Already? Not yet, please. Advent 1

Advent 1

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Is there a Paul in our midst?

Today’s reading from Acts reminds me that Paul was a fierce opponent of Jesus followers and to his colleagues and contemporaries, his conversion was more than confusing, it was disruptive and threatened their power base. They had relied on Saul (Paul) to target enemies of Israel’s state and to prosecute them. The lectionary has us in the final chapters of the Book of Acts and here, Paul is explaining how zealous he was in pursuing Christians:

9 ‘Indeed, I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things against the name of Jesus of Nazareth.* 10And that is what I did in Jerusalem; with authority received from the chief priests, I not only locked up many of the saints in prison, but I also cast my vote against them when they were being condemned to death. 11By punishing them often in all the synagogues I tried to force them to blaspheme; and since I was so furiously enraged at them, I pursued them even to foreign cities.

Today’s reading follows a reading from the Hebrew Scriptures – the Book of Micah, where we hear the minor prophet lamenting the Hebrew’s slide back into chaos – having chosen to follow the politically powerful at the time (Kings) over abiding by God’s will and worshiping the one, holy living God of all. They have abandoned God and are yet again living in a state of disorder and disorientation.

Juxtaposed, I am paused to wonder – and lament – at how familiar it all sounds. A country that has abandoned God and God’s will be done – America was founded and grounded in Judeo-Christian principles (separation between Church and State does not mean eliminating faith from from state) – with zealots pursuing God-fearing citizens. I wonder about state leaders who fuel the flames of fury against their own citizens with reckless rhetoric. To what purpose?

I wonder, too, who among the leaders of this time pursuing citizens unjustly, who among them God will touch to lead others out of this chaos. Is there a Paul among them?

I am paused to think on these things as I greet another day in Malta where Paul was shipwrecked on his way to Rome to meet the emperor face to face, pleading his case as we read in today’s section of Acts. He was traveling with his pal (press agent?) Luke, who reported it all in the gospel of his name, and in the Book of Acts. I wonder if there’s such an able companion to someone like Saul-Paul in the American political landscape right now – someone who will encourage the person toward right action and communicating with measured rhetoric their efforts to put all things State back into right relationship with Church (God). Throughout the biblical story, God sends such encouragers and companions to those he taps to step out and lead.

My prayer, today, is that a Paul emerge on the American political landscape. Perhaps there is already one in our midst.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow.

Daily Office Readings: AM Psalm 1, 2, 3; PM Psalm 4, 7
Micah 7:1-7Acts 26:1-23Luke 8:26-39

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Any given Sunday

Just a minute or two to reflect. I woke this morning in Malta, in the Ballutta Bay region, with every intention of making it to early morning Mass at the Parish Church Our Lady Of Mount Carmel across the street. Their electronic bells have been ringing since 8 AM, drowning out the roosters that brought in the day, earlier. Though awakened, I didn’t rise in time to get to services, so instead, I’ve been enjoying the view from my room of locals swimming in the bay and running the perimeter, tour buses making the bend, boats coming into the harbor, others pulling up anchor and moving out – lots of activity and life. But, nothing more than bus stops at the Carmelite parish. No crowds of any signifigance going into or coming out of the neo-gothic style church – a popular stop for tourists as a background to Instagram “Look at where I am” posts and not much else.

Why so few going into the church on a Sunday morning? Truly no activity, clerical, local parishioner or visitor. The doors aren’t even open, though the bells toll hourly. For what purpose? This is Sunday for heaven’s sake? My heart hurts for the Lord. What must He think as He looks down on this little corner of His world, on this beautiful Ballutta Bay of the island, Malta, where He sent Paul to do the work he had given Paul to do?

Today’s collect serves as the prompt for this pause.

Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

God’s grace preceded and followed St. Paul to Malta. It precedes, me as well. May I find a way on this short trip – and on this Sunday, the Lord’s Day – to make God’s kingdom come known and offer Him praise and thanksgiving.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow.

Lectionary: Year C Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 23

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Well fed, lean soul

Been awhile once again since reflecting on God’s word with y’all. After my own private devotion time this morning, I started to get right to things when after receiving a text message from a friend about the challenges of parenting adult children – because, well, that job doesn’t stop when they move out, marry and have children of their own – I realized how easily I’ve slipped into morning routines dictated by culture….coffee, calendar, chores. Since leaving full-time ministry, I have allowed morning routines to trump this one regular discipline of mine of reflecting on God’s word – which I commend to others so often – a discipline that never fails to inform those others and makes such a difference in how I enter and live the day.  

I was paused at the first reading (lection) appointed for the day, Psalm 106. About Israel – God’s chosen people to be light and salt to the nations – and their journey with the Lord. The psalm recounts their story with God from Egypt through the wilderness, to the Promised Land. A journey over years and years and the times of trusting the Lord, not trusting him, trusting him again.  It is their story – one Walter Brueggemann describes as times of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation. These verses from the psalm illustrate this idea:

12 Then they believed his words * and sang him songs of praise.

13 But they soon forgot his deeds *and did not wait for his counsel.

How often and frequently I forget God’s deeds – his actions in the world, and in mine, and in the lives of all those I love.  And by not taking time to recount the deeds as the psalmist does, I often lose my biblical-footing before taking in the day’s readings or taking on any given day. In forgetting, I’ll get impatient with a word or whisper from the Spirit urging me in one direction or another, or worse, I miss entirely the word or whisper and wisdom, eludes. Truth is I have gone for long stretches of time without hearing anything from the Spirit. And preached during those seasons as if I was in great communication, confident that God’s wisdom was infusing the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart.

Like the people of Israel I sense the periods of my disorientation have been far more frequent than those of re-orientation. Yet, also like them, faithful.  Maybe I need to look back over my journey – recount it – from God’s point-of-view, as the psalmist does here for God’s people.

My journey with the Lord that began, when?  How many times in my periods of disorientation have I prayed for a ‘thing’ or need instead of for wisdom and understanding? I wonder what my season in the wilderness has looked like to God. Have I, did I, pursue His counsel? Did I give Him thanks for the trials brought my way? Did I learn? Have I learned? I wonder.

Reading further in the psalm, I pause again reading, “… he gave them what they wanted “, what they thought they wanted – food that would sustain them, but did not strengthen or feed the deep well of their soul – their being, which I take to mean that the people chose the easy way, thinking they knew how to meet their own needs.

14 A craving seized them in the wilderness, * and they put God to the test in the desert.

15 He gave them what they asked, *but sent leanness into their soul.

Comfortable coffee-calendar-chores-like mornings. How many of us chose this easy way to start every day? Maybe we throw on an audio mediation or even take a quick view of the day’s news headlines. as we head out the door. And at our phone fingertips, a million apps to launch us into the new day – the day the Lord has made, mind you – but doing little to strengthen our souls, where God’s wisdom lands.

God’s heart for Israel allowed him to give what they asked for in their impatience, but how his heart longed for them to have trusted him – to not have forgotten his promises and deeds throughout their journey in the wilderness. To have not petitioned for the easy fix – feed us! – without regard to the relationship and history of trust being developed over the journey. How God longs for us to have full, meaningful lives – every single day that we are on this side of the dirt. And we don’t get there willy nilly. We need to seek God’s counsel, God’s wisdom. Not quick fixes.

And for me, that begins with dwelling in His word and pausing where God would have me pause, to hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people on this day.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow.

Daily Office Monday: AM Psalm 106:1-18; PM Psalm 106:19-48
Hosea 14:1-9Acts 22:30-23:11Luke 6:39-49

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The Just Steward

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost Proper 20 C Luke 16:1-13 Sermon preached September 18, 2022 at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Orinda CA

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Just a thought

Psalm 107

33 The Lord changed rivers into deserts, *and water-springs into thirsty ground,

34 A fruitful land into salt flats, *because of the wickedness of those who dwell there.

35 He changed deserts into pools of water *and dry land into water-springs.

36 He settled the hungry there, *and they founded a city to dwell in.

37 They sowed fields, and planted vineyards, *and brought in a fruitful harvest.

38 He blessed them, so that they increased greatly; *he did not let their herds decrease.

39 Yet when they were diminished and brought low, *through stress of adversity and sorrow,

40 (He pours contempt on princes *and makes them wander in trackless wastes)

41 He lifted up the poor out of misery *and multiplied their families like flocks of sheep.

42 The upright will see this and rejoice, *but all wickedness will shut its mouth.

This morning’s psalm describes a cosmos in which the Creator allows the inhabitants of the creation to suffer the consequences of their wrong-headed decisions to not follow the Creator, worship the Creator, abide by the Creator’s will and rules that the creation may flourish.  The folks named here and throughout the biblical story that suffer the dry land and lost crops are those who choose to do life their way. 

Today, environmentalists on both sides of the issue, who fail to see God’s hand in all of creation are at an impasse with respect to the issue itself – is climate change an existential threat?  Is the earth becoming uninhabitable in just 10 years?

And with respect to solutions – yes human activity adds to the problem but I wonder if the bigger problem isn’t that humans have turned from God and in so doing, seeking solutions that might be at odds with God’s intentions from the beginning – namely, that humans steward the good earth in partnership with and at the behest of the Creator, rightly. 

Point is – God doesn’t wave hands and dry up deserts or send rain willy nilly. The biblical poets recognize that when they live in concert with God and God’s will – loving neighbor, stewarding creation, showing mercy – life flourishes. And when they turn away and try to do things their own way, things don’t work out so well. 

Just a thought. For today.

Praise God from whom all blessings, flow.

Saturday Daily Office Readings:

AM Psalm 107:33-43, 108:1-6(7-13); PM Psalm 33
2 Samuel 16:1-23Acts 22:17-29Mark 11:1-11

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“Selfie” Prayers behind me

So this morning’s Psalm got me started – and not in a welcome way. As I turned to my scriptural journal to record some thoughts prompted by the psalmist’s cry to cry no more, I was greeted by a reflection made just a year ago.  I resisted the temptation to read what I wrote last year, suspecting it likely touched on the thing that sent me to bed weeping for too many nights over the past years.

Psalm 6 is considered a Lament and Penitential psalm prayed individually and corporately, alike.  It speaks directly and explicitly about pain and physical illness and brokenness. Someone who is critically ill personally – or in its historical liturgical setting, a remnant-sized congregation exiled – appeals to God for pity, healing, mercy and to be saved from death.

1 Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger; *
do not punish me in your wrath.

2 Have pity on me, Lord, for I am weak; *
heal me, Lord, for my bones are racked.

3 My spirit shakes with terror; *
how long, O Lord, how long?

4 Turn, O Lord, and deliver me; *
save me for your mercy’s sake.

Importantly, to my way of thinking and unlike traditional laments, the individual or congregation’s present situation is not linked either to innocence nor transgression on the part of the psalmist. In other words, no one is to blame. The illness is what it is. The remnant in exile is where it is. The psalmist is crying out to God that the misery, pain and sadness come to an end – and preferably on this side of dirt.

5 For in death no one remembers you; *
and who will give you thanks in the grave?

6 I grow weary because of my groaning; *
every night I drench my bed
and flood my couch with tears.

7 My eyes are wasted with grief *

I lived this psalm for a long season of my life – couldn’t pray it without my eyes swelling with the tears that had only just drenched my bed the night before.   It was in those years that I was praying and reading most of the lections through my own selfie-lens.  Every word of scripture found its way to may achy breaky heart to assure me that in God’s time the thing lost would be restored.  As I envisioned, dreamt of, hoped for.

But meanwhile, as I self-obsessed and prayed for something that was never going to be, life went on.  Like real life.  All around me.  As Dan Piraro’s panel illustrates so aptly, my selfie-lens to the scripture and the psalms especially, blinded me to the reality of the life I had and had been gifted.  My heartbreak was what it was.  Period.

A selfie-focused lament makes little room for reality – sort of like a prayer operating in denial.  That’s how I came to see it.  And denial is not a weapon against heartbreak, a dream eluded, loss of a loved one, against an aging parent with memory loss, loss of movement and mobility, loss of a job, a home.  A selfie-focused lament holds onto false hope.  It is an all smiles portrait in front of a beachfront with a tidal wave in the background.

I prayed Psalm 6 in this way for so long, giving props to the psalmist for ‘getting me’ and my situation, lo those millennia ago.  I was so caught up in my head and heart I couldn’t see the forest through the trees.  Couldn’t see that this state of lament would ever change.  I was pretty sure I’d live in that weepy tear-drenched place ad nauseam.  Which is why I hesitated to read what I had written just a year ago in my scriptural journal.  When I turned there I thought I’d read another woe-is-me entry.

But praise God, that is not what I found.  Just a year ago this psalm popped up and I was reflecting on how grateful I was to have left the season of lament.  How grateful I was to have been given time in the past years to broaden the lens through which I read scripture in lieu of the narrow self-focused one I used for personal application to my detriment.

I’ve come to appreciate the universal truths woven into nearly every story the Holy Spirit inspired the psalmists, scribes, prophets, eyewitnesses, gospelers, and apostles to write.  In so doing, I’m given breathing room to pray a psalm like today’s and not weep for me, myself and I but to give thanks that we have a loving God who hears and accepts our prayers.  All of our prayers.  From all of us.  In every season.  Through every trial.  Exile.  Illness. Heartbreak.

Praise God from whom all blessings and seasons of lament, flow.

Daily Office Readings: AM Psalm 5, 6; PM Psalm 10, 11 
1 Kings 1:38-2:4Acts 26:24-27:8Mark 13:28-37

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What’s in a (nick) name?

I gave a lot of thought to the naming of my children. I considered things like tradition, family customs, uniqueness, two syllables at most – I was big on that one – didn’t want others nicknaming them.  I had grown up with too many ‘illys’ and ‘allys’ and was always grateful to have a name that was hard to cut off, shorten or abuse entirely.  My dad’s name is Richard – just imagine all the variations on that theme and you’ll get my dislike of giggle-worthy nicknames.

A few years ago in a chat with a friend about today’s reading (and the others this week from the Book of Acts that reports of Paul’s meeting with the authorities in Jerusalem to establish the boundary lines for the new covenant community before heading off to Gentile territory in Antioch), my friend said,

“That’s it! You are Barnabas!”

I replied,

“Barnabas? No – I’m more like one of the two distraught disciples on the road to Emmaus – one of those unnamed followers who walked with the risen Lord and didn’t know it until at table with him.  I am no ‘named’ biblical character.  Like.. at all.”

My friend had always identified himself not as Paul, but like him inasmuch as a modern-day prophet he had and was suffering as prophets do in God’s church.  And, too, like Paul,  years of his ministry were spent as a road warrior preaching and teaching a more robust expression of the good news in today’s church than he judged it to be. He had spoken to me at length and often about the prophetic tradition in the Hebrew Scriptures and the continuing thread in the New Testament, suggesting that the juxtaposition of prophetic voices and pastoral ministry was rather hard to come by both in current and biblical times. The only one to do it and do it perfectly was Jesus.

So, at the time, in calling me “Barnabas” I sort of kind of understood what he was saying and sort of kind of accepted it as a compliment.  He was affirming in a small way my call to the priesthood. Prophets aren’t always a good fit for parish ministry, but a smaller time prophet like Barnabas who was a friend to the big gun? – well, that might work.

What I didn’t know then but have learned since is that Barnabas was so much more. From NT Wright’s book on Paul[1],

… Barnabas…is one of the minor heroes of the book of Acts… generous-spirited.  Barnabas was originally from Cyprus, a Jew from the tribe of Levi. His actual name was Joseph, but Luke explains that the Jesus-followers in Jerusalem gave him the nickname Barnabas, which means “son of encouragement.” Some people have the gift of enabling others to flourish. Barnabas was one of those.

Barnabas was a nickname!!!!  Barnabas was a generous-spirit, otherwise known as pastoral!  And he was a Levite – the tribe of the priests who assisted in temple worship!

Oh my, oh my . I love that his name means son of encouragement.  I love that.  Might I rest here, in that place? As an encourager for other big guns like Paul? Enabling others to flourish?  Maybe this is a word for me?  Is it the time to let go of trying to land my ministry in one locale?  Might I enjoin other road warriors in some way as an encourager?

My friend the modern-day prophet did me a good thing, calling me Barnabas. I was then and am now blessed.

Praise God from whom all blessings – and names and nicknames – flow.

Daily Office Readings:  Psalm 40, 54; PM Psalm 51  1 Samuel 31:1-13Acts 15:12-21Mark 5:21-43

 

[1] Wright, N. T.. Paul (p. 85). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

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Church, Church. You are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Come. Sit at my feet.

Amos 8:1-12
Psalm 52
Colossians 1:15-28
Luke 10:38-42

As Jesus and his disciples went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

[In many churches today] …the Bible is a form of verbal wallpaper, pleasant enough in the background, but you stop thinking about it after you have lived in the house for a few weeks.” NT Wright

 

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Go and Do Likewise

Today’s Sermon

Proper 10 C

Amos 7:7-17
Psalm 82
Colossians 1:1-14
Luke 10:25-37

Luke 10:25-37

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, `Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

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