Thursday, January 31, 2008

Daily Journal: January 31st

Today's Reading: Psalm 2
I will tell of the decree of the Lord:
He said to me, ‘You are my son;
today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron,
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.’

Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
be warned, O rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear,
with trembling kiss his feet,
or he will be angry, and you will perish in the way;
for his wrath is quickly kindled.
(vs. 7-12)

Other readings:
Exodus 6:2-9 (God promises deliverance through Moses) and Hebrews 8:1-7 (Christ, the mediator

Hymn: "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus"
Prayer: Almighty God, creator and ruler of the universe, the powers and divisions of this world melt away before your glory. We humbly thank you for calling us your children and showing us that nothing can separate us from your love.

There's a double-play with psalm language like this, "[The Lord] said to me, 'You are my son; today I have begotten you.'" We can read this as though it refers to Christ--which is I suspect the reading implied by the lectionary gurus, with this being the Psalm specified for the Transfiguration, when Jesus' status as God's beloved son is again proclaimed by the voice from heaven. This sort of 'christological' reading of the Psalms is more typical of the Lutheran tradition than it is of the Reformed. Then, on the other hand, we can read the psalm as though we ourselves are speaking/praying this language. 'I, Matt, will tell the decree of God: God said to me, "You, Matt, are my child, today I have begotten you.'
I think there can be a danger in tending too hard one way or the other on this. To empower people to pray the psalms as their own, this can be a great and gospel-bearing thing. On the other hand, it can be too easy to always claim God's blessing for ourselves (see, for instance, that whole 'Prayer of Jabez' hooey). Of course, if we open up all the Psalms in our voice, then there is great diversity--sometimes we are the blessed ones, and sometimes we are in the pit.
The message that we are God's beloved children, it can be disheartening to think about still how many people in our world need to hear that simple gospel message. And, in large part, this is because of the way that Christians have distorted the gospel over the years. I'm not even just focusing on conservative/evangelical/fundamentalist types here. For a good part of the 20th-century, even the liberal mainline churches turned the central message of Christianity into moralism. You were a good Christian if you were a good citizen, a "good" person. I'm sorry, but I thought the central message of Christianity--the reason it's good news--was about God's grace, and what God did through the cross, and God incorporating us into Christ, and all that. Not so much about us and how good we can be. And I don't care if your form of works righteousness is that of the fundamentalists (the conservative moralisms against sexuality, drinking, swearing, etc.), that of the old liberal mainline (being a good upstanding citizen and a good person), or that of the social justice / progressive style liberals (working for justice, not buying things from unfair labor or from eco-insensitive production, etc.). All three forms are still works righteousness, if you've come to think any of it is a measure of how 'good' a Christian you are. There are days when I think conservatives and liberals alike need Martin Luther to come nail some theses on their doors.

Daily lectionary readings from Revised Common Lectionary Daily Readings, ©2005 Consultation on Common Texts. Hymn suggestions and prayer for the day from Bread for the Day 2008: Daily Bible Readings and Prayers, ©2007 Augsburg Fortress.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Daily Journal: January 29th

So, I'm doing really well with this daily thing, aren't I?

Today's Reading: Philippians 2:12-18
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; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world. It is by your holding fast to the word of life that I can boast on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain or labour in vain. But even if I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and the offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you— and in the same way you also must be glad and rejoice with me.

Other readings:
Judges 7:12-22 (God leads Gideon to victory) and Psalm 27:7-14 (Take courage in God)

Hymn: "Rejoice in God's Saints"
Prayer: Father of light, through the ages your prophets, saints, and martyrs have taught us by their lives of dedication. Shine through us, too, that we may make a difference in the lives of others, encouraging them in your word.


The line in the Prayer, "Shine through us, too, that we may make a difference in the lives of others, encouraging them in your word" strikes me today. Probably because we did our annual "Snow Camp" winter retreat weekend with the middle- and high-school youth this weekend, and I do hope that indeed these things make a difference. Actually, I feel pretty good about this one that it in fact did.

Daily lectionary readings from Revised Common Lectionary Daily Readings, ©2005 Consultation on Common Texts. Hymn suggestions and prayer for the day from Bread for the Day 2008: Daily Bible Readings and Prayers, ©2007 Augsburg Fortress.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Daily Journal: January 21

My apologies folks for my week or so hiatus.

Today's Reading: Psalm 40:6-17

Sacrifice and offering you do not desire,
but you have given me an open ear.
Burnt-offering and sin-offering
you have not required.
Then I said, ‘Here I am;
in the scroll of the book it is written of me.
I delight to do your will, O my God;
your law is within my heart.’

I have told the glad news of deliverance
in the great congregation;
see, I have not restrained my lips,
as you know, O Lord.
I have not hidden your saving help within my heart,
I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation;
I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness
from the great congregation.

Do not, O Lord, withhold
your mercy from me;
let your steadfast love and your faithfulness
keep me safe for ever.
For evils have encompassed me
without number;
my iniquities have overtaken me,
until I cannot see;
they are more than the hairs of my head,
and my heart fails me.

Be pleased, O Lord, to deliver me;
O Lord, make haste to help me.
Let all those be put to shame and confusion
who seek to snatch away my life;
let those be turned back and brought to dishonor
who desire my hurt.
Let those be appalled because of their shame
who say to me, ‘Aha, Aha!’

But may all who seek you
rejoice and be glad in you;
may those who love your salvation
say continually, ‘Great is the Lord!’
As for me, I am poor and needy,
but the Lord takes thought for me.
You are my help and my deliverer;
do not delay, O my God.

(The italicised part is the section offered in Bread for the Day)

Other readings:
Exodus 12:1-13, 21-28 (The passover lamb) and Acts 8:26-40 (Philip teaches about the lamb)

Hymn: "Lord of Glory, You Have Bought Us" by Eliza S. Alderson (1818-1889)
Prayer: Life-giving God, when we consider the sacrifice you have made to bring us back to you, the reality brings us to our knees. How can you love us this much? You have redeemed us, and we are truly yours forever.


I'm finding myself without a lot to say today, which seems to happen more often when the reading for the day is the Psalm reading. Hmm... probably something to think about there.

Today's selection of readings, the psalm featured above and also the additional readings listed, are supposed to be in some way a 'reflection' back on this past Sunday's (yesterday's) readings--particularly the gospel reading from John. I preached yesterday--I should be able to put the sermon up tomorrow--and I was interested in how most of the folks reflecting/commenting on the John passage seemed to weigh in much more heavily on one half of it or the other: either the first half, where the emphasis is the title of Jesus as "Lamb of God" (this being the only place in the Bible where that language is used so directly), or on the second half of it, where it would seem the emphasis is on the disciple's question "Where are you staying?" (actually more like "Where do you abide?") and Jesus' invitation-as-response "Come and see." I myself was guilty of this in my sermon, as I pretty much didn't address the whole Lamb of God issue at all, other than exploring the action dynamics of John yelling things every time Jesus comes near (you can see what I mean when I get the sermon up here). As much as I am one within the UCC who thinks that UCCers are far too hesitant to deal with issues of Christology, and generally speaking tend to have far too low of a Christology, in this case, given the two possible emphases here, even I am inclined to think that in today's context, the issue of where Jesus 'abides' (a more accurate translation of what we read as 'staying') and the gospel news of Jesus' invitation to "Come and see" are probably more important that christological titles. Although perhaps this is because I'm not entirely sure what to make of the 'Lamb of God' title, or I'm a bit hesitant around it because I worry about how one uses this language with run-of-the-mill non-theologian laypeople without descending into bad sacrificial substitutionary atonement sorts of theologizing. But, on the other hand, I still think it's important language.

But anyway, all this has been interesting because it's been pretty apparent that most of the Lutheran commentators and resources have focused on the Lamb of God part than the 'Come and see' part. (Some people will be very impressed at this point that I've found something in which I'm actually not going along with the Lutherans!)

Well, anyway, none of that was really so much about today's readings, hymn, or prayer, but oh well!

Daily lectionary readings from Revised Common Lectionary Daily Readings, ©2005 Consultation on Common Texts. Hymn suggestions and prayer for the day from Bread for the Day 2008: Daily Bible Readings and Prayers, ©2007 Augsburg Fortress.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Daily Journal: January 12th

Today's Reading: 1 Samuel 7:3-17
Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Jeshanah, and named it Ebenezer; for he said, ‘Thus far the Lord has helped us.’ So the Philistines were subdued and did not again enter the territory of Israel; the hand of the Lord was against the Philistines all the days of Samuel. The towns that the Philistines had taken from Israel were restored to Israel, from Ekron to Gath; and Israel recovered their territory from the hand of the Philistines. There was peace also between Israel and the Amorites. (Verses 12-14, as given in Bread for the Day)

Other readings:
Acts 9:19b-31 (Barnabas introduces Saul/Paul in Jerusalem) and Psalm 29 (The voice of God upon the waters)

Hymn: "Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing"
Prayer: Almighty God, you grace us with strength in the midst of turbulent days, and where you are, peace abides. Grant us the wisdom to recognize your presence in others, that we may never exclude others who also call you Lord.


Well, first of all, I guess this gives a clue finally to the ponderous lyrics at the beginning of the second verse of "Come, Thou Fount...": "Here I raise my Ebenezer: 'Hither by thy help I've come'". That would be a recasting of verse 12 in this passage, where Samuel set up a stone and named it Ebenezer, "for he said, 'Thus far the Lord has helped us.'"

The point in the text--at least as implied by the prayer of the day--is that God provided peace for the Israelites. It's a little troublesome to me, though, because when you read through the whole passage for today (I only have verses 12-14 above, following the lead of Bread for the Day), the "peace" seems to be simply that the Philistines were scared witless to attack the Israelites because "the Lord thundered with a mighty voice that day against the Philistines and threw them into confusion; and they were routed before Israel. And the men of Israel went out of Mizpah and pursued the Philistines, and struck them down as far as beyond Beth-car." (v. 11) It would seem to be the sort of peace of the Cold War--not so much a "real" peace, but a peace based in the fact that either side was afraid to attack the other. Of course, 'history is always told by the victor', and I think that applies even to (perhaps especially to) biblical history, and the Deuteronomistic history in particular (1st Samuel is part of a larger section of the Bible known as the "Deuteronomistic History", extending from Joshua through the end of 2nd Kings, excluding Ruth and arguably including the book of Deuteronomy; it is so named because biblical scholars believe these history-telling books come out of the same tradition or community as the writer of Deuteronomy). So, in this case, as long as Israel is not being attacked, or not losing, from Israel's perspective there is peace.

This is perhaps the classic error in American history, and especially that chunk from the end of the Cold War until 9/11. In America during this time, the overall concern for "world peace" was, in my estimation, pretty low--we, after all, were not getting attacked and lived in little fear of being attacked. So for us there was already peace. As my own seminary Hebrew Bible professor, Dr. Ken Stone, pointed out in a Convocation address the semester after I graduated, one of the things in our present context that the Deuteronomistic history may best do is shine back a not-too-flattering reflection on our own actions (he was speaking specifically of the book of Judges, but it could apply to much of it). This is particularly true of our all-too-often desire to claim God's blessing upon our country or our actions--or at least to say that if we are not getting attacked, for instance, it is because of God's protection (and thus, if we are, that God has removed that protection). Here I share some interesting quotes from Dr. Stone's address:
[D]o those of us who are committed to fostering peace in our world need to consider the possibility that the normalization of violence in the book of Judges, a book that associates violence with both God and the people of God, has some complicated but nevertheless real relationship to the conflicts that continue to rage among branches of the Abrahamic traditions?
[O]ne way of reading difficult biblical texts is precisely to read them as a mirror. If we read Judges as a mirror, we may find in it, first of all, not an occasion for condemnation of either the text or our neighbor, but rather an occasion for critical self-reflection. That is to say, in a world of conflict, how do we, who long for justice, find ourselves acting just like these judges? Where do we see, in the book of Judges, reasons for caution about our own worst tendencies, particularly those of us who, as Christians, wish to heed Jesus’ command in Matthew 7:1-2 not to judge?
For the case of Jephthah, in particular, may suggest to us that being involved in a just cause and being used by the spirit of God are no guarantees against doing terrible and foolish things. Indeed, Jephthah’s story indicates that those involved in just causes and acting under God’s spirit are quite capable of sacrificing persons close to them while refusing to take responsibility for their own harmful acts.
I encourage you to read the whole address (follow the link above).

But that academic tangent aside, where does that leave us with the claim in today's prayer of the day, that God "grace[s] us with strength in the midst of turbulent days, and where [God is], peace abides." What kind of peace is this? A 'personal' peace? A 'real' peace? A respite from hate and violence? What are the signs of God's peace breaking into the world already?

Daily lectionary readings from Revised Common Lectionary Daily Readings, ©2005 Consultation on Common Texts. Hymn suggestions and prayer for the day from Bread for the Day 2008: Daily Bible Readings and Prayers, ©2007 Augsburg Fortress.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Daily Journal: January 11th

Today's Reading: Acts 9:10-19a
Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ He answered, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ The Lord said to him, ‘Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’ But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’ So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus,

Other readings:
1 Samuel 3:10 - 4:1a (Samuel receives the word of God at Shiloh) and Psalm 29 (The voice of God upon the waters)

Hymn: "Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound"
Prayer: O God of truth, your light will always banish darkness. Let us never be afraid to speak your word in the face of opposition, for it is your power--not ours--that will save your children, through Christ our Lord. Amen.


As I think I mentioned a couple days ago, I've been reading through Unbinding the Gospel: Real Life Evangelism by Martha Grace Reese. The areas of new nember welcome/inclusion and 'evangelism' are supposed to be one of the 'focus areas' of my particular position as associate pastor. It also so happens that I've been prepping for our next set of "Inquirers' Classes" or "New Member Sessions" (I recommended the former name to our Membership Board about 6 months ago or so, to encourage the idea that people should be able to come to these sessions to learn more about our congregation before they have to decide if they want to officially join).

So, it is striking to me that today's scripture reading would be given the title/tagline "Ananias receives Saul into the church". In the passage, the actual 'joining' of the church is mentioned fairly quickly: "Then he got up and was baptized". There are certainly people in my congregation who think the new member joining process should be as quick, easy, and non-involved as possible--as few 'classes' as possible, as soon after someone inquires as possible, and so forth. This applies to people being newly baptized too. I'm not casting any particular judgment on those in the congregation with this thought, as their attitude reflects what was in fact the practice here at my church for many, many years. I've been told by someone who joined maybe 15 to 20 years ago that there weren't any sessions/classes for new members when they joined.

But it may be easy to miss in this passage from Acts that Saul/Paul has most definitely had a significant, life-altering encounter with the risen Christ. Now, I don't believe anyone is probably going to have such an encounter in new member classes, regardless of how many we have or what we include. But we do believe, as Reformation Christians (this is my term that groups together the Reformed and Lutheran traditions), that God / Christ are encountered in the life, work, and witness of the gathered people of God, in the Word and Sacraments proclaimed and celebrated amidst a real-life worshiping assembly. So, I'm not sure the impulse to have people join the membership at the earliest possible moment, maybe even if they've only been here a couple times, is the best idea. And, it would seem anecdotally that we have seen some evidence in our own congregation. Due to a variety of factors, about a year ago we waited some 7 or 8 months between inquirers/membership classes. Most of the folks that joined in that class had already been attending here some 4 to 6 months, and were already becoming integrated and committed into the life of the congregation. We've seen a much higher "retention" rate (new members remaining active) with that class than with many others over the past 4 or 5 years.

The narrative of Saul's conversion together with this text makes me think about what we in the churches are doing that will lead people into a Saul-like encounter with the risen Christ. Sure, theologically we claim this can/does happen in Word and Sacrament, but practically speaking, there is a lot of what passes for mainline Protestant worship, things that look like Word and Sacrament, that do everything but provide an encounter with the Gospel and with the risen Christ. Or, for those who come to us having already had some call/encounter, can we reach out like Ananias and heal the blindness/brokenness they come with, thereby opening them up to the full life that God has called them to? Can we be the hands of healing and transformation, even if God or others have already worked the call / encounter?

Aside from reflecting on the mechanics of how we welcome new members and new Christians, though, there is something else of challenge in today's reading. Ananias complains to the Lord because he knows of "how much evil [Saul] has done to to your saints in Jerusalem". This is the last guy we should go healing! And yet God affirms that "he is an instrument whom I have chosen". We have a hard time believing that those with whom we disagree might be being used by God. Conservatives have a hard time with the claim that liberal-progressives or gay clergy or any host of others could be ones God is using. But we liberal-progressives have a hard time seeing that God might use our opponents, too. Of course, in the story, Saul undergoes a conversion, so the claim is not that God was using him as an instrument while he was still persecuting. Is the lesson not so much that God may be using our opponents, but instead that by the grace of God, the door for transformation is always open?

Daily lectionary readings from Revised Common Lectionary Daily Readings, ©2005 Consultation on Common Texts. Hymn suggestions and prayer for the day from Bread for the Day 2008: Daily Bible Readings and Prayers, ©2007 Augsburg Fortress.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Daily Journal: January 10th

Today's Reading: Psalm 29
Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name;
worship the Lord in holy splendour.

The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the Lord, over mighty waters.
The voice of the Lord is powerful;
the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.

The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;
the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
He makes Lebanon skip like a calf,
and Sirion like a young wild ox.

The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.
The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness;
the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.

The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl,
and strips the forest bare;
and in his temple all say, ‘Glory!’

The Lord sits enthroned over the flood;
the Lord sits enthroned as king for ever.
May the Lord give strength to his people!
May the Lord bless his people with peace!

Other readings:
1 Samuel 3:1-9 (Samuel, a boy, says "Here I am") and Acts 9:1-9 (Saul on the road to Damascus)

Hymn: "Before You, Lord, We Bow" by Francis Scott Key
Prayer: God, you called the young boy Samuel from his sleep, and you called Saul, the persecutor, out from his darkness--and their lives were never the same. Teach us to recognize your voice, and make us bold in following your commands.


I'm finding myself without a lot to say in this journal today. The psalm reading, which is the psalm for this coming Sunday, was selected because of the "voice of the Lord is over the waters" phrase--it is the Baptism of Our Lord this Sunday, after all. I do love that voice upon the waters language, and I love a song by Marty Haugen that echoes it:
Wind upon the waters, voice upon the deep,
rouse your sons and daughters, wake us from our sleep,
breathing life into all flesh, breathing love into all hearts,
living wind upon the waters of my soul.
What does it mean for God's voice to be upon the waters? We as Protestants--well, us non-Lutheran, non-Anglican Protestants, anyway--have for too long domesticated, ignored, or lost faith in the sacraments. So what would it mean if we truly believed God's voice, God's word, was upon, within, amidst the waters of baptism?

It seems that the other readings for today all have the theme of hearing God's voice. In my own experience, though, the hearing of God's voice is one of those areas where Luther's (and others) 'hiddenness of God' is very applicable. When I was sensing the call to pursue seminary and ordained ministry, I definitely thought that it would be much easier of God sent emails or made phone calls, rather than trying to make me figure out why I had a knawing in my stomach and a lump in my throat whenever I thought about the issue of ministry. I think we can never actually be sure it is God's voice we're hearing, and yet we still have to act on the voice we hear, deciding whether it is God's or not. I'm sorta Bonhoeffer-ian here--in an actual instance of ethical decision-making, we can never know (or at least never be sure) what the right choice is, and yet we still must choose, and throw ourselves upon the mercy of God.

Daily lectionary readings from Revised Common Lectionary Daily Readings, ©2005 Consultation on Common Texts. Hymn suggestions and prayer for the day from Bread for the Day 2008: Daily Bible Readings and Prayers, ©2007 Augsburg Fortress.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Daily Journal: January 9th

Today's Reading: Luke 13:31-35
At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’ He said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox for me, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.” Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”

Other readings:
Micah 5:2-9 (One who is to rule Israel) and Psalm 72 (Prayers for the king)

Hymn: "When Twilight Comes" by Moises B. Andrade, tr. James Minchin
Prayer: God of the ages, your word is at once powerful and gentle, ancient and new. Your children pull together and tear apart, loving each other and causing each other pain. Gather us under your wing, O Lord, and renew us.


I must confess that among my first thoughts in reading today's text has to do with the killing prophets theme and last night's results from the New Hampshire primary. Yes, I am a Barack Obama supporter, and no, not just because he's UCC (although that certainly adds to it). Up until about a month ago or so, I was sort of non-committal about the whole thing: yeah, maybe leaning toward Obama, but not all that strongly, and not with any particular dislike of Mrs. Clinton. Quite frankly, I found Obama's speech at our UCC General Synod this summer a bit disappointing. Something changed, though, in December, and I came to have a certain distaste form Mrs. Clinton's campaign and became increasingly electrified by how I perceived Obama. I really think if we want substantial change in our country, Mrs. Clinton is just too establishment for that to happen. (Now, that said, if she wins the nomination, I'll still vote for her, just not with the same fervor as I would Obama.)

Now, I want to be clear that Obama is not the messiah and Mrs. Clinton is not Herod. But I can't help feeling a certain parallel from the prophet getting killed to the potential for Obama's campaign to fail. Mrs. Clinton is not Herod in this case, rather "the system" is--the 'establishment', the American electorate that buys into fear about a potential terrorist attack and the question of whether someone like Obama would not have enough experience in that event, and all the other factors that contribute to "the system". 'Jerusalem' is the system: "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!" And this is all the prophets, lest anyone think I'm reducing this all to electoral politics or trying to make Obama the prophet extraordinare (which he's not--remember, I was actually disappointed in his General Synod speech, and while I think he's the best choice, I'm not expecting any divine miracles if he gets elected).

I'm not really sure what to make of Jesus' statement that "it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem."

The 'gospel, as well as the judgment of 'the law', in this passage seems to be Jesus expressing his desire: "How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under wings, and you were not willing!" How do we hold on to that promise, that Jesus wants to gather us in? How do we communicate--evangelize--that gospel message to the un-churched / potential new Christians?

Bread for the Day's suggested hymn, "When Twilight Comes" by Moises Andrade echoes the language from today's reading in it's first and second verses.

When twilight comes and the son suts, mother hen prepares for night's rest.
As her brood shelters under her wings, she gives the love of God to her nest.
Oh! what joy to feel her warm heartbeat and be near her all night long;
so the young can find repose, then renew tomorrow's song.

One day the Rabbi, Lord Jesus, called the twelve to share his last meal.
As the hen tends her young, so for them he spent himself to seek and to heal.
Oh! what joy to be with Christ Jesus, hear his voice, oh! sheer delight,
and receive his servant care: all before the coming night.
(Moises B. Andrade, tr. James Minchin, tr. ©James Minchin, admin. Asian Institute for Liturgy & Music)

For a while now, I think we in the liberal/progressive Mainline have been uncomfortable with language like "Oh! what joy to be with Christ Jesus, hear his voice, oh! sheer delight". I have often shared that discomfort. For me, the discomfort is partly a reaction to evangelicalism, and their tendency to use a lot of so-called 'personal relationship' language and 'Jaezzuss' language. But I also think this discomfort is to our detriment. Indeed, it should be good and joyful to be with Jesus, the one who loved us before we could love. Sometimes our 'head' religion has gotten in the way of the response of our hearts. Over the last few years, I have become a little more comfortable with this kind of language. It's interesting to note how some of this same more emotively connective language permeates a lot of those old 16th, 17th, and 18th century Lutheran chorales, albeit in some different kind of verbiage: "Jesus, priceless treasure, source of purest pleasure, truest friend to me: ah, how long I've panted, and my heart as fainted, thirsting, Lord, for thee!" or "Lord, thee I love with all my heart; I pray thee, ne'er from me depart; with tender mercy cheer me. Earth has no pleasure I would share, yea, heav'n itself wer void and bare if though, Lord, were not near me." I don't know if its simply been some maturing in my faith, or my exposure to this latter kind of language (again, thanks to the Lutherans!), some combination thereof, or something else entirely that has lowered my resistance to more emotive, relational faith language.

Sure, there's the danger of descending into maudlin sentimentality, but for those of us in mainline Reformed tradition churches, with our typically intellectual Theo-centric expressions, we benefit, I think, from opening ourselves a little more emotional Christo-centric language. God is relational and compassionate, after all, and we as humans are emotional, relational, and embodied beings.

O Christ Jesus, I believe, help my unbelief. Help me to love you and trust in your promises. Open me, all that I am, to you. Amen.

Daily lectionary readings from Revised Common Lectionary Daily Readings, ©2005 Consultation on Common Texts. Hymn suggestions and prayer for the day from Bread for the Day 2008: Daily Bible Readings and Prayers, ©2007 Augsburg Fortress.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Daily Journal: January 8th

Today's Reading: Ephesians 4:7, 11-13
But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.

Other readings:
1 Kings 10:14-25 (Solomon's splendor) and Psalm 72 (Prayers for the king)

Hymn: Lord, You Give the Great Commission
Prayer: Sustaining Lord, you equip each of us with specific gifts for the building up of your kingdom. Grant us the wisdom to identify these gifts in ourselves and others, that your church may be empowered for service in your name. Amen.

What an interesting juxtaposition to think about the 'gifts' for ministry we have been given right next to the story of the magi bringing their 'gifts' to the Christ child. It really is a reminder--one we need often--that all the gifts we have to bring were in fact gifts given to us first. We pastors are sometimes just as much in need of that reminder as anyone, perhaps more so. I want to think that I am capable, I am good at what I do, I am gifted. Well, indeed, I am "gifted", but not in the way we normally say that, rather I have received great gifts--everything, really--from God.

Daily lectionary readings from Revised Common Lectionary Daily Readings, ©2005 Consultation on Common Texts. Hymn suggestions and prayer for the day from Bread for the Day 2008: Daily Bible Readings and Prayers, ©2007 Augsburg Fortress.

Why I want to some daily journals

So, I've been reading Unbinding the Gospel: Real Life Evangelism by Martha Grace Reese, and one of her strongest emphases, particularly in part two of the book, is on the critical importance of prayer--within the congregation, on the part of the pastors and evangelism leaders, and all around. This is connected to the idea the way churches operate and do evangelism is connected to a "trinity of relationships": individuals' relationships with God, relationships between church members, and relationships with people outside the church. Although she tries to describe it as a "trinity" of interdependence, it is clear from what she says that there is a certain priority to the 'relationships with God' part: stronger relationships with God will contribute to better relationships between church member, which in turn will help with relationships with people outside the church.

Importantly, she writes, "If we pastors don't talk about our lives with God, if we don't have substantial prayer lives, it is not likely that members of our churches will develop much of a spiritual life, either. If members are not afire with love for God, it is inconceivable that they will do much to share their faith."

So, I figure I'm going to try to be more intentionally disciplined in doing some sort of daily (or at least rather frequent) "devotional"/reflectional scripture reading and prayer. And, as much as I have usually been resistant to "journalling" through my school life, I figure trying to be committed to doing a regular daily blog post might actually keep me disciplined.

My 'discipline' or guide for at least a while is going to be based on the fairly new Daily Lectionary of the Revised Common Lectionary. While the Revised Common Lectionary has been out since 1992, it was only in 2005 that the Consultation on Common Texts finally released Revised Common Lectionary Daily Readings. The readings for Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday are intended to reflect back upon Sunday's readings (esp. the gospel reading) and Thursday, Friday, and Saturday's readings are meant to be in preparation for the coming Sunday. There are two readings for each day, as well as two psalms each week (one for Mon - Wed and a different one for Thurs - Sat).

Augsburg Fortress (I love the Lutherans!) has taken this daily lectionary and prepared a devotional book called Bread for the Day 2008: Daily Bible Readings and Prayers. On each day's page, they give the text of one of the readings, list the other readings, and also provide a hymn for the day and a prayer for the day. It's really quite neat, and so I'm going to work with that.

I'll let you know the reading(s) for the day, give the hymn and prayer, and then share some reflections, prayers, or whatever comes to me to share with you. Some days my reflections might be a bit more prayerful/devotional and other days they might be a bit more intellectual/theological in nature, but indeed the intellectual can be a prayer path too.

“What Child is This?” - A Sermon for the 4th Sunday of Advent, Year A

“What Child is This?”
A Sermon for the 4th Sunday of Advent, Year A

By The Rev. Matthew Emery
Second Congregational United Church of Christ, Rockford, Illinois
December 23, 2007

Now, I’ve titled this sermon “What Child is This?”, but something tells me that was probably not Joseph’s first question. Just because Matthew is rather brief and to the point in telling this story, that shouldn’t let us miss the real scandal and drama here.

“When Mary … had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” So, imagine yourself in Joseph’s place here. You’re engaged to this young woman, and you haven’t quote “lived together”—and now, all of a sudden, she’s quote “found to be with child”. In other words, the two of you have not had sex and yet somehow Mary’s pregnant. I myself have never been in this position, but I’m inclined to think that Joseph’s first question was probably less “what child is this” and more “who’s child is this”? I mean, if we think this situation would be a little scandalous today, how much more so in a society 2,000 years ago where not simply your relationship, but your entire honor and status as a man, could be ruined by such a turn of events.

As if life weren’t already getting complicated and strange enough for Joseph, pretty quickly—while Joseph is figuring out how to minimize the damage—this angel shows up. The angel seems to have the answer, though, to the question of whose this child is: “The child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” Huh? Now it seems like we’ve moved from the realm of daytime soap-opera drama into an episode of Dr. Who. The Holy Spirit? God has made her pregnant?

As Stanley Hauerwas, one of Pastor Mike’s favorite teachers, points out though, this shouldn’t be so surprising to us. If we affirm that God created the whole world, the whole universe, without needing our involvement—and we do affirm this as Christians, even if we don’t all agree on how God creates—then creating a single new baby certainly is not outside the realm of possibility. (Hauwerwas, 34)

Hauerwas goes on, though, to say to us “What should startle us, what should stun us, is not that Mary is a virgin, but that God refuses to abandon us.” (Ibid.) Like the angel speaking to Joseph in the story, Hauerwas’s observation moves us from the question of who’s this child this to who this child is. This child is God coming to us in human flesh. This squirming little embryo in Mary’s uterus is the clear statement in cells and blood, flesh and bone that ‘God refuses to abandon us.’

I will admit that I have been at the mall and in other stores a number of times recently—and, no, I’m still not entirely done with my Christmas shopping yet. Of course, in some of these places they have been playing holiday music since well before Thanksgiving. Some of these songs are, shall we say, more annoying than others. While there are many candidates to pick on, the song “A Holly, Jolly Christmas” struck me yesterday as both fairly annoying and so utterly disconnected from this story in Matthew, or really anything else biblical about Jesus’ coming. I mean, imagine this scene in a movie: Joseph finds out his supposedly-virgin fiancĂ© is pregnant, starts making plans to break off the engagement, and then this angel shows up, saying that the child is God’s. Then maybe some other hosts of heaven show up in the background and break into song: [singing] “oh by golly have a holly, jolly Christmas this year”.

Obviously, that is not the scene Matthew paints. No, the angel shows up to tell Joseph that this child is from the Holy Spirit. And then the angel goes on, not to some maudlin, sentimental “holly jolly Christmas”, but to say not only that this is a sign, a proof, that ‘God refuses to abandon us’, but that this child will save his people from their sins. As one commentator puts it, “If Jesus is Immanuel [—God with us—] then we realize we don't have to go anywhere to meet him other than the hurly-burly reality of our Monday mornings and our Thursday afternoons. We don't have to go find him in some other realm because he has already found us in exactly this realm and this world. Immanuel is God-with-us in the cancer clinic and in the Alzheimer’s ward at the local nursing home. Immanuel is God-with-us when the pink slip comes and when the beloved child sneers, "I hate you!" Immanuel is God-with-us when you pack the Christmas decorations away and, with an aching heart, you realize afresh that your one children never did call over the holidays. Not once. Immanuel is God-with-us when your dear wife or mother stares at you with an Alzheimer's glaze and absently asks, "What was your name again?"”(Calvin CEP, And I say, there’s a reason these angels that appear to announce Jesus’ birth keep having to say “do not be afraid”. This is big stuff, stuff of life and death, hope and salvation, fear and redemption.

I suspect Joseph was still a bit perplexed. Perhaps he was even more confused after this angel had shown up than before. Maybe he was satisfied with this apparent answer to whose this child was. Or at least he dared to trust the angel dream enough that he didn’t follow through on his plans to dismiss Mary quietly. But, even with that, I bet he was still wondering about this other question, ‘what child is this?’ It’s like the contemporary gospel song by Mark Lowry, recorded by dozens of others, that asks of Joseph’s counterpart “Mary, did you know?”

Mary, did you know
that your Baby Boy would one day walk on water?
Mary, did you know
that your Baby Boy would save our sons and daughters?
Did you know
that your Baby Boy has come to make you new?
This Child that you delivered will soon deliver you.

Mary, did you know
that your Baby Boy will give sight to a blind man?
Mary, did you know
that your Baby Boy will calm the storm with His hand?
Did you know
that your Baby Boy has walked where angels trod?
When you kiss your little Baby you kissed the face of God?

Joseph and Mary may not have known all these things, but as Christians, we do know the rest of the story. We have been invited in to the whole story of Jesus the Christ, that same gospel of God that Paul wrote about to the Romans: God’s promises through the prophets, Jesus’s as truly human as a son of David and truly God as shown in his resurrection, the gifts of grace and discipleship that is offered to each of us and all of us as we people called to belong to Christ. We get to follow one who gave sight to the blind and water to the thirsty. We get to know the inside scoop on the One who came that we may have life, the One who came—and still comes—to save us from our sin. We hear the psalmist cry to God “let your face shine upon us and we shall be saved” , and then we get to give our witness, our testimony, back in response, “we have seen his glory … full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)

Indeed, we do get to know the rest of the story. We do get to bear witness to the world to something more, something life-giving, something about what child this is that we celebrate. Knowing the story, we trust in the One who welcomed the outcast and advocated for the poor. Knowing the story, we have the privilege of being the ones who long for and await Christ’s coming again, the ones who have hope in the promise that God’s reign is in fact coming to transform and renew this world.

And yet, even we ourselves are invited to learn the story ever and ever again. We are called to be one standing with Joseph asking ‘what child is this?’. Even knowing the story, we can join in yet another Christmas song—we are still the voice that sings:

(singing)I wonder as I wander, out under the sky,
how Jesus, the Savior, did come for to die:
for poor ord’n’ry people like you and like I;
I wonder as I wander, out under the sky.

Citations: [1] Stanley Hauwerwas, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006). [2] From the comments on Advent 4A, 23 December 2007, on the “Center for Excellence in Preaching” website of Calvin Theological Seminary:; accessed 22 December 2007.

"Christ the King?" - A Sermon for the Christ the King (OT 34), Year C

“Christ the King?”
A Sermon for the Christ the King / 34th Sun. in Ordinary Time, Yr C

  • Jeremiah 23:1-6--Coming of the shepherd and righteous Branch who will execute justice
  • Luke 23:33-43--Jesus is crucified between two thieves: you will be with me in paradise

By The Rev. Matthew Emery
Second Congregational United Church of Christ, Rockford, Illinois
November 25, 2007

I hope that I am not the only one here who has figured out that today is filled with more than just a little irony. Irony—something unexpected or, more precisely, something exactly opposite what we expect. First of all, the turkeys have been eaten and the stores have been filled with their “Black Friday” shoppers, and yet it is not Advent yet. Only those few years when Thanksgiving is not the last Thursday in November does this happen. Rather, instead of being the First Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a new year in the church’s calendar, we are today at the culmination the year, Christ the King Sunday. Each year we journey through Jesus Christ’s birth, his life and ministry, his death and resurrection, and here at the end of it all, we celebrate that Christ reigns with God over all creation. As the cycle begins anew next Sunday, we will remember our longings for Christ to come again as we move toward remembering his first coming at Christmas.

The fact that today is Christ the King, or Reign of Christ, Sunday instead of the beginning of Advent is really only a little piece of today’s irony, though. It strikes me as far more unexpected that on a day titled Christ the King, we would find ourselves amongst the crowds at the place called The Skull, standing at the foot of the cross. I don’t think we’ll find too many royal history books that will commemorate Queen Elizabeth’s reign by picturing her on her deathbed. So I think this image of Christ the King as the tortured and almost dead Jesus hanging between criminals on the instrument of the Empire’s oppression is rather ironic, to say the least.

But, of course, hearing the story of the crucifixion today is not the only irony. The crucifixion itself is ironic. It is foolishness and a stumbling block wrote the apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthian church. The leader of the movement just isn’t supposed to get killed. And more, even, the body hanging on that cross is the one we believe and proclaim to be God in the flesh, and what kind of God goes through that whole mess?

The scene as Luke tells it is filled with all kinds of signs and words of royalty, but all of them too are given in irony. Perched on his central high throne, Jesus has companions seated at his right hand and his left. The plaque above his head proclaims his title, “the King of the Jews.” Luke makes no mention of a crown of thorns, but earlier in the story, Herod’s soldiers had given Jesus an elegant robe as they mocked him and led him away.

The royal figures in the story—or, well, the ones with king-like power—they too are victims of the irony of the situation. Caiaphas, the recognized leader of the Jewish people, the chief-est of chief priests, he probably didn’t like being occupied by the forces of Rome much more than anyone else, but the price of resistance was way higher than the cost of compromise. If this Jesus guy stirred things up, there could have been a revolt and many people could die. As renowned preacher Barbara Brown Taylor put it, “No matter how he did the arithmetic, it came out the same: better that one person should die than many. … Caiaphas was stuck between a rock and a hard place. He was just doing his job.”

Pilate, the official representative of the Roman Empire, the de facto king, in a sense, he didn’t have it much better. He didn’t even want to get involved. But there was no sense in letting Rome think he couldn’t keep control. If killing Jesus would keep the rest of the people quiet, so be it. He too “was stuck between a rock and a hard place. He was just doing his job.”

God has been challenging this kind of bad leadership all along. A few hundred years earlier, the kings of Judah, whether stuck between a rock and a hard place or not, had clearly not succeeded in just doing their job. Judah fell to the Babylonian Empire, and the people were led off in exile. In the words of Jeremiah, we here God’s judgment on them: “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture. … It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord.”

Of course, the kings of Jeremiah’s time were not the first to exhibit bad leadership, to do evil in the sight of God. And the Caiaphas’s and Pilate’s and Herod’s of Jesus time were not the last. While we may not have anyone titled “King” in our society today, there is still a whole mysterious complex of multi-national corporations and economic policies and government leaders and citizen apathy that works to scatter people all around. The economics of the world today force people to migrate from place to place to find work, and then when they get somewhere, we punish them for being there “illegally”. We “improve” neighborhoods by pushing poor people somewhere—anywhere—else: we have UCC brothers and sisters in a congregation I worked at in Chicago who, for some of them, have seen their community pushed around to three different neighborhoods by the forces of ‘gentrification’.

Like the kings of Jeremiah’s time, we have not attended to the flock of God’s people as we turn a blind eye to war refugees from Iraq and genocide victims from Darfur … or even right here whenever we fail to actually welcome someone into our community when they’re not enough like us or because they might change us. We may not have kings, but we certainly have all the trappings of their misdeeds.

The cross that stands at the center of today’s passage from Luke stands as judgment on all of this. In their own time, it betrayed the farce that was the so-called power Caiaphas and Pilate held. In our time, it still betrays all the hands at which the innocent are killed—whether they die physically or simply die inside. It pronounces judgment on all who scoff and mock like the soldiers and first criminal, the ones who look into the face of pain and torture and say “save yourself.” And it casts its dark shadow over all of us who, like the people in Luke’s telling of the story, stand by watching while our leaders do evil and get away with murder.

Judgment is not the only word we hear from this cross, though. In the midst of the darkest hour, in the voice of one in deepest despair, we hear two signs of a new kind of kingship. We hear the words of mercy and of promise to the outcast. “Forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” With the signs of earthly kingship standing around him in irony and mockery, Jesus still has one royal prerogative to exercise, the power of pardon. In contrast to the rulers who condemn the innocent, forsaking their power to pardon, Jesus takes it up, asking forgiveness for his executioners. Luke’s gospel is filled with Jesus offering forgiveness and restoration, and that word still sounds forth at the end. Luke’s gospel is also the story of one who stands with the marginalized, welcoming them into a new community—and this sign of Jesus’ reign sounds forth too. “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” To the outcast and to the guilty, even torture and death cannot erase the promise. For the criminal hanging next to Jesus, it was more than he had even asked for, the fulfillment of God’s promise way back in Jeremiah’s time that “I myself with gather the remnant of my flock … and I will bring them back to their fold.” For us, it is the very hope upon which we stand: the promise that the one in whom we put our faith, the one we have been joined to in our baptisms, that he invites us today into a new kind of kingdom, his kingdom.

The Crucified One as the king at whose cross-shaped throne all other kings’ power is proven false? The reign of one who speaks mercy and promise? Ironic? Perhaps, but God wouldn’t have it any other way.

Let us pray.

O God, our true life,
to serve you is freedom,
and to know you is unending joy.
We worship you, we glorify you,
we give thanks to you for your great glory.
Abide with us,
reign in us,
and make this world reflect your divine majesty,
through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.
(Prayer of the Day for Christ the King C from Evangelical Lutheran Worship, copyright 2006 Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, admin. Augsburg Fortress.)

Friday, January 4, 2008

Too Funny

I found this quote rather humorous for some reason:

"[A]s many have noted, the only one among the early Republican frontrunners with a history of just one wife was the Mormon, Mitt Romney..."

--Jim Wallis, SojoMail, January 3rd, 2008