Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Epiphany 4 C - Psalm 71:1-6

Jeremiah in the Pit by Marc Chagall 
Psalm 71

We will only recite the first six verses of Psalm 71 but I bet Jeremiah knew the whole psalm by heart. It is a good psalm to know, especially when you've been thrown down a well and left for dead and maybe have begun to doubt the promise of your call, “they shall not prevail against you.” So it is not a psalm to be recited lightly. No. This is a psalm that is cried, or shouted, or groaned in silence. This is a cry for help in a time of trouble, a desperate plea for providence when enemies, the wicked, the unjust, the cruel are prevailing against you with a vengeance. It is not a psalm one wants to recite for real so we will chant the appointed six verses and move on to the epistle. But there are those, too numerous to number, for whom these words are more than a liturgical element in a Sunday service. Maybe those of us who live in warmth and comfort and safety, blessed by lives of relative ease, could speak this psalm on their behalf. Maybe in the polite chanting of six verses we could remind God and ourselves of the desperate plight of peoples oppressed by war and famine and disease and earthquake and flood in places where the wicked and the cruel and the unjust are free and the innocent are enslaved. And maybe in our remembering we, to whom much has been given, will live up to much being required and not wait for God to act but do what we were created to do and act on God’s behalf which, of course, is how God answers a plea for help. 

Monday, January 28, 2019

Epiphany 4 C - Jeremiah 1:14-21

Jeremiah by Marc Chagall -1956
Jeremiah 1:14-21

This is not the kind of call a prophet wants to receive. Given a choice a prophet, or a pastor for that matter, would prefer visions with happier endings and keep the wickedness and judgments to a minimum. That is because truth telling is never easy for the one who has to tell it or for the ones who have to hear it. So while it might be good news that they will not prevail against Jeremiah the bad news is they will try. In the end Jeremiah will die in obscurity and Judah will receive the judgment he foretold. So where is the good news for those of us who prefer fairy tale endings over tragedy? As difficult as it may be to tell or hear it the good news is in the truth telling itself. That is because truth is always good news even when it is bad. It is only when we tell and hear the truth about ourselves; that we have exchanged the truth for a lie to chase after idols of our own design and worship at the altars of our ego that we have any hope of finding our way back to the greater Truth. The greater truth is that Jeremiah comes before Jesus. In the end Jesus will die in agony and we will escape the judgment we deserve, for sin could not prevail against his sacrifice. When God does the telling there is pardon after judgment, return after exile, life in death and that means even the tragedy has a fairy tale ending.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Epiphany 3 C - Luke 4:14-21

Luke 4:14-21

Jesus ends his preaching tour of Galilee in the synagogue of his bar mitzvah. The standing room only crowd has gathered in eager expectation of seeing the hometown boy made good and Jesus does not disappoint. He unrolls the scroll of Isaiah and finds the words of promise that were the hope of those who sat by the waters of Babylon and wept. The same words that had become the longing of the oppressed under the new management of Rome. For a moment between the reading and the sermon there was silence, every eye fixed, every breath held, every ear attentive. As soon as he spoke, “today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” the spell was lifted and in the verses that follow the SRO crowd rejects the promise fulfilled and things turn ugly. But in the pregnant pause before he spoke, where anything and everything is possible, the scripture was fulfilled. Maybe that is where freedom and recovery and restoration are real for us as well. When in silent expectation hope is not diminished by attempts to rationalize or explain. Such waiting faith believes God is intimately aware of our deepest need. Waiting faith believes the good news of grace for those impoverished, held captive by circumstance beyond their control, blinded by sin and oppressed by fear. We hold onto such hope with radical trust that the proof is not in the pudding but in the hope that the promise is as good as it sounds. 

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Epiphany 3 C - 1 Corinthians 12:12-31

1 Corinthians 12:12-31

Maybe Paul never looked into a mirror that wasn't dim (1 Corinthians 13:12) because although the nose might be necessary more often than not the eyes think it’s too big. Truth is most people can find fault with one body part or another and wish the weaker parts could be dispensed of more easily. And on the flip side - thinking of oneself as Adonis means Narcissus is not far behind. It may be that judging oneself either too harshly or inaccurately is where mistreatment of the body begins and why these words of Paul have too often fallen on deaf ears. When we cannot recognize our own worth we are blind to the worth of others. But if I see myself through the eyes of Christ as worthy of God’s affection and choose to live into that identity then I believe it becomes more difficult to deny others the same honor. And so each member values the other because each member is valued by Christ. To dishonor the other, to think or speak ill of them, to plot and plan and even pray for their downfall is to scorn Christ himself. In the end it is God who is grieved and injured when the body behaves badly towards itself. But it was the grief of God over a creation gone horribly wrong that led Christ to the cross. In love that is the still more excellent way his body was broken to make ours whole and his death is our life. So treat yourself well today for your body belongs to Christ. And remember that the body part that had the nerve to sit in your pew last Sunday is dear to the heart of Christ as well.  

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Epiphany 3 C - Psalm 19

Psalm 19

I've been attending yoga classes for a few years and if it weren't for the mirrors around the room I’d think I was quite good at it. That’s because the pose often feels more right than it looks. So while I am pretty good at breathing and can nail the Shavasana (the corpse pose) I need to see myself in the mirror to straighten my back on a deep forward bend or really sit into my chair or sink my head below my shoulders to get my doggie facing down. Of course the mirror can’t do it all and I don’t need to look at my reflection to know my crow pose is never going to get off the ground. The perfect law of the Lord is more than a list of do’s and don’ts. If it were then we could detect our hidden faults and check them off one by one. But as it is we are guilty not only of the hidden but the obvious or as another version states, “presumptuous” sins. And so the law of the Lord is like a mirror revealing our spiritual posture. There are corrections we can make once warned but that only gets us so far, which is why we need a Rock and Redeemer to revive the heart of our Shavasana.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Epiphany 3 C - Nehemiah 8:1-10

Nehemiah 8:1-10
The exiles, including the lay reader's nightmare list of names in the omitted verses, have returned from captivity to begin the slow process of rebuilding Jerusalem which includes reestablishing the rituals of the faith community. Outside the gate the preachers preach and the people respond with liturgy, Amen, Amen, lifting hands and bowing down. But when the ritual reading is explained and the people understand they begin to weep and wail and mourn. They weep because they know who they are in the light of the law and how they have grieved the One who brought them out of exile. They weep because they are afraid that God knows what they know. But there is another lesson to learn and if they had seen it coming they would have laughed out loud and shouted alleluia. God is not grieved. God is not angry. God is not weeping. This is God’s day of rejoicing and it is because of them. Surprise! So dry your eyes and wash your face. Break out the bubbly and forget your diet for you are the joy of the Lord and that is your strength. That is a good lesson for us as well. As long as we think of the joy of the Lord as an emotion we have or can get we will inevitably end up weakened and weeping. But since the joy of the Lord is the Lord's joy over us it is constant and can never be diminished or depleted and therein lies our strength. In God’s joy we endure. In God’s joy we persevere. In God’s joy we hope. And yes, in God’s joy we rejoice. The only thing to do with that kind of strength is to share with those who have nothing prepared because, of course, that is what God has done for us.  

Friday, January 18, 2019

Epiphany 2 C - John 2:1-11

John 2:1-11

The wine has run out and with one more “l’chaim” the guest’s goblets will go dry and the party will be over ahead of schedule. Mary is determined to do something about it and counting on those things she has treasured in her heart she gets Jesus to serve the good wine before his time. John records this as the first sign of many and even though the other Gospels remember more pressing first signs, like healing diseases and casting out demons, turning water into wine is the sign for the time to come. It might not seem so in a world where more important things than wine run out, where a surplus of sorrow and suffering beg God to heal and exercise evil before filling the carafe with Cabernet  But the miracle of water into wine is more than a story of good timing for a worried wine steward and it is Mary who gives it to us. Like Jesus in the garden she asks for what she wants and accepts his rebuff. In the same way Jesus will ask for what he wants, “Take this cup from me” but accept “Thy will be done.” And so Jesus in faith will leave the garden for the cross and Mary, with every reason to believe the answer is no, tells the servant, “Do whatever he tells you.” She has no idea what he will do but believes he will do something. Faith in the face of jugs gone dry is what is called for in the face of circumstances that drain reserves, sorrow that consumes joy, questions empty of answers, which is why water into wine is a sign of the time to come. Without knowing how or when we believe God will do something like Isaiah imagined; a feast of rich food and fine wine for all people where God will dine on death for when Jesus' time finally came the One who asked for the cup to be taken from him is the One who filled it. 

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Epiphany 2 B - 1 Corinthians 6:12-20

1 Corinthians 6:12-20
Corinth was the “sin city” of the 1st century and the Christians living there struggled to be “in the world but not of the world.” Judging by the contents of the correspondence they didn’t do very well and some, like the man sleeping with his father’s wife, even made the pagans blush.(1 Corinthians 5:1) So Paul’s caveat “not everything is beneficial” might have been lost on those who said “I have the right to do anything.” The trouble was a misapplication of the Gospel that had rightly repealed the requirements of the law, namely food restrictions, sacrifices and circumcision. A good number of the Corinthians thought that meant they were free to do as they pleased; after all they were saved by grace. We can fall into the same trap thinking that as long as we feel badly about whatever we’ve done we are good to go and do whatever again. Unfortunately Lutherans tend to be the most susceptible to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer labeled “cheap grace”. The cost of sin was born by Christ but we continue to run a tab whenever we are mastered by the very things from which Christ has set us free. But the Lutheran two step of Law/Gospel was always meant to lead to an amendment of sinful ways albeit without dancing into the sin of being sanctimonious, not an easy step to master. The good news is that those united with Christ are one with His spirit which means help is always just a prayer away.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Epiphany 2 C - Isaiah 62:1-5

Isaiah 62:1-5

The people to whom these words are addressed have grown weary of hope. They were promised a return to Zion with singing but when they got home the only song they could sing was a lament and Lord knows they knew that song by heart. The burning sand has dried up the promised pool, the haunt of jackals is still just as dangerous and the ruins they will have to rebuild are inhabited by hostile residents. It will take more than hope to make Jerusalem hospitable to the prophet’s vision. And maybe that is how hope works. We might prefer the fairy tale close your eyes, click your heels three times and you're home, but truth is hope just gets us to believe again that not all the songs we will sing will be in a minor key. And so the forsaken who have returned to a desolate land change their tune and start singing as those who are the delight of the Lord in a land that is married. But what if the prophet’s vision is beyond our ability to hope? Truth is all the visions of the future are beyond our ability to hope which is why God sings lead. For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent. 

Friday, January 11, 2019

The Baptism of Our Lord Year C - Luke 3:15-22

Luke 3:15-22
It was a time of expectation, like when the planets line up in a way they haven’t for a long time and won’t ever again in one’s lifetime, which of course must mean something. In that kind of time a voice crying in the wilderness attracts attention and even casual conversations end up speculating about cosmic events. Most of the time “the time” does not live up to the expectation but this time the expectation couldn't live up to the time. They expected a Messiah like John even though he told them he wasn't him. But with speeches full of fire, crazy clothes, strange diet and personal hygiene like the prophets of the past he was a figure to behold. And so the people heard his hell fire brimstone exhortation as good news and in the verses that precede these change their ways to escape the wrath that is to come. No wonder Jesus gets lost in the crowd. He can’t follow that sort of act and unless you were close enough to hear the voice or happened to be looking when the dove landed he would have looked like one of the crowd dipping in the Jordan hoping to come up clean. But if you were listening and looking your expectation would have been met by something you could never have expected. Though the voice declared him the beloved Son he was baptized like one of the crowd. That’s why expectation can never live up to Incarnation which in the end burns our chaff and saves our wheat.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

The Baptism of Our Lord Year C - Acts 8:14-17

Acts 8:14-17

The Word of God spent some time in Samaria and promised a thirsty woman that there would be a day when Samaritans and Jews and all true worshipers would worship God in spirit and in truth. And when He spoke the truth about her she came to believe he was the Truth and the whole village followed suit. As Jesus ascended he told the disciples they would be witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth. It took things turning ugly in Jerusalem to get the believers to hit the road which is how Philip came to spend some time in a Samaritan city. Through signs and wonders and proclamation the Truth came again to Samaria and the whole city rejoiced and was baptized and the church sent Peter and John to seal the deal. It took truth telling in the first instance and persecution in the second to bring the Word to the Samaritans in a way that led to the gift of the Spirit and maybe that is true for us as well. First the truth about ourselves; we are thirsty for something more but satisfy ourselves with something less until we are truly parched. And like the persecution that scattered the believers we are driven by the knowledge of our need to renounce all that draws us away from God and so be refreshed by the Water of Life, the Spirit of Truth.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

The Baptism of Our Lord Year C - Psalm 29

Psalm 29
The voice of the Lord is LOUD. Glory! Many people experience God in the beauty of nature; sunsets, mountain tops, misty lakes at dawn and the like. Such things are generally experienced in solitude and bring a sense of peace and contentment. I’m not sure I would equate the blessing of peace with a voice that strips a forest bare. But the psalmist imagines the glory and splendor of God in the terrible and terrifying. Making Lebanon skip like a young bull is just a poetic way of saying earthquake and flashing fire doesn't need to strike twice to get you diving for cover. This image of a terrible and terrifying God evokes praise not only from nature but from the heavenly beings who know a thing or two about terrifying and maybe that is the point. This voice cannot be ignored or denied and all the forces of the universe are obliged to respond. But for those who belong to the Voice hearing God in the terrible and terrifying means the terrible is less terrifying for the God present in the whirlwind and the earthquake is our strength and peace. And when from the cross God cried out with a loud voice even death had to sit up and take notice and admit it was finished. And that is a blessing of peace indeed. Glory!

Monday, January 7, 2019

The Baptism of Our Lord Year C - Isaiah 43:1-7

Marie Talbot 1953-2012
Isaiah 43:1-7

This promise of God was penned by the prophet Isaiah to the captives who sat by the waters of Babylon and wept while their tormentors called for them to sing glad songs of Zion. And so these promises of security are spoken to those who know the threat of waters that rise and flames that burn bright. They have lost hope of going home and their only comfort is in the thought of revenge upon the children born to the Babylonians. (Psalm 137) But the promise of the One who formed them is that they will not be abandoned to captivity for the God who heard their cries in the past has heard them in the present. They will not be overwhelmed or consumed by the things that threaten them because they are precious, honored, loved, desirable objects of the Holy One’s affection. The truth is what we experience in this life is often beyond our ability to tread water or shield ourselves from searing heat but then the word of God for us is to not be afraid despite all that threatens. I think that means we do not believe the water of difficulty will have the last word for us even if we drown or that the fire of suffering will consume us. We are already eternal creatures known by name and treasured possessions of the God who exists in the past-present-future. So we endure in the midst of captivity and overcome all that would cause us to doubt our treasured status.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Epiphany Year C - Matthew 2:1-12

Matthew 2:1-12

The men from the east may have been wise in the way of stars but they were not so smart when dealing with kings. You don’t ask a king where his replacement has been born, especially if the boy wasn't born to the queen in the palace. By all accounts Herod had a paranoid personality and the question puts him in self preservation mode (something he has done very well in the past) and all of Jerusalem is scared of a frightened Herod. The babes in Bethlehem have more to fear. They just don’t know it yet. But Rachael's wailing won't happen until the wise men give their gifts to the baby who escapes and the wise men being warned in a dream depart by the back door. In many ways it is a very human story, not like the angels we have heard on high that the shepherds see. Astrologers seeing planets line up in a new way are driven to investigate and naively ask people in power questions that should not be asked which almost always leads to bloodshed for the little and the lowly. It’s not a very merry Christmas story when you think of it that way but then God chose to enter the life of the world as a baby with no home and a king with no throne. That the wise men would worship a poor child in a no account town means they trusted the signs in the heavens and believed someone or something wanted them to follow. Either way the sign in heaven led them to a place on earth where God could be found. We are signs on earth that point to a place in heaven that is at its best a vision for all people of perfect peace and irresistible love that makes angels sing and wise folk rejoice. 

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Epiphany Year C - Ephesians 3:1-12

Ephesians 3:1-12
Paul calls himself the “very least of all the saints” even though he will tell the Corinthians he worked harder than any of the apostles and in his letter to the Galatians he even questions the authority of the big three, Peter, James and John, those “reputed to be pillars”.  But then one can hardly imagine the church surviving let alone expanding without a person like Paul. The same traits that made him a formidable foe to the fledgling faith made him the fanatical convert to the mystery of Christ made known through revelations. His love for the Lord he formerly persecuted was expressed through an unmatched intellect, a stoic personality and an obstinate nature. And maybe it takes a “chief of sinners though I be” to really appreciate with boldness and confidence the access to God carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord. So God uses Paul’s weakness to make the Gentile church strong and his foolishness to make the Gentiles wise to the eternal purpose of God.  While we can’t claim to be on par with Paul it might be a good thing for us to accept that God finds our whole being (the good, the bad, and the in-between) useful for making known the mystery of God to the present day gentiles to whom we have been sent.  

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Epiphany Year C - Psalm 72

Psalm 72

The righteous flourish and peace is found in abundance when people in power care for the poor and the oppressed and those who have no helper. It is a clear indication of how differently God views the hierarchy of the human community. The king is given God’s justice and righteousness to provide for those who cannot repay by showing compassion to the lowly poor and preserving the life of the needy. Those who claim the name of the King of Kings would do well to note the nature of Jesus’ reign. The song that announces his conception sings of the mighty brought down and the lowly lifted up; the hungry filled with good things and the rich sent empty. It is more than pretty poetry penned by the prophet Isaiah. The blood of those subjected to oppression and violence is precious in God’s sight and their cries ascend to the heavens and do not fall on deaf ears. In the epiphany story the kings of Tarshish and Sheba and Seba (or their emissaries) came to Bethlehem expecting to find the King of the Jews. That they recognized him in such humble surroundings must mean they looked at the world a little differently on their way home. So it is for us who have encountered the Christ and seek to honor him on our journey home. Or as Matthew will say in his Gospel, “When I was hungry you gave me food….”