Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The 7th Day of Christmas

Isaiah 26:1-9
v. 9 My soul yearns for you in the night, my spirit within me earnestly seeks you. For when your judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness.

Here we are at the end of a secular year and the beginning of a new one. It is always a time to ponder the future. What do we want the new year to be like? Do we wish to resolve to anything new or renewed?

It's a good impulse, although I notice this year that my resolutions are pretty much the same as last year, which doesn't mean I totally failed last year, but I still want to do better. Again, good impulse.

If there is a measure by which to judge our resolutions it is contained in the verse above. Are they an earnestly seeking of God? Will they lead to a learning of righteousness (i.e., right-being, well-being, wholeness, akin to the Hebrew word shalom, peace)? This does not mean that they have to be what one would call "religious" or "spiritual" goals. It does mean that all goals are spiritual, because they reflect some part of our desire to be whole, and wholeness is a concern (the concern?) of God. If you haven't spent any time wondering about resolutions yet, the question to ask yourself is, "What might make me more whole next year?" "What might make for my geater well-being?"

These are questions worth pondering today.

Happy New Year!

For Good Self-Control, Try Getting Religious About It

Published: December 29, 20
New York Times

If I’m serious about keeping my New Year’s resolutions in 2009, should I add another one? Should the to-do list include, “Start going to church”?

This is an awkward question for a heathen to contemplate, but I felt obliged to raise it with Michael McCullough after reading his report in the upcoming issue of the Psychological Bulletin. He and a fellow psychologist at the University of Miami, Brian Willoughby, have reviewed eight decades of research and concluded that religious belief and piety promote self-control.

This sounded to me uncomfortably similar to the conclusion of the nuns who taught me in grade school, but Dr. McCullough has no evangelical motives. He confesses to not being much of a devotee himself. “When it comes to religion,” he said, “professionally, I’m a fan, but personally, I don’t get down on the field much.”

His professional interest arose from a desire to understand why religion evolved and why it seems to help so many people. Researchers around the world have repeatedly found that devoutly religious people tend to do better in school, live longer, have more satisfying marriages and be generally happier.

These results have been ascribed to the rules imposed on believers and to the social support they receive from fellow worshipers, but these external factors didn’t account for all the benefits. In the new paper, the Miami psychologists surveyed the literature to test the proposition that religion gives people internal strength.

Click here to read the rest!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The 6th Day of Christmas

Isaiah 25:1-9
v. 7 And [the LORD of hosts] will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever.

This is a passage well worth reading in its entirety, particularly verses 6-9. I believe it is about as full a picture of the kingdom of God as we get in the Bible. It should ring a bell for many of you. This passage is often read at funerals.

Christmas can be a hard time for many of us because of the people we have lost, who are not here to share in its joy as they once were. This can be especially difficult if the loss is recent, but for many of us the sting never goes entirely away. I miss the two grandmothers and one great-grandmother with whom I grew up. They all loved Christmas and presided over family Christmas celebrations as if, in the words of Isaiah, they were gathering "on this mountain" a feast "for all peoples." I say this especially because at almost every Christmas I remember there was someone's boyfriend or girlfriend or even just friend present who was treated as family, including getting presents like everyone else, even if their attendance had been known at the last minute.

I still miss them terribly. Christmas isn't the same without them. I've come to accept that at a certain level, of course, and my memory is "enough" these days (it has to be). It is enough to acknowledge their presence still.

Some of you may have noticed the habit I have of closing my eyes when, in the Eucharistic Prayer, I get to the place of saying "and with all the company of heaven." I do this not to block you out, but to enable myself for this moment to see the bigger picture, the communion of saints in which we profess belief. I often see one of my grandmothers or grandfathers, but just as frequently someone from either of my parishes who has gone before, a friend, mentor or colleague, occasionally even some historic figure with whom I identify. I've done this ever since my ordination to the priesthood, when I "happened" to close my eyes as the Bishop was praying this portion of the prayer and I knew in a powerful way that my grandmother Leah was there with us.

God will swallow up death for ever. This is our faith at bedrock. But I believe this is not just a future sentiment. God is swallowing up death for ever. That is what we are saying when we say that we believe in "the communion of saints." That is what we experience in those times when we know someone who has gone before is with us still.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Holy Innocents' Day

Isaiah 49:13-23
vv. 14-15 But Zion said, "The LORD has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me." Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.

Remembering the slaughter of the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod is not a pleasant thing. Most of us would skip over this gruesome feast day if we could.

But we can't, of course, for the sake of all innocents who die before their time at the hands of others, whether of malevolent intent or not. These days in war we call them "collateral damage," a euphemism that betrays them. To name them "holy innocents" is to name them correctly.

The Bible wishes us to do a lot of this, correct our naming. Our euphemisms hide the truth in an attempt to protect our comfort. They are a lie, pure and simple, and the Bible will have none of it. The death of an innocent is murder, no matter the intention behind it. Everyone, even the hardest of our military commanders knows this is the truth. Certainly our soldiers do and it is a significant part of the difficulty they have in processing their experience of war.

The death of innocents raises the age old question of just where God is when stuff like this happens. Has God forgetten them? Even ancient Israel asked this question, as the reading for this morning says. The answer is no, I have not forgotten. It is possible for you to forget, even under the best of circumstances, and that forgetting can be death dealing. But I will never forget you.

The prayer for the day prays well

We remember before you today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of youyr mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord...

We might only amend the prayer to say "frustrate all our evil designs." This, too, is to correctly name the problem. It is not just some evil "them." It is also well-intentioned "us."

Sunday, December 28, 2008

First Sunday after Christmas

Isaiah 62:6-7,10-12
v.12 They shall be called, "The Holy People, the Redeemed of the LORD;" and you shall be called, "Sought Out, A City Not Forsaken."

Isaiah 62 is full of "new names" for Zion/Jerusalem. Earlier in the chapter (v. 4) they were "Hephzibah (My Delight is in Her) and "Beulah" (Married). The chapter ends with more, quoted above. These latter do not easily tranliterate into acutal Hebrew names like the two earlier in the chapter (too bad! they are sort f fun--and my own grandmother's name was "Buelah").

The new names are all about the newness that God is bringing to his people upon their return from two generations in exile in Babylon. It is astounding good news because it is given in the midst of desolation. The people have returned to find Jersalem in ruins and the land a waste. Isaiah, however, brings the news "rebuild!" Jerusalem will once again be renowned throughout the world. There will come a day when it will be obvious that Jerusalem was not forsaken.

All of this is because of Yahweh, who is acting decisively for his people, building them up so that they can build up the city. All their worst fears did not come true. They are not to be known as a people abandoned. They shall be/are again a Holy People, that is, a people who belong to God.

Sometimes the days after Christmas can seem a bit of an exile. There can be a feeling of, "Was that all there is?" The glut of Christmas Day, fun as it was, has quickly fallen away. Now all the trappings (the tree, the lights, etc.) all seem to taunt us: "I'm going to have to come down sometime!" But perhaps this is when the real work of Chrismas can begin. Where does God want to be born anew for me/us? What new name am I to be given by virtue of this birth? One can be sure it has something to do with these new names Yahweh has given to Israel. Are you ready to be nicknamed "Hephzibah, or "Beulah" or "One not forsaken, " or "Redeemed of the Lord?" Can you embrace this new name and let God do the work in you that God wants to do? That is what it is all about, not doing the work ourselves, but allowing God to do the work in us. That will insure whatever is done is not "the same old thing" but something, indeed, new.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

St. John's Day

Proverbs 8:22-31
v. 30b-31 ...and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.

The speaker here is Wisdom, who , in the passage, was said to be "before the beginning of the earth" and at the creation "beside [the LORD] like a master builder."

When John was trying to give voice to "the Word made flesh," among the sources into which he reached was the Wisdom tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures. Wisdom (a feminine word in Hebrew, so always referred to as "she") was a companion of the divine from the beginning, an agent of God's activity in creation, but also at such remarkable times as the Exodus. She is said to be God's presence in his people Israel.

John (and other New Testament writers) used language about Wisdom to talk about Jesus, especially his existence before his birth, as "the cosmic Christ," who, as John says in John 1, was "in the beginning" and "through whom all things came into being."

The verse cited above is a marvelous piece of writing, managing to cram the words "delight" and "rejoice" twice each into the half sentence. Wisdom is the delight of God, but, in turn, delights in God's creation as well. She rejoices in God, but rejoices, too, in "the inhabited world." This is very much a "Jesus message" and a "Christmas message." What we call the "incarnation" makes Wisdom's rejoicing and delighting all the stronger. God/Wisdom has delighted so much in creation that he has joined it. Jesus is Wisdom incarnate.

Let us share in this "double delight." Let us delight in the God of Christmas, and delight in the world into which he has entered.

Friday, December 26, 2008

St. Stephen's Day

2 Chronicles 24:17-22
v. 22a King Joash did not remember the kindness that Jehoiada, Zechariah's father, had shown him, but killed his son.

Today we remember Stephen, deacon, and first martyr of the followers of Jesus, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles.

Our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures is the account of the murder of the prophet Zechariah during the reign of King Joash of Judah. The reign of King Joash was a time when the people of Judah turned away from the worship of Yahweh. They abandoned the worship of the Temple. Zechariah stood in the Temple and called them back, but instead they murdered him there.

Immediately after Christmas we get three uncomfortable feasts: St. Stephen, St. John and the Holy Innocents. They depict three kinds of martyrdom: "red," i.e., the deliberate murder of a disciple (Stephen); "white," i.e., exile (John); and the death of innocents (Holy Innocents). Each is a way of the powerful to strike back at the message that they are no longer in charge, but God is King and Jesus is Lord.

But why right after Christmas? Holy Innocents can be explained as it is part of Matthew's Christmas story, albeit an unpleasant one. Perhaps, too, John can be explained because he was the great writer of the incarnation poem at the beginning of his Gospel ("The Word was made flesh and lived among us"). But Stephen? What is he doing here?

What all three seem to be reminding us is that the astounding good news we have celebrated at Christmas is not good news for everyone. There are the ones who come up short in Mary's song: "He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly." If this is, indeed, the good news, then it is natural for the mighty to fight back. And the story of these three martyrs, the "Comites Christi" ("Friends of Christ") as they are sometimes called, bears witness to this reality.

In many ways we increasingly live in a "post-Christian world," but we still do not, as the Church, expect much opposition to our message. Apathy about it, perhaps, but not opposition, especially of a violent nature. We can give thanks for this but also wonder if it is also a sign of how cold our message has grown. If we were as bold as Mary in her song, as bold as Zechariah in the Temple or Stephen in front of the religious authorities, would some of us suffer the ultimate penalty?

That is probably a question we do not want to have to answer, and that is OK. But the message of these three days should not be lost on us: the good news we proclaim is still not good news for everyone, especially the powerful. And when we are the ones also exercising the power in society, then we have some very serious reflection to do and choices to make or the good news that is on our lips means nothing at all.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Day

Zechariah 2:10-13
v. 13 Be silent, all people, before the LORD; for he has roused himself from his holy dwelling.

Merry Christmas!

"Be silent." That's completely counter-intuitive today! Today is a day of much noise-making, although, as I write, John and I are having some quiet time before we are off to the family Christmas celebration which I have no doubt will not include the slightest moment of silence!

Zechariah (we depart from our friend Isaiah for a few days, but we will return) simply wants us to be in awe for a few moments. God, the maker of all that is, has "roused himself." God cares! God wishes to be present in our history.

And the "holiness" of his dwelling no longer matters. I take the inference here that if God is leaving his "holy dwelling" he must be settling in a place that is at least somewhat less than holy.

That is, of course, what Jesus did, taking our human flesh and being born as one of us among us, in a place about as far from the Temple, the holy place of his people, as possible. If that were it we might still celebrate today, but it is really the result of this action that causes all the fuss (and, believe me, there was much fuss at St. Stephen's and at Two Saints yesterday evening). The result of God's rousing himself from his holy dwelling, coming down among us in Jesus, is that he brought the holiness with him and made, by his presence, the unholy holy, the ordinary extraordinary.

So much so that we call ourselves a holy people, even though our actions often speak to the contrary. We are holy not because of what we have done, but because of what God has done to and with us.

Christmas is the celebration of the spread of holiness to the earth. Wherever we step today, we are stepping on holy ground, with whomever we speak, we are speaking with one of God's holy ones. If we are not able to be silent, let us at least remember this great miracle as we make our noise.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

December 24 in Advent 4

Isaiah 35:1-10
v.10 And the ransomed of the LORD shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; the shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

This great poem of joyful restoration ends Advent for us. It has all been for this: joy. The word appears over and over again in this text, twice here in the last verse. Yahweh's intention for his people, indeed for the whole creation, is joy.

We are used to the triad of faith, hope, and love. St. Paul taught us the importance of these three. But joy should be a fourth (maybe Paul didn't know enough joy?). The great 20th century Orthodox writer Alexander Schmemann said that the harshest criticism that could be leveled against Christians is that they have no joy.

As values all these four have careful, "expensive" characteristics. That is, they also have "cheap" versions that do not meet the biblical depth of the words. Hope's cheap alternative, for instance, is optimism. Joy's is, I think, happiness.

This is not to say that happiness is a bad thing. I wish it upon all of us. But we all know it is fleeting; it is dependent on circumstances. Joy, the joy that comes from God, ultimately does not depend on cisumstances. It is like an everflowing river, a deep current in the soul. It is the deep confidence that we are God's beloved, in spite of everything.

This means that joy (as love, hope, faith) is part of the imprint made on us at creation. If we are made in God's image, the we are made not only for joy, but in joy. Joy is in our bones, we would say. The great Christian writer Frederick Beuchner once wrote,

Joy is home...God created us in joy and created us for joy, and in the long run not all the darkness there is in the world and in ourselves can separate us finally from that joy, because whatever else it means to say that God created us in his imge, I think it means that even when we cannot believe in him, even when we feel most spiritually bankrupt and deserted by him, his mark is deep within us, We have God's joy in our blood (The Longing for Home, p. 129)

A joyful Christmas, my friends.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Tuesday in Advent 4

Isaih 11:10-16
v. 12 He will raise a signal for the nations, and will assemble the outcast of Israel, and gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.

By this point in Israel/Judah's history, Jews had scattered in a great dispersion to "the four corners of the earth." The reasons for this were similar to the reasons distinct peoples have dispersed throughout history to our own day: economic and political, matters of survival and well-being. Our text this morning promises that there will come a day when the scattered will be gathered. They will be brought home to the land of their ancestors.

For Christians, this gathering is of a different kind. For us, Jesus is our home and we scattered are gathered around him wherever we are geographically. The Church gathered replaces the land, so in Christian symbolism "Zion" moves from being a symbol of the land to a symbol of the Church.

For us in the sacramental tradition of Christianity, the Font and the Altar become those gathering points, where, whoever we are and wherever we've come from no longer matters. We are home around this place of bath and meal. Here we consistently meet Jesus and find ourselves at rest.

Despite this great truth, we Christians cannot ignore the scattering that continues and work against the forces that drive it, that make it a necessity for survival. This means attention to the treatment of the alien (legal or illegal doesn't matter--the Bible makes no such distinction) among us, but also attention to the forces of globalization that force, in particular, the poor to uproot themselves and search for a better home.

So there are two principles here: home as a right, rooted in the land promised to the people of Israel, the people of God; and home as a universal place of refuge, the home created by the new community, the church. May we be attentive and responsive to both.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Monday in Advent 4

Isaiah 11:1-9
v. The wolf shall lie down with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.

This morning's reading is one of Isaiah's great visions of newness, beginning with the familiar, "A shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse..." Again, it is a passage that Christians have always found pregnant with meaning, birthing, among other things, "the Jesse Tree," a tree growing from Jesse with its branches composed of the ancestors of Jesus, culminating in Jesus himself. Google "Jesse Tree" and you'll get all kinds of images of it, including the famous stained glass window at Chartres Cathedral.

This prediction of a new ruler explodes into a full blown vision of a renewed and transformed creation, as in the verse above. It is an impossible vision. Woe be to the lamb that tries to lie down with a wolf! It is actually a vision of Eden restored, where nothing has to kill anything else to survive. Indeed, the vision ends

They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.

"They will not hurt or destroy." This is the meaning of "the Prince of Peace," whose birth we are about to celebrate. Jesus himself came not to hurt or destroy, except the oppression of the powerful. And there's the tough part for us as we seek to follow this Prince of Peace. We must give up all our attempts to hurt or destroy on either a macro or a micro level. The good news is that in Jesus' kingdom my lamb is safe with your wolf. The bad news is that my wolf has to find something else to satisfy his hunger.

When wars were fought mostly among Christians (what an oxymoron that!) there was the tradition of the Christmas truce and there are even stories of enemies sharing Christmas dinner together. May we declare truce in all the minor hostilities of our lives not only on Thursday, but for ever.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

4th Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 42:1-12
v. 1 Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit on him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.

We've been reading in the early chapters of Isaiah, but for this Sunday reading we have zoomed ahead--30 chapters and some two hundred years, to a "Second Isaiah" preaching to exiles in Babylon. Chapter 40 begins this section of the book with the startling words, "Comfort, O comfort my people..." This announcement is good news (gospel), an announcement which is reiterated in chapter 41. Now in chapter 42 is introduced "my servant."

Just who this servant is has been a puzzle to Bible readers and commentators throughout history. Christians have taken the words as prophetic, and there is some evidence that Jesus may have understood himself as this servant, or at least the Gospel writers did.

In its context, "my servant" probably refers to the people of Israel as a whole. So, having just been roused out of their lethargy and despair in exile with words of gospel comfort, they are immediately given a job. They are to be God's servant, and, as such, they are to bring forth justice, and this justice is to be not for Israel alone, but for "the nations." It's alot to ask of folks who have most likely just gotten used to the reality that their God just wasn't around anymore, that they were stuck in service to the Empire and its gods.

As a text preparing us for Christmas, we are reminded that the baby Jesus was born for this same good news. He was himself to be comfort, and he will also be called to be a justice-maker among his people and indeed for the whole world. And he will collect a community of justice-makers, servants, to be his followers. As we celebrate this new life once again, we are also called once again to live it with him, to live in God's delight, with God's spirit upon us, being justice-makers in the world.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Saturday in Advent 3

Isaiah 10:20-27
v. 27 On that day his burden will be removed from your shoulder, and his yoke will be destroyed from your neck.

It is not clear to whom "his" refers: God or Assyria. No matter, the hope is of freedom and it is freedom from the empire, the oppressor, the oppression.

This hope, as is so often the case, is trust despite all signs to the contrary. Assyria is the dominant power and Judah seems doomed, at best to survive as a puppet. This is reality. But there is also an alternative reality: "on that day." "That day" will come, and it will be Yahweh's day, the day of liberation, the day of destroyed yoke.

In an interview that was part of a video on the life of Desmond Tutu, there was a marvelous interview with a woman from Soweto. This video was made in the days before the ending of apartheid. She spoke of Archbishop Tutu in these words: "When he speaks I believe I already have my freedom."

Archbishop Tutu was skilled at preaching of "that day" as if it were both very near and inevitable, despite all signs to the contrary. He was skilled at preaching in this way because it is how he believed. He believed in "that day."

This is Advent faith; to believe in this way is to be Advent Christians. The day of our freedom, and the freedom of all people, is at hand. It is "that day" and nothing can stop "that day" from occurring, because "that day" belongs to God and to God alone.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Friday in Advent 3

Isaiah 10:5-19
v. 12 When the Lord has finished all his work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, he will punish the arrogant boasting of the king of Assyria and his haughty pride.

In the days of First Isaiah (Isaiah of Jerusalem), the dominant "superpower" in the region is Assyria. Assyria acts like all superpowers act, believing most of all in its own autonomy. "Nobody tells us what to do." What other point is there to being a superpower?

The prophet says that even the superpower is not autonomous. Even the superpower must answer to God. The arrogance and pride of even the superpower will be brought low. Indeed Assyria as the regional superpower will not last. Babylon is coming. And then Babylon will not last, Persia is coming. And then Persia will not last, the Greeks are coming. And the Greeks will not last, the Romans are coming. And on and on, each superpower losing its way in its own arrogance, which turns out to be its greatest weakness.

It is hard to be a superpower, much less "the only one." The temptation to arrogance is beyond great. "To be large and in charge" is every child's dream.

Of course, to be "large and in charge" is potentially to use one's authority for good. Such would please God. God is perfectly willing for Assyria to play this role; certainly his own people are not doing a very good job at it. But alas it seems to be the nature of empire to lord it over others and to enact policies of violent oppression.

I pray hard these days for our president-elect, who is about to become "large and in charge" of the "large and in charge" country on the world stage, the closest thing to empire that our current world knows. It is a very dangerous place to be. I am comforted to know that he is a man of faith, but will his faith be enough to give him the strength to abstain from arrogance? As he approaches his inauguration, I pray this question is on his heart. May it be on the hearts of all of us, citizens of this "large and in charge" country.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Thursday in Advent 3

Isaiah 9:18--10:4
v. 10:1-2 Ah [or Woe!], you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right...

If there is a common theme among the prophets it is that Israel/Judah has strayed far from the path of God, has, indeed, turned its back on God. The evidence of that, say the prophets, time and time again, is the lack of justice in the land.

Most of you probably know about the "canary in the coal mine." A caged canary used to be carried into the coal mines along with the miners. If the air grew unhealthy, the canary would die first as a warning that it was no longer safe in that part of the mine.

For the Hebrew prophets, "the poor of my people" is the canary in the coal mine. How the neediest among us is treated is a measure not only of our justice but our righteousness. Our relationship with God depends upon our relationship with "the poor of my people."

Sometimes this is called God's "preferential option" for the poor. This is not to say that God loves those among us who are poor more than those among us who are rich. It does mean that the poor among us are "the canary in the coal mine." God has said time and time again that how we treat the poor is akin to how we treat God.

This was not only the message of the Hebrew prophets, it was the message of Jesus. It was the message of his birth which we are about to celebrate. Jesus was born among "the poor of my people," a deliberate act of God which ought to be a wake-up call through the centuries. The one we call Lord and Savior in our Christmas carols, so easily sung by so many, was born among the poor and revealed first to the poor (the shepherds and anyone else around for whom there was "no room at the inn"). To see Jesus you had to hang out in a barn not at the Hyatt.

As we sing our carols this year let us be conscious of this, that the message of Christmas is not only "Peace on Earth," but "Justice on Earth."

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Wednesday in Advent 3

Isaiah 9:8-17
v. 12b, 17b For all this his anger has not turned away, his hands is stretched out still.

The Hebrew Scriptures, by and large, argue for a vision of God at the center of all existence. None of us would argue with this vision, I suspect, as long as we don't actually have to talk about it. And there are perfectly good reasons for our reticence. Christians, in particular, often make fools of themselves by pretending they know precisely where that center is. Hurricane Katrina hits New Orleans in order to cancel the Emmys which are to be hosted by Ellen Degeneres, a lesbian. If this is the vision of God at the center of things, we'll have none of it, thank you very much, and rightly so.

Walter Brueggemann reminds us that the Hebrew prophets spoke primarily in the language of poetry. The refrain from today's passage (and tomorrow's), cited above, is a piece of poetry. It is meant to evoke. In the Hebrew imagination it primarily evokes the only other instance in the Bible of an "outstretched arm," that of Yahweh against Egypt. The poet means to say that Israel has gotten itself so turned around that the outstretched arm is not for them, it is rather against them.

To put God at the center of things is both critical for us and something about which we need to be cautious. We do not, I think, have the "prophetic license" to declare everything that happens "an act of God." We do, however, have the "poetic license" to see everything with the eyes of God.

To do so we must be trained to focus our vision in the ways that God focuses the divine vision. That primary fcusing is through the lens of justice (we'll hear more about this in the reading for tomorrow). An example: a cursory glance at the governor's new budget proposals with this divinely-focused vision leads one to be troubled. As I read the report in the newspaper this morning, the governor wants us to choose higher taxes on consumption rather than on income. I have no doubt there are "sound" economic reasons for this decision, but I also "see" consumption taxes as disproportionately affecting the poorer among us. Thus to look at this proposal with "God's eye" (with humility, remembering that my eye is a secondary source of sorts) is to be skeptical of some of its parts, skepticism which may very well lead to opposition.

It is tricky business, this placing God at the center of things. We have to take great care and be careful not to act as if we know too much. But we still have to do it. Not to do so is to risk, in the words of the poet, "an outstretched arm" against us. And we will be the ones found to be holding that arm up with our indifference to those among us in geater need.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Tuesday in Advent 3

Isaiah 9:1-7
v. 2 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light...
v. 6 For a child has been born for us...and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Chrstians have always read these verses and heard them referring to the newness offered by God in Jesus. In their original context they probably refered to the birth of Hezekiah, son of the hapless Ahaz. Hezekiah would , indeeed, go on to rule well. He would preside over a time of national revival.

In an act of young evangelical fervor, my college roomate and I cut out large letters: "A child has been born for us," and taped them to our room-length dorm window after we got home from Thanksgiving break. Our room was on the tenth floor of one of the campus high-rises, overlooking a well-trod portion of the campus in Plattsburgh. In our world, we were "witnessing."

In the world around us we soon learned that, while some understood what it meant, many, many others were scratching their heads. I walked behind a group of women one day who were speculating on its meaning. "One of them must have made a kid," one said. "At least he's proud of it," came a reply. "Maybe one of them has a baby brother or sister," was another possibility. "Oh," one of them said, "maybe it has something to do with Christmas."

In my evangelical fervor I should have hurried up to them and delivered the "message." Being too shy for that kind of fervor, however, I held back, although still proud of myself for causing the conversation.

The leadership of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship of which we were a part was very pleased with us, although later they were very disappointed that it had not seemed to have caused a scandal. They had hoped for intervention (i.e., "persecution") by the campus leadership against this public Christian witness (with Jewish words! although that irony was lost on us at the time).

We are about to celebrate the "child born for us" and it is very true that much of the world (even right around us) doesn't get it. I wonder what Isaiah would say to that? I suspect something like, "Who cares? Your job is to celebrate. Your job is to burn the light in the darkness. People will come to the light."

Perhaps, I want to say. But our churches are not full (although fuller than usual Christmas Eve). Perhaps it is because, as Jesus said, our light is "under a bushel basket." We are shy as a church, like I was on that campus sidewalk. We could use a little of that evangelical zeal if we truly do believe what we are saying. Not in somebody's face, but offered to their heart. Not a light that threatens to burn them, but one that offers to light their way.

How can you, and how can we, be that light?

Monday, December 15, 2008

Monday in the 3rd Week of Advent

Isaiah 8:16--9:1
v. 17 I will wait for the LORD, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in him.

Ultimately this is Isaiah's callenge to Ahaz (the king of Judah) and his people. Wait for and trust in God even though God seems hidden to you. This message easily flashes through the centuries to our own time and our own, personal place. It is the message of Advent, timeless: wait for the God who seems hidden. And hope, for that God will surely come.

It is neither a surprise nor an accident that Advent occurs as winter settles in, and the days grow shorter and colder, and the earth around us seems to go into hibernation, if not death. Advent is the challenge to keep hope alive even under these circumstances, with whatever equivalent we have of Samaria and Aram threatening our borders and with whatever equivalent we have of Assyria as a source of power that may prop us up in the short term but cost us dearly in the long term.

Just in terms of the massive consumerism that confronts us this time of year, Samaria and Aram play out in those endless lists of desired gifts and the not so subtle threat they bring: I may not like you as much if you do not fulfill my wants. I will certainly like you more if you do. Do our loved ones overtly say and even mean such things? Not usually. But is this their effect? It is.

And then there is the temptation of Assyria, playing on our television sets during the endless commercials promising that one thing or another will give happiness to us and to those we love. We can buy our way to fulflled relationship. We are tempted in this direction, and like ancient Judah, succumb to it, even though we know it is a false promise. Relationships built on Christmas consumerism are fragile relationships indeed.

The only other answer seems awfully trite and puny: have a little faith. But that is exactly what Isaiah is saying to Judah. Have a little faith. Have a little faith in yourselves and in the God whose power is what brings true newness (and tomorrow we shall hear one of the great proclamations of that newness).

Buy your gifts if you must (and I put myself in that category--I will buy the gifts that my family wants this year as I do every year) but don't for a second put any trust in them at all. They are not my relationship with those I love. My relationship can only be the gift from God that it is. I have hope in the love that is between us not because of the gifts that we give one another, but sometimes in spite of them!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The 3rd Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 13:6-13
v. 9: See, the day of the Lord comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the earth a desolation, and to destroy its sinners from it.

Oh my, this is what we were afriad it was all going to be about. Anger, wrath and destruction at the end. It will all have been a bait and switch when John's "God is Love" (1 John 4:8) becomes Isaiah's "God is wrath."

But come, let us reason together, as Isaiah's God also says (Isaiah 1:18).

Who wants love that cannot get angry? I suppose we all want it as children when we suppose that love means being given what we want all the time. But as we grow we learn that love that cannot get angry really isn't love at all. By "angry" here I don't mean violent or abusive in any way. I mean the capacity to say "no," and to make judgments about what is better for us and not better for us. People who occasionally say no to us and people who sometimes suggest it would be better for us to do "a" then "b" are the people who really care about us.

So it's childish to want God to be love without the capacity for being angry or even making judgments.

But this God Isaiah portrays seems to have lost all rationality and reasonableness. He's gone off the deep end of anger into wrath and destruction.

That's the Bible's way of saying something our grandmothers are supposed to tell us: you get out what you put in. Live with wrath and wrath will bite you back. Destroy the earth and it will destroy you (we're just beginning to get clearer on that one). Jesus taught this as well: "do to others as you would have them do to you" (Matthew 7:12; Luke 6:31) and "the measure you give will be the measure you receive" (Mark 4:24; Matthew 7:2).

In the end, however, it gets personnel, personally threatening: "to destroy its sinners from it." "Sinners," the word that will get us in the end. Yes, it will, but in exactly the opposite way then we are inclined to believe, despite everything we have been taught. In the word "sinners" is actually our salvation. Jesus saved/saves sinners. Jesus turns sinners into hagioi, "holy ones," "saints." That's us. We've been baptized. We gather week by week around the Table. This is not a bait and switch.

I have this image that there may indeed be this day on which God the Father shows up at cosmic central, saying, "All right, I'm ready, I've finally had enough, it's time to destroy the earth's sinners." Jesus has this smirk on his face and is probably doing the chin rubbing thing, saying something like, "They were just here, I know they were, but they seem to be gone now." And the Holy Spirit will be just off to the side snickering. And God will remember how much he really loves these wise guys.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Saturday in Advent 2--St Lucy's Day

Isaiah 8:1-15
v. 12 Do not call conspiracy all that this people call conspiracy, and do not fear what it fears, or be in dread.

I had said to myself when I began these reflections that I would avoid any current controversies in the church, but I just cannot do it today with this verse that leapt out at me from an otherwise very difficult reading. So here goes a little reflection on the state of Episcopalianism.

On December 3, a group of dissident Episcopal-related bishops, clergy and lay people (some dissident for as long as 130 years) declared themselves to be a new Province of the Anglican Communion--"the Anglican Church of North America" (there are some Canadians in this movement; no Mexicans that anyone is aware of, and, yes, Virginia, there are Mexican Anglicans). Within a couple days the leadership of the Communion (including the Archbishop of Canterbury's office) said they had no application for such a province to be created, but that there was a process for the recognition of a new Province, one that would take many, many years. This process, however, includes the express permission of the "primate" of the Province in whose territory (the church does very much still think of itself in terms of geography) a new Province would be "carved out." Our Presiding Bishop or the Archbishop of Canada are likely to do that when pigs fly (whether they are or are not wearing lipstick).

In the meantime the dissidents exist, it seems, not so much to be honest dissenters (I have been one before and still am in some respects from certain policies of our larger Church--it's a rather jolly good place to be, actually), but arrogant noisemakers. Their potential new "archbishop," the former (now deposed) Bishop of Pittsburgh, Robert Duncan said this on December 3:

Question (from a reporter): Is the goal of this new enterprise to replace The Episcopal Church or to form a parallel structure?
Answer (Mr. Duncan): The Lord has been replacing The Episcopal Church for 50 years.

Now that could be the new definition of arrogance in the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. As my friend Canon Mark Harris said on his blog, Preludium, "It is the height of arrogance to declare that the Lord Jesus Christ is somehow directly responsible for the size or shape of The Episcopal Church or any other ecclesial body in the actual world of principalities and powers." Episcopalians have always known better than to speak about God in that kind of language. Besides arrogant, it is theologically blasphemous and practically foolish (one always ends up being wrong when one makes such stupid pronoucements).

All of this is to try to keep our pot stirred. Keep Episcopalians' anxiety high and keep them focused on the issue that causes the most people the most horror across the world: two men or two women sleeping together. [Pause to allow the time for your required shudder].

So here comes Isaiah with advice for the Episcopal Church, loud and clear, "Do not call conspiracy what these people call conspiracy and do not fear what they fear or be in dread." God I love being a biblical Christian.

In other words, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. Go out into the holy city, click the heels of your ruby slippers together and tell the good news to Kansas.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Friday in Advent 2

Isaiah 7:10-25
v. 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.

Ah, we say, we know that one! And so did Matthew, writing his Gospel, he has the angel Gabriel quote to Joseph, "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," and he goes on to explain, "which means, 'God is with us." (Matthew 1:23).

In Matthew's quote we notice a few differences. Last one first, the different spelling of "Emmanuel." "E" would be from Greek, "I" from Hebrew. A clue! Matthew is using a Greek text of the Hebrew Scriptures (a text we call "the Septuagint," something akin to "the King James Version" in his day). And so this explains the other, big difference: "young woman" (Hebrew) becomes "virgin" (Greek). Reading Isaiah in the Greek version Matthew had in front of him led him to his own "Aha!" moment. Here is a prophecy of the virgin birth of Jesus.

And Christians have ever believed it so. And so it might, indeed, be. But Christians must also take care to let the Hebrew Scriptures tell their own story (not necessarily the one we want them to tell). Ripping a verse out of its context does violence to the text. Unfortunately, "proof texting" (this act of ripping a text out of its context) is something that is in the Christian DNA, at least since Matthew. It usually gets us into trouble.

Having said all that (which must be said--at least by me!), we have this wonderful word in both texts: Emmanuel, which means God is with us, or God is for us. For both Hebrew and Christian traditions it is an ecapsulation of the gospel, the good news. God is for us, not against us.

It is what Isaiah was trying to get across to the rather thick-headed King Ahaz in his day. It is what Gabriel was trying to get across to the tradition-bound Joseph in his day, and it is what God is still trying to get across to us fearful doubters in our own day. The news is good. God is with us.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Thursday in Advent 2

Isaiah 7:1-9
v. 2 When the house of David heard that Aram had allied itself with Ephraim [Israel], the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.
v. 9b If you do not stand firm in faith, you will not stand at all.

Remember yesterday I said that when we answer the call, we have to be prepared to say "No" sometimes. "What is should not be." Sometimes saying "No" means saying "No" to fear and doubt.

There's a context to today's reading: The Jewish people live in two separate kingdoms: Israel to the north (above called "Ephraim," perhaps its major tribe) and Judah to the south. The prophet Isaiah operated in Judah in the days of King Uzziah and his successor Ahaz. At one point, Israel militarily threatened Judah along with Aram, a kingdom to the northwest, as its ally (this is all mentioned in 2 Kings 16:5-9).

Ahaz gets himself worked up into a state, and, of course, when the leader gets anxious the people follow (sound familiar?). They are all "shaking like trees in the wind." That means the enemy has them right where he want them. There is no vulnerability like a self-imposed one.

Isaiah is dispatched to say "No." In one sense he is called to say "get over yourself" and "it's not about you." You are the House of David, he says, with whom God is in stadfast relationship, one which is not (yet--the exile is coming in another 75 years or so) to be broken. "If you do not stand firm in faith, you will not stand at all." Kind of a prophetic Yogi Beraism.

But oh so important for Ahaz and his people and us. When faith wavers we waver. When we doubt that God is Emmanuel, God for us, we believe God either does not care or just isn't around.

We all do have times like that, of course. I know them myself, perhaps more frequently then I care to admit. But when we can't have faith ourselves, when we are shaking like trees in the wind, God gives us prophets, someone else to have faith for us and call us back home.

The greatest compliment I ever got was from an elder in my previous congregation who said to me not long before she died, "You have taught us that we have the water, we have the bread and wine, and we have each other, and we do not need anything else." I said, "I wish I actually believed that all the time." She said, "You don't have to, that's the point." She was my Isaiah that day.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Wednesday in Advent 2

Isaiah 6:1-13
v. 8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" And I said, "Here am I; send me!"

The story of Isaiah's call to ministry is at least somewhat familiar, and it's a great scene. A heavenly vision replete with four-winged creatures, incense everywhere, and a heavenly Temple whose pivots quake at the sound of praise to the Most High: "Holy, holy, holy."

It is no wonder that Isaiah sees this vision and says, "Wo! I probably shouldn't even be seeing this! This is too much for me; I am not worthy!" But then, an angel takes a live coal from the Altar and touches it to Isaiah's lips (ouch!), and says, simply, "You're worthy now! It's a done deal."

Then comes the voice wondering whom to send, and Isaiah is strong (and foolish?) enough to say, "Send me!" I have a picture of him as a second grader raising his hand in school. "Ooh, ooh, call on me! I know the answer!"

As the story goes on, moments later Isaiah regrets his eagerness. What he is being sent to do is to tell the people off. Sarcasticaly the voice says, "Tell them to 'keep listening, but do not comprehend.'" Isaiah has hard words of judgment to speak and he asks, "How long am I going to have to do this?" The answer: "Until the Lord has sent everyone far away."

If we want to personalize this story (and it is perfectly reasonable to be hestitant to do so) we can talk about everyone's calls to answer, "Here am I; send me!" We do want to do something, in the words of someone from a meeting I was at last evening, "to keep hope alive."

We are all called to ministry; all are ministers. This has become one of our creeds. But we must always remember two things. The "why" of our call is always God, and that "why" must always be in place before we can answer "what" and "how." And then we must be prepared as part of our call to have to do or say something hard. We do get times to say or do, "Comfort, comfort" (as we heard Isaiah get to say to his people this past Sunday). But there are also times to say or do, "No, what is should not be."

May we all have the vision, the strength to say, "yes," and the courage to say or do what we are called to say or do. But let us never forget "why."

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Tuesday in Advent 2

Isaiah 5:13-17, 24-25
v. 13 Therefore my people will go into exile...

Two events shape the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures: the Exodus and the Exile. Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann has written much of the Jewish experience of exile resonating with the state of the church and the world, particularly in its western forms. I'll let him have most of the word today:

The exiles expeienced a loss of the structured, reliable world which gave them meaning and coherence, and they found themselves in a context where their most treasured and trusted symbols of faith were mocked, trivialized, or dismissed. Exile is not primarily geographical, but it is social, moral, and cultural....

The "homeland" in which all of us have grown up has been defined and dominated by white, male, Western assumptions which were, at the same time, imposed and also willingly embraced. Exile comes as those values and modes of authority are being effectively and progressively diminished. That diminishment is a source of deep displacement for many, even though for is a moment of emancipation. The deepness of displacement is indicated, I imagine, by the reactive assault on so-called political correctness, by ugly humor, and by demonizing new modes of power.

Those words were written in 1997 but they certainly remain true today, if not truer given the recent presidential election!

Text is from Cadences of Home: Preaching among Exiles (1997), p. 2.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Monday in Advent 2

Isaiah 5:8-12, 18-23
v. 8 Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you...

There was nothing more important in the Hebrew psyche than the land (it is still found in the dynamics of the Israeli--Palestinian conflict). The land was God's great gift to Israel, second only to the Law itself. Read the psalms in particular with an eye toward this reality and you will get a good grasp of what I am talking about.

So then the gift became a problem. It happens so often, doesn't it? The gift became a commodity, something acquired, and something possessed. And if there is a near universal truth about we humans is that once we have begun acquiring something, we want more.

The celebration of Christmas has become dominated by commodities, things acquired, and more things to be possessed. It has become the great time of year when we get more. A gift given as a token of affection and as a symbol of the gift of the Christ child to each of us has become wildly distorted.

How can we push against that this year?

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Second Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 5:1-7

for the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel and the people of Judah his pleasant planting; he expected justice but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!

This passage of Isaiah begins "Let me sing for the beloved my love-song..." God loves his people. He is, you might say, besotted with them. He sings them love songs.

When my father was in the army, he cut a record for my mother. I think was an old 78 rpm. On one side was "Young Love." Every once and a while we kids would get it out of the cedar chest and play it. It was funny; we always laughed hysterically, but I also remember being comforted at the obvious sign of love it was. My young father was besotted with my mother.

God's love for Israel is disappointed, crushed. It is an enormously sad story. God's love was unrequited. The return of love would have been justice and righteousness (there's that same pairing of words from a couple days ago). There was none and so God's love-song falls silent.

© 2008 by Michael W. Hopkins

Saturday in Advent 1

Isaiah 4:2-6

On that day the branch of the LORD will be beautiful and glorious.

Isaiah was a remarkable prophet in that even though he saw doom for the kingdom--destruction at the hands of its enemies--he could also see beyond that. Beyond destruction there would be restoration.

In a day of economic doom and even destruction, this vision of restoration is important. Destruction will not win out. The doesn't mean (and it never meant for the prophets) the restoration would be a return to exactly the way that things had been before. Restoration meant newness and even some (a lot?) of the old ways need renewal.

© 2008 by Michael W. Hopkins

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Friday in Advent 1

I'm posting this scripture meditation on behalf of Michael. All typos are mine! JCB

Isaiah 3:8-15

"For Jerusalem has stumbled, and Judah has fallen..." v. 8

As I write this from a hospital bed these words seem very real to me, for I feel I have stumbled and fallen. It is easier to do that one can imaging, so I feel for Jerusalem. She was deluded into thinking that she was stranger than she was. We all do that from time to time and sometimes with dire consequences.

I often wonder how Jerusalem received these words. Was she cut to the quick? Feel any remorse? Overwhelming sadness at what might have been? I'd like to think so, although the biblical evidence is slim.

As I lie here I feel like I have stumbled and fallen, so much progress seems to have been wasted. Pray for me. I need Isaiah, and you, to give me a word of hope to cling to.

© 2008 by Michael W. Hopkins

Wednesday in Advent 1

I'm posting this scripture meditation on behalf of Michael. All typos are mine! JCB

Isaiah 2:1-11

"they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more." v. 4b

This magnificent vision is shared by the prophet Micah [4:2-6]. It is especially astounding here in Isaiah because the people are on the verge of return from long exile in Babylon and it would be natural for vengeance to be in their hearts. Isaiah, surprisingly, counsels otherwise. War shall not be learned anymore.

It remains a powerful if unfulfilled vision. War continues to be learned from the continence of our military to the common fighting on our streets. War as a way to solve conflict predominates.

What if were different? That's the question Isaiah echoes through the ages. What if it were different? What if the weapons of war were turned into implements of agriculture, the means of well-being?

There seems little we can do. Expect perhaps when vengeance rises in our own hearts and we reach for the plow instead of the spear.

© 2008 by Michael W. Hopkins

Monday, December 1, 2008

Monday in Advent 1

Isaiah 1:10-20
vv. 14, 17: I cannot endure your solemn assemblies with inquity...learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

One of the things Isaiah (along with many of the other Hebrew prophets) makes clear is that worship alone is not enough. Worship divorced from daily living is actually abhorent to God. Worship and justice are the two sides of the coin that is relationship with God.

Today on the church's calendar we remember Nicholas Ferrar and his religious community in mid-17th century England (at Little Gidding). Ferrar was himself a deacon and his founding of this community a very odd thing in post-reformation England, where monastic communities had disappeared.

Isaiah would have been pleased with the community at Little Gidding. They took their prayer seriously, using the services of the Prayer Book on a daily basis and becoming well-known for their practices of fasting and meditation. But that was only half of their commitment to God. The other half was holding themselves responsible for the well-being of the community in which they lived. In particular, they taught children and tended the sick among them.

The great poet T.S. Eliot of the 20th century was very fond of the story of Ferrar and his community, and he named the last of his Four Quartets, "Little Gidding." The end of that poem is, I think, a wonderful image of the union of worship and justice which is God's desire for our communal living (he uses words of the 15th century mystic Julian of Norwich as well):

Quick now, here, now, always--
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less then everything)
And all shall be well
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are en-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

Let the fire and the rose be one in our living.

Michael W. Hopkins, (c) 2008.