Friday, December 24, 2021

Nativity 2021

Nativity 2021 candles

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—

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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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

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?