:

Mark 9:2-10
Matthew 17:1-9
Luke 9:28-36

John's gospel doesn't include the Transfiguration. Do you have any ideas why?

In Mark, Matthew, and Luke, the same events lead to the Transfiguration:

• Feeding a multitude with a few loaves and fishes
• Peter confesses Jesus of Nazareth as Messiah, the Christ of God.
• Jesus' first passion prediction that he must suffer, die, be buried, and be raised
• Jesus charges us to follow him and to take up his cross.


East and West

Jesus' nativity and his transfiguration bookend the first major portion of the church year. In Christmas or the Incarnation, the divine enters the human condition. At the Transfiguration, James, John, and Peter share divine glory with Jesus, who also is fully human. Transfiguration in Greek is metamorphosis. Similar to Jesus' Baptism in early January, the Transfiguration famously brings us a Trinitarian theophany, a simultaneous revelation of all three persons of the godhead. The light show on the mountain (traditionally Mount Tabor or Mount Meron, though scripture doesn't specify) continues the epiphany theme of light.

This final Sunday of the Epiphany season is Transfiguration only in Western protestant churches; Eastern Orthodox, some Roman Catholic, and some Anglican churches celebrate Transfiguration on August 6th. Many Orthodox churches observe Transfiguration for an octave of eight days—Transfiguration is that important! The Roman Catholic calendar also schedules Transfiguration on the Second Sunday in Lent.

Eastern culture in general hasn't become as captive to Enlightenment rationalizing as have most people in the West. They easily acknowledge there's not a logical human or scientific explanation to every miraculous happening, for every revelation of Divinity in scripture or in our daily lives. Those in the global East routinely sit and live more easily with mystery and paradox than most in the global West do.


The Only Word: Barmen Declaration

Moses (representing the law) and Elijah (representing the prophets) appeared on the mountain with Jesus, the ultimate Word of God, the definitive interpreter of the Law and the Prophets.

Despite all the brightness and resplendent bling, the voice out of a cloud doesn't suggest we "look at him," but it commands us listen to him! Mark 9:7

Listen to jesus, not to Moses or to Elijah, who didn't quite get everything right all the time. In a biblical lifestyle, to listen is to hear is to obey.

Listen to Jesus! and don't heed any other cultural, consumer, economic, ecclesiastical voices evokes the Theological Declaration of Barmen [1934] from the Confessing Church in Germany in the wake of the idolatry of nazi national socialism.

Barmen Declaration text and background
Jesus Christ, as he is attested to us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God whom we have to hear, and whom we have to trust and obey in life and in death.

We reject the false doctrine that there could be areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ but to other lords, areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.


Christmas is Over; Lent begins

Opinions and practices differ as to whether the Christmas season ends at the Day of Epiphany, at Jesus' Baptism, or at his Presentation in the Temple. But with cleaning more sumptuous ingredients out of cupboards and pantries to make Shrove Tuesday pancakes, along with its parallel Fat Tuesday/Mardi Gras, and with Ash Wednesday three days away (Valentine's Day day this year), without a doubt Transfiguration concludes seasons that formally magnify Jesus as God incarnate and Jesus as light to the world.

Advent traditions and scriptures still have a sense of repentance, yet Advent currently places more emphasis on preparation, expectation, and hope. However, Lent remains a penitential season and a time of service to others. Because of that, on Transfiguration we bury the alleluias because we usually don't sing or pray "alleluia" during Lent.

Today we looked at Jesus' transfiguration. A quote from Nelson Mandela: "We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us."

shrove Tuesday pancakes
2 Corinthians 4:5
We proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord
and ourselves as your slaves
for Jesus' sake.
2 Corinthians 4:5

Friday, February 02, 2024

Epiphany 5B

Psalm 147:4
God counts the stars
and gives each star a name.
Psalm 147:4

Mark 1:29-34

29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30 Now Simon's mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told Jesus about her at once. 31 He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

32 That evening, at sundown, they brought to Jesus all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33 And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34 And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

Overview of Mark's Gospel


Epiphany Continues

With this season of Epiphany, the church's year of grace is in a short segment of ordinary time. Light is THE Epiphany symbol; we know how far into the dark a tiny candle shines. Scripture readings for epiphany include stories of God's call to people who lived long before us, yet related to places and ministries God calls us to so our light can shine. Evangelism – reaching out to those around us with the Good News of Jesus Christ – is another focus of the epiphany season.


Healing – Resurrection

Today's gospel reading brings Mark's ongoing focus on resurrection and service. Mark uses the word for "raised up" we find in 1:31 sixteen times in his gospel; it means resurrection to new life. The theme of new life from death pervades both Old and New Testaments.

When today's reading begins it still is the Sabbath, and they've moved from the synagogue to the home of Simon (later renamed Peter) and Andrew. Despite its being Sabbath, Jesus heals. Simon's mother in law needed to be healed, and God's time is right now.

As night falls, Shabbat concludes, and another week begins. At that time they brought "all" who needed healing to Jesus and the "whole city" gathered around the door. Mark's gospel has a particularly cosmic scope! In this passage we get not an unclean spirit as in last week's exorcism, but a demon (the Greek word here is demon) that also knew Jesus.


Service

Verse 31, after the fever left her, Simon's mother in law began to serve them.

Service is the second prominent biblical current in this passage. Diakonia/deacon with related nouns and verbs weaves a path through the New Testament; this includes Jesus' declaration he is with us as "one who serves."

The nascent church didn't first ordain the Ministers of Word and Sacrament that people sometimes think of as the church's primary ministers; in the power of the Holy Spirit of Pentecost, the church first ordained the servant class of deacons we read about in Acts 6:1-6.


Deacon

Diaconal towel and basin ministry replicates Jesus's act of foot washing that many churches demonstrate during Maundy Thursday worship. As Ministers of Word and Service, deacons draw on Jesus' model that reflects God's own servant nature.

By first ordaining deacons, the newly-birthed church signaled that the church is supposed to look like people who serve. Of course, that includes Ministers of Word and Sacrament when they're out in the world, although the Minister of Word and Sacrament's primary stance is facing the church, very often in the calling or relationship of pastor.

This is somewhat generic, because God baptizes everyone into places and ministries of direct and indirect service where our light can shine; God calls all of us to spread the Word of life from death in a wide range of ways; God calls everyone to share the sacramental holy ordinariness of creation.


Next Sunday

For Western Protestant churches, the Epiphany season concludes next Sunday with the Feast of the Transfiguration. Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and some churches in the Anglican tradition celebrate Transfiguration on August 6th, often for an octave of eight days. Lent, the season of lengthening, longer days that initiates spring in the northern hemisphere begins in ten days with Ash Wednesday on February 14th. Valentine's Day.

God's word runs swiftly.
Psalm 147:15

Saturday, January 27, 2024

Epiphany 4B

psalm 111:5
God is every mindful of the covenant.
Psalm 111:5


Overview of Mark's Gospel


First Acts of Public Ministry

Jesus' Initial Public Offering sets the theme and trajectory for the rest of each gospel. To get a full overview of the reign of heaven on earth we need to combine all four.

• Luke: Jesus reads a liberation-jubilee passage from Isaiah 61:1-2 and announces its fulfillment in him. That very day. Luke 4:16-21.

• Matthew: after calling disciples and then spending time healing and teaching, Jesus embodies the new Moses! Beginning with the beatitudes in Matthew 5:1-12, his Sermon on the Mount in chapters 5 through 7 explicates and interprets the ten commandments.

• John: Jesus turns water into wine at a wedding feast. A party! John 2:1-11

• In Mark we find Jesus in the synagogue on the sabbath and teaches. But then in a preview or foretaste of his finished work on Good Friday and Easter, he drives an "unclean spirit" out of a synagogue visitor.

Mark 1:21-28

21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.

23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and he cried out, "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God." 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, "Be silent, and come out of him!" 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, "What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him."

28 At once Jesus' fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

Unclean Spirits

What was the "unclean spirit"? Scholars aren't sure, but in this particular situation it definitely could have been a psychotic mental illness. It could have been addiction or substance abuse. The unclean (demonic, unwelcome) spirit was inside the person, embodied and unwelcome. It possessed him.

Unclean also evokes the Levitical holiness codes along with the emphasis on ritual cleanness in Jesus' culture (remembering unclean is not sinful).

The phrase can be a stand-in for anything that disrupts the integrity and wholeness of an individual human, of a community, of an organization or an institution. In addition, this exorcism provides a glimpse of the cosmic Christ with authority over all the powers and principalities we especially read about in Colossians and Ephesians.


Authority

• ...he taught them as one having authority... 1:22

The assembly in the synagogue (gathering place) has just witnessed Jesus' words driving out the unclean spirit; despite the text telling us they were amazed, their asking if this is a new teaching seems tame, although they add "with authority." The word here is authority rather than "power."

• What is this? A new teaching … with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits…1:27
What do you think of this near-conflation of teaching and healing?

God gives all of us, baptized into Christ, authority over unclean spirits. A new teaching? From Jesus? To us? Now what?

• Textual note: the Greek uses the same word "spirit" for the Spirit of God and for the unclean spirit possessing the person in this story.


Recognizing Jesus

1:23 After Jesus had been teaching "just then" why do you think the man entered the synagogue? Because it was Shabbat and that was where you're supposed to be? Or maybe he wasn't devout, and had heard about Jesus?

1:24 "What have you to do with us? I know who you are?" How did the man recognize Jesus? What do you make of the plural "us"?

• How do we recognize Jesus?


Disclaimer

I thought it was serendipitous that I discovered my notes from discussing this passage back in San Diego during 2015. I'd planned to rework, condense, and expand them some because they were in that "how did I ever do that?" category, but I had a couple of necessary and important interruptions as I tried to finish this. Maybe those ideas will filter into some of my reflections on Mark in the weeks to come.

Saturday, January 20, 2024

Epiphany 3B

Psalm 62:8
Trust in God at all times, O people
Pour out your heart before God
God is a refuge for us. Selah.
Psalm 62:8

Mark 1:14-20

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the good news the of (the gospel, of the kingdom / reign of) God 15 and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news [gospel]."

16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea, for they were fishers. 17 And Jesus said to them, "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people."

18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As Jesus went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.

Overview of Mark's Gospel


Up to Now in Mark

• Mark announces the beginning of the Good News or gospel. People long have wondered is this first sentence the start of it all? Is the first chapter the beginning of the Good News? Or is the entire book of Mark the beginning, with the rest of us picking up and continuing the gospel? Could the beginning be all of those?
• Quotes Isaiah's prediction of John the Baptist in Isaiah 40:3 that's one of our primary Advent scriptures
• John proclaims (kerygma) repentance (metanoia, a literal change of mind) and offers baptism
• John foretells the arrival of his cousin Jesus'
• John baptizes Jesus
• Jesus' forty days of post-baptismal temptations

All that in only 13 verses!


Jesus Calls his First Disciples

• Last week we heard John's account of Jesus calling his first followers.

Preceding the call, we hear news of John's arrest—John was handed over or delivered up – followed by Jesus' first words in this gospel as he announces the fullness of time. This isn't linear time or chronos of calendars and clocks; it's kairos when all circumstances, all the moving parts have come together for God's reign right now and right here. It's in your face! It's in the person of Nazareth resident Jesus! Jesus has come back to his hometown from the Jordan; he's walking alongside the lake the gospels call the Sea of Galilee.

With Mark's startling changes of scene and his legendary brevity, we don't know if artisan-handyman-tekton Jesus and the fishers previously had been acquainted. This was not a major metropolitan statistical area, so they likely knew each other by sight. Verse 20 tells us Jesus saw them, immediately (Mark's characteristic connector) called them, and they followed him.


Following Jesus

It's little surprise that late Pastor Eugene Peterson brings us an exceptional verse 17: "Jesus said to them, 'Come with me. I'll make a new kind of fisherman out of you. I'll show you how to catch men and women instead of perch and bass.'"

And immediately they left their nets and followed him. … James and John … left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him. 1:18, 20

Mark reports they went with Jesus without looking back. In Mark and in Luke, the journey to Jerusalem and to the cross is especially incessant and relentless, but this first chapter says nothing about Jerusalem, arrest, trial, conviction or cross. However, as we move on in the chapter, Jesus exorcises and heals. How would those signs and wonders connect with Good Friday and Easter? How would they relate to subverting empire, with challenging – and changing – all the religious, economic, political, and social ways it always had been?

Although Mark opens his gospel by announcing, "The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God," and close to the end, a Roman centurion declares Jesus "Son of God" [Mark 15:39], were there many or any clues along the way to suggest or affirm Jesus as God with them, God among us? Jesus called them and they followed.

We need to remember all the gospel accounts – even Mark, the earliest one – were written from scattered sources quite a while after Jesus' death and resurrection.

Jesus called them and they followed.

We think we know the rest of the story that includes death and resurrection. Jesus called them and they followed. If you were like the seaside fishers in this story with no clue about Jesus' future, what would you have done?
I will follow you wherever you go

Friday, January 12, 2024

Epiphany 2B

I saw you under the fig tree John 1L48
"I saw you under the fig tree!"
John1:48

John 1:43-51

43The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, "Follow me." 44Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45Philip found Nathanael and said to him, "We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth." 46Nathanael said to him, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Philip said to him, "Come and see."

47When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!" 48Nathanael asked him, "Where did you get to know me?" Jesus answered, "I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you." 49Nathanael replied, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!" 50Jesus answered, "Do you [singular] believe because I told you [singular] that I saw you [singular] under the fig tree? You [singular] will see greater things than these."

51And Jesus said to him, "Very truly, I tell you [plural], you [plural] will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man."

The Gospel According to Saint John

Because Mark is the shortest gospel, during Mark's lectionary year we'll hear quite a lot from John that doesn't have its own year. John is the rogue, outlier gospel that has a different perspective than the three synoptic gospels Mark, Luke, and Matthew.

Scholars believe the community gathered around John the Beloved Disciple that compiled this version of the Gospel or Good News of Jesus Christ had at least two written sources: the Signs source and the I Am source.

• John refers to Jesus' signs rather than to his "miracles."

• Jesus describes himself as"I Am," referring back to God's self-revelation to Israel as "I Am."


Time + Place

From now through the Sunday before Ash Wednesday (Transfiguration for Western protestants), we get a segment of Ordinary Time with the season of Epiphany. This season draws upon the primary Epiphany symbols of stars and light, and focuses on the Holy Spirit shining forth within God's people.

Last Sunday for the day of Epiphany we read about the religious, ethnic, and geographic non-Jewish magi visiting Jesus. You may remember visitors from the East – from the other side of the world! – found Jesus by following sky signs and by reading their own scriptures. After interpreting their dreams, they took a different route home.

Recognition of God's embrace of all humanity beyond the Jewish people has made Epiphany a time for reaching out with the Good News of the Gospel. Call, vocation, and evangelism are closely linked and inextricably tied to the Holy Spirit of Pentecost. Like stars in the sky, our lives shine with the good news of God among us.


Call + Response

Nest Sunday we'll hear Mark's version of Jesus calling his first followers, but today Jesus calls his first disciples according to John. They include Simon-Peter, Andrew, James, and John. John includes Philip in this call story (the other gospels list him among the twelve), but only John includes Nathanael anywhere.

Our baptism initiates God's call to us! Whatever our place on planet earth, whatever communities we identify with, whatever our gifts, interests, and opportunities, baptism bathes us in grace and sends us into the world. People sometimes have an overall sense of God's calling to a certain activity, ministry, or occupation. (Maybe especially) people in direct service professions such as teacher, pastor, nurse, frequently have a strong sense of call, though that doesn't exclude people who absolutely delight to balance financial books or create a beautifully presented dinner.

But that's the bigger picture! We spend a lot of our time at the micro level, with one-on-one, face-to-face, five or ten minutes' worth, so our call and our immediate callings include smaller, shorter mini-ministries or micro-ministries.

How do we determine long-term or shorter term callings? As the Epiphany Magi did: read the signs (who where needs what and how soon) and within us (what are my skills, interests, aspirations); interpret scripture (love your neighbor, feed the hungry, hydrate the thirsty); heed both waking and sleeping dreams.


Geography + Context

Today's gospel mentions Galilee, the larger geographic area of Jesus' hometown Nazareth. Andrew, Peter, and Philip were from Bethsaida; Nazareth was typical small-town. Nathanael's question, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" reveals more than a little dismissive snark.

Having relocated to Los Angeles from San Diego, I can tell you San Diego has a small town feel, has an inferiority complex from being in the shadow of megalopolis LA, possesses a border town sensibility in both wonderfully positive and disparagingly negative ways. Philip's "Come and see!" reply is the kind of basic invitational evangelism that pervades the gospels, that extends to "Come and see the stone rolled away" of Easter dawn, into the Acts of the Apostles, and then into our own twenty-first century.

The gospel accounts, all of history, and our own lives take place in particular contexts or settings: geography; climate; time of year; time of day; biological and chosen family; religion or none; workplace; friends; class/ethnic culture… A website I follow observed how all of us now live on the worldwide continent of the internet.


Sign + Symbol + Interpretation + Figs

John's gospel refers to Jesus' actions as signs. We talked about sign, symbol, and meaning almost as much in design classes as we did in cultural anthropology! Maybe it's no surprise that linguistics is a branch of anthropology—the study of human culture, artifacts, habits, and communication. Whether words printed on a page, spoken out loud, or silently conveyed by signing with hands, arms, face, and body, languages symbolize realities beyond and other than themselves. I've heard that most interpreters don't wear masks (though at the height of Covid I noticed a few did) because facial expression is a critical aspect of interpreting the audible word.

A street sign or a product label isn't the actual object, but points beyond itself to something else. Signs and symbols lead to substance. We sometimes refer to Scriptures and Sacraments as the church's symbols; theological traditions that include Lutheran and Reformed sometimes refer to their Confessions (Catechisms, Creeds) as symbolic books. As interpretations of scripture, they point beyond themselves into scripture and finally to Jesus Christ.

Jesus told Nathanael he knew him because he saw Nathanael under the fig tree. I couldn't find a precise historical or scholarly consensus about the meaning of this phrase, but figs were one of the seven agricultural gifts of the promised land [Deuteronomy 8:7-10]; the sycamore fig was Israel's national tree, with fig fruit representing the people.

According to Micah 4:4, during the "days to come" or Messianic age, each person would sit under their fig tree without fear (this is the famous "swords into plowshare; spears into pruning hooks" promise); and especially there was a tradition of studying Torah underneath a fig tree. Jesus' cultural background would have told him someone reading underneath the fig was a son of Abraham and a follower of the Sinai Covenant.

Friday, January 05, 2024

Epiphany 2024

Isaiah 60:1
Arise, shine, for your light has come
and the glory of the Lord
has risen upon you.
Isaiah 60:1

Matthew 2:1-12

1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage."

3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 'And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'"
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage."

9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising until it stopped over the place where the child was.

10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.

Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Epiphany Day + Season

Combining the roots epi = "upon" and phan = "manifestation, revelation, illumination, uncovering," an epiphany is a shining out, showing forth.

Days after Christmas offer several possibilities. When January 6th doesn't fall on a Sunday, many churches celebrate Epiphany on the nearest Sunday. Last Sunday I wrote about Jesus' Presentation in the Temple; the Circumcision and Name of Jesus on January 1st would have worked well for this first Sunday of this new year. January 6th was Christ's birthday until the 4th century, when Emperor Constantine moved it to a few days after the solstice to correlate with the Feast of the Unvanquished Sun people already knew about. After that, January 6th became the baptism of Jesus, as it still is in Eastern expressions of Christianity. Some Western churches that follow the lectionary are observing Jesus' baptism today, January 7th.

The day of Epiphany initiates the variable length (because the date of Easter varies) season of Epiphany that extends until Ash Wednesday. Or Shrove Tuesday. Western protestant churches celebrate Transfiguration on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, making the theophanies of Jesus' baptism and his transfiguration bookends. The entire season focuses on the light of Christ and his light reflected in us. In the global North, Epiphany arrives shortly after the winter solstice, making its symbolism of light especially full of meaning. Stars are the epiphany symbol.


From the East

Because Matthew is the only gospel with the visiting magi, the gospel reading for the day of Epiphany always comes from Matthew. We sing "We Three Kings of Orient Are," but scripture doesn't say the gift-bearing visitors were kings, and it doesn't say how many there were. In fact, the only kings in this story are the Roman puppet King Herod and King Jesus. However, the text mentions three gifts that symbolize Jesus' identity and ministry, which is the reason the Western Church says three (although the Eastern Church says twelve).

These three from the east along with their retinues probably were Zoroastrian priests, probably from Persia; they also were astrologers who studied and interpreted stars for signs and meanings. They may have been astronomers in our sense of people with expertise about the heavenly bodies. In any case, they belonged to a different culture, religion, and ethnicity than the Jews (Israelites, Hebrews), who were God's chosen, distinctive people. They were outsiders. They were not people of the covenant, bearers of God's promises. But a star led them to the Jewish baby Jesus who is savior of all, Lord of all, king and ruler for all cultures, social statuses, abilities, ethnicities, and religions.

Today's narrative closely relates to Matthew's genealogy with its many non-Jews and ethnic "others." Jesus' final charge to us in Matthew 28:18-20 tells us to make disciples of all nations—all people everywhere! By water and the word, make them insiders to God's covenants, sharers of God's promises.


Discernment + Direction

These persons who almost definitely were guys based their decision to set out for Bethlehem and later leave for home by a different route on:
• studying signs in the skies;
• reading their scriptures or holy book, or maybe the Hebrew scriptures, especially Micah 5:2 and its reference to Bethlehem;
• trusting and heeding messages they received in a dream.

God does whatever it takes to reach out to and embrace everyone: a star for people who knew the skies and who trusted sky signs; a scripture passage for people who were biblically literate and trusted those texts; dreams for those who relied on less conscious, rational, information. Skies and scriptures and dreams all point to the savior of all persons. The reconciler of all creation.


Light + Evangelism

God said, "Let there be light" and light became the first element of creation. Today's passages in Isaiah and Matthew both celebrate light.

Isaiah 60 announces our light is here! In 2:9 Matthew writes about a star at "the rising" of the sun, at daybreak, at dawning. Stars are scattered all over the Matthew reading with east, east, star, star (and magi in the room, not back in the stable). "From the east" is anatolia—the rising of the sun, and not Bruce Springsteen's 911 tribute song, The Rising. Latin words oriens and orient mean the same as Greek anatolia—the other side of the world from ours? Global East rather than *our* global West?

The season of Epiphany emphasizes evangelism—letting Jesus' light shine through us as individuals, and through the church as a whole. Knowing about revealing Jesus with a star, a scripture, and a dream, helps enlighten our imaginations.

This account of strangers from the East, from The Rising – where the sun opens wide a new day – opens up questions of inclusion, boundaries, people who are like us, people who are different from us. It begs binaries of us/them, insiders/outsiders, natives/immigrants. Even earlier than the three-part book of Isaiah, scripture reveals (provides an epiphany) of the God who fills heaven and earth as God for all, God with all.

God has created us to be and to act in the divine image, yet we still need bounded, contained places and relationships. We really cannot leave all doors unlocked for everyone to enter. As families, as individuals, as a church, it often can be difficult to know who to let in or keep out.


Star Words + Chalk House Blessings

Stars are the epiphany symbol! As an alternate or in addition to New Year's resolutions, there's a recent tradition of choosing a star word early in the new year as a guide for the upcoming year. You can ask someone else to suggest one, or in the Spirit claim a word. I missed the past couple of years, but this year I found my word Flourish on an internet list of about fifty suggestions.

Blessing your dwelling (house, apartment, office, workshop, studio, retail space, etc.) with chalk is an historical practice for New Year's Day, Epiphany, or any time. An internet search will provide resources to make the blessing short and simple or long and elaborate. The inscription for this year is 20+C+M+B+24—the calendar year with CMB sandwiched in the middle.

CMB can stand for traditional magi names Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, or it can be initials for Christus Mansionem Benedicat / May Christ Bless this House. Although Latin "house" is similar to English mansion for a huge dwelling (or manse for the pastor's house that's not usually very big), it doesn't imply large. It's a home, a way station, a stayover place. You can bless the main entrance and/or separate rooms.

House Blessing Blue Door

Friday, December 29, 2023

Christmas 1B

the first Sunday of Christmas Galatians 4L4
Advent-Nativity designs created from Winter Essentials
by Alena Bugrova with legal reuse rights

The First Sunday of Christmas 2023

But when the fullness
of time had come,
God sent his Son,
born of a woman,
born under the law.

Galatians 4:4

Luke 2:22-23, 25-32, 39-40

22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord: 23 as it is written in the law of the Lord, "Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord",

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Messiah.

27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

29 "Lord, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel."

39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.
40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

Purification and Presentation

Although February 2nd is the formal date for Mary's ritual purification and Jesus' presentation and consecration, for this seventh day of Christmas, the lectionary condenses time to forty days after Jesus' birth.

Today's gospel reading brings us a very Jewish Jesus with his parents fulfilling the requirements of ceremonial religious law that Luke refers to as "Law of Moses." In this passage, law doesn't specifically refer to the Sinai Covenant of the Ten Words or Commandments.


Paul's Birth Narrative

"But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive adoption as children of God… then also an heir." Galatians 4:4-7

The Apostle Paul emphasizes death and resurrection so much that for him, the good news of the gospel is death and resurrection. In his only account of Jesus' birth, Paul refers to Jesus being born under the law's power, its boundaries, and the law's redemptive promise. Jesus' birth leads to our becoming God's offspring, as Paul proclaims elsewhere. Especially in Romans 8:12-17, he also mentions our unearned inheritance and glorification in Christ.

Paul and Luke both know a Jesus who from the start claims his place in the story of God's people Israel. Luke 2:21 tells us Jesus had been circumcised at eight days of age (the church observes the Feast of the Name of Jesus on January 1st, when this Galatians passage is the second lection), and to further meet the demands of ritual ceremonial law, Joseph and Mary dedicated Jesus back to God during the same temple visit as Mary's purification.

Luke 2:39 says Jesus' parents "finished everything the law required" before returning home to Nazareth.


Canticles

Luke's gospel uniquely includes three canticles or New Testament psalms; each has a place in the Liturgy of the Hours. Canticle comes from Latin for song or sing.

• Luke 1:46-55 Magnificat – "My soul magnifies the Lord; he has put down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly…" at Evening Prayer or Vespers that's typically sung at nightfall.

This is Jesus' mother Mary's song in response to angel Gabriel's announcement she will become the mother of Jesus.

• Luke 1:67-79 Benedictus – "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; he has visited his people" at Morning Prayer, an office that generally combines elements of Lauds and Matins.

John the Baptist's father Zechariah's sings in response to news of his son's upcoming birth. This is John the Baptist's father and not Zechariah from the book of the twelve or minor prophets.

• Luke 2:29-32 Nunc Dimittis – "Lord, now let thy servant depart in peace; mine eyes have seen they salvation, which thou hast prepared…" this is the canticle for Compline or Night Prayer.

Temple priest Simeon sings because he recognizes Jesus as savior of the world.


God With Us

During Advent we waited and prepared for Jesus' birth as God with us – Emmanuel – the name the angel told Joseph to name the baby. Simeon had waited in the temple a very long time because God had promised Simeon he would experience God's Anointed One, the Messiah.

Martin Luther at his Wittenberg Reform and John Calvin at his Geneva Reform both included the Nunc Dimittis toward the end of their Holy Communion liturgies. Like Simeon, after we receive the Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation we are ready for anything because we know the fullness of God's promised salvation. We know it because we've seen it, tasted it, touched it, smelled it, heard it…

Saturday, December 23, 2023

Nativity 2023

Christmas Wisdom 18:14-15
Advent-Nativity designs created from Winter Essentials
by Alena Bugrova with legal reuse rights

Nativity 2023

When all things were
wrapped in deep silence, and
night in her swift course
was half spent,
your almighty Word,
O Lord, leapt down from
your throne in heaven.

Wisdom 18:14-15

Titus 2:11-14

11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, 12 training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, 13 while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.

14 He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.

Letter to Titus

Martin Luther loved the anonymous letter to Titus! Written late in the first century or early in the second, with vocabulary, grammar, and overall sensibility that's clearly not from Paul of Tarsus, Titus belongs to a group of epistles from writers who used the Apostle Paul's name as a compliment to gain authority, credibility, and readers! People in that time and place didn't have our emphasis on correct attribution of intellectual or creative output and our robust legal protections. 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus form a trio of what sometimes are called pastoral letters.

Titus probably was a gentile Greek from Antioch. At the time of this letter, he was a teacher and church administrator on the island of Crete. We read about Titus as disciple, ministry, and missionary companion of Paul earlier in Macedonia in 2 Corinthians 7. The next chapter, 2 Corinthians 8:16-24, includes Paul's enthusiastic commendation of Titus.

You can find an overview of Titus in Enter the Bible.


Grace Has Appeared!

In the infant Jesus, we can see, hear, touch, smell, and taste God's presence and God's presents. This undeserved gift brings "salvation to all people." What does grace taste like? What does grace sound like and look like?

I often remember some of my experiences of Christmas Eucharist, or Christ's Mass. Julotta starting very early Christmas morning—that thoroughly English-speaking congregation originally was Swedish. Although he probably couldn't speak more than very basic conversational Swedish, the pastor pronounced Swedish fairly well, and every year he read a sermon by Luther someone had translated into Swedish. A mostly choral festival in a Former City. Communing just after midnight in Previous City. A couple of Christmas day morning macaronic English-Spanish liturgies in Tucson, Arizona. Bright and sparkling Christmas day mornings at Church on the Hill in Previous City. And there are more, of course… what are your memories of Holy Communion on Jesus' natal day?

In the Lord's supper, grace appears again and again. To "Body of Christ, given for you," we respond, "Amen!"


Acts of the Apostles

Theologian of grace Martin Luther loved this epistle with He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds. Titus 2:14

Gifts of life that compel us to reach out in gratitude and offer life as gift to others. How could, why would, we do otherwise?

In the Acts of the Apostles we hear:
The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number became believers and turned to the Lord. News of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When Barnabas arrived and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced, and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.
Acts 11:21-23

Barnabas "saw the grace of God!" Not a splendiferous sermon. Not an impeccable liturgy. Not breathtaking stained glass windows. What was this grace that had appeared so people could see it, hear it, feel it, sense it? From what we know about the early church, it was shalom sufficiency for all. A common-wealth with enough to eat. Warm clothes to wear. A community of support. Work for those who were able. Grace offered back by God's own people who were passionate for those good deeds that offer life to all people without reservation.

Body of Christ? Amen!

Friday, December 22, 2023

Advent 4B

Advent 4 2023
Advent-Nativity designs created from Winter Essentials
by Alena Bugrova with legal reuse rights

The Fourth Sunday of Advent 2020

The Mighty One
has scattered the proud
in the imaginations of their hearts
and filled the hungry
with good things!

Luke 1:51-53

Advent 2023

This has been the shortest possible Advent, with the fourth Sunday of Advent on Sunday morning easing into Christmas Eve on Sunday evening. Around the interwebs I've noticed that quite a few churches plan to forego Sunday morning worship on the 24th. In order to experience all four Advent Sundays, some observed the first Sunday of Advent on November 26th, or what otherwise was Reign of Christ Sunday.


Scriptures

At least some time during Advent, why not listen to God's counsel and promise to David through the prophet Nathan? How can we not read Gabriel's announcement to Mary? Why wouldn't we sing Mary's Magnificat with its promise of the end of the world as we've known it—the end of death, destruction, empire, violence, exploitation? The dawn of hope and possibility?

2 Samuel 7:2, 4-7, 11b

2 The king said to the prophet Nathan, "See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent."

4 But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: 5 Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? 6 I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.

7 Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, "Why have you not built me a house of cedar?" 11b Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house.

Despite his knowledge of the on-the-move God of the covenants who journeyed with the people, David's desire to construct a quality home where God could take up residence was more than reasonable. Other divinities of the Ancient Near East (ANE) were territorial place gods; David went along with what he'd observed and with human logic, exactly as we often do. Figuring out how to contextualize ministries can be a complex process, and all of us make mistakes.

This passage contains more than one meaning for house: a physical structure at a settled location as a dwelling place for God or people; and …the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house.

God promises a house as the biological and familial inheritance we hear about in the genealogies in Matthew and Luke. According to Luke 2:4, "Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David."

People sometimes announce they've bought or rented a home, but we really buy or rent houses, apartments, and condos. Love, care, encounters, and time turn those spaces into homes. Stucco, wood, stone, cousins, aunts, friends, and grands, ultimately house is a place of belonging. In addition to Christmas carols and secular seasonal music, we've been hearing songs like "Who Says You Can't Go Home Again?" by Bon Jovi, "I'm Going to Make this Place Your Home" by Phillip Philips, "Home" by One Direction, and they fit in fine.

Annunciation – Luke 1:26, 31, 34-38

26 The angel Gabriel came to Mary and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you."

31 "And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus."

34 Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" 35 The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God." 38 Then Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." …

From the start, scripture reveals God's initiative and grace as God chooses, calls, prepares, and sends people. This is Mary's call story! In the Eastern church Mary is Theotokos or God-bearer. Mary carried Jesus, God's Word of promise, in her body (the literally em-bodied Word) with her wherever she went. Mary shows us how to trust and embody God's word.

Magnificat – Luke 1:39, 46-55

39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted her cousin Elizabeth.

46 And Mary said,
"My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."

Every day at Evening Prayer or Vespers, we sing Mary's Holy Spirit-inspired canticle. You may be aware of how well people memorized scripture – literally taking it to heart – two millennia ago. Although we have the words Luke wrote, Mary probably sang a very similar song because this passage is closely based on Hannah's song in 1 Samuel 2:1-10. Mary would have been able to recite and make Hannah's words her own. A few weeks ago on Five Minute Friday I reminded everyone, "Hope for the death of death starts with the birth of Jesus of Nazareth."


Word in the World

Mary asks, "How can this be?" Angel (Messenger) Gabriel explains it will happen because the Holy Spirit will come upon you, the power of the Most High overshadow you.

Pregnant Mary carried God's Word of promise (Jesus the Word) in her body everywhere she went. We have been baptized into Jesus the Christ, the one whose body he promised his followers would become. Like Mary, as the church we carry God's Word of Promise (Jesus!) with us wherever we go. How can this be? The Holy Spirit has come upon us!

As God reminded David and Nathan, God always has traveled alongside the people. God calls us to be wherever the people are: in the 'hood, at the supermarket, beside the taco stand; in the corporate boardroom, at the dog park, in the city council meeting; embodied in the world's hopes, plans, yearnings, and dreams…