Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas Reflections

Read the text: St. Luke 2:1-20
Do Not Be Afraid
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered.  
Luke 1:1-3

And with those three simple sentences Luke sets the scene for the birth of Jesus, and it is a scene of darkness, hopelessness and fear.  Over the many years since the time of Jesus we have lost this sense of darkness, instead we tell a version of this story which has a faithful and dutiful holy couple, a clean stable, fresh and happy shepherds and devout kings.  But this version of the story misses the point in so many ways.  Luke wants us to understand that this was a difficult time and Mary and Joseph’s lives were hard, as were the lives of everyone else living in 1st century Palestine.  Indeed only a few years later the Romans would punish dissent by destroying the city of Sephorris, which was visible from Nazareth.  The heavy hand of Rome was resting upon this region and it was Quirinius’ job to maintain the Pax Romana – the “peace of Rome” which is imposed peace through violence.  Of course Joseph and everyone else headed off to wherever they are order to go for this tax census – they had no choice.

The shepherds had it particularly rough.  The life of a shepherd was a hard life.  Most people invested all of their wealth in livestock, so these sheep and goats would have been someone’s entire possessions.  These shepherds “abiding in the field, watching their flocks by night,” would have been hired hands.  The work was dirty and dangerous, especially at night.  Because of the dirtiness of the job shepherds were excluded from the Temple rituals and considered untouchables.  These were people on the margins – poor, destitute and excluded.  But these are the ones to whom the angels appear, for these shepherds represent all of those who sit in darkness and fear and for whom Christ comes.

The darkness, hopelessness and fear have not left us.  This past year has been a particularly dark year.  Just here at the close of 2014 we have climbing poverty rates in the US, even people who are employed at minimum wage cannot afford basics like food, clothing and shelter; protests in Ferguson, MO and around the country have raised again the issues of racism even as violence has erupted in some communities; ISIS and other extremist groups have been growing and have been notable for their brutality; at the same time there are simmering conflicts in places like Africa, Israel and Ukraine; and if that weren’t enough, North Korea has launched a cyber attack on a movie studio because they didn’t like a particular movie.  And this is at a national level, closer to home many of us have our own personal darkness with which we struggle.  These issues include dealing with grief and loss, illness, alcoholism, domestic abuse, depression and on and on.

It is into this world that the angels come and speak to us: Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.  It is into this world of darkness that God enters in Jesus in order to illumine from inside; it is into this world of hopelessness that God comes in Jesus to bring hope; it is into this world of fear that God comes bringing the gift of faith and it is into this world, with all its problems and darkness and struggle and sorrow and pain that God comes in Jesus, bringing comfort and joy and offering us peace.  Not the pax Romana kind of peace – no, Jesus brings to us a different kind of peace.  Jesus offers to us shalom – complete well-being and unity, light and life and hope.  The kind of peace that rejects violence as a solution, the kind of peace that doesn’t have to deny the darkness but rather accepts the reality of the darkness in our world and lives, and brings light to it from within.  The kind of peace that recognizes that we are all human brothers and sisters and that we must find ways of not being afraid of each other, but of embracing each other – especially those most different from us.
This is what Christmas is all about, friends.  This is what incarnation is all about.  It is not just a fancy theological word we pull out around Christmas to dust off in order to sound, well, theological.  Incarnation is the way God works in the world.  Incarnation is the way of the cross.  Incarnation is a way of discipleship.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it…”  Mark 8:34-36


And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”  Luke 2:14

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Reflections on the text – Luke 1:26-38

Read the text here: Luke 1:26-38
Blessed!
 “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”
Mary must have been a pretty special girl, don’t you think?  To be favored and chosen by God to bear God’s Son, Jesus.  I wonder what she did to deserve such favor.  You would think that God might have had a list of qualifications that needed to be fulfilled for this job.  For example, I would think it would be important for her to have a good financial foundation, so that she could easily provide for the child; have resources, like other women available to assist her; she should be married so that there is no moral or ethical questions; she should be mature and able to handle the responsibility; she should be devout and strict in her religious observance, keeping the law perfectly; she should have a special relationship with God.  Can you think of other qualifications that we might expect for filling the position of the mother of the Son of God?  In fact several early Christian texts – that did not make it into the Bible – went out of their way to describe such a Mary: a woman who was so pure and holy that she was really only one step in holiness below her son.
But this is not the Mary we meet here in the Gospel of Luke.  Mary in the Gospels seems to be nothing special at all.  She is a poor peasant girl, perhaps as young as 13/14 and certainly no older than 17; she is unmarried at the time of the visit of the angel and there is nothing in the text to suggest that she was particularly devout or that she had any kind of special relationship with God.  She is just a normal, 1st century peasant girl, living in a small village, betrothed to an older man and probably (like all young women of this time) looking forward to her life as a wife and mother in this context with the expected mix of both fear and excitement. But she is favored by God!  She is chosen!  She is blessed!
There is, however, something very unique about Mary and it is this: when she is greeted by the angel and told that she is favored by God she accepts and believes it.  That seems pretty simple, but think about it.  All of the social and religious powers of the time were going out of their way to send the message that you – Mary – are not favored and not worthy.  As a woman, a peasant, a villager she would have had 2nd class status and then there was the matter of keeping the law and maintaining the purity regimen.  And on top of that she is going to get pregnant before she is married! How in the world could she ever believe that she was favored by God?
And what about us?  We live in a world of high expectations. Nothing comes free, we must always work to earn everything we have.  We believe that we get what we deserve and there are no free lunches.  We spend our lives trying to live up to expectations and acquiring and maintaining our qualifications.  We spend our lives trying to be worthy.  And we extend this to our relationship with God – if you want God to bless you then you have to…  Fill in the blank!
But on this 4th Sunday of Advent we pause to look at this young woman and marvel at her faith.  And her most important act of faith is simply accepting the angel’s greeting and believing that yes, she was favored and blessed by God, not for anything she had done or accomplished.  God’s favor and blessing come to her as a free, unconditional gift.  And believing this enabled her to accept everything else; accepting God’s unconditional favor and blessing empowers her and enables her to do incredible things.
This is true for us as well.  You are favored by God!  Can you believe it?  Do you know and believe that God notices you and loves you and this is completely on the basis of nothing you do, but only because of who you are.  You do not have to DO stuff in order to attract God’s notice and favor – rather God notices and favors you right now on the basis only of his unconditional love!
The most important thing about this text is not that it lifts up Mary as an exception but rather as an “example of what can happen when you believe that God notices, favors, and blesses you: you may just change the world!”1

Quote from "In the Meantime" by David Lose in his essay "Blessed Like Mary."

Friday, December 5, 2014

Advent II - Reflections on the text - Mark 1:1-8

Read the text here: Mark 1:1-8
Beginnings and Endings
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. (Mark 1:1)
As beginnings go, there is really not much here.  In the Greek there are exactly 5 words that are followed by words of the prophet that introduces John the Baptist and there we are: immersed in the story.  No extended introduction with a genealogy (Matthew), no birth or childhood stories (Matthew & Luke), no extended philosophical musings on the incarnation (John).  Nope, Mark is short and sweet and to the point.  Mark is in a hurry to tell this story; Mark is in a hurry to get to the climax = the Passion.  From this non-beginning beginning Mark jumps from event to event in Jesus’ life and ministry at a fast pace.  There are no extended sermons and there is really no time to catch your breath.  After all, Mark is proclaiming the “Gospel,” the “Good News,” the “Glad Tidings” of Jesus Christ, the Son of God!
But that one word – “Gospel” – brings with it the power of dynamite.  Mark doesn’t have to use many words to get this story started.  This one word packs the power of a rocket booster to propel us into the story.  In our time, this word – “Gospel” – really means only one thing.  It is used to describe the proclamation of Jesus as Lord, crucified and risen!  But for Mark’s community and those who received this telling of the story that word had other meanings.  The Greek word – evangelion – was the word that was used to describe official Roman proclamations.  If the empire had triumphed in battle somewhere and thus, brought Roman Peace (pax Romana) to a region; or if a new divine emperor had taken power; or if there was some great news of the glorious empire then the “Gospel” of Roman divine mandate was proclaimed throughout the empire.  For Mark’s audience, this word was then associated with the powers of oppression, the powers of peace through violence, the powers of death and darkness.  So that word packs a punch for here, Mark is proclaiming a “Gospel” of the true power of God; the “Gospel” of freedom, grace and forgiveness, the “Gospel” of true peace (Shalom), the “Gospel” of life and light, the “Gospel” of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  Jesus Christ! Not the emperor!  God’s son is this peasant from Nazareth, which is a no-where place!  What a proclamation! No wonder Mark can’t wait to tell the story!
So after those first 5 words we are introduced to the voice of the one who is called to prepare the way.  Who is this?  Mark tells us his name is John.  But he is dressed like Elijah, he is preaching repentance like Elijah and he is located in the wilderness around the Jordan river (not Jerusalem!) like Elijah!  Is this not Elijah?  The very last two verses of the last book of the Old Testament make this promise:
Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.  He will turn the hearts of the parents to the children and the hearts of the children to their parents….. 
(Malachi 4:5-6)
You see – it is Elijah!  Come at the end of all time. But wait, Mark used the word “beginning.”  Is this the end or the beginning?  Elijah is in the wilderness calling the people to repentance, but this Elijah is John and his end of time proclamation also is preparation for a new beginning.  Ending? Beginning?  Both – and!  God has involved himself in the human experience from the beginning of time. God has always been at work.  But John represents an end of one way of God’s being in the world and the beginning of a new way.  John represents the end of the centrality of Jerusalem and the Temple; John represents the end of the time of the prophets and kings.  On the other hand, John represents a new beginning where God recommits to the covenant; John represents a new beginning where God himself is born into this human world; John represents a new beginning of a time when God will shower his beloved creation with forgiveness and love and grace.  Endings and beginnings – all bound up together in these opening verses of this Good News of Jesus Christ.
            We will again be confronted with this very issue at the end of the Gospel of Mark when we hear how the women went to the tomb on the first day of the week to anoint the body, but the body was gone and instead there was an angel who proclaimed that Jesus was risen! “And the women fled from the tomb and said nothing to no one, they were afraid for….”  The end!  An end that isn’t an end, that leaves us hanging – just like the beginning that doesn’t ease us into the story.  Mark apparently doesn’t do beginnings and endings.  Or does he? 
Perhaps Mark is trying to tell us something else.  Maybe Mark is making the point in the first part of chapter 1 that this beginning is also an ending!  This isn’t Elijah, because then it wouldn’t be a beginning – but at the same time it is the new Elijah – John who is preparing the way for the new beginning of the story of God’s love and grace as shown forth in Jesus!  Maybe Mark is making the point that the conclusion of chapter 16:8 is not really the end of the story – but that this ending is also the beginning of the new age, the Kingdom come into our midst and made possible only through the death and resurrection of Christ; a beginning of a story that is still ongoing and includes us – here – now in 2014/2015.  This is not accidental.  This is not incidental.  This is an essential part of the entire Gospel: the beginning is the end and the end is the beginning!  It may be a little unclear in chapter 1, but by the time we get to the Resurrection the confusion will clear up.  And I can’t wait to get into the story of Jesus!  Please join me!

Friday, November 28, 2014

Reflections on the Gospel – Mark 13:24-37

Read the text here: Mark 13:24-37
Keep Awake! Be Prepared! The Lord is coming! These themes of the season of Advent are also themes of this passage in the Gospel of Mark.  Last week we finished our experience of the Gospel of Matthew with the prophecy of the Sheep and the Goats from Matthew 25; this week we begin our year of Mark with a passage from the heart of what is called the “Little Apocalypse” in Mark.  Last week Matthew gives us a rather unambiguous teaching on the Last Judgment and the centrality of Faith in Action; this week Mark gives us a very ambiguous look into the future to the Day of the Lord and what our response is to be.  What in the world is this all about?
First, a definition is in order - the word: Apocalypse.  The word itself comes from a Greek word which literally means “lifting the veil” or “revelation.”  The first of these definitions is especially important and relevant for Mark because the climactic event in Mark’s telling of the story of Jesus is the crucifixion account in chapter 15 that ends with the tearing of the veil or the curtain in the temple (15:38).  This is the veil that separates the holy of holies from the world.  And the God of Israel resides in the Holy of Holies, but once the veil is torn God abandons the Holy of Holies and God abandons the Temple and takes up residence in and among God’s people.  So Apocalyptic is first and foremost about this question: Where is God Found?  And the answer Mark provides: In the Cross of Jesus!
Apocalyptic musings are, of course, all the rage and have been through the 20th century (beginning in the late 19th century) in particular.  Predictions of the end of the world in fiery, bloody and graphic detail have been the subject of films, books and (sorry to say) preaching and (bad) theology.  This viewpoint has even invaded our foreign policy as a nation, as some support of Israel, among one particular powerful group, is based on this (mis)-reading of the apocalyptic texts of the New Testament.  A few years ago a California pastor announced that the world would end in terror and that the “rapture” would occur on May 21 (oops, I mean October 21).  Lots of folks took this prediction seriously. Folks quit jobs, gave away possessions in order to prepare.  One cynical group on the internet created a business where they would promise to care for your pets in the event you were “raptured.”  They actually made money on this and folks signed up for the service.  Tragically one mother even went so far as to murder her children in order to “save” them from the terror to come.
Is this what apocalyptic is all about? In a word – NO!  How can all of this predicted terror be squared with the Gospel proclamation that God loves us madly and passionately – so much in fact that he gave us the Son?  It simply can’t.  There is not room here for a detailed critique of contemporary apocalyptic.  I will simply say that for the most part what has taken hold is a fiction that is completely unbiblical and actually contrary to the Gospel.  The doctrine of the “rapture” is both a figment of a warped imagination and an example of really bad bible interpretation.  The “Left Behind” books are fiction – and destructive fiction at that since so many assume they represent the New Testament.
So what does Mark in particular say about Apocalyptic?  And how does Mark understand Apocalyptic?  First, for Mark there is a two-fold focus: Yes, Mark (and Paul and others in the 1st century) did believe that Jesus would return right away.  They were wrong and also misunderstood Jesus’ teaching. But the word “apocalyptic” itself gives us a hint of the second, and more important focus which Mark lifts up – that is: the crucifixion of Jesus. Jesus is enthroned in power when he is on the cross.  Not only that, but Jesus’ death on the cross also results in the tearing of the veil of the temple.  God now is not cooped up in the Holy of Holies.  God is now to be found in and among God’s people.  And not just in the good, happy or glorious, but rather, and more profoundly, in hunger, in loss, in terror and fear, and in death itself.  God is present – because of the Cross of Jesus!
Consequently, the call of apocalyptic is NOT to turn inward and focus on our selves and our own selfish needs.  But rather it is to turn outward.  To see through the eyes of the Gospel that there is need – hunger, unemployment, homelessness, injustice, grief, loss, death in our midst and that God is present in those situation THROUGH US.  Jesus says – Be Prepared – Keep Awake!  How do we do that – through Faith in Action.  Through reaching out and caring and loving in Jesus’ name!
“Once asked what he would do if he believed the world would end tomorrow, Martin Luther is said to have responded, "I would plant a tree today." We also, confident of God's love and sure of God's promises about the future, can invest in the present, in the everyday and the ordinary, in the people and causes all around us. For we have God's promise in the cross and resurrection of Christ that in time God will indeed draw all of God's creation not just to an end, but to a good end.”  David Lose, Working Preacher