31 Dec 17
In this the third last psalm, one must be struck by its beauty. The key to seeing this psalm’s strength lies not so much in its words, but in the way it is built.
We sing praise to God at our offering, as our offering itself is praise. We call the moments we look at God with genuine affection the doxology. The end of the book of palms offer a Doxology in five parts found in psalms 146 to the last psalm 150.
In psalm 148 there is a compelling pressure to praise God. The song is presented like in two beautiful twin towers. The first tower is the summons to praise God sent out to the creatures of heaven: angels and messengers whose job is to inform creation about God. Next on the list to be called are the objects of heaven that we see in the cycles of the seasons.
The second tower is a parallel identical summons and starts again with the command: “Praise the Lord” in verse 7. But now the summons goes out to all the earth, its creatures, weathers, and features. It specifies, in the end a summons to the human race: male and female, rich and poor, rulers and subjects, young and old. There are no exceptions: everything is summoned to praise God.
At the bottom of each tower, the song writer offers the reason for such universal praise and it is this. At the end of the day, there is only one Creator who continues the work of creation, without whose partnership, there would be no more evolution, growth or on going life for anything.
The parallel beauty in the architecture of Psalm 148 opens its door wide.
To get this reading: watch for the phrase: “no longer have to live blind by the law” or we are “slaves no more.”
Writing to a group of mostly non Jewish people in 50 AD, about 20 years after the death and renewal of Jesus he was trying to show them what happened when God abdicated being God by become the human teacher Jesus. Paul grasped the essence of Christmas and Easter: we, all humanity, can now rise above religions and their rules and practices and expectations to become equal partners in Divine creation.
Once we were like a youngster not yet at the age of majority. Thus we could not vote, or drink, or give consent. However, in the new year, a way ushered in by the birth, death and renewal of God in the human race, we can now take our own decisions and live as adults with responsibility, freedoms, and obligations. We need no priest, no law, no king to tell us what to do, how to dress, what to say, how to behave because we have been created to be adults impregnated with the Holy Spirit to partner with the Creator to build God’s Vision on earth as it is in Heaven.
Furthermore, like psalm 148 says, there are no exceptions, maybe we were born into God’s family as if we were Jews, or maybe equally valid we can simply adopt God as our creator. In either case, there are no exceptions, we live now in the time of freedom as adult beloved creatures. No more do we have to subject ourselves to institutions, bibles, priests or dictators to be the creature God has created us to be: Slaves no more!
Luke 2: 21, 25-33, 36-38
Matthew and Luke are the two sources we have about the first Christmas. Luke’s story is written to be the main source book of Jesus for non Jewish peoples. The Birth Story in Luke is four times as long as that of Matthew. It was written 35 years after the letter Paul wrote to the non-Jewish first generation Christians of Galatia, about 60 years after the execution of Jesus.
Luke’s pageant features women far more than Matthew. Lots of time is dedicated to the sisters: Elizabeth and Mary. Nowhere but here do we meet Anna an elderly woman who understood before the male priests in the synagogue what this child was to become.
Luke’s pageant features lots of music. Four amazing hymns have survived all time as prominent hymns we sing today: O Come O Come Emanuel, Dismiss us with your Blessing, My heart pours out its praise, and Gloria in excelsis deo.
Luke’s pageant features the mysticism of what is happening far more than does Matthew. Hence it features more messengers of heaven, more angels and more talk of the divine spirit, all of whom, in compliance with Psalm 148, are praising God.
Scholars suspect that these were written into the story to impress deeply the non-Jewish Christian congregant who would have grown up on the memorable mythical gods of Greece and Rome. These were people who loved dance and music. They were also a culture who treated women more as equals in family and governance.
The key to understanding Luke’s Birth Stories lies in the concrete images they continue to provoke, images easy to visualize and remember, images where everything, great and small is praising God the creator.
31 Dec 17
Psalm 148, Gal. 4:4-7, Luke 2: 21, 25-33, 36-38
Mystery, Music, and Women
Ruler of the darkness and ruler of light, on the precipice of a new year, we are reminded of the new beginnings that we are offered in Jesus the Christ. As we look to your holy scriptures again, help us hear a fresh word, and strengthen us to take on the work of a new beginning. Amen.
Mathew and Luke birth accounts are very different, some of which can be blended, and some cannot be blended at all. Luke alone gives us the features of mysticism, music and women, features which endured maybe because our broken world needs to be reminded always of these features.
The instability of our broken world is today manifesting itself as the antithesis of the mission of Jesus. It is as if the pre-creation chaos has leaked into our world acting as it always did. Pre-creation chaos has no sense of the Creator, it ignores the Creator, and it wants to act as if it were the most powerful. There is no way such chaos can feel or hear the authentic messengers of heaven. It simply lacks the humility to learn easily.
And yet the good news is this: that chaos, albeit not as fast as you and I might like is slowly being formed by the creator despite itself.
There is a mystery in living. Things happen in real time that are inexplicable and personal. Intuitive, felt sensations gut feelings. A feeling of being not alone, visitations as if in a dream like state, feeling connected to all things, being one with nature. A number of people have remarked to me how they are mystified at outliving most of their friends. Feeling all choked up in the presence of forgiveness, or a touch with sensitive affection or word of loving attention are mystical moments. Military members are often shocked and mystified that they survived violence when a buddy did not. All these are mystical moments, wherein one might say they felt the Divine Spirit.
Luke reminds us that the Holy Spirit like a soft but relentless repetitive wave which talks to men and women, kings and servants, rich and poor, across all religions about the character of God and the passions of Creation.
Luke teachers that John the Baptiser is filled with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit will impregnate Mary. Elizabeth and Zechariah who are the Baptiser John’s parents, were filled with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit rested on Simeon, the old man. John says Jesus will baptise in the Holy Spirit. And so it goes on throughout Luke and into its sequel, the Book of Acts.
Mystery: Luke’s Gospel, using us as instruments, reminds humanity that the mystical inexplicable creative Holy Spirit is the source of creation and God in real life.
Music moves us, inspires us, lifts our spirits and is a manifestation of our creative artistic side.
According to Luke those who got the message first were not the men in power, but rather it was a small unexpected group: a young unmarried women and an elderly couple too old to have children. From their mouths came the most ancient hymns of humble praise, canticles that predate the gospel of Luke by centuries.
The Roman Church called these canticles in Latin: the Magnificat, the Benedictus, and Nunc Dimittis, or losely translated based on their first lines: the Magnification, The Blessing, and the Dismissal.
Music. Luke’s Gospel, using us as instruments, reminds us in music that humanity is not God, and yet humanity can work alongside God.
It remains as true today as always. If we have a lot to lose we are reluctant to change the systems, even if those changes will make life more fair. There is a true price for compassion as it means we have to be less secure, risk takers, and increasing vulnerable. While it is changing and has come a long way over the centuries, there exists still misogyny, disrespect of women, and financial glass ceilings. Hashtag:metoo pushes the margins of gender equality and some still resist. Our society only loses when we fail to respect the feminine maternal voice inside us all.
As noted, according to Luke, the old, the marginalized and the women are the first to get it.
Those well off, in power, financially comfortable, slaves to rules, and often mostly male, then and now seem to have so much invested in power and material, that they have a much harder time grasping the mission statement of God in Jesus.
And yet, the women, the shepherds, the old man and the old women got the message. Furthermore they used not power to effect change. They used not their wealth to fix broken things. They had nothing to lose and followed their hearts to sing praise to God for the great news.
Women. Luke’s Gospel, using us as instruments reminds humanity to let go its grasp on wealth, status, rules, and gender imbalance to proclaim, in action, the mission statement of God in Jesus.
Mysticism, music and women dominated the beginning of Luke. In effect, these themes form an overture, an umbrella over all the rest of the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts.
All overtures cast a prejudice and perspective on the whole story. They influence strongly how we understand and remember the story. Luke’s story of the Birth is such an Overture.
And that leaves Luke’s Stories within our hearts to tell ourselves, our friends, neighbors, how lucky we are as a human race, as broken as we may be, to feel ongoing creation. The 2018 homework can be that reminder, an overture to the year.
After all we are
instruments empowered by the Holy Spirit,
stirred to action in service of God by canticles of humility in praise, and
born of women to have life abundantly and become all we are created to be.
24 Dec 17
Psalm 89: 1-4, 19-28
Psalm 89 is a strong affirmation in favour of the monarchy from the House of King David which dominated ancient Israel for 400 years: 1000 BC to about 600 BC. By comparison Elizabeth our Queen has dominated the UK and Canada in the same way since 1917: 100 years and is known as the House of Windsor.
This song is a song of the religious power in 100% support of this monarchy; the government of Israel in the House of David. It is introduced by a word pair describing God, watch for it: it is “love and faithfulness”, and it is repeated twice at the beginning. As certain as there is a creation around you, God is love and faithfulness.
And then jumping to vs 19 we will read the poets absolute conviction that this same reliable Creator has appointed directly David and the House of David as the governance of empowerment. No other House has ever received such endorsement from the priests of Israel.
And so of course, when the messiah comes, He must come only from the House of David. Psalm 89 lies behind the claim in Luke which places Joseph directly in the line of the house of David.
The last verse of this reading once again repeats the word pair: love and faithfulness translated here as “maintain my love” and “my covenant will never fail.” Listen carefully for the word of God: Psalm 89
We read here about the conception of John the Baptiser, born to people too old to conceive. Luke, here, gives us the angel named Gabriel who introduces himself as the direct messenger from God to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptiser.
The too-old-to-have-children motif of course reflects on the mythical birth of Isaac, born of Abraham and Sarah, who laughed at another angel who advised Sara she was pregnant long after her child-bearing physical age was done.
Fantastical creatures, impossible birth stories and unbelievable events fill the front end of Luke and Matthew, the only sources we have about the birth of Jesus. Whenever we read about such things like angels, we might want to think in terms of visions for those a dreamlike state and to think not factuality. Indeed, Zechariah stumbles out of the inner sanctum of the temple, speechless and he realizes that he had had a vision.
Having realized that he had had a vision he accepted a gift from God greater than anything concrete. The reality of this story for Zechariah which led to his beautiful song of joy found in the next chapter of Luke, lies not in the realm of the physical, it lies in the mystical realm of the spiritual.
Gabriel, the angel, is a dreamlike spiritual vision which contains far more meaning and has had far more impact on human history than factual history.
Listen carefully to the first angel of Luke.
Luke 1: 26-37
Well guess what: Gabriel comes back, and this time the target of his message is a young unmarried woman, who ought not be pregnant, but is. In this part of the story we hear about another amazing dreamlike spiritual vision from the same angel. Here in this reading two powerful thoughts are intertwined: angels and the House of David. Luke’s story has established itself not only credible, but also as one full of mystery and intrigue, compelling the reader to see this story through as barn burner, a page turner, a book one just cannot put down.
This vision leads to another song of great joy, which Mary sings a bit later in the same chapter…more on that next week.
Mary’s response is mixed. She offers a song of joy, even though as Luke tells it, she had no clue about what her vision means. Mary is perplexed. Like Zechariah before her, a vision encounter with Gabriel left her wondering, questioning herself, her faith, probably her memory. It left her in her own words: troubled.
And trouble is the key word that opens up this passage: Mary is in trouble. Mary is troubled.
Listen to God’s Word leaving behind trouble and joy.
24 Dec 17
Psalm 89: 1-4, 19-26, Luke 1:8-15, Luke 1: 26-37
Angels and angels and more angels
God of grace, we rejoice that you choose to dwell among us. Fill us with your Spirit that we may hear again the announcement of Jesus’ coming, and proclaim the good news of your promises fulfilled.
I want to start off my reflections on this our Christmas Sunday service with my own word pair: trouble and joy. There are many angels in Luke, all saying much the same thing and leaving people in a state of trouble and joy.
In addition to reading about two visions of the angel Gabriel there are five other encounters in the birth stories of Luke.
From our readings: Zechariah has a vision encounter with Gabriel and it leaves him speechless and happy. Mary has a vision encounter with Gabriel and it leaves her troubled and joyful.
Then Mary realizes she had had some kind of other encounter, one attributed to the Spirit of God that left her in trouble and also pleased.
An angel, accompanied by a great choir, announced the birth of Jesus to the lowest forms of labourers: the shepherds in the fields. That left them stunned and curious.
Then the sisters meet: Mary, who might be a few weeks pregnant, and Elizabeth, who is in the third trimester. Here between these two women there is a mystical moment and we meet yet again an angel. This time the angel takes the form of a Holy Spirit, the spiritual father of the baby growing inside Mary’s uterus. That leaves them both mystified and thrilled.
We also encounter a message on the angelic writing table where Zechariah, still speechless, writes “His name is John.” That encounter left him and his neighbours in confusion and joy.
Then we meet Simeon an old blind man who is also visited by a messenger of God, which is translated as the Spirit or Divine Spirit. That encounter left him disturbed and joyful.
The message is the same as that given to Zechariah, Mary, Elizabeth, and the shepherds. Angels, angels and more angels, and they leave those so visited troubled and happy at the same time.
And yet is that not how it is? Are we today not perplexed at the idea of the Creator of each one us who becomes one like us? It is like saying that which is not me is me. Confused? Yes indeed. That is the mystery of God. We, the people, cannot become God, and yet God becomes one like us.
And that troubling paradox gives us room to live in God’s Word and in our world. It gives the space to say either out loud or secretly: I wonder: who really believes this stuff? I am troubled. I am in trouble. I am confused.
Maybe when we feel that, we have heard anew the message of the angel. Maybe when we are troubled we have heard, perhaps unconsciously the messenger from God. We know from counselling practice, in the break through moment when the client says “Oh my, I did not see that ever before….I am confused!”
Perhaps, it is the same thing in spiritual growth: in that moment of questioning are we the most open to being impregnated with the God’s love and faithfulness?
Perhaps the Word best grows when we are opened with living news that troubles and confuses.
Maybe it is then we too can envision the creative newness that grew into the teachings that shaped the likes of Mary, Zechariah, Elizabeth, Simeon and the shepherds.
New visions leaves us perplexed, questioning that which we think we know to be true, so much so it is then we can transform towards the companionship of God.
Yet we also know that trouble is not the only thing the visions left behind. From the mouths of those so impacted in Luke we also get four songs of exhalation, pure joy.
From Simeon we get: Lord dismiss us with your blessing, fill our hearts with joy and peace.
From Zechariah: O Come Emanuel: disperse the gloomy clouds of night and death’s dark shadows put to flight.
From Mary we get: My soul gives glory to my God. My heart pours out its praise.
From the stunned shepherds we get: Angels we have heard on high singing Gloria in excelsis deo.
At the end of the day, and this is our homework: maybe we could consider ourselves blessed when we feel within ourselves the word pairs: perplexity and joy, trouble and happiness, fear and optimism. Maybe these are the signals in our souls we are in the presence of God’s angels.
10 Dec 17
Psalm 85: 1-2, 8-13
This is a psalm that defines the idealistic vision God has for the beloved world. It opens by answering the question: “God will you be angry at us forever?” Verse one and two give us the answer: “Absolutely not!”
The author of this prayer song believes that the character of God is one that rejects eternal alienation in favour always of a positive relationship. A relationship that allows creation to become all it was intended to become.
To fully grasp the meaning of this prayer-song listen carefully for two clusters of values:
Love/forgiveness and then followed by words righteousness/peace. These are called word pairs and we find them throughout the visions of God for creation, especially repeated frequently by Jesus in the Gospels. This cluster of these two word pairs are not found often outside the faith communities of Yahweh. They seem unique to the Israel and their understanding of the Creator.
Without question, the prayers of the beloved people will be answered and the answer, as we will read out loud is already very very close, should humanity want to embrace the healing offered to all generations. The one in this prayer is 100% sure that God is willing and fully able to create the newness, and will indeed deliver on the promise. The promise is a real world harmonious, reconciled across its diversity with well-being for all creation. Psalm 85
Isaiah 40: 1-9
The Old Testament Book of Isaiah is actually written in three big sections. The end of the first Section is chapter 39 which speaks of the future horror for the thousands of Israeli refuges exiled to Babylon. But then there is a silence from God that lasted about 160 years. That silence, like the pause of a good dramatic actor, becomes a memorable preparation for what God will say next. What God says next is felt most powerfully and is completely unexpected.
The author reframes the decades of silence not with a finger pointing accusation of the disobedience of the people of God, not at all. The author asks his readers to see the world not as suffering refuges in exile as if they were being punished, but rather from the perspective of God looking at the beloved creation.
We get a stark contrast between one the relatively short mortality of human beings with their puny political ambitions and two Yahweh’s ambitions whose Living Creative Word: the Holy Spirit out lives, out performs, out lasts everything. This would raise hope for peoples about to give up in the face of the cruel horrific conditions in which most of these readers would have found themselves.
The degree of care and love and creativity expressed here was so well received, it is no wonder that it is quoted to herald the coming of the Teacher of Divine Love, Jesus of Nazareth, during another horrifically frightening period for the Israeli people.
Mark 1: 1-8
The Gospel of Mark was written for the very first Christian communities founded primarily by the 12 students of Jesus in Israel. These Jewish Christians in fact may have tried to remain true to their origins as Jews, but incorporating the Gospel message of Mark into their Jewish Theology, having the intent to reform, in the wisdom of Jesus, their Jewish faith.
Not interested in founding an entirely new Community, severed as it were from the values and loves and beliefs of their own families, they were interested only in the substantive central new good news offered by this astounding teacher.
Profoundly shaken by the horrific violence at the hands of the Romans destroying everything Jewish in 70 AD, the Markan Community was focused on one thing: the coming one who comes to ushering in a direct protest against the violence and fulfill God’s vision for humankind. They believed it was actually far closer than the world could imagine.
Their focus is the central message we hear today from John the Baptist. Listen for John’s message in the closing verses of this reading: this is the sole purpose for the existence of the Markan community: Mark 1:1 to 8
10 Dec 17 Advent 2
Psalm 85: 1-2, 8-13 Isaiah 40: 1-9, Mark 1: 1-8
No baby, no manger, no shepherds, no angels: oh no!
If we were living around 75 AD, recently displaced Jewish Christians of the Markan Community we would have two things with which to remember Jesus and His teachings. One would be the memory of his teachings which modern scholars call the Q document.
Secondly we would have Mark’s account of the teachings of Jesus and which contain the final days of Jesus, the story of his trial, execution and resurrection. Most of Mark is devoted to the last week before Easter, Holy Week we like to call it.
With only these two sources, while we might have rumours about his birth, we would have no record of the birth of this itinerant rabbi.
And thus we would know very little about Mary, the conception of Jesus, the census, the innkeeper’s wife, the shepherds or the cattle feed trough called a manger. We would never sing about angels or the star or the silent night. We would have little knowledge about the three gifts and the elders of the east paying a visit to King Herod and the new born babe, wrapped in swaddling clothe.
What we would have is this: the promise of a new way of being that was heralded by John the Baptist along with Isaiah, Moses, Ezekiel, Elijah, Micah, Amos, Hosea and Joel our heroes of our history. What we would have would be this: stories of healing the ill, scrapping off the blinders on the narrow minded, liberating those trapped by the trauma of horrific betrayal, and comfort to those imprisoned in the systematic oppression killing the human spirit.
What we would have is this: a role model that shows us a narrow but viable pathway of humility and empowerment for all creation, regardless of gender, standing, or religion to be come all creation was meant to be.
What we would have is this: a set of pithy ideas upon which we could challenge the world towards a better way: the way Jesus called the new heaven and the new earth.
So let’s ask two questions: one why does Mark ignore the birth of Jesus? And two what difference does it make?
The first is easy, really. If Mark knew something about the birth, then he was not interested in the story: it didn’t matter to him. It is also possible Mark knew nothing about the story. In that case we should be studying the birth stories of Matthew and Luke as if they were theology and not history.
That is a question worth debating for fun.
However: it is the second question, which I think is much more interesting. What difference would it make to our understanding of Jesus if we knew nothing about the package in which we find him wrapped?
So let’s think about this: if the package of Christmas has overshadowed the substance of Jesus, maybe the Church has sometimes followed Christ in the wrong direction.
Consider this: according to the great new movie about Charles Dickens, Christmas was not a big deal in 1850, a mere 175 years ago. In the dark days of the early industrialization of Europe, the working class worked on the 25th unless it were a Sunday.
The working people had no means to buy gifts and often borrowed the ovens of the local bakers to cook their beef on the weekend. The upper class were Scrooge like filled with snobbery, cruelty and arrogance. Scrooge essentially dominated the streets of Europe and the Colonies. Christmas had no real value for most people, and indeed was not given holiday status until 1870.
One influential author broke out with a novelette that revolutionized the English speaking peoples of the world. The time was ripe for change: Europeans were no longer tolerant of rigid class distinctions.
The great popular author Charles Dickens capitalized on this growing distaste of arrogance and penned the short story A Christmas Carol in 42 days. He put it in print on the shelves, the 19 Dec 1843. The first edition was sold out almost overnight and charitable givings tripled that week. Dickens was determined to strike a sledge hammer blow on behalf of the poor man’s child. That blow was this story. The story influenced major industries to give their employees a day off and provided in some cases turkeys for roasting.
Charles Dickens was writing from the substance of Jesus and so in a Christmas Carol, we will find no manger, no shepherds, no cattle lowing, no census, and no star of wonder. It is as if these were not at all important to the Divine character of righteousness and peace, love and forgiveness upon which he based this most powerful story.
So I wonder as I wander through Christmas musings: if we had not the wrappings of the Christmas story, we would be less invested in the consumerism of Christmas?
Shall we ponder in our hearts questions like:
Would humanity be more invested in the four fold mission of Jesus, if we were not distracted by sheep and strangers from afar?
Would we find ourselves less frenzied by the shopping mall Santa Claus, if our eyes for the past 2,000 years had been looking more at the substance of Jesus message about freedom from oppression?
Would we be seeing the recent outpouring of the rage of women had we sung about the needs of the marginalized rather than morning stars proclaiming the holy birth?
Would we have been more successful in our search for love/forgiveness and righteousness/peace for all creation if we had not been enthralled with notions of cattle lowing and the stars looking down from the sky like magical angels?
I don’t rightly know, but within the mystery of the creative Holy Spirit, might it not be worth our time to wonder as we wander through the consumer provoking Christmas music of St. Laurent Mall: what would have happened if Jesus teachings came with no baby, no manger, no shepherds, or no angels?