“The best day ever!”

Sunday Evening
The First Sunday of Advent

Mark 10:15-16

15“Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” 16And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

“This is the best day ever!” she said emphatically and repeatedly at the end of our day today. Worship had been followed by the “Hanging of the Greens” as we set up and decorated the Christmas trees in the sanctuary, a “family” Christmas tree in the entryway (with ornaments from every family), and decorated the campus of the church with large ornaments hanging from the trees.

At the children’s sermon they had come forward and stood before a large mural of Mary and Joseph journeying towards Bethlehem, and discovered that it was a large Advent calendar. It’s only December 2nd, so there were only two doors to open, but the second contained a gift for the children – small binoculars because on this first Sunday in Advent we look towards the horizon of human history and a world made new, when Christ reigns in every heart.

I’m not sure they got the message. They were too excited looking for the numbers and getting the packages open to use their binoculars.

Their joy and enthusiasm is a healing balm and delight for a congregation. Children have the very important ministry among us of being children – even the sad child who came to the altar rail at communion with tear stained cheeks. I don’t know the source of distress, but I appreciated the child’s sad and yearning look into my eyes as I placed my hand and gave a blessing. We all need to feel the hand of blessing at times.

So Advent is come. Christmas draws near, but this is the season of waiting and hope, of expectation and joy. For the child of the manger is the one who comes at the fulfillment of the human story, and his hand is a hand of blessing.

Pregnant with what is to come

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Watching for the Morning of December 24, 2017

Year B

The Fourth Sunday of Advent

Sunday presents us with a morning service for the fourth Sunday in Advent – and then, that evening, the Christmas Eve service. After worship on Sunday morning we will have to flip all the decorations from Advent blue to the gold and white of Christmas. But already the harpsichord and other instruments will be in place, already the angel will look down upon Mary as she kneels in waiting before the altar, already Joseph will stand in watch – as if the morning were pregnant with what is to come.

Such is the Advent season: pregnant with what is to come. And such is Christian faith: pregnant with what is to come. You can hear the heartbeat of the reign of God. We have a sonogram with a fuzzy image of the life we await. There are changes already in the appearance of the world. Our lives are being restructured by the day to come.

Sunday morning we will hear Nathan speak God’s promise to David that Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.” It is a promise that ran into the hard realities of Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome. For nearly 600 years the royal line was all but gone. There was no palace, no throne, no royal court. A few governors at first, Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel, but the kingship was gone. There were brief flashes of independence, but not the line of David. The Hasmoneans were priests, and though Herod the Great was called a king, he wasn’t even from Judah. He was Idumean.

But now here is Gabriel speaking to a peasant woman not yet gone to live with her husband, telling of a child to be born who “will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

Birth pangs are upon the world. The day of grace is coming.

The Prayer for December 24, 2017

Eternal God, Breath of Life,
Font of Hope, and our Eternal Joy;
Open the doors of our hearts, and the gates of your mercy
to come into our world and our lives,
and bring your radiance to all creation.

The Texts for December 24, 2017

First Reading: 2 Samuel 7.1-11, 16
“Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, ‘See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.’” – When David seeks to build a temple for God, God declares he has it backwards: it isn’t David who builds a house for God, but God who builds a house (a dynastic line) for David.

Psalmody: Isaiah 12:2-6, (appointed: Luke 1:46-55 or Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26)
“With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.”
– the prophet sings a song of thanksgiving, anticipating the day of God’s redemption.

Second Reading: Romans 16.25-27
“Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ.”
– A hymnic conclusion to Paul’s letter to the believers in Rome celebrates the mystery now revealed of God’s purpose to gather all people into Christ.

Gospel: Luke 1:26-38
“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph.” – The angel Gabriel invades Mary’s home and presents her with the news that she will give birth to the heir of David’s throne.

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During Advent our parish departs from the appointed psalms and sings Isaiah 51:4-11, the Benedictus, the Magnificat, and Isaiah 12 on the four Sundays. We also adjust the readings between the Sundays to allow for the celebration of a children’s Christmas program during worship in Advent. Next Sunday we will read Mark’s account of John the Baptist that is assigned for today.

During Advent we provide daily verses and brief reflections that can be found by following this link to Advent 2017.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAny_day_now_(3423098686).jpg By Aurimas Mikalauskas from Paliūniškis, Lithuania (Any day now) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Flooded with Joy

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Watching for the Morning of December 17, 2017

Year B

The Third Sunday of Advent

“The LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus uses our first reading for this Sunday as the text in his sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth. The message will be simple: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” It is the language of the jubilee year when every debt is wiped away and all things restored. It is, in the mouth of the prophet, a promise of the return from exile and the rebuilding of their life in the land. It is, in the life of the church, a promise of that day when all things are made new. Everlasting joy.

Joy ripples through our worship this Sunday. It is the day once known as “Gaudete Sunday” from the ancient introit: “Gaudete in Domino semper…,” “Rejoice in the Lord always” from Philippians 4:4-6. We will hear similar words in our second reading that begins with the exhortation to “Rejoice always.” We will hear joy in the song of Mary, the Magnificat. And it is reverberates through the proclamation with which Mark begins his account of Jesus: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The runner has come from the battlefield to announce that the city is saved. The enemy is fallen. Our long awaited king comes to wash us in the Spirit.

Every translation of which I am aware says that the one who is coming will ‘baptize’ us in the Spirit. And, yes, the Greek word in the text is taken into English to give us the word ‘baptism’. But, for us, the word ‘baptism’ is almost exclusively a church word. We might refer to a baptism by fire, but we would never say that drowning sailors are being baptized. The Greek word was not a religious word, and if we take it out of the religious realm for a minute, we might hear something of the true drama of this promise: The coming one will wash us in the Spirit. The coming one will immerse us in the Spirit. The coming one will drown us in the Spirit. The coming one will drench us in the Spirit. The coming one will flood us with the Spirit. The coming one will shower the spirit upon us.

In a world often immersed in hate and fear, violence and deceit, here is the promise that we will be immersed in the Spirit of God. We will be awash in grace. We will be showered with compassion. Good news will be announced to the poor. Liberty will be proclaimed to the captive. We will be flooded with joy.

The Prayer for December 17, 2017

Eternal God, Breath of Life,
Font of Hope, and our Eternal Joy;
Open the doors of our hearts, and the gates of your mercy
to come into our world and our lives,
and fill us with the joy of your presence.

The Texts for December 17, 2017

First Reading: Isaiah 61.1-11 (appointed: 61.1-4, 8-11)
“The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.” –
The prophet describes his ministry as announcing a jubilee year, when all debts are forgiven and all lands restored.

Psalmody: Luke 1:46-55, the Song of Mary (the Magnificat)
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” – Mary sings with joy of God’s coming deliverance when she is greeted by Elizabeth whose unborn child already recognizes their coming Lord.

Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
– Paul concludes his letter to the believers in Thessalonica with a series of exhortations about their life together as they wait for Christ’s return and the consummation of God’s dawning reign.

Gospel: Mark 1.1-8
“John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” – Mark begins his Gospel with the language of royal decree and the prophetic words of John pointing to the one who will wash the world in the Holy Spirit.

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The appointed texts for December 17, 2017

Psalm: Psalm 126, (Luke 1:46-55 is an alternate for the psalm)
“Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.”
– The poet remembers the joy of their restoration to the land, and prays now that God would refresh the land anew with rain and abundant harvest.

Gospel: John 1:6-8, 19-28
“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.” – The wealthy and powerful leaders in Jerusalem send representatives to discern whether John represents a threat to revolt against their rule, and seem satisfied that he is “only” a prophetic voice. They fail to hear his message that the coming one is already here.

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During Advent our parish departs from the appointed psalms and sings Isaiah 51:4-11, the Benedictus, the Magnificat, and Isaiah 12 on the four Sundays. We also adjust the readings between the Sundays to allow for the celebration of a children’s Christmas program during worship in Advent. Next Sunday we will read Mark’s account of John the Baptist that is assigned for today.

During Advent we provide daily verses and brief reflections that can be found by following this link to Advent 2017.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ALeather_bucket_of_a_well.jpg By Neogeolegend (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

A doorway to hope

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A message for the first Sunday in Advent, shared this morning at Los Altos Lutheran Church.  (The primary texts were Isaiah 64:1-9 and Mark 13.24-37).

We talked about hope last week when Miriam remembered for me the words of Emily Dickenson’s poem, “Hope is the thing with feathers.” I have to admit that when I heard her recite the poem, it seemed more substantial and profound than I had expected. But the point we were making is that Biblical hope is not a wish or desire for things to get better; it is rather a confidence rooted in a promise.

So when the prophet this morning cries out, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” he is not expressing a wish, he is praying for God to come and deliver the people. The prophet is living in a time when faith has grown cold. Life is hard. God seems far away. And, with God seeming distant, the people have grown callous and no longer bother to call upon God or follow God’s way. It is why the prophet prays for God to come with a new act of deliverance. It is why the prophet reminds God that this people are his people. God is the potter and the people are God’s clay. God needs to claim his people and come make something holy and good of them.

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”

At the heart of the Advent season is God’s answer to this profoundly human and universal prayer. Advent is about God tearing open the barrier between earth and heaven and coming to reign – coming at the consummation of history, coming to us now in the joys and sorrows of our lives, and coming into the world in the child of Bethlehem.

The color for Advent is blue. The history of why it’s blue is less important than the fact that blue is a color of hope. It represents the darkness of the night giving way to the light of day. And this brings us to the other visual image of this season: the dawning of light into the world – in the full blaze of glory on that day when fear and darkness are forever banished, when the light of God comes to our lives in moments of fear and darkness, and in the incarnation when the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us. As Advent moves towards Christmas, it moves towards the message in the Gospel of John that we read on Christmas morning:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. … 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

These are not just religious words. It is a deep and profound human experience that God enters into the world and into our lives in ways that are radiant with grace and life. It always seems to surprise us, but it shouldn’t, because it is promised to us. God is a god who, however much he may sometimes seem absent, keeps showing up.

God comes in ways that are often unexpected and surprising. He shows up at Cain’s door when he is bitter with revenge towards his brother. He shows up in a burning bush when Moses has fled into the wilderness and is tending sheep. He shows up to Gideon when he is trying to thresh his wheat in secret so that the Philistines who plunder his country won’t take it. God shows up in surprising and unexpected places – to persecuted Hannah when she is weeping and praying at the doorway of the tabernacle and the priest thinks she’s drunk. To childless Zechariah when he is serving in the temple. To Ezekiel when he is standing along the canal in exile in Babylon. To Peter when he is mending his fishnets. And, of course, to Mary when she has not yet gone to live with her husband, Joseph. God keeps showing up.

Advent is about this God who comes. It’s why we have images of doors in the sanctuary alcoves. And over the season, watch the alcoves and you will see doors opening and the light continually increasing until we get to Christmas. (Of course, you have to come on Sunday morning, December 24th, to see all the doors open.)

So the Gospel text that is before us this morning is from Mark 13. We have been reading Matthew all last year and for the next year we will be reading primarily from Mark. Mark is composed during the Judean revolt when armies are marching and Jerusalem will be destroyed. Jesus declares that the temple will be destroyed. The marriage of power and politics and wealth and religious leaders and the use of the name of God at the top of Judean society will be torn down. Jesus warns his followers not to be led astray by those who are proclaimed as saviors or messiahs when that convulsion happens. And he urges us to be awake and watchful like members of a household waiting for the head of the family to come.

(It is important that we understand this about the use of the word slaves waiting for their master. Slavery was very different in the ancient world than in the American experience. Slaves were members of the household. They were understood to be – and understood themselves to be – part of the extended family. These are not hired hands afraid of being caught goofing off, these are household members eager for the head of the house to return.)

When I was a senior at Palo Alto High School there was a student strike to protest the war in Vietnam. There was a grass courtyard enclosed on several sides by buildings and by a colonnaded walkway on the rest. The students were sitting on the grass and speakers were addressing them at the far end of the courtyard. My math teacher from my junior year was standing in the colonnade watching and I came and stood near him. We loved him and, in fact, Deb and I invited him to our wedding. He drank a milkshake every day at lunch and walked through the amphitheater observing the students in ways that would show up as math problems the next day. He seemed to know who was going with whom and what was happening among us all.

As Mr. Parker watched the strike, he turned to me and said something about having a cabin in the Sierra’s. He wasn’t by any means a survivalist, but in that moment I could see in his eyes that he thought the fabric of society was coming apart.

I watched a lot of adults in those years look upon the profound troubles of that era – the riots, the assassinations, the protests, the convulsions in society – and feel deeply fearful about the future. Dad said that flying out of what was then Washington National Airport over the District of Columbia following the riots there, reminded him of flying over bombed out Berlin after the war. Mother called the city in fear when city workers came out and began to dig up the sidewalk late one afternoon, and then left for the day with the rubble still in place. She feared those chunks of concrete could become weapons and, as I remember it, made the city come pick them up that day.

The Symbionese Liberation Army, the Black Panthers, Malcolm X, the National Guard being called out to escort children to school as crowds of white adults shouted curses at the children. George Wallace declaring “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” and winning five states plus an elector from North Carolina in the 1968 presidential election. The bombings of military recruitment stations and defense contractors. The murder of Medgar Evers by white supremacists. The brutal torture and murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till.

They were fearful times. They are not the only fearful times in our country’s history. I have heard stories of those who lived through the depression. My father remembers the dust storms in eastern Colorado. We have seen the famous photographs of the displaced persons taken by Dorothea Lange.

And if we could go back, there was the convulsion of the whole country over slavery that ended with a million dead (in a nation of 30 million of whom 4 million were slaves). There were tumults because of massive immigration before and after the civil war. There was the corruption of Tammany Hall, the terrorist bombing of Wall Street in 1920, President Harding sending the Army to fight on behalf of the coal companies against coal miners in West Virginia (The Battle of Blair Mountain), and the Teapot Dome corruption scandal.

Fear comes. We want life to be safe, but it rarely is. Or, at least, it seems like it doesn’t stay safe for long.

It doesn’t surprise me that the convulsions of the 60’s led to Hal Lindsey and the idea that we were the last generation before the coming of the Lord. Social upheaval always begets apocalyptic ideas. At one point Luther thought that he, too, lived in the final generation.

And so did the people in Mark’s congregation. They were living in the midst of war, hostility, and fear. In verse 12, before the portion we read this morning, Jesus says:

Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name.

Mark reminds his community that Jesus said that the temple would fall and advised his followers to flee the city when the time came. He reminds them that Jesus understood that times of trouble would come. And he reminds them that Jesus warned them not to be led astray. Others would be acclaimed as messiahs and saviors and we shouldn’t be deceived.

These are all helpful words for us when we are in distress: Don’t lose our way. Don’t lose our hope. Remember what he has told us: “Keep watch, I will come.”

Keep watch, I will come. Expect me to show up when you are in fear. Expect me to show up when you are in distress. Expect me to show up in the most ordinary of moments, when you are washing dishes, or doing laundry, buying groceries. Watch for me. Watch for me in the kindness of strangers. Watch for me in the opportunity to be kind. Watch for me in the lonely nights or when trouble seems to surround. Watch for me. Expect mercy.

See not only what is dark, but what is light. See not only what is cruel, but what is kind. See not only confusion, but clarity. Hear not only the harsh and angry words, but the calm and wise ones.

Watch for God to come to you in the bread and wine and the words “given for you.” Watch for God to come in the daily scripture verses. Watch for God to come in the first breath of the morning and the last sigh of the night. Watch for God to open doors to meet you.

Remember God has already opened the heavens and come down.

Remember the door of the tomb has been rolled away.

Remember that the New Jerusalem is a city where the gates never close.

Watch, for God will come.

Amen

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AEmporio_(4494560043).jpg By Klearchos Kapoutsis from Santorini, Greece (Emporio Uploaded by Yarl) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Doorways

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Watching for the Morning of December 3, 2017

Year B

The First Sunday of Advent

I had a profound dream many years ago that involved the discovery of a door. I was living (in the dream) in a small one room mountain cabin that seemed very much like a suburb with paved streets, an ordinary driveway and garbage pick up at the curb. But in the dream I realized there was a door behind the refrigerator which, when I succeeded in moving the refrigerator, opened into a large room with giant picture windows looking down over a sweeping vista of a clear blue mountain lake, surrounded with virgin forest.

Doorways are about discovery. Lucy Pevensie, in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe discovers a doorway into the wondrous world of Narnia in the back of a wardrobe. Daniel Jackson figures out how to open the stargate. Mary opens the door to The Secret Garden. In The Lord of the Rings, Bilbo Baggins counsels his nephew saying “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” And, of course, the women discover angels at the door of the empty tomb. It sweeps the world off its feet.

A doorway to a new world. Advent looks through the doorway into the reign of God to come when the lion lies down with the lamb – and through that doorway Christ comes to us at the consummation of human history, in the present time of our lives, and in the child of Bethlehem.

So Sunday we begin our Advent journey. The sanctuary will be decorated with images of light and the blue of hope, of the night sky turning to day. And there will be photographs of doors waiting to be opened – and opened already that we might find our way to the hope, peace, joy and light that never ends.

On this first Sunday of the new church year we will hear the prophet Isaiah’s plea for God to open the heavens and come down to save. We will sing with the prophet of the everlasting joy of God’s redeeming work. We will hear Paul remind us that “are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” And we will listen as Jesus warns us to be awake and aware, like servants waiting to greet their Lord.

Behold I stand at the door and knock,” says Jesus. Open it and life will never be the same.

The Prayer for December 3, 2017

Eternal God, Breath of Life,
Font of Hope, and our Eternal Joy;
Open the doors of our hearts,
and the gates of your mercy
to come into our world and our lives,
and bring us to that day
when all the earth is redeemed by your presence.

The Texts for December 3, 2017

First Reading: Isaiah 64:1-9
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” – The prophet speaks the lament of the people in the years after the return from exile, when life is hard and the former glory of the nation is absent. He calls upon God to relent and forgive their sins.

Psalmody: Isaiah 51:4-11 (appointed: Psalm 80.1-7, 17-19)
“The ransomed of the Lord will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads, sorrow and sighing will flee away.”
Our parish departs from the appointed psalm to sing this song of salvation from the prophet Isaiah.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1.3-9
“You are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” –
Paul opens his letter to the believers in Corinth referring to the matter of spiritual gifts that has divided the community, setting them in their proper context as gifts of God to the whole body as they prepare for the consummation of God’s dawning reign.

Gospel: Mark 13.24-37
“Keep awake – for you do not know when the master of the house will come.” – Having spoken of the destruction of the temple and what is to come for the community of believers, Jesus affirms that the Son of Man will come to gather his elect. For that day they should be awake, doing the work that they master of the house has entrusted to them.

During Advent our parish departs from the appointed psalms and sings Isaiah 51:4-11, the Benedictus, the Magnificat, and Isaiah 12 on the four Sundays. We also adjust the readings between the Sundays to allow for the celebration of a children’s Christmas program during worship in Advent. This occurs on the second Sunday of Advent this year.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASur_le_chemin_cotier_a_cancale_-_panoramio_(4).jpg chisloup [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

A Virgin Shall Conceive

The Promise of “God with Us”

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Watching for the Morning of December 18, 2016

Year A

The Fourth Sunday of Advent

The name ‘Immanuel’ (“God [is] with us”) echoes through the readings this morning. It is the name the prophet uses to declare that deliverance is coming to Judah. And it is the name Matthew uses for the infant Jesus, as though it were a throne name. But it is much more than a throne name, it is a declaration that God has come to dwell with us, that heaven has bent to kiss the earth. The new age is dawning, the way to the tree of life is opened, healing and joy have come. In the mystery of God, our frail flesh is shown a fit vessel of the holy, and the ancient promise is fulfilled: “I will dwell with them and they shall be my people”.

The season of Advent waits for the advent of God: God’s advent/coming at the consummation of history, God’s advent in acts of deliverance and redemption throughout history, God’s advent in the swaddled child of Bethlehem, God’s advent in the healing works and words of Jesus, God’s advent in our hearts and minds. The season waits and prepares and rejoices in the advent of God. And the news of Bethlehem is too great. It spills out from Christmas into Advent even as the love of God spills forth into our lives. The Immanuel child is born. God is with us.

So Sunday we hear the prophet’s words from Isaiah, and also Matthew’s use of those words to reveal the meaning of this child’s birth. Joseph is pondering divorce, but a heavenly messenger declares this is God’s doing. Through this child God “will save his people from their sins” (free them from the debt to God they cannot pay, heal the torn relationship we can never make right). Paul’s opening words of his letter to Rome speak of Jesus “promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures” and “descended from David.” And the psalmody we sing from Isaiah declares: “Shout aloud and sing for joy, royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.”

The Prayer for December 18, 2016

Gracious God,
who called forth the first morning of the world
and brings all things to their final end when all night is vanquished,
make us ever mindful of your journey to us,
and help us to welcome the child of Mary into our lives;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever

The Texts for December 18, 2016

First Reading: Isaiah 7:10-16
“The young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”
– To a king unwilling to trust God when threatened by northern neighbors marching against him, the prophet Isaiah gives a sign: by the time this woman gives birth people will be naming their children “God is with us!”

Psalmody: Isaiah 12:2-6
“Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.” A song of salvation in praise of the God who dwells in our midst (sung in place of the appointed Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19).

Second Reading: Romans 1:1-7
“To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints.” –
Paul begins his letter to the believers in Rome with a summary of the gospel.

Gospel: Matthew 1:18-25
“Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.”
– In Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus and his adoption by Joseph we hear God speak both through the angelic visitors and the prophets of the one who is savior and Immanuel.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AKazimierz_Sichulski_Madonna_hutsulska.jpg Kazimierz Sichulski [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The sweetness that will not perish

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Sunday Evening

Isaiah 35:1-10

10 Everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

I wish I could capture the joy of watching our children present the Christmas story. Or, for that matter, the exquisite beauty of the High School choral group that sang for our Christmas party/luncheon after worship. The little girl who played Mary also wanted to be an angel, so we had a little costume change in the middle of the service. And her swaddling of the baby Jesus became somewhat legendary last year – carefully spreading out the blanket and then plunking the doll used for Jesus down with a thunk to wrap him up tight.

I sat with a young man from the choral group – they joined us for the luncheon – and when I said that the children had presented the Christmas story in worship that morning, he asked, “What story is that?” Though he sang these exquisite carols and choral pieces, he didn’t know the story.

There is such power in this story for those raised in the church. Watching the children in their costumes, reciting the words, and singing the carols takes us all back through the generations to our own childhoods. The stable, the shepherds, the angels saying “Hark!”, Gabriel before Mary and Mary’s song (the Magnificat, the heart of this third Sunday of Advent) – it’s hard to explain how profoundly it all reverberates through our lives. For a moment, all is right with the world.

But this bright, talented young man didn’t know the story.

And then, when I got home today there was news of the bombing of the Coptic cathedral in Cairo.

All is not right with the world. And yet it is. Bombs are falling, but children are singing. The bodies of innocents lie in the rubble, but a child rests in a manger. The Roman authorities will degrade and destroy this Jesus, but he lives. The cathedral is in ruins, but the song goes on.

The sweetness of children dressed as angels and shepherds is far more than sweetness. It is a profound confession that sweetness has touched the earth, that sweetness abides, that sweetness will endure – that sweetness will triumph. Truth, mercy, justice, compassion, generosity, fidelity, courage, hope, laughter, joy – these are the things that are enduring. These are the elements of our true humanity. These are the things for which there are no regrets. Bombs may scar the world, but God works to heal it.

I told the young man the Christmas story in its brief outline. I thought, at the very least, he should understand the origin of these songs he was singing. But what I really wished was that I could have invited him into the wonder and awe of that story, and into the sweetness that will not perish.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACreche_de_noel.jpeg By KoS (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The world’s first breath and final sigh:

The promise of peace

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Watching for the Morning of November 27, 2016

Year A

The First Sunday of Advent

We start the Advent season by talking about Christ’s advent at the end of the age. I used to say “the end of time”, but it is not the end of time; it is the end of this time. It is the end of the world we know where bombs rain on hospitals and people still wave flags emboldened with the sign of the most hateful reign in human experience. But it’s not the end of this wondrous creation. Even the brutal travail of the world described in Revelation is not the end of the creation but its transformation, its healing, its redemption. There may be no need for sun and moon because of the radiance of God’s presence, and the author may proclaim that the sea is no more – meaning that there is no longer in this world any remnant of the primal chaos (the source of the beastly kingdoms described in Daniel’s visions) – but the point is that God has come to dwell with us and the city gates no need ever be closed. The violence that mars the creation, the rebellion begun in the garden that reaches cosmic dimensions in the imagery of the book of Revelation, is over. Humanity that was once clothed in animal skins is now robed in white. The river of life flows from the city, and the tree of life from which humanity was barred lest we live eternally in our sorrows, now feeds us with fresh fruit blossoming each month. The end of which Jesus speaks is not the end but the new beginning of a world made whole, a world born from above, a world born anew.

This season of Advent begins with our eyes on the end of the age because the child whose birth we wait to celebrate at Christmas is the Lord who was and is and is to come, the world’s first breath and final sigh. He is our peace.

And so this Sunday we will read from Isaiah the promise of swords beaten into plowshares, when the world is taught by God and “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” And we will hear Paul declare that “the night is far gone, the day is near.” And we will hear Jesus summon us to “be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” The armies of the world march and train in constant readiness for war, but we prepare for peace.

The Prayer for November 27, 2016

Gracious God, who called forth the first morning of the world
and brings all things to their final end when all night is vanquished,
make us ever mindful of our journey homeward
and wake us to your presence among us,
that the day when swords are beaten into plowshares
may be alive in us now;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for November 27, 2016

First Reading: Isaiah 2:1-5
“They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.”
– In the midst of the wars and destructions as the Assyrian empire rises and crushes the kingdoms around Judah, Isaiah proclaims God’s ultimate rule: all nations will recognize and come to Zion to learn the ways of God.

Psalmody: Isaiah 51:4-11
“The heavens will vanish like smoke… but my salvation will be forever, and my deliverance will never be ended.” – In place of the appointed Psalm 122, we sing the song of salvation from Isaiah 51. The prophet declares that even if they heavens could vanish, God’s faithfulness will not, and heralds the return from exile in “everlasting joy.”

Second Reading: Romans 13:11-14
“You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep … the night is far gone, the day is near.” –
Living in the confidence of Christ’s return and the full dawning of God’s reign of life, Paul exhorts the community to “lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light”.

Gospel: Matthew 24:36-44
“Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”
– Having spoken of the fall of Jerusalem and warned his followers about the troubles and persecutions they will face in the days to come – and particularly of the false messiahs who will claim that the Day of the Lord has come (in their violent revolt against Rome) – Jesus assures them that though the final day is unknown, they will not miss it when it comes. In the face of the challenges to come they are to be ever awake and attending to the work of God.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMist_-_Ensay_region3.jpg By benjamint444 (Digital Camera) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Prepare the Way

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Watching for the Morning of December 6, 2015

Year C

The Second Sunday of Advent

This Sunday we shift our focus from the horizon of human history to the ministry of John the Baptist who announced the coming one. We are not turning our eyes in a new direction, just shifting the focus from the far horizon to the foothills. It is as in the movies when the camera shifts our focus from one character to another, revealing by that move something significant for the story.

The coming of “the Son of Man”, the “Day of Christ”, the “Kingdom of God” that was the subject of our readings last week are still part of this Sunday – only now we see John and hear the call to prepare the way for God’s advent. The kingdom is shared bread. The dawning reign does justice. It washes us in God’s Spirit. John calls us to begin to live the day that is coming.

Luke makes it clear that this reign of God dawns into a world ruled by empire: Tiberius, Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanias, Annas, Caiaphas – Luke names them all. Names that evoke powerful responses among the people. Names that do not speak of shared bread or justice.  Names linked to the death of Jesus and the imperial rule that crushed Jerusalem and destroyed the temple. Into this world of kings and empires comes a new empire, a new reign, a reign of God.

With Luke’s account of John this Sunday we hear Malachi speak of God’s advent in judgment and grace. We sing the song of Zechariah at the birth of his son, John, as he proclaims the advent of “a mighty savior.” And amidst this call to prepare for the dawning reign of God, Paul urges us to “work out [our] salvation”: to be and become the people of the age to come.

The prayer for December 6, 2015

All earth and heaven have their beginning and end in you, O God;
you are our source and goal.
Teach us the way of your kingdom
that we may ever honor you with lives of faith, hope and love;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The texts for December 6, 2015

First Reading: Malachi 3:1-4
“I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me.”
– The prophet known as Malachi spoke to a people who complained of God’s absence, but neglected their offerings and worship of God. He declares that God will come to this people, but warns he will come as a purifying fire.

Psalmody: Luke 1:68-79 (The Benedictus)
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.” – On this Sunday when we hear of the ministry of John the Baptist, we sing the song known as the Benedictus (from its first words in Latin). This prophecy is sung by Zechariah when he regains his voice after following the divine command to name his son John, glorifying God for his work of deliverance and declaring that John is the one who “will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.

Second Reading: Philippians 2:12-16 (appointed: Philippians 1:3-11)
“Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” –Paul writes from prison, urging his beloved congregation to faithfulness in their life together. (Our congregation read Philippians 1:3-11 last week.)

Gospel: Luke 3:1-18 (appointed: Luke 3:1-6)
“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius…during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” – We combine the Gospel readings for 2 and 3 Advent this Sunday where John is located in the midst of the ruling powers but speaks of the ruler to come – and calls the community to a life in keeping with the dawning reign of God.

 

Image: By uploader Koperczak (talk) 06:28, 24 March 2009 (UTC) [Public domain, Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The ransomed of the Lord shall return

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Wednesday

Isaiah 51:4-11

The ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

We are grateful for the remarkable recovery from brain surgery of a child in the parish. Every day seems an answer to prayer. But even as we celebrate his recovery, there are parents in the congregation whose children did not recover.

I think of them as we provide each status update. I know the complicated emotions of gratefulness for others even as you grieve your own loss. When my daughter was killed, I knew the land of bitterness was nearby. There’s a story of my brother crawling through the fence on my grandparents’ farm into the pasture where the bull grazed. I can feel my mother’s fear even now as she tells that story. The land of bitterness is like that field. It’s an easy fence to cross but a terrible place to go.

Advent is for those parents whose children didn’t come home. It is for those whose hips are mending in a hospital bed. It is for those whose homes are empty or cold or absent. It is for those who flee their homeland – and those unable to flee. It is for the parents of Alan Kurdi whose body will continue to lie in the surf as long as his image endures in our memory.

Advent is a simple promise: the sorrow of the world shall not endure. The gulf that separates the perfect realm of heaven from the troubled realm of earth will be overcome. God will come to dwell with us. Indeed, God has come to us already in the child of Nazareth, the crucified and living one.

Advent is for the parents whose children didn’t come home, and the parents whose children won’t come home, and the children who have reason to not go home. But it is also for the families that do come home, that have enjoyed in some small measure the goodness God intended for us in families. Yet even the best of families have known the ache of our fallen world. And so all are recipients of the promise that shapes this season: “the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.