Archive for January 2017

Luke 2:22-40

It is a New Year. A new broom is sweeping. The fox is in the hen house. We  have this image as we face the New Year of an old man being pushed off of life’s stage by an infant. Meanwhile, in the Bible, we find the baby, Jesus, being brought by his parents to the temple on the first Sunday after Christmas and there are these two old geezers blocking the way to the altar. Simeon and Anna are both older than eight track tapes. Yet, they don’t speak about the past, they tell of the future. God has intruded into our cycle of birth - innocence - rebellion - maturity - midlife - old age - and death. He has given us something eternal. What we see is not a generational division, but a timeless unity.


So when Simeon says, “Now dismiss your servant in peace,” he is not giving up. He not passing the baton to Jesus because this child represents the next generation. He is instead speaking about how this God-man is the fulfillment of the hopes of all humankind, old and young. He is thankful that he has been able to remain in the temple throughout his elder hood, because his meditation on the Torah has enabled him to bring truth to those who were seeking, no matter what their age. Now the truth that the ancients scrolls spoke hesitantly about, and the prophets only saw dimly, has become flesh and blood.


Anna also, is not notable for her great age, but for her consistent witness to the fact that spiritual things matter. If a person feels called to a religious life, they are neither a nutcase nor a saint. They are merely a person acting out on the fact that all of us should be set-apart for God.


In Jesus, the past, the present, and the future are kept in balance. Anyone who attempts to totally forget the past, live only in the present, while heading for the future, is bound to become hopelessly lost. The capacity of human culture to remember across generations, capture stories and images, and weave useful cautionary tales, is one of the things that sets us apart from the animals.  Many self-help gurus and some of our well-meaning friends will encourage us to shed some aspect of our temporal selves. They say, ‘forget the past,’ or ‘live in the moment,’ or ‘sacrifice for the future.’ I, on the other hand, like this image of old and new meeting in the temple.

Not everything old is going the way of the dodo
Presentation of the Lord
Matthew 5:1-12

In my workshops, I often show a slide of Steve Jobs introducing us to the first iPad. Then I ask the question, “How should we design our life together, as a congregation, so that we become what Christ has in mind?” The analogy is simple. The success of Apple Computer stems from the vision that Steve Jobs had for insanely great products. Jobs was a tyrant, constantly berating people who were content to make “pretty good” computers and cell phones. The corporate culture at Apple, the work habits of each employee, and the image the company presented to the world all grew out of the vision that Jobs expressed in that one phrase, insanely great products. I believe that Jesus also has a powerful new vision for his people. The Beatitudes, which begin Jesus’ teaching ministry in Matthew 5, is Jesus’ insanely great vision.


In the beatitudes Jesus describes the Kingdom of God. In plain and simple language he tells us that there is an insanely great reward for having faith. We will live forever with God. With God, the poor are rich. With God, those who mourn are comforted. With God the humble and those who feel weak in faith are blessed. With God, those who choose to live with integrity, maintain their marriage vows and sacred covenants, and hunger to do the right thing, will find their struggle vindicated. With God, the merciful will find forgiveness and see just how important the forgiveness they gave to others was. With God, being pure in heart matters. With God, peacemaking is accomplished with joy, laughter, and tears, for we are the children of the great peacemaker. With God, the hatred we have experienced for wanting serve this new kingdom rather than the plastic crowns of earthly leaders and corporations will end.


But the other insane thing about Jesus’ vision, is that it is here already. Today the poor, the mourner, the meek, etc, are blessed. Apple had already established itself as a unique company when Steve Jobs introduced the iPad. The culture of design was already there. The urge to make insanely great products had already been woven into the fabric of the company, and Steve’s early passing did not end his vision. When will the beatitudes become woven into the fabric of the church?

The iPad arose out of Steve's vision for a new relationship between man and machine
Epiphany 4
Psalm 27

This past week was Martin Luther King Day. I think it is important that we remember him, not just as a leader of a minority group in our society, but as an example of how to respond to oppression. Sometimes oppression is systemic, like the racism is that still infects America. Sometimes oppression is personal, as when we are passed over at work because of our gender or age, or when a family member uses cruel manipulation to keep us in our place.The Gospel teaches us to love our neighbor and that no one truly loves God who isn’t in a right relationship with others. Yet Psalm 27 talks about the other side of our religion. There are times when you go it alone. I think of a family member who is struggling with a messy divorce and has a broken relationship with one of his teenage daughters. Perhaps distance, illness, or death has separated you from a loved one. Perhaps you are feeling oppressed. What does this Psalm 27 say to you now?


For in the day of trouble

    [The Lord] will keep me safe in his dwelling;

he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent

    and set me high upon a rock.  (Psalm 27:5)


Many Psalms speak to the individual’s need to seek God for themselves. We go it alone into the wilderness, knowing that the God we find there is sufficient to make our lives whole. Religion is its own reward. Seeking God, purely in order to know him, is enough.


The common book of prayer does an apt thing in the responsive reading of Psalm 27:5, instead of  speaking about God’s tabernacle, it says, “He shall hide me in the secrecy of his dwelling...” How important are the secrets of God to us? It is easy to get the wrong idea about our reason for practicing religion. It’s not like we go to church to buy an insurance policy. Instead, we go to church to learn skills for navigating the wilderness. Then, counter to our intuition or commonly held wisdom, we go to the God-forsaken places, or we are thrust into wilderness by trauma, and there we discover the reality of God.

MLK spoke to the issue of systemic oppression
Epiphany 3
Isaiah 49:1-7
John 1:29-42

Back in the days of film, I was very aware of what it meant to say that something was latent. I would take a series of twenty-four pictures in my camera, then carefully wind the film back into its cassette. Perhaps that night, or a week later, I’d go down to the dark room and process the film. In total darkness, I would carefully wind the film onto a spool in the developing tank. Setting the timer, I’d pour in the chemicals. Each little grain of silver-chloride that had been struck by three photons of light in my camera, fixed itself in place and formed a dark image. The other silver-chloride grains are washed away, down the drain. Only then could the film be held up to the light and the images seen.


It is possible for a roll of film to go a decade or two without being developed. During that time, the images are invisible. Any attempt to see what is on the film results in erasing the image. Only by carefully processing the film is the photographer’s art brought to light. Often things are hidden away until it is the right time for them to be revealed. A baby is hidden in womb until it is born. An idea is hidden in the mind until it is communicated. The infant Jesus hidden in Egypt until it is time for him to be revealed. John the baptist, his own cousin, finds himself amazed on the day that he comprehends for the first time that Jesus is the Messiah (Christ), the son of God who takes away the sins of the world.


Even today, Jesus seems to be hidden. Isaiah 49 speaks for him, using the language of latent power. Jesus is like a sharp sword which will one day divide the world by the power of his word. Jesus is an arrow that will pierce the wayward heart of humanity. Jesus is the latent image of God, waiting to be developed in our lives. He is for the present unseen. He is right now misjudged. 


In today’s digital world, where every instant photo is shared on line and made cheap, Jesus requires a different mindset. That which is hidden is always more powerful than what we see. There is beauty. There is truth. There is the kingdom of God waiting to be developed. There is a new reality awaiting its birthing time.

Are we willing to wait for what develops?
Epiphany 2
Isaiah 42:1-9

Christopher Columbus noted in his private journals, how the words of Isaiah 42, especially the line “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations,” kept him going, through the dark times of his life. When no one was willing to back him on his westward quest, the fact that God had given him this vision drove him on, hat in hand, visiting the various courts in Europe looking for a sponsor. When everyone turned against him, Columbus held tighter onto this personal interpretation of Isaiah. The phrase, “I give you as a covenant to the people,” is spelled out in the next line of Isaiah 42:7, “to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” This sense of mission, Columbus says, and not the search for gold, is what made him return to the Americas for two additional journeys.


I don’t mean here to paint Christopher Columbus as some kind of extraordinary saint. Quite the opposite, I think passages such as Isaiah 42 are meant to inspire us to expect more from ourselves, our church, our nation, and our God. We should not pray simply for a prosperous New Year. We should pray to be people of God’s covenant. We are instruments in God’s hands to bring light. We are responsible for people who today are strangers to us. We go into the dungeon to bring the prisoner out. We bring the salve that allows the blind to see. We speak the truth that reveals how many hapless souls are still held in chains by the tyrants of our world.


Isaiah 42, however, begins with the fact that God chooses to work through humble people. God says, “Here is my servant… my chosen.” Follow God’s finger and you see him pointing to an ordinary Joe. He points to you and I. He knows how close we come to being run over by those who have more clout in todays world. If you hear God’s call, however, you will not give up. You will “faithfully bring forth justice.”  The power to do this is in God’s hands. 


Emma Lazarus’ The New Colossus poem flips the image of Isaiah’s light to the nations. At the base of our Statue of Liberty we have covenant for the people of the world that makes America a lighthouse inviting those who are distressed to find refuge:


"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she

With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”


My prayer for the New Year is that we don’t give up on being a light to the nations.

Taken near my home - Light to the people of Pittsburgh
Epiphany 1