It took a year to read the Bible, then almost 9 months to read the Apocrypha. Now, I'm going to try to offer reflections on the Narrative Lectionary. But, I won't be posting daily--at least, for a while.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Hope in the Lord, a Reflection on Psalm 131

Psalm 131 begins with an assertion of humility, "O Lord, my heart is not proud nor my look haughty; I do not aspire to great things or to what is beyond me." I'm pausing here to ponder how honestly a typical modern can pray this psalm. Don't we think a heart should be proud? Is it hard for us to admit that some things are beyond us? How willing are we to limit our aspirations? Or, I'm wondering if we, on the other hand, can pray this psalm quite honestly. Our humility is part of what drives us to our places of worship. Of course, we can't do everything. Of course, we don't understand why some things turn out the way they do. But, I'm still having trouble with the not-occupying myself part. I, at least, if not we, do tend to worry about a lot of things.

Back to the psalm.

The words of the psalm link the one on the way to the Temple (or on the way home from exile, or the one seeking the presence of God) to a small child with its mother. From an assertion of humility to an example of it. It's hard to come up with a relationship in which one party provides for the needs of the other--even when that other isn't behaving particularly well at all--than the mother and her child.

Sideline: Psalms 120 through 134 all begin with the superscription, "A song for ascents." According to the notes in the Jerusalem Study Bible, there are several theories about the designation "ascents," the English translation for "ma'alah." Among these theories are the early rabbinic tradition that deduced that there 15 of these psalms to match the 15 steps of the Temple (see Ezekiel 40:26, 31). Some modern scholars connect these psalms to the return from exile. Others have a allegorist understanding; that is, the ascent is of the individual to God.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, Luke 2:22-40

As a human child, born to Jews in that part of the world, he was taken to the temple in Jerusalem. This ritual was in response to the law that the first born belonged to the Lord. Note that the law intended for the parents to offer a substitutional sacrifice, e.g., a pair of turtledoves or pigeons.

Notice how Luke blends into his account both law and the Spirit. The family is religiously scrupulous--in ways that may no longer be applicable in their specifics but are admirable in their attentiveness. They come to the temple because their religious practices require it. Simeon comes to the temple because he has been led by the Spirit. Look around you at church Sunday. The people you will see there have come because they think it is the right thing to do, the expected thing. And you will see people who have been led there by the Spirit. And for some, both apply.

A traditional canticle in Evening Prayer is the Nunc Dimitis, Simeon's prayer of praise to God when he sees the infant Jesus brought into the temple. YouTube has many, many videos of this canticle; e.g.  Nunc Dimittis (Stanford).

Another blending in this passage--the salvation promised by the prophets is not just for the traditional religious insiders. As you pray Simeon's prayer, consider who are the Gentiles in our world
Read about Anna's response, and think about your own.

Here are some excuses that will not work:
I'm too old.
I'm not important.
I don't have family support.
I'm not able to get around very far.
At least, they didn't work for Anna. She spoke out freely and to everyone. Why is it that we don't speak about what we know?

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Ascribe to the Lord, a Reflection on Psalm 96

Verses 7 and 8 in the Common English Bible say "Give to the Lord....". The New Revised Standard Version says "Ascribe to the Lord." Several years ago as I was reading this passage in the NRSV, I wondered when was the last time that I heard the word "ascribe" in conversation. I don't think I use it often--or, ever. So, of course, I googled it. That's how I learned that ascribe is used as a company name. For example:
Our Ascribe™ Consumer Content Platform provides the ability to extract insight from unstructured data anywhere and transform it into actionable insights. ... (my source at the time was, but when I checked it to confirm the source, I couldn't find this citation for a company).
Although I'm not sure what a content platform is, I do see a powerful metaphor in their description of what it does--provide the ability to extract insight from unstructured data. I'm asking myself, "Where did I see God today?" That is, as I go through my normal day, as I meet people and events, how do I see God working through them, being present to me?

But not just noticing.

As I continue to read the description of the content platform, it promises not only to extract insight but also to transform it into actionable insights. That is, to do something with the awareness.

Psalm 96 promises that the Lord is coming to judge the world, to judge it with righteousness and with truth. May we live lives that make this news good.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Who gets the news first, a Reflection on Luke 2:1-14

Augustus is emperor; Quirinius is governor. The emperor decrees that all persons be registered; that is, the emperor is going to make sure that he gets taxes from everybody under his control.

Then there are some folks who can't issue decrees. The only things they control are somebody else's sheep. And it is to this kind of person that the angels go with their news. Not the emperor, not the governor, but the shepherds.

The shepherds.

Although shepherds had a positive image in the Old Testament--think of the 23rd Psalm for example--shepherds living and working at the time of Jesus' birth were not viewed positively. Rather, they were regarded as lower class, untrustworthy, migrant workers who used other people's grass to feed their sheep.

The shepherds were not expecting the news. They were at work, and, to their society at the time, not very well-thought-of work. Yet, the Lord sent a messenger to them with the good news.

The response of the shepherds was immediate. They went to Bethlehem at once to see for themselves. And when they had seen, they told what they had seen.

Think about who God trusted to receive and carry messages. Try to imagine a modern-day counterpart to first-century shepherds. Would you be interested in anything such people had to say to you? Is it hard for you to imagine God's telling them something before letting you know?

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Prayer inspired by Luke 1:26-49

All creation rejoices,
with Mary,
that you choose to be born
and not remain Pure Being,
in her,
in us,
in this blessed realm of time and space.

You come to us,
and become through us,
in this evolutionary adventure of life, divinity fleshed in a Bethlehem birth but also in all willing souls,
who, with Mary,
and other up and becomes,
consent to give birth to you.

(from If Darwin Prayed: Prayers for Evolutionary Mystics, by Bruce Sanguin)

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Reflection on Luke 1:26-49

God can and does choose unexpected recipients for good news.

Long before, the Lord had promised David that his descendants forever would have their own place and not be disturbed by their enemies (2 Samuel 7:1-16).

Gabriel comes to Mary who is living in the land that King David ruled but is now ruled by Caesar in Rome. "Mary, you're going to have a son who will live out that promise made to David."

Imagine how the early Christian communities explained this promise to Gentile converts. How do we explain it to today's communities that have not traditionally been part of our church?

Gabriel, the messenger sent by God, tells her that her child is to be the Son of God. He adds the news that her cousin Elizabeth is six-months pregnant. Her fear and her questioning turn into acceptance, “Here am I. Let it be with me as the Lord wishes.”

God chose Mary. Mary accepted God’s choice.

Why did God choose Mary to bear the Savior? Why didn’t God pick a woman from one of the more powerful prominent families? Why would God choose the backwater of the Empire to be the birthplace of the Savior? Why not Rome, say?

Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. From now on, all generations will call me blessed because of what God has done for me.”

Continu reading verse 50-55. She then describes what God has already done. Notice how Mary’s song emphasizes differences: God has brought down the powerful and lifted up the lowly. God has fed the hungry and sent the rich away empty.

Questions: Who should be reassured by this song? Who should start worrying?

Mary reminds us that God has helped Israel according to the promises made to our ancestors. God’s promise is to Abraham and his descendents forever.

Question: How do these words sound to us Christians when we realize that both Jews and Muslims consider Abraham to be their ancestor, as well?

Monday, December 12, 2016

Prayer for the Less-than-Confident, a reflection on Luke 1:26-49

Come, angel Gabriel,
mute the voice of disbelief within, and the voice of cynicism without, telling us that we are not
smart enough,
important enough,
powerful enough,
to birth your dream for creation.

(from If Darwin Prayed: Prayers for Evolutionary Mystics, Bruce Sanguin).

Monday, December 5, 2016

Promises, a reflection on Isaiah 61:1-11

The prophet is proclaiming God's welcome to the returning exiles, "You are released from your captivity." He is echoing the words from Leviticus 25 that describe the jubilee, the point at which a debtor is freed from burden and allowed to return home.

We are reading this scripture during Advent;  so, we usually interpret these words during this season as predicting how much better off we'll be when Christ returns. This year, I'm struck by how they fit not only the Advent season but also the specific economic condition in which so many are finding themselves this day.

Isaiah has just said that he has been sent to preach and care for oppressed, broken-hearted, captive people. His message to these who had been mourners is renewal and restoration. John Goldingay comments on this promise, "Disgrace will give way to splendor and recognition as a people YHWH has made commitment to" (Old Testament Theology, Vol 2).

Moreover, this relationship with God will never end, "I will make an everlasting covenant with them."

Questions to consider:
What are the obligation inherent in being a blessed people? How frightened should we be to read the Lord's words, "I love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense." If the covenant is everlasting, can it be broken?

I saw a lot of ads for Christmas gifts in the newspaper this morning. We're in a season of thinking about (obsessing about?) what to buy for others and what we hope others are buying for us. And then I read this passage from Isaiah.

We're going to get new clothes but these garments are metaphorical. We're going to be clothed in salvation and righteousness. In addition to not requiring more closet space, these gifts are ones that we should have asked for, ones that will change our lives.

And not just our lives. These gifts are not just for us insiders. Read verse 11. These gifts are for all the nations.

On which list do you put salvation and righteousness higher than, say, a new big screen TV or one of those retro gamer crates? Do you think it is good news that God has promised salvation and righteousness to foreigners? Does it depend on how foreign they are?