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The Word Read

 

Psalm 19; I Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21

“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.” (Psalm 19:14)

Not acceptable to me,
not acceptable to us,
not acceptable to others.
Acceptable to you, O LORD, our rock and our redeemer.

Because the words may very well, if faithful, make us weep in remembrance of who we have been and who we really are. Because they may at first be sweet as honey, but later bitter to the point of making us want to try to pitch Christ off the nearest cliff.

We have such rich texts to host this week in anticipation of Sunday’s liturgy. In the middle of Nehemiah, which can sometimes read like a campaign for re-election, sits this gem, chapter 8. There has been a great build up, literally, to this point. Nehemiah, made governor of Judah by King Artaxerxes of Persia, has heard of the vulnerability and trouble of those Israelites left behind when the elite and learned of Judah were all carted off to Babylon. Nehemiah’s heart is powerfully moved. He roots out corruption and unites the people in the rebuilding of the wall that surrounds Jerusalem. The culmination of this comes when all the people gather together into the square before the Water Gate. They tell Ezra, priest and scribe, to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the LORD had given to Israel. Now, anticipation builds. The book sits above the people, when it is opened the people stand, the LORD is blessed and worshipped. The book is read from for the entire morning. The words read in Hebrew and interpreted into Aramaic, so the people might understand – something not done in Jerusalem since the exile to Babylon. The people weep. Bittersweet tears? For what they have endured; for the reminder of who they are: Read more

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Peace to God’s People and Earth

Pope Benedict XVI’s World Day of Peace Message for January 1, 2010, was “If You Want to Cultivate Peace, Protect Creation.” Initially published on December 15 to coincide with the international climate gathering in Copenhagen, this brief reflection builds on a few paragraphs concerning the environment that were included in his social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, which was issued last summer.

If you have read Ragan Sutterfield’s EP pamphlet, “God’s Grandeur: The Church in the Economy of Creation,” you may be interested in reading the pope’s statement. While there is not a whole lot that is new in this World Day of Peace Message, its linking of peacemaking and care for the environment is indeed noteworthy, with both stressed as positive moral obligations impingent upon Christians.

In advance of this papal statement, I presented a short reflection on a more theological approach to sustainability, anchored in biblical shalom, at a conference on “Sustainability and the Catholic University” in October 2009 at the University of Notre Dame. There are also other papers at this website, such as one on “Liturgical Cosmology” by Notre Dame’s David Fagerberg, that may be of interest to EPers.

I suspect we can expect to see much more on the topic of theology and the environment in the year ahead.

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The Joy of Not Being in Charge

 

Isaiah 62:1-5; Psalm 36:5-10;
1 Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11

Norman Wirzba, in his book Living the Sabbath, follows the medieval rabbi Rashi in saying that the divine work was not completed in six days, but in seven, and that what remained to be created on the seventh day was menuha: “the rest, tranquility, serenity, and peace of God.” Wirzba writes that God’s rest “when understood within a menuha context, is not simply a cessation from activity but rather the lifting up and celebration of everything. Here we see God…like a parent frolicking with a child and in his joy and play demonstrating and abiding commitment to protect, sustain, encourage, and love into health and maturity the potential latent within the child.” It is this sort of menuha delight and care that is proclaimed in the lectionary this week.

First we have Isaiah, announcing that “The nations shall see your vindication”; “you shall be called a new name”; “you shall be a crown in the hand of your God”; “You shall no more be termed Forsaken”; “but you shall be shall be called My Delight Is in Her.” There is no “we hope” or “we pray” here—the promise is firm “you shall.” Read more

God, in Christ, has Earned it For Us

To many the baptism of the Lord has always seemed like something of an oddity. And if it mysterious to us why Jesus underwent baptism at the beginning of his ministry, we should remember that it was no less mysterious to John the Baptizer. What we do know about the Lord’s baptism, though, is that it occasions an extremely radical divine event: the Father himself speaks and the Holy Spirit is seen in physical form. This is nothing to be trifled with. Here the whole Trinity is seen, speaks, and is spoken to in the presence of a great many flabbergasted individuals.

Our Lord’s baptism is seen, in Luke’s Gospel, as the first proclamation of God about the identity of Jesus. The verdict that will be affirmed and vindicated in the resurrection is proclaimed for the first time here, by God’s own voice. This is the Son. This is the one who speak for God, who does God’s will, who brings about God’s work. This is the one that all of you have been expecting (cf. 3:15). All human eyes are on Jesus. All divine speech points to Jesus. This is the one and no other. Read more

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The Whole Package

Second Sunday After Christmas
Ephesians 1:3-19; John 1:1-18

It’s still Christmas. It’s hard to tell that from the culture around us, and maybe even a little hard to tell from this Sunday’s appointed lessons. For a few days we were immersed in the earthiness of the Nativity (barn animals, labor and delivery, a feeding trough for a bed). But this week’s readings have phrases like “before the foundation of the world,” “the mystery of his will,” and “in the beginning was the Word.”

It’s tempting, perhaps, to see a sharp division here. To imagine that the Christmas lections are about the simple, familiar, child-friendly stuff—cradles and crèches and shepherds and angels—and that the “After-Christmas” readings have gone all grown-up and academic on us. Logos? John wants to talk Greek while we’re still singing Away in a Manger? Read more

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God in Particular

 

Luke 2: 1-20

My college church organized a big evangelistic training and event. We went through two nights learning how to “win people to the Lord” using handy little tracts organized around “the four spiritual laws.” (#1 God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. #2 Man is sinful and separated from God. [Yes, only men.] #3 Jesus Christ is God’s only provision for man’s sin. #4 We must individually receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. – I still remember them after all these years.) Each spiritual law had a verse of Scripture attached to it to give it biblical validity. On the third night we were given the assignment of going out to neighborhoods and college dorms, knocking on doors, and if the person answering the door would allow us, we were to tell him the four spiritual laws. If the person said “yes” to the last law, we were to pray with him, asking for Jesus to enter into his heart. After the prayer, we congratulated him on becoming a Christian, told him to go to church the next Sunday and then off we went to “win” the next person to the Lord. Read more

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As Good As Done

 

Micah 5:2-5a; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-55

We arrived at the village and were greeted by the headman and the welcoming committee. As the honored guests, we were made to sit on chairs under the mango tree. The only others who sat on chairs were men. The women and children sat on mats or on the dusty ground amid the chickens that had free run of the village.

While the important people sat “enthroned,” the clear leaders of the celebration were the women. They had come dressed in their best clothes, shiny and clean. They raised their voices in song, loud and bright. With call and response, joyful ululation, and bodies moving in vibrant celebration, these poor rural village women in Zambia gave voice to God’s victory over disease, hunger, and death.

In many times and places, it is the women who best celebrate the triumph of God. Read more

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A Political Pregnancy (and the Beatles)

 

 

Luke 1:39-46, 47-55; Micah 5:2-5a

Though it is not my regularly scheduled week to share a lectionary reflection with you, I was struck with some thoughts this morning while I prepared for Sunday’s sermon. Charles L. Aaron, writing in this month’s Lectionary Homiletics on the gospel text for Advent 4C, takes the two Lukan pericopes as they come in Luke, one after the other, rather than separating them into the Visitation (to be read as the gospel lesson) and the Magnificat (to be read as the Psalter or the Canticle for the day).

In doing so, he contrasts the innocence of the girl who is to give birth to Jesus with the political ramifications of that birth. Taking verses 39-46 and 47-55 together, he says, “gives the preacher abundant material for preaching that critiques the sentimentality of the Christmas season. God speaks through simple, humble people in out of the way locations. The birth of Jesus has implications for our interior spirituality as the opening lines of the Magnificat indicate but also demands change in politics, economics, and use of power. This passage calls for deeper spirituality but also for the church to hold accountable politicians and all who exercise power. It reaffirms God’s continuing use of synagogue and church.” Read more

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I’ve Got the Joy, Joy, Joy, Joy

 
Zephaniah 3:14-20; Isaiah 12:2-6; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

The second most popular Advent question asked in the United Methodist Churches I’ve served is “Why is there one pink candle on the Advent wreath?” (THE most popular question has of course been “When can we start singing Christmas carols?”)

The pink candle is lit on the third Sunday of Advent because since the 10th century, that day has been recognized by the catholic church as Gaudete, or Joy, Sunday. (See one history here.) As early as the fifth century, Christians prepared for Christmas with a forty-day fast. The weeks prior to Christmas were a season of penitence, much in the way that Lent functions in relation to Easter. One can see how the lectionary texts in the first couple weeks of Advent issue calls to reflection and penitence: “The Kingdom is at hand! Know how to read the signs! Repent!” My Greek Orthodox friends observe two fasts prior to and during Advent, increasing in severity and restriction, as a way of preparing for the coming of Christ. They understand that preparation for the coming of Christ entails self-examination and sacrifice. Read more

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Who Bears the Weight of Empire?

 
Luke 3:1-6

In today’s gospel, Luke moves rapidly from Emperor Tiberius, in Rome, through a cascade of governors, tetrarchs and high priests, to an eccentric Galilean hayseed (the sort of misfit you’d expect in a Flannery O’Connor short story, with his weird clothes, overwrought speech and hyper-religious obsessions) on a riverside in the nether regions of an inconsequential Roman province. In terms of historical, social and political importance, the downhill slope here is dizzyingly steep.

Still, Luke’s concern – for now – is Elizabeth and Zecahriah’s John-boy, not the movers and shakers of first century Judea. Augustus may have proclaimed a census in the chapter immediately preceding this, but it’s John, not Tiberius, making proclamations now: “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

The words Luke quotes from Isaiah (40:3-5) speak of reckonings and reversals, themes careful readers of Luke 1 and 2 are well prepared for. (Don’t trust me; read them yourself!) Luke’s narrative delights in paradox and inversions, and rarely strays from the marginalized and cast-offs of the world, those who weep and mourn, forever living in the hope.

As I write this, the President of the United States is announcing his plans to send 30,000 more soldiers to Afghanistan, a land which – for sound historical reasons – is called “Graveyard of Empires.” I’m not competent to critique the geopolitical rationale for this decision. I have no idea how this will end, or when anyone will be able to say with confidence that it has ended.

I only ask followers of Jesus in this season of waiting to hold in their hearts the many who will weep in the months to come. Reckonings and reversals await, and few or none may resemble what the movers and shakers of our day imagine. The marginalized in the US, Afghanistan and elsewhere will almost certainly suffer these more so than you or I or Barack Obama or Hamid Karzai.

Where, in the ongoing narrative of contemporary empires, do you hear the voice of one calling in the wilderness? Where do you hope to see the Glory of the Lord revealed to all flesh?