Thursday, December 29, 2011

Simeon's Song

Our texts for this New Year's Day/First Sunday in Christmas are Isaiah 61:10-62:3, Psalm 148, and Luke 2:22-40. You may read them here.

However, the key text for this week--Luke 2:22-40--is best not read, but heard, for it is a song! So, rather than writing about Simeon's song, sung in the Temple in response to meeting the Baby Jesus, I want to encourage you this week to listen to it. The text, from scripture, is sung in many liturgical traditions after communion, at funerals, or as part of Evening Prayers before bedtime. It is a song that has remained fresh in Christian imagination and worship for 2000 years. What makes Simeon's words so potent?

I encourage you to read Simeon's song lyrics below, then click the "play" button on the two links below to listen to two very different musical interpretations of them: One, by the ecumenical community in Taize, France, which offers Simeon's words repetitively in Latin; the other, by a contemporary songwriter who imagines the scene and the song that unfolded in the Temple and weaves them together with the words of "O Come O Come Emmanuel" that we have been singing expectantly throughout this season.

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

Listen and reflect: what do you hear in Simeon's song?

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Two Sides of the Story

Our texts for this Christmas Eve are Isaiah 9:2-7 and Luke 2:1-16, while our texts for Christmas Day are Isaiah 52:7-10 and John 1:1-5, 10-18.

It only happens once every 6 years or so: Christmas Eve falls on a Saturday. On these rare years, those of us in traditions that do not typically worship on Christmas morning (such as we Baptists!) get to pull a double-header, gathering to hear the story, sing the carols, and worship together not just on the candlelit eve of Jesus' birth, but also in the beautiful light of Christmas day.

"Why do we need church on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day?" I heard someone ask this week. "Wouldn't once cover it?" shot at the story of Jesus coming to earth, one means of celebrating this event and this work of God is definitely not enough if our Gospel texts for these two holy days are any indication. Luke and John cast two very different lights upon the story of Jesus coming to earth. Honestly, if you read them totally out of context, never having heard them before, would you even know they were accounts of the same tale?

Luke speaks of an event bound to history, taking place in a specific time and moment. It tells of the journey of an ordinary couple through the Judean countryside, birthing a son about whom we are told only three things: he was his mother's firstborn, he was wrapped in rags, and his cradle was a feeding trough. Very earthy stuff. Then, remarkably, angels do announce this child's birth--but still it's just to shepherds, a few guys lurking in nearby fields--more ordinary, lowly people. Interestingly, never is the child given a name in this passage--he is given titles, but never a name.

John's account, on the other hand, hearkens back not to a moment of local history, but to the beginning of all history--his opening words of "In the beginning" exactly mirror the words that began Genesis 1's creation account. Here we learn not about the origins and journey of any ordinary person, but of the Word--the logos--the very wisdom of God, which is now taking on flesh and dwelling among God's people. This Word-made-flesh is not just any human; this Word-made-flesh is showing us the fullness of God, and inviting all who encounter him into fullness of life as God's children. This One who created all is breaking into creation is creating the world--and us--all over again. It's as cosmic as a vision can get, one of a scope beyond our imagination--yet John does take a moment to get direct. This one about whom we are speaking, this Word made flesh? His name is Jesus.

Luke tells the story in prose, in a story that can be acted out by children in costumes; John offers us poetry, words that create space for imagination but paint few concrete pictures. Both inspire awe, imagination, and wonder at a God who seems to do everything except the predictable--yet from totally different sides of the story. So come join us this Christmas Eve (worship at 5 PM!) AND Christmas Day (worship at 10 AM!) as we get the gift of viewing Jesus from both of these perspectives--above us and beside us, among us and all around us, through stories and songs of grace that we can never tell and sing enough. We need both sides of the Jesus story, and this year we actually get to spend time sitting amongst the beauty of both!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Getting the Good News Through

Our scriptures for this fourth Sunday of Advent are 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16 and Luke 1:26-38. But I want to begin our reflection for this Sunday when we consider, in our season of waiting, how we are waiting for love by looking back at what we talked about this past Sunday: how we are waiting for the joy of good news. There was an incredibly powerful quote I meant to include in our conversation around this in the sermon this past Sunday, so since I neglected to do that I will post it here:

"We all long to hear a good word: a word that brings good news, a word that can sustain us, a word that can give us the vision and courage to make it through another day, a word that tells us God is with us. Precisely what that 'good word' is, what it says, will vary from context to context. A person who is drowning doesn't want to hear about food any more than a person who is starving wants to be thrown a life preserver. We each long to hear a word that speaks to where we are, in our own particular place and time." (Professor Holly Hearon,

I think it's true--we are each waiting for good news--but good news is not uniform for everyone. It will not be received in the same way by everyone. We hear every piece of news colored by our histories, our needs, the ways we have been burned or blessed in the past, the way we imagine the future is "supposed" to be.

Think about the good news that unfolded in Luke 1. When Mary's cousin Elizabeth got word she was pregnant--a miracle in her old age after years of barrenness!--this was good news indeed--almost too good to be true for one who had been waiting for this news for decades. But for Mary? At the age of maybe 13 or 14, this was the last news Mary was looking for--it was, in many ways, like being thrown a life preserver when water was nowhere in sight. No wonder, at the angel's appearance and words to her, she found herself not immediately filled with joy deeply troubled, disturbed, confused, rattled. Why would God seek to bring good news to the world in this way--a way that, it seemed, would almost certainly mean bad news for young, unwed Mary? Why would God choose this route to reach us?

I've been captured this Christmas season by a beautiful song co-written and recorded by one of my favorite singer/songwriters, Andy Gullahorn. "I Will Find a Way" dares to imagine God trying to figure out how to bring God's love to a world that God was not sure would be able to receive God's love. What creative ways would God have to find to get this good news, this good Word that is Jesus, across in the context of our broken, suspicious world? The song speaks of a broken, abused young woman—a woman maybe Mary’s age—and speaks from God’s perspective in considering how to get the good news of love across to her. I strongly encourage you to listen to the song here and consider how God had to be creative--unconventional--unexpected--if good news that would completely blow anything else we have ever experienced out of the water was to be received by a world that, in Gullahorn's words, "gave up on love waiting for a change."

We wait…but how ready are we actually to receive such overwhelmingly good news? Are our hearts ready to make room for Christ’s presence? If not, what is keeping that love out? What must God break through to come to us once again?

And once we receive God’s love…to what lengths are we willing to go to see that love carried into the world, to ensure God’s good word can be heard by those who long for it most desperately? What can we learn from God’s choice to become incarnate in us about how we, then, can make Christ’s love intimately present to the world?

Friday, December 9, 2011

When Everyone Does Their Part

Our scripture texts this week are Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Luke 1:46-55; and John 1:6-8, 19-28. Give them a read through here.

Maybe I'm just on a strange grammar kick right now, or in a stretch of being particularly attentive to words, but reading through our passages for this week--particularly Isaiah and Luke--made me think, again, about the power of verbs and how they are used in different ways. This time, it was not verb tenses that struck me so much as they did last week, but rather who is called upon to carry out the various actions named by these prophetic songs.

Consider the verbs invoked by Isaiah. In this vision, actions are attributed to three different subjects. If we were to sort them out, we would find that this passage tells us that

The servant(s) of God will...
  • bring good news
  • bind up (or heal/mend)
  • proclaim
  • comfort
  • provide
  • give
  • greatly rejoice!

God will...
  • love justice
  • hate thievery and crime
  • faithfully give
  • make a covenant
  • bless
  • cause righteousness and praise to spring up

And all the people (in response to these actions of the servant(s) and God) will...
  • be called
  • build up
  • raise up
  • repair
  • acknowledge God's blessing
Usually, you need nouns and pronouns and participial phrases and crazy things like that to make a picture complete...but this picture of verbs is a pretty remarkable one in and of itself, a picture of sheer activity. Just sit with these verbs for a down the three lists, slowly, consecutively. Imagine...if each of us did what God had called us to--the servants of God in community, the world around them witnessing the work of these communities, and God faithfully carrying out God's promises...what vision of a new heaven and earth might we receive? Would it be one very much like the song of a world turned upside-down that Mary sang--a world turned upside down in all the right ways?

How might the wholeness God desires for creation come to pass if we all, as faithfully as we knew how, chose to do our part--to bring vision of a world embraced by joy to life? To what action are you being called in this season of waiting, preparation, and transformation--and what action do you most long for from our God, and from our world?

Friday, December 2, 2011

Waiting for Resolution

Our scripture texts for this second Sunday of Advent are Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 85:8-13, and Mark 1:1-8. Read them in advance of Sunday here.

As a writer, one of my weaknesses is picking a verb tense to use throughout a piece. My editors are always telling me, "Abby, just pick one and stick with it!"--but still I find myself shifting back and forth, not quite sure whether the story I am telling is one past, one present, or one future.

In our Lectionary Bible Study this month, we noticed that the writer of Isaiah seems to struggle similarly to resolve his verb tenses--in the same passage, an event can be spoken of as past, present, and future; an action can be now and not yet; a reality can be complete and yet unseen. Such tension is typical of prophetic literature which connects God's past actions to what God is doing in the present and what God has promised yet to do.

Take, for example, our passage this week from Isaiah 40--a passage which helps this book make the turn from the impending threat of exile to living in exile and looking beyond it. Listen to the things that are said to be past, present, and future actions of God or God's people in this text:

In the past: Jerusalem "has served" and "has received"; the Lord "has spoken"

In the present: God's comfort, tender speech; we are to cry, prepare, make straight; we wither, fade; we must get up, lift up, not fear, say, see; God comes, rules.

In the future: The landscape shall be lifted up, shall be made low, shall become level; God shall be revealed, the people shall see and shall cry; God will stand forever, will feed, will gather, will carry and gently lead.

This week's Advent theme is that of peace, and peace--past, present, future--is an idea that this passage invites us to consider in all of its manifestations. How are we waiting for the resolution of tenses and tension in our own world--for peace to prevail? What has our experience of peace--or lack there of--been in the past? What is our present experience of peace? What is the future peace we envision and move towards? What is our role in all of this, and God's role, and the role of all the earth?

Big questions not easily resolved--but may we resolve to wait and wrestle with them in this season where we draw near to both what is now and what is not yet, even as we feel the continued impact of all that has been.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Our Advent Question

Our texts for this first Sunday in Advent are Isaiah 64:1-9 and Mark 13:24-37. You may read them here.

This Advent, I invite you to consider an important question:

What are you waiting for?

We live in a culture where we try to eliminate waiting as much as possible, but somehow waiting remains one of those things we cannot avoid.

We wait in line for those things we desperately need.
We wait for rides to show up that never come...
...and for flights endlessly delayed by forces beyond our control.
Around here, we wait in a LOT of traffic.
We wait for the phone to ring, bringing good news or bad, a voice we long for or a voice we dread.
We have waited--and continue to wait--for justice long overdue to be done.

We wait on tiptoe for the one we love to show up.

As Christmas approaches again, we continue the difficult work of waiting--for justice, for relationship, for the news we are craving, for dreams that it seems will never be realized. Advent is our season not to avoid this waiting, but to live into it--to take time to dig and assess what it is, really, that we are waiting for--yearning for--pleading for, sometimes with patience, sometimes with desperation.

What are you waiting for?

How are you waiting for it?

And why are we waiting in the first place?

Join us this Advent season as we wonder about and wrestle with these things, seeking among the questions the hope, peace, joy, and love for which we so deeply and desperately long.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Time to Start Over, Yet Again

Our texts for this Christ the King/Reign of Christ Sunday are Joshua 24:1, 14-25; Psalm 24; and Matthew 25:31-46. You may read them here.

It's amazing to me how many different calendars we live by. There's the annual calendar that begins on January 1 and runs to December 31; there's the school year calendar, which begins (more or less) around Labor Day and ends sometime after Memorial Day; Birthdays mark the beginning of a new year in our individual lives; most organization have a Fiscal Year calendar, which sometimes starts in July and runs to June; in our congregation, we install new leadership beginning October 1, with terms ending September 30. That's a lot of beginnings, a lot of endings, a lot of starting over.

But that's not all: we come this week to the end and beginning of another calendar by which we are invited to shape our lives: the Liturgical Calendar, the cycle of seasons by which we order our worship. This Sunday, called Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday (to learn more about this lesser known day in our liturgical year, check out this site), marks the final Sunday of our Worship Year. Next Sunday, the first Sunday of Advent, is the true first Sunday of our new worship year, no matter what our wall and Google calendars say! On this day, we look forward to the day when Christ will be recognized and reign as king over all the nations; next week, even as we continue looking forward, we start to turn our gaze back, back to the days of waiting for Christ to come among us the first time, to be born in the flesh. Next week, we get to start the story of Jesus all over again, hear it all again as if for the first time.

I appreciate the cycle of the church year, the chance to start over and retrace our steps every November/December by going back to the beginning, and even this plethora of new-beginning options in the various calendars we live by because I need each and every one of them--how we need these start-overs! I mean, just look at our text from Joshua--how many times have the Israelites already affirmed God as Lord, affirmed the covenant since they left Egypt? They praised God at the Red Sea, agreed to what God would say from Sinai before God even spoke the first commandment, covenanted with God once the commandments had been given, covenanted with God AGAIN once the Golden Calf worship had torn the covenant apart...the list goes on and on. Yet here we find yet another ending--the end of Joshua's life as leader of Israel--and another time to start over, to begin anew with a serious community promise to serve the Lord and no other God.

The people sound earnest; yet in spite of the pomp and circumstance, more start overs will be needed in the future....many, many more. They will forget...fall short...get confused...get dulled into sleep. They will have to decide again, over and over, who they are going to serve.

And so our texts for this week are good ones for this point in our year. The Covenant making ceremony in Joshua 24 sounds like an ending, but really it's just a beginning--and this is the life we live as well. In the coming days of starting over, may we remember the grace God gives us, over and over and over...may we find the courage and space to begin yet again.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

New Book, Same Scene?

Our Old Testament text for this week moves us into the book of Joshua--Joshua 3:3b-17--while our Gospel text brings us closer to the conclusion of our year-long commitment to hearing stories from the Gospel of Matthew--Matthew 25:14-30. The Psalm from which our Call to Worship will be drawn is also worth reading--Psalm 107.

After two months journeying with Moses through Exodus and Deuteronomy, a new day has dawned in the life of Israel. For the first time since leaving Egypt, they have a new leader, Joshua. They are about to enter a new land, the land God had promised them as part of God's covenant with them. "New" seems to be the key word here.

Yet...the scene before them doesn't look all that new. To get out of the wilderness, they must cross a body of water--just as they crossed one to enter it. This passage is rife with echoes of the crossing of the Red Sea that we spent time with in Exodus 14, and though this is a different generation than those who made that crossing, they have heard the story so many times that they feel like they were there in flesh. The Jordan River--even in flood stage--will be nothing compared to that crossing, with a whole sea in front of them and an army at their back! They can handle this, hands tied behind their backs.

Joshua can see this confidence among the people. They've lived in this region for a while now--they know the way across this river that has been their lifesource. Heck, some of them actually HAD crossed this river before, at some designated fords that made getting across less than intimidating (see Josh 2:7). They were ready for this; it was nothing they hadn't seen before--they could find their way. was different, and the way was not as obvious as it initially seemed. Thus this crossing begins with these instructions in Joshua 3:3-4: "When you see the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God being carried by the levitical priests, then you shall set out from your place. Follow it, so that you may know the way you should go, for you have not passed this way before."

The Israelites are ready to be independent--to spread their wings and fly, to show all that they've learned. They are ready to not just be wandering, clueless slaves but people connected to a land, charged with decision making and responsibility. And, in some senses, God is ready for them to grow up and be this, too.

But this does not mean that Israel knows where it's going and can leave God's leadership, God's miraculous provision, behind. What lies in front of them may look familiar, but it's a whole new chapter in their story--they are going to need God's presence to guide them each step of the way. Get ahead of that guidance, and the flood waters could very well swallow them up, no matter how prepared and smart and worldly they feel.

New book, apparently new scene, same story. As Adam and Eve tried to ingest God's knowledge, as the citizens of Babel sought to build their own skyscraper to heaven, as the Israelites tried to store up manna for the day God didn't come through, we don't want to admit how dependent we are. But since the scene before us is always new, how can we hope to move forward unless our ever-providing, leading, and knowing God goes first before us?

Friday, October 28, 2011

In the Meantime: Those other 13 chapters

Our texts this week go off lectionary for the Old Testament and back in the lectionary for the Gospel: Exodus 35:4-29, 36:1-3 (yes, I am not joking) and Matthew 21:33-46.

Here's something interesting about Exodus, as we come to the end of our lectionary journey through this book: The lectionary (suggested readings for the church year) is full of stories from Exodus' first half. We get tales from Exodus 1, 2, 3, 4, 12, 14, 15, 16, 17, and 20 this year alone. Exodus, however, does not end with chapter 20; it goes on another 20 chapters, out of which only two chapters are suggested to read: a snippet from Exodus 32 and another snippet from Exodus 33.

What happens in the rest of those chapters?

Little known fact: 13 of Exodus' 40 chapters (25-31 and 35-40) are devoted to the construction of the Tabernacle-- a Dwelling place for the presence of God, that may honor and host God's presence. Unlike the later Temple the Israelites would construct, this Tabernacle would be portable--mobile--able to accompany them in their travels and in their movement into the Promised Land. It would hold symbols of ways God had spoken to and provided for them and be constructed and adorned with meticulous and holy precision. It would be the place where God's glory could dwell...and God took tons of time, both before and after the Golden Calf debacle, to outline for the Israelites how they are to assemble such a place.

I am thinking, if 13 chapters are devoted to the blueprints of and process of setting up the Tabernacle, we probably should not ignore the role the Tabernacle played in early Israel's formation. When you read Exodus 35, it likely will overwhelm you (as it does me) with unfamiliar terms--ephods and mercy seats, lampstands and curtains for screens and tanned rams skins. We don't have much framework for these ideas and can quickly get lost in them...BUT, I think we do need to think about the meaning behind them. What does it look like for us to create holy space? How do the things we bring and build reflect what we believe about God? What does it look like for us to provide a welcome for God's presence, in whatever form God's presence may take? How do we create space for God to travel with us, to abide and dwell among us?

I hope that, even amidst the somewhat confusing language of these tabernacle chapters, this central story of Exodus can help us ask these central questions of ourselves this Sunday. Looking forward to being back together!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

In the Meantime: Can't We Stop Here?

Our scripture texts this week are Exodus 32:1-20 and Matthew 22:1-15--click on the passages to read! (And I promise, one day, things will be simpler and we'll rejoin our regularly scheduled lectionary programming...Advent is not far away, my friends!)

Sometimes I wonder if the writer of Exodus has ever heard of that mantra, "Quit while you're ahead." If the biblical author had, they might have wrapped up the book of Exodus just before this week's reading--that would make a more "happily ever after" place for the story of the liberation and reclamation of God's people from slavery into freedom to conclude. After God gives the Ten Commandments as the foundation of the covenant relationship, God spends the next three chapters (Exodus 21-23) elaborating on the ideas laid out to introduce the covenant. At the end of this elaboration, Exodus 24 announces that "the people answered with one voice, and said, ‘All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.'" The covenant is sealed, and confirmed with an amazingly intimate celebration of holy encounter: "Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel. Under his feet there was something like a pavement of sapphire, like the very heaven for clearness...Also they beheld God, and they ate and drank."

Seriously? Talk about a happy ending! These leaders of Israel got to attend a banquet where they SAW GOD and feasted together in (we can deduce) God's presence. The epilogue is even better: they return down the mountain, and God sets out giving Moses directions on how to build a tabernacle that can be a symbol of God's clear presence among them at all times, that can travel with them wherever they may go--a place they may worship intentionally in the presence of God, and know God's mercy and provision continue to journey with them. At the end, God gives Moses the "tablets of the covenant, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God" (Exodus 31:18)--God's words to hold on to forever. God has done it! God has laid out a way for Israel to be God's covenant people! As our Manna and Mercy Book so often put it, "God's dream is coming true!"

But this isn't the end of the Exodus story. Rather, we abruptly get this week's reading shattering all this hope and celebration. Why interrupt such a fairy tale ending to Israel's ordeal with a story that paints them (and, in some senses, their God) in such a volatile light? Why can't the covenant people just live blissfully, peacefully, and wisely after ever?

Well...because life with God is not a magical mystical fairy tale. It is messy. And though we might like to stop before this week's less beautiful story, we cannot--for we need to know what it looks like to live with God even in the midst of the messes we make, in the midst of relationships broken and patience worn thin and trust misplaced and self-indulgence run amok--because this is where we usually have to figure out how to live with God, and where God has to figure out how on earth to live with us, and where we struggle to live with one another amidst our frustrations.

So we need the part of the story that comes on Sunday--it may not be pretty, but it sure is true.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

In the Meantime: Faith Before Sight

Our scriptures this week are a bit scrambled from the ordinary lectionary because, really, there are moments when the Gospel and Old Testament pairings would just make a lot more sense if they were in a different order! (Look at me trying to rearrange the wisdom of many...forgive me, but really, I feel like we need to be reading these passages together today--shouldn't we read the commandments together with what Jesus had to say about them, even if what Jesus had to say doesn't technically show up in our Gospel readings for three more weeks?). SO, that said, our readings are Exodus 20:1-21, with Philippians 3:7-14 and Matthew 22:34-40 (click on each passage to read it).

We all know Exodus 20--the Ten Commandments. Well, at least we think we all know this ubiquitous passage that has sparked great public debate and great hair-raising appearances by Charlton Heston...though we may want to rethink how well we know them, being as a recent survey said more Americans could name the 7 ingredients of a Big Mac than the 10 Commandments (I added the link so you would know I was not making this up).

But even fewer of us, I think, know the scene that unfolds in Exodus 19, the chapter just before God opens God's mouth to give these "ten words" to the people to guide their life together. In Exodus 19, all the Israelites are gathered in a crowd at the base of this mountain towards which God has been aiming them for the last three months through the wilderness. There, God gives Moses a message to share with the people:

‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy [people].’ (Exodus 19:4-6)

God calls them to obedience, to live in covenant with God; and upon hearing these words, we are told in Exodus 19:8, "The people all responded together, 'We will do everything the LORD has said.'”

OK, so here is how I read this, though I may be wrong: the people are agreeing to God's covenant before they have even heard what it will be. The covenant words are not given until Exodus 20; here in Exodus 19, they know a covenant is coming, but do not yet know what it will contain. But these people--so often filled with doubt, grumbling, and still new in their knowledge of this God--agree to live by this covenant about to be given before they know what will be included.

Are they insane? I basically never agree to anything before I hear the details. I mean, if you say, "Can you do me a favor?" even if you are one of my dearest and most trusted friends, I'll usually wait to hear what the favor is before replying "Yes"...just because you never know. How much would you have to love and trust someone to agree with what they are going to say and to promise to live by their words before you even know what words they are going to speak?

But I think that is what makes this one of Israel's shining moments in its history: this crazy God has delivered them from Egypt, brought them through the Red Sea, given them water from a rock and bread and meat like rain from heaven. Everything God has promised so far has, miraculously, happened. So now...whatever God asks of them...they agree, sight unseen. They agree simply because of what they have come to know of this Yahweh character thus far, trusting that God's name is true: God will be who God will be into the future, forever, no matter what God may ask of them.

I am terrified by this kind of faith. But isn't this what all faith is--trusting the character of God enough to trust that, whatever is to come, God will make for a us a way of life, a way to walk? It boggles my mind that Israelites who have lost faith in moments of just a little thirst or a rumble in their stomachs can make such a big promise in this moment...but still, in spite of their stumbling, they want to be a people who put faith before sight--because of who they believe this God to be. The Israelites were even more clueless about what was about to come than we who more quickly name Big Mac components than commandments...yet they felt they had enough of a clue, based on who God is, that they could promise to seek to live in these ways.

Now that's faith. Scary faith. Real faith. Risky faith. Faith that makes me stand with them at the foot of the mountain and ask, "Can I really commit myself to God's hopes for me and the ways God wants me to live before I even know fully what they are? Can we do that today as a faith community--be those who commit to God by faith even before we have sight?"

Thursday, September 29, 2011

In the Meantime: The Mountain's Getting Closer...

This week we are going slightly off lectionary in our Exodus journey to include a passage that is not part of the lectionary readings: Exodus 18:13-27, which you can read here. Our epistle and gospel readings will be from the lectionary--Philippians 2:1-13 (a passage, in my opinion, that you can never read enough!) and Matthew 21:23-32, which can be found here.

When God commissioned Moses from the burning bush, God made Moses a promise: "This shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you," God said to Moses: "When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain" (Exodus 3:12). God made it clear even before Moses' mission to be God's agent of liberation began that their voyage out of Egypt and towards the land of promise would include a return to this place where Moses first met God, where God made God's self known as the hearer of the oppressed and the great I AM. It has been a long road back to the mountain, but by Exodus 17 and 18, Sinai--the mountain of God's presence, of God's promise--is just beginning to take shape in front of them. Something big is on the horizon, literally and metaphorically.

Like any long trip, however, the last few minutes can seem neverending, making you feel like that destination cannot come quickly enough and, in fact, may not get here at all. At the beginning of Exodus 17, there is another water shortage, and quarreling breaks out among the people yet again and leads Moses to cry out in exasperation--if Moses were an overwrought mother, it is at this point that I could hear him yell something like, "Don't you MAKE me pull this car over and separate you all!"

The water need is addressed yet again by a God who apparently handles roadtrips with exceptional patience and grace. As soon as they've all been refreshed, though, comes a bigger problem: the Israelites face their first attack, by the Amalekites. Here we get a glimpse of the future as Joshua--who will take over leadership of the people when Moses no longer can lead--steps into his first starring role. Yet Moses remains integral to the battle--amazingly, it is only as long as he holds up his staff--the staff that parted the waters and brought water from the rock--that the Israelites find themselves ahead in the battle. When his arms grow tired and begin to sag, others hold up his arms for him, keeping his arms "steady until the sun set" (I love this image from Exodus 17:12).

And so, many challenges must be overcome before the people can set up camp at the base of the mountain and come to that much anticipated place of worshipful encounter with God. Yet, in the beginning of Exodus 18 we find that before they can climb the mountain the Israelites have one more thing to accomplish: reunion and reconciliation with some of their estranged family, the Midianites. Moses now sees his father-in-law Jethro, wife, and two children for the first time since he returned to Egypt, and these branches of the family tree of God's people are reunited in worship and fellowship and peace. God's family, at least symbolically, is coming to the foot of Mt. Sinai more whole than they have been since Cain turned on Abel, Ishmael was cast out, and Jacob deceived Esau. In this reunion, the way is opened for Jethro to be an unlikely but important voice in shaping Israel's future (which we will talk about in our text this Sunday).

Fighting and reconciliation--these are the movements through which God's people move as the mountain grows closer in their sight. Will these experiences of anger, violence, and then restoration make the children of Israel ready to hear God's words from that hill and learn what it is they truly left Egypt for?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

In the Meantime: Songs and Springs

Our lectionary readings for this week are Exodus 16:1-15, Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45, and Matthew 20:1-16. You can read them here. Our blog discussion this week, however, will focus on what happened "in the meantime" between last week's passage of the parting of the Red Sea and this week's passage of the gift of manna to the hungry people.

It never occurred to me, before just now, that Exodus 15:1 should be one of my favorite Bible verses. Why, you ask? Because it bears this good news: "Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord." Here, my fellow lovers of rock and jazz, of piano and guitar, of choir anthems and songs of praise, is the first appearance in the Bible of that glorious form of human expression called music. It is here, after God has made God's self known to them in a crazy display of power, after they have made it to the far side of the sea by impossible faith, that we get our first recording of people bursting into song.

Can you imagine the moment? Stuttering Moses, often not able to get a solid sentence out, discovers the richer sounds his voice box can project. A sense of shared community exists for the first time among the Israelites as their voices join together in unison and harmony. The song of praise, which expresses what they'd learned about their God in more depth and layers than any simple words they could have spoken, goes on and on and on; and then, just when it seems to be over, even the women are given a voice: Moses' sister Miriam--the one who once watched her brother floating near his death in the waters and who had now seen the waters close over those who had oppressed and imprisoned them for so long--takes up tambourines and leads her fellow women in an encore of song and dance: "Sing!" she cries. "Sing!" On this day, song became part of the worship of the people of God--a component of worship that I now find it hard to imagine approaching God without.

Once the singing fades out, however, the people have to continue to follow God's command to journey. They leave the shores of the sea and travel for three long days--days which take them far from water. Finally, they come upon a spring--woohoo, let's praise God again!!--only, wait--don't praise God. This water has a taste so bitter it could be more deadly to them than dehydration. And so, their songs of praise are quickly supplanted by murmurs and grumbles, their rejoicing canceled out by the fears induced by their harsh new reality. Again, though--surprisingly quickly, actually--God acts on their behalf. God shows Moses how to turn the water sweet, and they drink deeply, soothing their parched throats before venturing on. When they reach their next stop, they discover their momentary panic had been premature: the next stop beyond Marah, Elim, had "twelve springs and seventy palm trees, and they camped there near the water." They have returned, again, to the water brings life, to springs that well up songs of praise within them.

I think this first chapter of Israel's life post-Red Sea is an important one for entering into the next chapter. Take time to read this one, then read on into Exodus 16. Where do you see parallels? Where do you see conflicts? Why, just one chapter later, do these suddenly liberated slaves now cease to sing?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

In the Meantime: "Let My People Go!"

Our lectionary passages this week are Exodus 14:10-29 (I altered the lectionary inclusions a little bit), Romans 14:7-12, and Matthew 18:21-35--check them out here.

A LOT happens between the call of Moses (last week's story) and the passage of the children of Israel through the watery walls of the Sea (this week's story). Living into his call from God was no easy task for Moses--I think Moses knew this, explaining why he went to such great lengths to argue with God about God's choice of a leader. Yet once Moses turned aside to look at the bush, he was in for the long haul; and a long haul indeed it would be.

Moses leaves the glow of the bush and enters the throes of despair. His worst fears come true: no one is listening to him. He goes to Pharaoh to ask Pharaoh to let the Israelites go for three days--just three days!--to the wilderness to worship this God who has appeared to them. Pharaoh's reply is constant: “Who is the LORD, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD and I will not let Israel go.”

Then, Moses goes to tell the people what God has promised--liberty from their hard labor that is becoming increasingly harsh, life as God's protected people in a new land that can be theirs. But even Moses' own people "did not listen to him because of their discouragement and harsh labor" (Exodus 6:9). Pharaoh's grip of power is so tight that it seems no one and no thing can loose it--the Israelites are as confident of this as Pharaoh himself appears to be, scoffing in the face of this God.

At this point, however, God becomes determined that all of these doubters--Egyptians and Hebrews alike--have an opportunity to see a different power at work; and so a story unfolds that could cue music for Irving Berlin's great song "Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better" from the musical Annie Get Your Gun-- a spirited duet in which two singers attempt to outdo each other in increasingly complex tasks. This is perhaps an inappropriately light way to look at the very intense drama that unfolds in Exodus 7-12. The plagues have always troubled me--I mean, who would not be troubled by the suffering and death that unfolds in this struggle? But it seems that, in the context of this narrative, their point is clear: to make obvious that God's power is greater than any human power, even the seemingly unshakable power of Pharaoh, the only power the people have ever known. Anything Pharaoh can do, God can overrule--God can do all things better, not just in theory but in visible action. I love how Walter Brueggeman describes the purpose of the plagues narrative:

"The plague cycle makes the point that the processes of human power are not as cut, dried, and foreclosed as the powerful imagine. Another power is loose in the world that finally precludes any system of power that overrides the fragility of human persons and human community. This inscrutable power will not finally tolerate such abuse. At the center of public history is “wonder,” which no ruthless pharaoh can resist or squelch. It is that wonder wrought by God that in the end creates human possibilities for freedom and justice, for well-being and covenant." (The New Interpreters Bible)

This background, I think, is needed to put the crossing of the Red Sea in perspective--another horrible narrative that ends in life for some and death for others. Why carry out the Exodus in this way? Is God just showing off? This story is central to Israelite history...why are we called to wrestle with it again and again? I confess that my moral self still doesn't know what to do with the violence, and I may still not know at the end of Sunday--in fact, I probably won't. It grates on what I feel is right, on the love of God that I believe extends to all people. But maybe, from time to time, we need to be reminded that the great power of God extends to all people as well. Sometimes, if we are going to walk through the sea, we need more than the embrace of love--we need to know a power bigger than we can comprehend is backing us up. Sometimes we need to know God not just intimately, but powerfully; sometimes we need to be reminded how different from us God truly is.

But I am definitely still working on this. What do you think?

Thursday, September 8, 2011

In the Meantime: Hints of Vocation

Our lectionary texts this week (as we continue to run a couple of Sundays behind everyone else--but that's okay!) are Exodus 3:1-15, Romans 12:9-21, and Matthew 16:21-28. You may read them here.

In the Meantime: Throughout our Exodus series in worship, I plan to use the blog space to fill in the gaps in the Exodus story, highlighting the texts we will not be covering in worship that fall in between the ones we will be spending focused time with. So, today we will cover the ground between Moses' birth and his encounter with a burning bush: the growing-up years found in Exodus 2:10-25.

The Burning Bush encounter of Moses with God is one of the most well-known accounts in scripture (thank you, Charlton Heston); what is lesser known, however, is what led Moses to be out in the far corner of the wilderness in the first place.

Moses, you see, was a pretty mixed-up guy: born a lowly Hebrew, rescued by a princess, initially raised by his own people but then sent to live in an Egyptian palace. As a young adult, Moses has feet in a couple of worlds but a true home nowhere...a fact that is confounded his worlds collide in a violent way. Seeing an Egyptian mistreating a Hebrew, he is filled with rage at the injustice and secretly kills the Egyptian when he believes no one is looking. Yet when he tries to interact with the Hebrews after this, they call him out on his crime rather than embracing him--what he had done was not as hidden as he had believed. His adopted grandfather, Pharaoh, remembered Moses was really a Hebrew and not an Egyptian and prepared to kill Moses for his crime; so Moses fled, as fast as he could, to the desert land of Midian. There he marries and has a child, settling down for a life in oblivion as a stranger in a foreign land, hoping no one finds out he's there.

While Moses is trying to hide, however, God is seeking to reveal. The end of Exodus 2 brings out God as a major player in the story of Exodus for the first time: God hears the cries of the Israelites just as Moses had, and God determines that it's time to act. God takes notice of the people God had promised to love and preserve--their suffering will be hidden no more.

In the intersection of the story of Moses' violent retribution and God's hearing of the people's cries, what we get a full-blown picture of in Exodus 3 begins to take shape in fits and starts: Moses' vocation. In his book Wishful Thinking: A Seeker's ABC, Frederich Buechner beautifully defined this idea of a vocation, or one's particular calling from God:

“The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need to do and (b) that the world needs to have done. If you find your work rewarding, you have presumably met requirement (a), but if your work does not benefit others, the chances are you have missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work does benefit others, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you are unhappy with it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but probably aren’t helping your customers much either… The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.

I don't know that fighting the oppression of the Hebrews by the Egyptians was Moses' "deep gladness", but in these intervening verses it is shown to be a deep passion that bubbles up over his Egyptian upbringing to remind him of who he deeply is. God's hearing of the Israelites' cries reveals a deep hunger: for liberation from bondage, for freedom from oppression. As God calls to Moses from the bush, God will call Moses to the intersection of these things: his burning desire for justice, and his people's loud cries for help. Here, in his young adult years of growing up, Moses is beginning to discover his calling; and though he tries to flee from it, to live a life unnoticed, it pursues him even to the far reaches of the desert, and he finds he cannot evade its pursuit but, rather, must turn aside to look.

That turning is what we will spend time with on Sunday...I look forward to the encounter we will share together, and the ways it may call us to consider our own deep passions and the world's deep hunger, and the ways these things intersect.

Friday, September 2, 2011

A Journey Not to be Missed

Thanks to Hurricane Irene, our lectionary texts this week are the same as last week--we are still waiting to get started on our Exodus journey! Take a look back at last week's post for some introductory reflections on Exodus and to find the link to these great texts.

So this week, I want to use the blog space to tell you all about a way of reading the biblical story through the lens of Exodus that has changed how I approach the Bible--a way that you will be invited to walk along this fall as well. When in seminary, a professor introduced me to a book written and illustrated by Lutheran pastor Dan Erlander: Manna and Mercy: A Brief History of God's Unfolding Plan to Mend the Entire Universe. In 100 beautiful pages, Erlander moves us through the course of the entire biblical narrative, from the beginning of creation in Genesis to the new creation in Revelation, and traces the course of the human relationship with God as set in the gift of Manna to the Israelites in the desert (a story we'll encounter in worship this September) and continued in the birth, life, and death of Jesus and the living church Christ established (that would be us!).

Here's what I love about Erlander's account: it is simple enough that if you feel "biblically illiterate" and want a non-threatening way to get a feel for the course of this whole great story we live our lives by, Manna and Mercy is for you. It is deep enough that if you have read the Bible cover to cover hundreds of times and studied it in school and still want to read old stories with fresh eyes, Manna and Mercy is for you. And if you are anywhere in between these ends, swimming around wishing you had a way to encounter scripture that could help you figure out how what God has been doing through history weaves together and redirects our paths as God's people, then guess what...Manna and Mercy is for you.

SO, I hope you'll join us on Sunday nights at 6:30 starting next Sunday, September 11, when we'll look at the first biblical stories of God constituting a particular people to reflect God's character here on earth:

Then, on September 18, we will sweep through the story of the rest of the Old Testament: the story of how God's people fell out of covenant with God, and God's great plan to restore them:

On September 25, Jesus comes into the picture, and we see how he fits in with God's redemptive vision that God has been working towards all along:

Finally, on October 2 we will look at the ministry of the church--God's people on earth today--and God's vision for a heaven and earth made new, with all things brought together in Christ.

Come join us these four Sunday nights at 6:30 as we move through history together and let it shape our future as the people of God!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Confessions of a Pastoral Nerd

Our lectionary readings this week (which technically were last week's readings) are Exodus 1:8-2:10, Romans 12:1-8, and Matthew 16:13-20, which can be found here.

Remember Jeff Foxworthy's "You might be a Redneck if..." jokes that were so popular a few years ago? Well...I have a variation on the theme:

"You might be a Pastoral nerd if you have spent the last year being excited about the arrival of September 2011, when you will get to preach for two or three months on the book of Exodus."

Seriously. When I realized the Fall 2011 Year A Lectionary takes us on a lengthy journey through Exodus, I could not have been more excited. Why, you ask? Well, many reasons, and I will give you just a few below:

1. Exodus brings us face to face with the great questions. You all have known me long enough now to know that I love asking questions, and Exodus' narrative takes many of the major questions of our faith head-on. Genesis may be the first book of the Bible and allow us to dip our toes into some of these issues, but Exodus is where the story really begins and the questions begin to flow...questions such as, "Who is this God?" "What does this God care about?" "What is the human relationship with this God, and the human role in this God's world?" "How does this God want us to live with one another?" "What does this God think of our suffering?" "How can we begin to honor and worship this God?" "Where is God?" And seriously...this is just the tip of the Exodus iceburg. Now til November won't be nearly long enough to get to all of these, but Exodus can prompt us to wrestle together with the questions that matter most.

2. Exodus shows us what salvation looks like. Centuries before Jesus, God set about saving God's people from themselves, from the snares of sin, and from each other in a daring act of liberation that unfolds across Exodus' pages. Long before Jesus, here we learn that salvation often involves suffering; that it involves a relationship of incredible trust between God and God's people; and that God will go to any length to see God's people restored to the freedom for which they were intended. Our relentless, passionate God emerges full force here as one who will not let us go, challenging us to consider again the ways we need God's salvation and the ways we can participate in God's redemptive work in this world.

3. Exodus is a story of community. Here, for the first time, God works not just in the life of one individual or family, but an entire people, knitting them together to be a sign of God's presence in this world. It lays out life together not just as one of morality and being "good people", but of being utterly concerned for the common good and the welfare of both one's neighbors and one's enemies. It shows the life of God's people as a life lived collectively, and navigated in covenantal relationship with one another. This means it is a story with tremendous power to shape and define our life together with one another in community at Broadneck.

4. Finally, Exodus is a story for a time of change. We see that in the first startling line of our reading for this week: after rehashing Israel's history, and its favored status in Egypt because of Joseph's work, we get this disruptive news: "Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph." The Hebrew people had to navigate a rapidly changing world, one that tried to strip them of their core identity as people of the promise, one that required innovative new leadership and great discernment of God's movement. As we seek what it means to be God's people in our rapidly changing times--times this week rattled by earthquake and threatened by hurricane, among so many other things--how can the Exodus journey provide us with wisdom for our own?

I could go on forever about this, but will stop here and just encourage you to join us for Bible study on Saturday morning as we enter into Exodus, to check in with the blog each week for reflections on parts of Exodus we may not have time to cover in worship, to spend some time with this great book yourself, and to take advantage of other opportunities that may emerge this fall that allow you to immerse yourself in this great story. It may make me a pastoral nerd, but I think the possibilities for this book to reshape our congregational imagination are rich beyond description, and I cannot WAIT to get started.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Challenge of openness to "the other"

Abby’s are jottings perhaps mine are scribblings. Pray that Abby has a refreshing week full of fun and joy as she spends time at the beach with her family. njpl

This week we will work with four scriptures that challenge us to see a faith that is wide open and inclusive. We will see a God who wants to be part of the life of each person on earth and who longs to be part of what happens in each life. Now can you read that sentence and put your own name in the two places which say ‘each person on earth’ ‘each life’?

Like this- God wants to be part of Miranda’s life. God longs to be part of what happens in Miranda’s life.

Then read it again and think of the person or group of people you are least likely to love and appreciate and put that person or group of people in the spot where your name was before.

That is the crazy, wacky God we worship each Sunday. Not only does God love and care for you and the rest of us who try to be a part of God’s mission on earth but God loves and cares for those who are far from being a part of the plans God has for all of creation.

Before you come to worship this Sunday, think back over this past year from last August until now. Jot down for yourself things that have happened to you that you could never have anticipated last August. If you are like me when you make this list, you will be stunned to recall much of what occurred. I won’t give you any suggestions for how you deal with what you find as you look back. Let your own heart and mind ponder the events of the past twelve months.

Then think of the events others have lived through on our planet both people you know and those unknown and perhaps far away. What did they face? What did they live though?

Read Psalm 67 – a nice short passage on which to meditate.

In keeping with our theme this Sunday of the Inclusive love of God, please take a few minutes and view one or all three of these music videos to hear one hymn illustrated with pictures that will at once open, challenge and touch your heart. This is the God we worship. Do we dare to live out the challenge of this amazing openness to ‘the other’?

See you on Sunday


(posted by Jeremy on Nancy's behalf)

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Location, location, location...

As we are still scooting along a week behind the Lectionary Calendar,our texts for this week are Genesis 37:2-28 (you'll notice I expanded this from what is in the lectionary--what's the point about talking about Joseph the dreamer if we never mention his dreams?), Romans 10:9-15, and Matthew 14:22-33, available to read here.

Sometimes, when I talk about how we can approach our texts for the week, I feel kind of redundant in the things I encourage you to do. This isn't for lack of originality, I promise; it is more of the fact that there are perspectives it would behoove us to bring to scripture that we have often been trained to neglect. Our worship practices, ironically, are what often keep us from hearing the scripture as we need to. What I mean is this: the lectionary does have us reading scripture *somewhat* in order. Thanks to the fact that we've spent the last few weeks with Jacob, this story of his family is not totally out of the blue; and we have been traveling the road of Matthew's gospel, with just a few detours into John, since December. we read the stories of scripture each week in relative isolation from one another as individual events rather than as part of a bigger story (which, due to our inability to read an entire book of the Bible in worship every week, is--I suppose--a necessary shortcoming), we often miss so much of the richer meaning that can be found from putting stories in context. This is why it is so crucial that we constantly ask ourselves when reading scripture, "What is the bigger context here? What has taken place before this? What is going to take place next? How does this connect to where we've been and where we're going?"

I think Matthew 14 has a particularly significant context, the more I think about it. We spent a lot of time in July with the parables of Matthew 13, covering that chapter almost in its entirety; last week we read the story that immediately precedes this one, Matthew 14:13-21, the story of Jesus feeding 5,000 people. But what we skipped is the critical tale that occupies the first 12 verses of Matthew 14, and I cannot get away from the possibility that that gory account of the beheading of Jesus' cousin, forerunner, baptizer, and friend John the Baptist is the story that is the undercurrent of this whole chapter. The one preparing the way for Jesus has just been killed in a horrifying manner; and throughout the rest of the chapter, one can almost see Jesus reeling from this news, trying to figure out his next move, trying to process his grief. He begins by withdrawing to an isolated place, perhaps to hide out from Herod for a bit since it seems inevitable that he will be next, perhaps simply to pray and lay out his sorrow and--dare I say it--fear before God. But the crowds follow him there, finding him even in this remote place, and Jesus is filled with compassion to put his own grief aside long enough to teach, to heal, to feed.

In this week's story, however, Jesus gets a chance to get the quiet he needs again--he makes the disciples get in a boat and leave him so he can sit and pray. Maybe he is sending the disciples away from him so they won't be caught up in the fate he is now realizing will likely be his--maybe he pushes them out to sea on a raft for their own safety, who knows? But soon the sea is not safe, and again Jesus abandons his solitude to come to them where they are, to meet their needs. It is as he does this that, for the first time, Jesus is identified as the Son of God--one not just human but divine, with power to save. And it won't be long after this before Jesus begins telling the disciples of his now inevitable fate: that John the Baptist is not going to be the only one to lose his life in this divine mission.

I just wonder how we read these miraculous acts of Jesus--feeding the masses, going to the disciples--differently in their critical location amidst Jesus' grief and Jesus' apparent recognition of how this mission is likely going to end. How can we see Jesus' compassion and presence and provision and salvation more fully as we locate it within the turmoil within him, turmoil he seemed to find strength to repeatedly put aside for the sake of caring for those around him--an act miraculous enough to leave his friends in worship, recognizing for the first time that this one among them was more than they'd ever dreamed? Location, location, location...what difference does it make?