December 30, 2010

God Made Visible

by Ragan Sutterfield
John 1:1-18; Matthew 2:1-12

What makes God visible?  That was the question that struck me reading the lectionary passages for this week. 

This is one of those rare weeks in which the Episcopal Church (my tradition) varies its readings from the standard Revised Common Lectionary, so I read both the gospel readings from John 1 and Matthew 2:1-12 (Episcopal).  Reading both was instructive because both are about God being made visible. 

In John 1:18 we read, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known.”  This comes after we are told of the light coming into the world, a light that makes God visible by dwelling with us and making us children of the light with “grace upon grace.”


December 23, 2010

Herod Rules

by Brian Volck
Matthew 2:13-23

If, as the late Raymond Brown was fond of saying, the infancy accounts in Matthew and Luke are “the gospel in miniature,” then this Sunday’s gospel may be read as Matthew’s preview of the passion and resurrection. As with the passion accounts, we go astray if we read ourselves into this story in ways that are too easy, too comforting. If we don’t find something of ourselves in the person of Herod the Great, we’re cutting ourselves far too much slack.

Historical accounts of Herod the Great suggest a ruler wily enough to switch allegiances just in time and pragmatic enough to execute his own children when politics demanded. An Idumaean rather than ethnically Jewish, he was nonetheless named “King of the Jews” by the Roman Senate while in exile.


December 16, 2010

A Small Part in a Great Story

by Jake Wilson
Isaiah 7:10-26; Matthew 1:18-25

By Matthew 1:18, Matthew has already named Jesus as the Messiah several times. Indeed, Matthew’s genealogy is constructed to show that the son of Joseph and Mary is also the Messiah. Reading the birth narrative in light of the genealogy helps us remember that what we encounter in this particular birth is the continuing of the story of God’s covenantal love for his chosen people, and indeed all the world. The birth of the Messiah comes as the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham and David as well as in the wake of the sad history of the murder of Uriah and the deportation to Babylon. The genealogy reminds us that the birth of the Messiah is part of the history of God’s action with and for God’s broken people.


December 08, 2010

Advent Outdoors

by Debra Dean Murphy
Third Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146: 5-10 or Luke 1:47-55; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11
The haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes
. Isaiah 35:7b

Wendell Berry observes that it’s not enough appreciated how much an outdoor book the Bible is. For many, such an insight serves mainly to underwrite the idea that we can worship God best in nature’s environs: mountaintops, seashores, golf courses. But I think that Berry is on to something else, as are the appointed texts for the season of Advent generally and for the third Sunday especially.

The Advent scriptures are relentlessly eschatological: preoccupied with consummation and completion, concerned with all things, at long last, being set to right. This in itself is a jolt to our culturally-conditioned piety – our understanding and embrace of Advent as the countdown to Christmas and all that.

Even more of a challenge, perhaps, is the particular vision of Advent’s eschaton: transformed landscapes (blooming deserts, water in the wilderness); the glory and majesty of forests and mountains (Lebanon, Carmel, Sharon). Eschatology here is topographical, earthy, local. It is, at heart, about the renewal of creation. Christ’s second Advent portends not the sweeping of souls up into the clouds but heaven come to earth. It’s land reform, people.

But it’s people reform, too: blind eyes opened, deafness cured, lepers healed, the dead raised. It is justice executed: food for the hungry, prisoners set free, the rich sent away empty. It is good news, at long last, for the poor.

And you need the grown-up Jesus for this. The Advent scriptures are not about a baby. It isn’t until Christmas Eve that we read the familiar, beloved birth narrative. And even on Christmas Day – the Feast of the Nativity – the primary liturgical text is not the one about shepherds and angels but rather John’s brainy prologue: “In the beginning was the Word,” the Logos who became flesh and “moved into the neighborhood,” as The Message translation has it.

And the neighborhood is undergoing a makeover, a complete overhaul, in fact. This week Isaiah and Mary foretell this, the Psalmist celebrates it, and James and Jesus preach it – each of them in their way summoning us to our part: to be bearers of the good news, agents of healing and transformation, participants in the holy, adventurous work of bringing heaven to earth.

“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad.” Advent takes us out of ourselves and outside to a world groaning in travail – a world in ecological crisis, billions of its inhabitants suffering grievously and needlessly, longing for shalom. If we respond to the summons, we’re promised in Isaiah that this “Holy Way” is so blessed that “not even fools shall go astray.” That’s a pretty compelling promise for fools like us: in the shared work of healing and transformation our own salvation is found.


December 01, 2010

The Politics of Hope: American and Apocalyptic

by Doug Lee
Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12

It wasn’t surprising on that November night two years ago when people poured out onto the streets of our San Francisco neighborhood cheering and beating pots and pans after the media called the election for Barack Obama. What was surprising was the way that Obama’s election resounded in many corners of the country far less blue than this Left Coast City. Not since the 1960s had both Virginia and North Carolina gone Democratic.

No matter one’s view of Obama then or now, the fact of his election revealed a welling up of desire for the healing of centuries-old divides in race and politics. It highlighted the longing of many Americans for someone who could transcend the politics of entrenched despair and usher in a different way of relating, a politics of hope.

Two years later, it’s clear that a politics fueled only by hope in American optimism and virtue cannot come close to surmounting fundamental human divisions animated by greed and suspicion. Human rulers, even ones committed to civility and reflection, do not possess the authority or skill to mend these deep rifts. Two years later, the longings remain, but now submerged, muted and dormant.

While these longings may have been misplaced, Advent tells us that they were far from wrong. Advent tells us that such longings are ancient and decidedly fitting for the people of God.

Into a similarly barren political and moral landscape, Isaiah prophesies a new day for a royal line sputtering along on the fumes of a promise made long ago. David’s lineage has long been bankrupt of legitimacy. Yet Isaiah dreams God’s dream of a righteous ruler born of Jesse, one who will defend the vulnerable against the predatory ways of the wicked and enact the Lord’s justice and truth. The coming king will not yield to the manipulations of the powerful or cater to those who contribute the most to the party’s campaign coffers. Empowered with the Spirit’s discernment, he will speak forth justice for those without social or economic leverage.

But Isaiah’s dream of a new day doesn’t end here. So just and true is the coming king’s rule that it rectifies not only the realm of human relations but the entire created order as well! There is peace among species that have been at each other’s throats since Genesis 3:

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
The leopard shall lie down with the kid,
The calf and the lion and the fatling together,
And a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
Their young shall lie down together;
And the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain;
For the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

When God’s appointed ruler is enthroned, all creation is brought into such loving communion that even the most carnivorous predator will learn to be a vegan and enjoy it!

This may sound like a pipe dream. But Paul the Apostle declares that this ancient dream has come to fruition. The day of hope has come, for Jesse’s root has risen to rule the Gentiles (Romans 15:12). While Isaiah sees only the eventual emergence of the coming king (“he shall stand”), the Greek translation cited by Paul signals something far more startling. It employs the word regularly utilized for “resurrection” and thus ignites Paul’s proclamation that Christ’s rising from the dead actualizes apocalyptic day of hope. “The Lord of our longing has conquered the night,” declares the lyrics of the Catholic hymn City of God. God has fulfilled the longing of Israel and the nations, and so Paul proclaims Christ as Lord of the nations to those who live under the nose of that Roman pretender, Caesar.

But this is far from revolutionary ideology or political theory. For Paul, all politics is local.

Therefore, the politics of hope begin at home, in the church, and around the table. The weak and the strong shall sit together at table and not devour each other with their condescension and condemnation. They can now eat together without qualms about each other’s dietary restrictions or voting affiliations.

Under Caesar and American liberalism, the best humanity can hope for is to maintain a sham unity enforced by power. When we bump up against intractable differences, the most we can practice is a tolerance that allows us to coexist but at a safe distance from one another. “Peace” is won through enforced division.

But under the reign of the coming king, the people of God are liberated from merely tolerating each other, from practicing that forced cordiality that plagues too many of our relationships in the church, and from mouthing that nonsense that we are all the same on the inside.

Christ did not die for generic people; he died as a servant of the circumcised and to fulfill God’s promises to the Hebrew people. Christ did not live at a safe distance from others so that everyone could go on pleasing themselves; he denied himself so that the Gentiles might be grafted and join a redeemed Israel in praising God with one voice. Therefore, we welcome one another as Christ has welcomed us. We see that we could never be whole without each other, even in—and because of—our differences. We disturb the powers, liberal and imperial, when people who have no business eating together share one table. Our little welcomes are deeply interpersonal and vastly public, political, and apocalyptic at the same time. Paul’s politics of hope is practiced in the near and now.

May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant us to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together we may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.