Category: Epiphany

Gathered at the Light

Adoration of the Magi – by Joos van der Beke van Cleve (Detroit Institute of Art) 
Isaiah 60:1-6 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 
60 Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
Lift up your eyes and look around;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and rejoice,
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.
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                It is the Day of Epiphany. The journey of Christmas, which began with the promise of the coming of Emmanuel, is coming to a close. We have witnessed the birth of the child born in Bethlehem of Judea (Luke 2), and now we celebrate the light that shines in the darkness, guiding the nations to the child who reveals the light of God to the world. Yes, it is time to celebrate the truth that God has been manifest to us in the person of Jesus. Even when darkness seems to be closing in, “the star of wonder, star of light, star with royal beauty bright, westward leading, still proceeding, guide us to thy perfect light” (John H. Hopkins, 1857).
Epiphany, as a liturgical event, is connected to the visit of the magi (wisemen) to the holy family, who in Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus are living in Bethlehem. We celebrate this story in the John H. Hopkins famous hymn “We Three Kings,” which tells the story of kings bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Each holds great value and is fit for royalty, but they are brought to a child living not in a palace but in some non-descript home in the village of Bethlehem. In our Christmas pageants and creche scenes, the three kings or magi (as they are named in the Gospel of Matthew), appear at the manger along with shepherds and angels. It’s an easy merger of the stories, but Matthew’s version of the infancy story is rather different from that of Luke. Even Matthew doesn’t give us the number of magi, only the description of the gifts. But historical accuracy isn’t the point.
In Matthew’s telling of the birth story, the Holy Family is living in Bethlehem. It seems as if this is their hometown. Matthew knows nothing a census that draws the family from Nazareth in the north. They’re just there, when the magi (astrologers) show up in the neighborhood, having seen a star in the sky that they interpret as a sign that a new king of the Jews has been born. These Gentile seers go first to Herod, hoping he can give them some further guidance, and Herod learns that the promised messiah is to be born in Bethlehem (Micah 2:2-5). When Herod learns from his advisors the messianic prophesy, he sends them on their way, asking that they report back so he too can give homage to the new born king. Of course, after they follow the star to the home of the Holy Family and offer their gifts, they are warned to go home without reporting to Herod. For his part, Herod is infuriated, and orders his troops to kill all the baby boys in Bethlehem, making sure that this rival is cut down before he can prove to be trouble. Fortunately, for the Holy Family, but not the other families in Bethlehem, they are warned to flee to Egypt as political refugees, which they do (reversing the Exodus story). That is the Epiphany story in a nutshell (Matthew 2:1-18).
Standing behind this story of the magisterial visit to the home of the Christ child is this vision from Isaiah. In what is most likely a post-exilic message, perhaps coming from the time of the rebuilding of Jerusalem, the prophet pictures the glory of the Lord rising and shining into a world that had experienced deep darkness. We see that darkness described in the previous chapter (Isaiah 59), where injustice seems rampant, and the people grope in the darkness, seeking a way forward, and that reality is reaffirmed in verse 2 of chapter 60. That is the context in which the prophet offers a word of hope. In verse three we’re told that the Lord will rise in the midst of the people, revealing God’s glory. Yes, the light that is God breaks through the darkness, as the “glory of the LORD has risen upon you.” The people may have lived in darkness, but God is now present, and with God comes the light that overcomes the darkness. Not only does this light shine into the darkness, but the nations are drawn to it, making their way to the source of light, even as the magi were drawn to the home of Jesus, guided by the star in the sky. 
 
If we’re to see this light, we’ll have to lift up our eyes and look around. That’s not easy when our eyes are attuned to the darkness, having groped around in that darkness. It takes some time and discipline to focus our attention on the light, having become accustomed to the darkness. The light, however, is good. It disperses darkness and reveals God’s vision of hope and healing for Israel and the world. It’s a message of hope and healing. Consider that sons and daughters will return home, perhaps ending the brokenness that existed in the community. For Judah, which had suffered exile, this promise of return is powerful and healing. With them come the nations, bearing gifts, so as to acknowledge the healing presence of God. The gifts, interestingly, include gold and frankincense, even as they come to give praise to God. You can see the connection here between Isaiah and Matthew.
As we contemplate this vision of Isaiah, we might ask what kind of light is shining into the darkness? Is it a powerful bank of lights that blinds us once turned on? Or is it subtler? David Schlafer, suggests that this light is on the subtle side, being “like the imperceptible dawning of the morning sun, like the slowly building brightness of a kindled fire.” He goes on: “As in other poetic oracles (see the text for Christmas Eve, Isa. 9:2-7), the reiteration in cadence of complementary images of darkness and light underscores the felt sense of God’s light rising slowly, imperceptibly, rather than in a burst of clarity coming all at once” (Connections, p. 146). It’s bright enough to be seen by the nations, but not so bright that it overwhelms. It requires, as in the story of the magi, an ability to discern the meaning of the light.
So what is the message of Epiphany for us? The Day of Epiphany rarely falls on a Sunday, and so only the most liturgically oriented traditions, which might meet on a day other than Sunday, will normally celebrate the event. Growing up in the Episcopal Church, we held a service called the Feast of Lights, which included a post-service party that featured a cake (which may be why I remember it). In 2019, the calendar allows for the churches to once again observe this holy day in its full glory, celebrating together the word that God’s presence has become fully manifest in the person of Jesus. The story of the magi is often seen as a sign that the gospel will extend to the nations, to the Gentiles, as well as Jews. Isaiah speaks here of the light drawing to itself the nations, the Gentiles, so that all might experience God’s presence. The nations even come bearing gifts.
As we celebrate this festival, affirming the message that God’s presence is fully manifested in Jesus, whom Matthew pictures being born in Bethlehem, and to whom the nations gather bearing gifts, what forms of darkness do we confront? What is the darkness of our times into which this light from God shines? What does it reveal about our lives, our world, and God’s vision for us?  To name one, it might be the ongoing presence of racism in our culture, which influences so much of our social context and issues. As light shines into this reality, might we begin to see things differently? Might we even see ourselves differently. We can add to this list, of course. As we do, may we find hope for the present and the future in the light of God that shines into our darkness, drawing us to it, so that we might find a pathway forward into God’s new reality. In Isaiah’s vision the people will be blessed by material benefits, a sharing of resources, both exotic and basic, even camels. In other words, it’s time for a party!

Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.

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Be Holy, Love Thy Neighbor! – Lectionary Reflection – Epiphany 7A (Leviticus)

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Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18  New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

19 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:  2 Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. 9 When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God. 11 You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. 12 And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Lord. 13 You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. 14 You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord. 15 You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. 16 You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord. 17 You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. 18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

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Gray and Gold, John Rogers Cox - Cleveland Museum of Art
Gray and Gold, John Rogers Cox – Cleveland Museum of Art

The people of God are called to emulate God’s holiness. The word “holy” carries a bit of baggage, because it’s often linked to smug self-righteousness. Words like puritanical, legalistic, and pharisaical are offered as synonyms.  When it comes to the holiness code detailed in Leviticus, we tend to think in terms of ritual purity, rather than in terms of calls for compassion and service. Then we come to Leviticus 19, which calls for the people of God to be holy, even as God is holy. Here holiness is spoken of in terms of loving one’s neighbor as one’s self.  Indeed, Jesus draws the second great command from Leviticus 19:18—the first command, the call to love God with one’s entire being is drawn from Deuteronomy 6:4-5 (Matt. 22:34-40). So, perhaps we need rethink our understanding of holiness.

The Old Testament reading for the seventh Sunday after Epiphany (Year A) includes the call to holiness, and then moves to the social implications of this call to holiness. It is the only time in the three-year lectionary cycle that we visit Leviticus, and that is only if the season extends to at least seven weeks. Thus, we might be missing out on important words from scripture.

The selection begins with the call to be holy, but ends with a call to love one’s neighbor. These two bookends are important, because they suggest that Torah (Law, Teaching) connects love and holiness. It is a reminder that grace and love are present in scripture prior to the New Testament. Jesus did not invent grace, he simply offered us a new way of understanding that biblical vision. In fact, his own vision of human relationships, especially as laid out in the Sermon on the Mount, is formed by what we read here in Leviticus 19.

Because Leviticus is understood to be a book of rules and regulations, Christians tend to avoid it. It presents us with too many problems, so we go elsewhere for inspiration and guidance. Nonetheless, there is much wisdom to be found in the book’s instructions on what it means to be holy as God is holy (Jesus picks up on this call to holiness in the Sermon on the Mount, with the rendering in Matthew 5 speaking of being perfect as God is perfect—Matthew 5:48). So, what does it mean to be holy as God is holy?

Leviticus 19 provides us with a collection of instructions. Ron Allen and Clark Williamson note that “imitation of God is manifest primarily in responsible actions toward the vulnerable” [Preaching the Old Testament: A Lectionary Commentary, (WJK Books) p. 23]. This call to care for the “least of these” is rooted in the biblical vision of God’s nature, who is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6).  The lectionary reading omits the opening section of Leviticus 19 (vss. 3-8), which focuses on revering parents and honoring God. Instead, it jumps to the second section of the chapter, which offers us a vision of “holiness in neighborliness” [Walter Kaiser, “Leviticus,” New Interpreter’s Bible, (Abingdon Press), 1:131]. It is a word of instruction regarding social ethics. These instructions remind us that religion not only speaks to the divine-human relationship, but also has implications for the way in which we conduct ourselves in public. Each section or paragraph closes with the refrain: “I am the Lord.” It is a reminder that the way in which we conduct our lives is a reflection on the Lord (YHWH) our Creator.

With the United States in the midst of a debate about immigration and refugee status, the opening paragraph is instructive. The author instructs Israel’s farmers to make portions of their fields and vineyards available to the poor and the alien. In an agrarian economy, this is essentially a government imposed safety net. Why? Because “I am the Lord your God.”

The commands move on from caring for the alien, the foreigner, to other areas of concern. Holiness is more than ritual purity. It has community implications. There are calls to refrain from stealing, defrauding one’s neighbor, lying to one another, bearing false witness. There is a call to respect persons with disabilities—the deaf and the blind. It is instructive that this particular word of guidance is accompanied by a call to fear God.  This is a word that churches might want to heed, as they consider ways of responding to those with disabilities. What obstacles do we put in the way of people who seek to come and worship?

There is a call for judges to be fair and impartial. This word is interesting because judges are not to distinguish between poor and rich. This word seems to stand in contrast with the idea that God has a “preferential option for the poor.” It would seem from this reading, that God doesn’t prefer the poor or the rich, but God judges each equally. It is justice that must be served. But, I wonder how we should read this passage. On the surface, it would seem that the judicial system should make no allowance for the poor, but is that the point? As Ron Allen and Clark Williamson point out, “in our times perhaps we should say that the poor should be provided with lawyers as able as those whom the rich can afford” [Preaching the Old Testament, p. 24]. Even if we affirm God’s preferential option for the poor, this is not to say that God has no concern about the welfare of the wealthy. God is God of all people, rich and poor.

At a time when “hate” seems strong in our midst, it is important to hear the call to not hate our kin. It is important that we not try to gain vengeance. It’s okay to reprove our neighbor, though I would caution great care. It’s easy to become “judgmental” and a meddler. Still, if we can, we should help our neighbors get back on track.

We began with a command to be holy, and we end with a command to love our neighbors as we love ourselves—what is often called the Golden Rule. It is worth noting, especially at this time and place in history, that if we continue reading down in Leviticus 19, that the people of Israel should “love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Lev. 19:34). This broadens out what is meant in scripture by loving one’s neighbor as one self.  Allen and Williamson note that this command, to love the alien is repeated thirty-six times in Scripture, suggesting, at least by repetition, that “it is the most important commandment in the Torah” [Preaching the Old Testament, p. 25].

While we might not find every word in Leviticus appropriate to our time, these are important words that do reflect the message of grace and compassion that are present throughout scripture. They reflect the covenant commission given to Abraham and Sarah, that through their descendants that peoples of the earth would be blessed (Gen. 12:1-3).

bobcornwall

Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan and is the author of a number of books including Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016) and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015).

Thanks. I Needed That. – Epiphany 7

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Narrative Lectionary Reflection

February 19, 2017

Luke 7:36-50

 

 

In the early 1970s, there was a brand of aftershave that made a commercial that had a hand slap a man.  He would feel his face and then say, “Thanks. I need that.”

It was an interesting commercial, mostly because I don’t think anything like it could be made today at all.  It’s seem a little weird that the basis of this TV ad is having a hand slap an actor rather hard.  That actor had to have one sore cheek after a day of filming.

The ad had an affect- on me.  I was only about three or four at the time.  I remember that my mother punished me for something and my response to her was, “Thanks. I needed that.”

photo credit: http://wayneforte.com/picture/anointing-his-feet-2/
photo credit: http://wayneforte.com/picture/anointing-his-feet-2/

That phrase is in my mind when I think about this unnamed woman who crashes Simon’s dinner party.  Her need was different from mine and she expressed it in a way that showed she really needed this and was willing to do what it took to get what she needed.

This woman was deemed a “sinner.” We don’t know what made her a sinner, but whatever it was, the people in town knew.  She came into the room probably feeling the hot stares of the dinner guests and Simon.  But she makes a beeline to Jesus and begins washing his feet with her hair and tears. She then opens a jar of oil and begins annointing Jesus’ feet.  It is a passionate scene.

What this woman wanted is forgiveness.  She had lived with shame for a long time and she sees Jesus, the one that parties with tax collectors and sinners, as one that would forgive her.  She could even feel that she was forgiven already.  So she shows her love, her gratitude in this embarassing and “shameful” way.

 

It would be easy to place myself in the role of the woman, but too often I am like Simon, probably a well-meaning man, but someone who is so well-versed in the faith that I can tend to not be hungry for forgiveness and have a joy that bursts out in thankfulness to the Messiah.  I’ve been in the faith long enough to think that I’m not in need of anything. We don’t want to admit our own sin and the need to be forgiven.

But I need Jesus and so do you.  We all are sinners and we are in need of forgiveness.  We need to know that Jesus has forgiven us.  We need to feel that sense of gratitude that propels us to serve God and our sisters and brothers.

“Thanks, I needed that.”  Because I do need it and so do you.  And so do we all.

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.

Me and the Mona Lisa- Epiphany 6

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Narrative Lectionary Reflection

February 12, 2017

Luke 7:18-35

 

It’s been nearly 20 years since I took my first trip abroad.  I spent two weeks trekking Spain, France and the UK seeing all the stops that one is supposed to do when in Europe.

One evening, while in Paris, I went to the Louvre.  I was interested in seeing the Leonardo daVinci’s famous Mona Lisa.  This has to be the most well-known painting in the world.  It is talked about so much that you start to think this is a grand painting in size.  So you enter the room where it is located.  A crowd is gathered it around it and it is the only painting that is encased in a plastic box to protect it from the masses.

If you were expecting a painting that might fill the gallery wall, your expectations would be dashed pretty quickly.  It’s maybe a bit larger than the a regular size iPad.

None of this takes away from its beauty.  But the real thing is not always what we expect.

Which is probably what John the Baptist was thinking in today’s text.  He’s sitting in jail and hearing from his disciples that Jesus is healing the servant of a Roman centurion and raising a widow’s son from the dead Our faith is always about God and people.

This probably wasn’t what John was expecting.  He was preaching about fires and threshing floor and separating wheat from chaff.  John was hardcore, and he expect the one he was preparing the way for was going to kick the Romans out and put those Pharsiees in their place.

But then the real Jesus shows up and it’s not what he expected. So he asks Jesus that question,”Are you the one who is coming, or should we look for someone else?”

Jesus’ response is interesting because he doesn’t directly answer John.  Instead he tells John what he’s done: “Those who were blind are able to see. Those who were crippled now walk. People with skin diseases are cleansed. Those who were deaf now hear. Those who were dead are raised up. And good news is preached to the poor.”

Jesus tells John the Baptist what he’s done instead of saying who he is.  John learns who Jesus is through what he has done.  John is to witness what Jesus has done.

Who is Jesus to you?  What do we expect from Jesus?  Maybe we expect Jesus to prevent hunger or keep kids from dying in wars or stop terrorist attacks.  We have an imaginary God that  does what we expect and then we have a real God that is not doing what we expect at all.

We will be disappointed at times that God isn’t all that we wanted.  But remember what Jesus said: the blind can see.  The dead are raised.  The poor have good news. Remember what God has done in your life and in the life of others.

Jesus never lives up to our expectations.  But the Jesus we get, the real one is far more wonderful than anything we could have expected.

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.

Choose God, Choose Life — Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 6A (Deuteronomy)

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Deuteronomy 30:15-20New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

15 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20 loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

 

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We have choices to make in life. Sometimes the choices are inconsequential, such as a flavor of ice cream. Other times, they determine life and death. I’m not of the mindset or theology that suggests that God has everything planned out. That’s not to say I don’t think that God is active in the world, it’s just that I think we contribute a great deal to our futures. In my understanding of things, we have free will and so our choices make a difference. Such is the message we find here in Deuteronomy 30.

In his closing message to the people of Israel, as they prepare to cross the river, Moses offers a warning of sorts, as well as a word of blessing to the people of Israel. They will soon enter a new land, the land of promise. Their future prosperity depends on the choices they make. Will they embrace their God who led them to this point? Or, will they depart from the ways of God? Moses won’t be crossing the river them. Whatever happens on the other side of the river, will happen without his involvement.  This will be his final resting spot. He’s made his choices, but those who cross the river will have their own choices to make.

If they desire prosperity and life, rather than adversity and death, then the people will love God, walk in God’s ways, and obey God’s commandments. The heart of their life together is rooted in the commandments as summarized in the Shema: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is your God, the Lord alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut. 6:4-5). In other words, their future is wrapped up in the covenant that God had made with them as they left slavery and crossed the desert toward ultimate freedom. The choices they make as they prepare to cross the river will have consequences for them, but also for their descendants. That is why, after Moses delivered the Commandments to the people, he told them to pass on the words he shared to their children (Deut. 6:6).

So, if the people choose wrongly. That is, if they choose to give themselves to other gods and other ways, they will experience death. Remember the foundation of the covenant is choosing to love God “with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” So, if your heart is led astray and you embrace other gods, you will experience the consequences of those choices. You will perish and not live for long in the land of promise. The key sin here is idolatry. So, we are faced with a question. Are we given to idolatry? Are we tempted to give our loyalty to gods other than the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob? The consequence here ultimately is alienation from the Land. You shall not live in it for long, if you don’t keep the covenant stipulations. Brett Younger puts it this way:

Most of our decisions do not seem important, but life and death are before us every day. We choose death when we ignore God and choose anything inferior. Death is a slow process of giving ourselves to what does not matter. Modern life is impoverished with a lack of purpose. We rush to meet deadlines that are insignificant and bow before ideas that are not worthy. [Feasting on theWord, pp. 341, 343].

So, what is significant that we should give our attention to it? What is God’s desire? What is it that God wants from us?  The prophet Micah offers some clues: justice, mercy, humility (Mic. 6:8). At this moment in time we’re confronted with the plight of refugees who flee persecution and war. How is this a concern of God? What is required of us? We witness a diversifying of our communities. How is this a concern of God? If these are concerns of God, and the word to us, is to walk in the ways of God, how should we respond?

I spend time with social media, probably more than I should, and what I witness are choices being made. Some are productive, many are not. Indeed, many of our choices as expressed on social media are destructive. They express our idolatries, our desire for power and prestige. They give vent to our anger. These are often choices that bring death not life. So, how do we move from death to life?

As we read Moses’ final sermon, his summing up of the Law, it’s not all bad news. Remember there’s a choice involved. Moses would rather the people choose life. Yes, “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.”

I again turn to the words of Brett Younger, who writes:

Worship with all your heart. Pray genuinely. Love your church. Believe that God loves you. Remember the stories of Jesus. See Christ in the people around you. Share God’s love with someone who has forgotten it. Delight in God’s good gifts. See that all of life is holy. Open your heart to the Spirit. Search for something deeper and better than your own comfort. Live in the joy beneath it all. Let God make your life wonderful. [Feasting on the Word, p. 343].

These are wise words. These are words of life that are reflective of the message of Deuteronomy. The choice is ours. We have free will. We’re not beholden to idolatry, even if t sometimes comes easily to us. The river stands before us. We have choice as to whether we will cross over into the promised land. Once there, we’ll have other choices that are matters of life and death. Which will you choose? Life or death?

bobcornwall

Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan and is the author of a number of books including Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016) and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015).

Ernie’s Sabbath- Epiphany 4

Ernie’s Sabbath- Epiphany 4

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Narrative Lectionary Reflection

January 29, 2017

Luke 6:1-11

kytt8l5jlds-zach-bettenErnie is someone you couldn’t forget.

Ernie attended a church that I served at in Minneapolis.  He has some intellectual disabilities which means that he doesn’t really have a sense of when to speak and when to keep quiet.  It was not unusual for him to speak up in a loud voice during worship about a certain issue.  Ernie just didn’t do quiet.

The interesting thing was that the congregation was not bothered by Ernie’s frequent outbursts.  In the nearly five years I served at this church, I never once saw anyone make a face at Ernie for speaking out of turn.  Everyone acted as if this was just a normal part of the worship experience, because in reality it was a normal part of worship.  Ernie was part of the liturgy of this congregation and there was always room for whatever he was going to say.

Worship is a serious thing, but sometimes it can become a performance that seeks total perfection.  In some places, Ernie would not be tolerated because he interuppted the service.  This church took worship seriously as well, but it didn’t take it so seriously that it forgot the people who were a part of the worship experience.

In Luke 6, Jesus has two encounters over two Sabbaths with the Pharisees.  The first encounter was when some of Jesus disciples picked off the heads of wheat, rolled them and then ate them.  The Pharisees (who I guess were taking part in massive dragnet of Galilean wheatfields) asked Jesus why he was allowing this violation of the Sabbath.  Jesus responds telling them about the time when David and his fighters were in need of food and all that was around was the bread of the Presence, a ceremonial bread.  David broke a law, but it was for an important reason, to allow fighters to eat.  For Jesus, the Sabbath was made for humanity and not the other way around.

On another Sabbath, Jesus sees the Pharisees in the audience and Jesus heals a man with withered hand.  He heals the man, which might have again been seen as a violation of the law.  But for Jesus what mattered at that moment was healing this man.

Jesus wasn’t dismissing Sabbath.  He was a Jew, after all.  But he was upset when adherance to the law trumped serving God and their neighbor.

Going back to Ernie, of course you want to have an orderly worship service.  But it doesn’t have to come at the expense of welcoming Ernie to worship God.

Our faith is always about God and people.  When we start to worry about other things like making sure we do all the right things in our faith, we start to lose the whole meaning of the faith we proclaim.

Ernie could be hard to deal with at times, but I am glad for having known him.  He helps me not to take things so seriously and reminds me what this whole God thing is all about people and God.  

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.

There’s Only You and Me and We Just Disagree- Epiphany 2

There’s Only You and Me and We Just Disagree- Epiphany 2

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Narrative Lectionary Reflection
January 15, 2017
Luke 4:14-30

So let’s leave it alone ’cause we can’t see eye to eye
There ain’t no good guy, there ain’t no bad guy
There’s only you and me and we just disagree

-Dave Mason, We Just Disagree

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It was about 20 years ago, that I attended a large Baptist church in Washington, DC. The church was an odd mix, or at least it would be odd today. Evangelicals and liberals were somehow able to worship together, along side a healthy dose of members from Latin America and Asia.

The church decided at some point to hire a pastor to the join the good-sized multi-pastor staff. The person chosen was a woman with great pastoral care skills. At the time, there was a bit of controversy because she was pro-gay and some of the evangelicals in the church weren’t crazy about that.

I was at a meeting where a member of the congregation stood up. She was one of the evangelical members of the congregation and she had what could be considered a “traditional” understanding on homosexuality, but she spoke in favor of calling the pastor. You see, the pastor had been involved with congregation for a few years and the two had gotten to know each other. “We don’t agree,” I recall this woman saying when talking about the issue they didn’t see eye-to-eye on. But this woman was a good friend and she saw her as the right person for the job.

What’s so interesting about this story is that I don’t think it could happen today. Churches like the one in DC really don’t exist anymore. Evangelicals and liberals have sorted themselves into different churches and don’t really know each other. Which only makes it easier to highlight differences and demonize each other.

In Luke 4, Jesus comes back home to Nazareth and go to the local synagogue.  He reads from Isaiah 61:1-2, which is an inspiring text.  The people love this, a local boy made good. 

But Jesus knew what was going on in the hearts, so he decides to tell some more stories.  One is a story from I Kings 17 where the great prophet Elijah helped feed a non-Jewish woman and her son in the town of Zarapath during a famine.  The famine struck Jewish widows as hard as non-Jewish widows, but this was where God led Elijah.  Jesus then goes to 2 Kings 5 and tells the story of the prophet Elisha healing Naaman, a Syrian (not Jewish) general, from leporesy.  He was healed even though there were many in Israel that suffered from the skin problems.

This did not go well with the crowd.  The mood went from pride to a homocidal rage.  The pushed Jesus towards a cliff in order to throw him off, but Jesus was able to slip away.

Sometimes we can mouth the words that Jesus loves everybody, but in our heart of hearts, they are just that: words.  Deep down, we want God to provide for us, but not for that evangelical Christian.  We want to be showered with blessings, but we don’t want that liberal Christian getting anything from God.  We want to be God’s special people and we want those that disagree with us to go to hell.

But God doesn’t work that way.  When it is said that God so loved the world, it really means God so loved the world; as in everybody. Instead of welcoming people into God’s realm, we start to act like the holy bouncers deciding who is on the special list and who isn’t.

Jesus had a good way of holding up a mirror to people who thought they were good people and showing them who they really are.  Maybe if we were living in first century Palestine and Jesus showed us how we fall short, we might to join in throwing Jesus off a cliff.

When Martin Luther King Jr. was working for racial justice in the American South, many whites were willing to support him.  Maybe because they didn’t like the South and thought it backwards.  But when King started to take his campaign to the North, starting with Chicago in the 1966, many whites were turned off.  He had chosen to show a mirror to White Northerners and what they saw wasn’t pretty.

But the thing is, as much as this passage shows that people are not so pure, it also shows that God is loving of us, all of us even when we act like jerks. 

The two women in Washington, DC were able to get beyond boundaries to love and support each other.  In our modern age which seems more and more divided by class, race and ideology, we need to place our trust in a God that loves us all and pray that God give us a heart big enough to love “those people” as well.

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.

A Light to the Nations – Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 2A (Isaiah 49)

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January 15, 2017

 Isaiah 49:1-7 Common English Bible (CEB)

49 Listen to me, coastlands;
pay attention, peoples far away.
The Lord called me before my birth,
called my name when I was in my mother’s womb.
He made my mouth like a sharp sword,
and hid me in the shadow of God’s own hand.
He made me a sharpened arrow,
and concealed me in God’s quiver,
    saying to me, “You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I show my glory.”
But I said, “I have wearied myself in vain.
I have used up my strength for nothing.”
Nevertheless, the Lord will grant me justice;
my reward is with my God.
And now the Lord has decided—
the one who formed me from the womb as his servant—
to restore Jacob to God,
so that Israel might return to him.
Moreover, I’m honored in the Lord’s eyes;
my God has become my strength.
He said: It is not enough, since you are my servant,
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to bring back the survivors of Israel.
Hence, I will also appoint you as light to the nations
so that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.
The Lord, redeemer of Israel and its holy one,
says to one despised,
rejected by nations,
to the slave of rulers:
Kings will see and stand up;
commanders will bow down
on account of the Lord, who is faithful,
the holy one of Israel,
who has chosen you.

**************

We are in the season of Epiphany, the season of revelation and light. It probably is true of every era, but it seems as if we have entered a season of darkness. Many feel like night has fallen, and we simply can’t see our way forward. For some, this might feel like being abandoned by God. They join the Psalmist crying out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Psalm 22:1). There is good news, however, for into this darkness steps the servant of God, who reveals the glory of God.

The Day of Epiphany has come and passed. We have joined Jesus at his baptism, where we watched as the Spirit fell upon him, and the voice from heaven declared him to be the beloved. In him, we declare, God is incarnate. In him, as John reveals, the light shines in the darkness, and despite everything that came against him, the darkness did not and does not overcome him (John 1:5). During this season after Epiphany we attend to the light. We look for the places where God is being revealed, so that we might be made new. With this in mind, we continue our journey through the readings from the Hebrew Bible.

The Word of God as revealed through the words of the one we call Second Isaiah, speaks of a Servant of God who is the light to the nations. When we read a text like this, especially reading at as Christians, we need to take stock of the multiple levels of interpretation that are present. I think it’s appropriate for Christians to see Jesus in these words, but we must be careful about jumping to that interpretation without attending to original contexts and readings.

The prophet tells of one who speaks to the Coastlands, that is to a people living faraway? Who is this one who speaks? Who is the one who was called from his mother’s womb? At level, this must be the prophet’s own sense of call. We don’t know his identity, but he reveals to us that before he was born, God had chosen him for a purpose.

I wonder, do those of us attending to this text, see ourselves being called by God from before birth? Do we have a sense of God’s guiding hand upon our lives? I wonder about that at times. Even though I didn’t anticipate being a pastor early in life, there are a few markers along the way that might be suggestive. I was an acolyte at the age of 9, serving at the altar, at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church. Now I was one of only two children in the church of an age who could do this, but still is this a sign?  I would later serve as a lay reader at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Fr. Green decided that since I read the liturgy with enough volume, I might as well lead it. Was this a sign of a call?  I ask these questions from the perspective of a non-Calvinist, non-predestinationist, open theist, kind of Christian, who nonetheless finds some sense of purpose in words like this.

While I think that the prophet is reading his own call into this text, it’s clear that he also has in mind the people of Israel (now the remnant we call Judah). The servant of God is Israel, or the remnant thereof. The people who heard this word lived exile in Babylon. They were wondering about their future. What they knew was that the capitol city lay in ruins, the Temple of God with it. The monarchy had been essentially destroyed as well. So, who would they be if they returned home? What would be their calling? The word of the prophet is quite direct: “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I show my glory.” When it comes to glory, we’re talking about light. A bit later in this passage, the prophet says to a people living in exile:

It is not enough, since you are my servant, to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the survivors of Israel. Hence, I will also appoint you as light to the nations so that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth. (v. 6).

It’s not enough for the exiles to return home. No, God has plans for Israel (the tribes of Jacob). God is appointing Israel to be the “light to the nations,” so that the message of salvation might reach the ends of the earth. That is Israel’s calling. It is also our calling.

From a Christian perspective, Jesus takes on the mantle of the servant. That is, Jesus is the one Isaiah describes as being the suffering servant. He is the one who is despised by the nations (even as Israel was despised). But, despite the rejection and the resistance, Jesus is the light of the world. As the light, he brings the salvation to the world. Yes, even to the ends of the earth. The commission that Jesus gives the Disciples on the day of Ascension reflects this message. “you will be my witnesses in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

The season of Epiphany (I prefer to speak of the Sundays after Epiphany rather than Ordinary Time) is a season of revelation and enlightenment. It is a season to highlight the message of salvation in Christ. Here we are, a people who have walked in darkness, but now we have seen a great light (Isaiah 9:2).   Having experienced the light, let us take up the calling to be a light to the nations, singing that children’s song: “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine, I’m gonna let it shine, I’m gonna let it shine.”

 

bobcornwallRobert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan and is the author of a number of books including Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016) and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015).

The Buzzcut- Baptism of Jesus

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Narrative Lectionary Reflection
January 8, 2017
Luke 3:1-22

hairdresser-1684815_640-1From the time I was about seven until maybe I was old enough to drive, my Dad would get me up at about 6am on a Saturday morning once a month to get to the barber shop before they opened around 7:30 or so. A line would form and Dad wanted to be among the first.

I hated doing this, especially during the cold, Michigan winters. Saturdays were for sleeping in and not trying to get to the barber shop before the other guy. However, we did it and maybe as a token of my patience, Dad would take me to breakfast where I would have pancakes.

I always got the same haircut; short, but not too close. For years, Dad would tell the barber what I wanted. I think when I got around 11 or 12, I started telling the barber what I wanted. Well, one Saturday, when I was about 13, I told the barber I wanted it cut short. So he went to work and I sat not paying attention. When he was done and spun me around, I was shocked; he had cut my hair really short. I mean were talking the next step was looking like Kojack. Now, these days, that is my standard haircut, but back then it wasn’t and I thought I looked horrible. I remember just crying like crazy. Here it was, I wanted a little off the top; and I what I got was a buzzcut.

This got me thinking about today’s passage; some people wanted a little off the top and John the Baptist was preaching a total buzzcut.

John the Baptist is not anyone’s favorite Biblical character. He’s rude and can’t say anything nice and he certainly lives up to that in today’s gospel, if you can it that. The passage opens with the crowds who were listening to John. Many in the crowd decided to come forward to be baptized. I’ve learned that baptism is about being reminded of God’s love for us, but I don’t think John was sitting in on my seminary class, because he calls those coming forward a “brood of vipers.” He tells them to produce fruit in keeping with repentance and to not rely on religious or family ties for salvation. He talks about an ax that is getting ready to cut down poor producing trees and throw them into the fire.

When was the last time you saw a preacher say that at a baptism? If they did, I can bet they didn’t stay in the pulpit very long.

There was a time when I would have said that poor John was off his rocker. He was preaching a message of hell and damnation, a message of what my Lutheran friends like to say, “works-righteousness.” On the other hand, Jesus preached a message of grace. But these days, John was preaching a message of salvation and grace, but he reminds us this grace isn’t cheap, but costly. John, like Jesus, was concerned with how we live. Yes, we are saved by grace not by works, but the eveidence of our faith relies on how we live. The best testimony of being a follower of Christ, is how we live our lives. Do we live them in the same way Jesus did, welcoming all, forgiving others and helping those in need?

I think if John was around today, he might call many of us snakes as well. There are too many people, especially Christians, who will shout loudly that they are religious, holy people and yet their actions say sharply otherwise.

There are a lot of people out there who think that to be a Christian means accepting certain truths; Jesus is God’s Son, Jesus died and rose again, Jesus is coming soon. If you believe that, then you are all set. But John seems to be saying that’s not enough. Of course Christians must believe in all of this, but if those beliefs aren’t lived on in our daily lives, are they real to others? If we say we believe in Christ, and yet ignore the poor, or turn people away because they are different, will people really believe us?

Christianity isn’t just about accepting certain beliefs; it’s also about living as a Christian. John the Baptist told those in the crowd to share with those who have none, don’t extort and don’t overtax the populace. He was telling people that if they were coming to be baptized; they need to live lives of repentance and not do this just for show.

On an Advent night a decade ago, I heard a memorable passage from the slain Archbishop Oscar Romero. He summed up nicely what Advent and by extension what following Jesus is all about:

Advent should admonish us to discover in each brother or sister that we greet, in each friend whose hand we shake, in each beggar who asks for bread, in each worker who wants to use the right to join a union, in each peasant who looks for work in the coffee groves, the face of Christ. Then it would not be possible to rob them, to cheat them, to deny them their rights. They are Christ, and whatever is done to them Christ will take as done to himself. This is what Advent is:

Christ living among us.

God isn’t interested in shaving a little off the top. God wants us changed, to live lives for others.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.