Archives for November 2013

Bulletin Insert: 2 Advent (A)

Advent Message from the Presiding Bishop

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The Presiding Bishop’s Advent message for 2013 was videotaped in the Chapel of the Christ the Lord at the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society (815 Second Ave.) in New York City. The video is available for viewing at: http://www.episcopalchurch.org/page/presiding-bishop.

Advent candles at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Oxford, N.C., December 2010 (Photo by John Taylor)

Advent candles at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Oxford, N.C., December 2010 (Photo by John Taylor)

Advent is a time of waiting, and for many people it’s a time to reflect on what Mary must have experienced as she waited for the birth of this unusual child.

You may never have been pregnant or lived with someone who was, but put yourself in her place for a while. Consider what it would have been like to have a new life growing within you. And reflect on what new is growing within you this season of Advent.

What new concern is growing for the people around you? What new burden is on your heart for the woes of the world? What new possibility do you see emerging in the world around you, and how might you be part of that?

Advent is a quieter time of the year in the church’s understanding. It’s a time to be still and listen, listen deep within to what is growing, ready to emerge into new life.

And as the season for the birth of the Christ Child arrives, I would encourage you to consider how you yourself will be present in the world in a new way this year. How will you give evidence of love incarnate to the world around you?

I pray that you have a blessed and joyful and peace-filled Advent. God be with you.

The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church

 
Download bulletin insert as PDF:
full page, one-sided 12/8/13
half page, double-sided 12/8/13

black and white, full page, one-sided 12/8/13
black and white, half page, double-sided 12/8/13

Spanish bulletin inserts are available on the Sermones que Iluminan website.

Bible Study: 3 Advent (A)

December 15, 2013

Brian Pinter, General Theological Seminary

“Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Matthew 11:11)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146:4-9; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11

Isaiah 35:1-10

Contextually speaking, this passage refers to the flowering of the southern desert in Edom, an area below the Dead Sea. Building up to a crescendo that speaks of the final return of those exiled from their holy land, these verses paint a rich portrait of the coming age of fulfillment. The ancient Israelites long held fast to the hope of a messianic future; a time when God’s reign would be realized on earth, and all creation would be transformed, returned to its original, pristine state. Additionally, all would be restored to physical and spiritual health (cf vv 4,5,10). It would be a time of peace, harmony and above all, the fullness of life.

We still live in the period of preparation before the full unfurling of God’s reign. The work of our hands, guided by God’s plan, will further the work of making the desert bloom. While we are all called to play a small role in the furthering of God’s vision of peace for the world, each of us is called also to personal conversion; to make our own journey back to the land of God’s heart. The is the place where our blinded eyes see, our deafened ears here, and we are ransomed from all that holds us back from being our true selves in God.

Which word, phrase or image from this passage resonates most with you?What are those things in your life that keep you in exile, from living life as the person God intended you to be?

Psalm 146:4-9

Today’s psalm echoes the themes of our reading from Isaiah. Scholars suggest that this text was written after Israel’s heartbreaking exile in Babylon (587 BC to 538 BC). This contextualizes the praise of the Lord who keeps faith (v. 6), executes justice and sets prisoners free (v. 7).

Note how God is recognized not only as the creative power of the universe, but also as the upholder of the moral order. In other words, the same One who flung the stars from the furnace of creation into the vast expanse also takes a personal interest in the relationships human beings foster among each other.

The narrative arc of Scripture, from Genesis through Revelation, is that Israel’s God has made a preferential option for the poor. The psalmist is here praising the Lord who is God of the poor. This stands as a challenge to the apparent values of our own society and to each of us as individuals. While God shows partiality to those who are defenseless – the orphan and widow (v. 9) – to whom do we show partiality? Are the poor among us our chief concerns?

Which word, phrase or image from the psalm speaks to you?

What, in your experience, places you among the poor to whom God is reaching out? Conversely, in what ways does this psalm challenge you to respond to God’s option for the poor?

James 5:7-10

The epistle of James contains themes of wisdom and imminent apocalypse. In today’s text we see both. The first verse echoes a common theme of the end time (i.e., patience), but follows with an observation rooted in the wisdom tradition – looking to lived experience as a locus of God’s revelation. While we as a church no longer wait in anticipation for Jesus’ immediate return, this short section of James has something to teach us.

First, we are summoned to have faith in the future and trust in God’s overall guidance of history. We are being drawn to an age of fulfillment when God’s vision of peace for all will be realized.

Second, the proper disposition for the coming reign of God is right relationship with neighbor. We will be judged on how well we made the effort to live in harmony with others, especially our fellow Christians.

James ties these themes together by pointing to the faith and long-suffering of the prophets of old. So often they were rejected by their own people for preaching a message of conversion; a message that called for return to the deepest precepts of genuine neighborliness that were the foundation of their Israelite religion. James calls us to carry that mantle in our own time.

How does James’ call to avoid “grumbling against one another” speak to our Christian communities today?

How does James exhortation to “be patient” speak to your life experience?

Matthew 11:2-11

Matthew’s narrative here is bursting with richness and drama, but only if one understands the contextual clues his first-century listeners were sure to appreciate.

First, John the Baptist is asking questions of Jesus. Why? The answer lies in Matthew 9: Jesus was eating with tax collectors and sinners. To John, this was not acceptable. He called sinners to repent; Jesus appears to be accepting sinners even before they evince any sign of repentance. While Jesus clearly still has great respect for his teacher John, he is no longer preaching John’s fire-and-brimstone message of repentance, but rather a message of compassionate acceptance.

Jesus then goes on to praise John by contrasting him with Herod Antipas – the one who imprisoned and later executed John. While not mentioning Antipas by name, Jesus is clearly speaking of him – soft robes, royal palaces, etc. The biggest clue is Jesus’ mention of a reed swayed by the wind. The coins that Antipas circulated in Galilee were imprinted with the image of a reed.

The challenge of today’s gospel lies in the difference of the approach between Jesus and John the Baptist. Jesus accepts sinners with compassion. He forgives even before forgiveness is asked for (if it’s asked for at all). The simple presence of Jesus has a transformative effect on those who gather around him that precedes any action or disposition.

Consider the ways in which Jesus is present to us today: in the word, the Eucharist and the gathered Christian community. How does his grace have a transformative effect on you through these?

Expecting the unexpected Messiah, 3 Advent (A) – 2013

December 15, 2013

Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146:4-9 or Canticle 3 or Canticle 15; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11

What happens when our expectations don’t get met? How about when it’s our expectations about God that don’t get met?

A few years ago, Steve Johnson, a wide receiver for the Buffalo Bills, voiced his surprise on Twitter when things didn’t turn out the way he hoped during a football game. After Johnson dropped a potentially game-winning touchdown pass during overtime, the Pittsburgh Steelers won the game 16-13. The New York Daily News reported that Johnson blamed God and tweeted:

 “I praise you 24/7!!! And this how you do me!!! You expect me to learn from this???How??? I’ll never forget this!! Ever!! Thx Tho.”

If your theology says that praising God causes God to reward you by favoring your football team, then what if you drop the ball?

Maybe Johnson should just be commended for the honesty of his prayer, for being in communication with God about his questions and doubts.

Maybe his expectations were not met. Either God wasn’t keeping God’s end of Steve Johnson’s deal, or Johnson’s world had just shrunk, with God operating outside the box he tried to fit God into.

Or maybe God doesn’t like Buffalo.

John the Baptist’s world had shrunk. Literally. The one who was preparing a way in the wide-open wilderness is held captive in a prison cell. The one who baptized the Son of God in the Jordan River is dependent on his jailor to bring him a cup of cold water to drink. The one who was so sure of who Jesus was, now wonders, Are you the one who is to come? Really?

Matthew writes, “When John heard what Jesus [the Messiah] was doing  …” Actually, what Matthew could have written is, “When John heard what the Messiah was not doing …”

Jesus was not following John’s outline for his ministry. Jesus was not following John’s mission statement for him, his step-by-step plan for successful Messianic ministry. John had told people the axe was lying at the root, ready to chop down the unworthy trees. He had promised the chaff would burn with unquenchable fire. But Jesus didn’t seem to be pointing the finger of judgment. There was no smoldering woodpile of sinners. And this must have meant more than mild disappointment for John: He was at that very moment sitting in prison, awaiting his own beheading because he had dared to stand up and challenge King Herod for Herod’s unrighteous marriage. If Jesus were looking for some chaff worthy of burning, he could start by lighting a match to King Herod, and get John out of prison.

Instead, Jesus is pronouncing forgiveness, healing the sick, bringing Good News to the poor. Was this really what Jesus was supposed to be doing? Are you the one who is to come? Or should I hope for someone else?

Sometimes Jesus said and did some strange things, or certainly unexpected things, or things that aren’t what we hope for. And because of that, John asks, and the disciples ask, and we ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for someone else?”

Each of us has expectations about the kind of Savior we want. Some do want a brimstone and fire-breathing Messiah who points out where everyone else is going wrong. Some of us want a Jesus who will champion our favorite cause, who will assure us that God is on our side of the issue.

Or maybe we want a gentle shepherd who will not demand anything of us, but only assure us that he loves us.

Sooner or later, though, our ideas of Jesus bump up against reports of what he is doing, either in Scripture or the world. Jesus – the real Jesus, the real Messiah, Lord, Shepherd, Savior, Friend, Redeemer – will at times upset our expectations. And he will ask, “Do you want to follow the living Christ, or do you want to worship your idea of who he should be? Do you want the thrill and hope and challenge of a life with the living Christ? Or merely the comfort of worshipping an idol of your own making?”

John wondered if Jesus was really the one in whom he should hope. So he went to Jesus to ask. John couldn’t get there in person, so he sent his disciples. But John went to the source instead of just muddling along, or making assumptions, or staying in the dark about who Jesus is.

We are invited to do the same – go to Jesus with our questions, concerns, wondering. Participate in the ways Jesus has given to his church to know him better. Gather in community. Study with other Christians and wonderers. Pray. Take communion. Worship. Praise him – even when you drop the ball.

Maybe Jesus wasn’t exactly what John was expecting: He brought fire – but it was the fire of the Holy Spirit. He sought out sinners – and forgave them. He really let the unworthy have it – but what he let them have was grace. Grace upon grace.

John couldn’t see it for himself, locked away in his prison cell, so he asked; and in reply, he received a beautiful vision: “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

 

 — The Rev. Dr. Amy E. Richter is rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, Md.

Bible Study: 2 Advent (A)

December 8, 2013

Christine Havens, Seminary of the Southwest

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Matthew 3:11)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12

Isaiah 11:1-10

“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” As with the rest of Isaiah, especially this passage, this first verse has exerted a strong influence on Christian imagination. For example, in medieval art – illuminations and stained-glass windows, the Jesse Tree these images, which vary in detail and complexity, offer highly symbolic representations of the ancestry of Jesus.” (See “Jesse Tree” in the “Images of Salvation” CD, University of York, 1999.) Jesse is usually recumbent at the bottom of the image, with a rod or shoot springing from his loins. The rod branches out, with further images of Isaiah, David, the apostles, the virtues, and the church frequently represented among them. At the very top is Jesus Christ.

Arguably, the most interesting aspect of the various versions of the Jesse Tree is that Mary is generally featured prominently somewhere in the center of the image, connected to Jesse through the rod. Scholars point to the cult of the Virgin Mary that formed so much of the church’s theology as well as the word play engendered by the Latin words for “virgin” – virgo – and “rod” – virga as the reasoning for these images. When one reads Jesus’ genealogy as given by Matthew, however, it is Joseph who is demonstrated as the descendent of Jesse. Perhaps, as others, including Rowan Williams, have suggested, this is not a literal family tree at all. Williams reminds us that “Mary’s child is of God” (“Christ on Trial: How the Gospel Unsettles Our Judgment,” Eerdmans Publishing, 2000, p. 20). Perhaps Jesus’ connection to Jesse is a theological one, a spiritual one.

As we continue through Advent, draw your spiritual family tree. Who would you include? Why? Take some silent time to pray and give thanks to God for them.

Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19

How do you pray for someone else? How do we converse with God about someone other than ourselves without making the prayer about ourselves? Perhaps today’s psalm shows us the way as an example of intercessory prayer. (See Howard Neil Wallace’s “Words to God, Word From God: The Psalms in the Prayer and Preaching of the Church,” Ashgate, 2005, p. 116.) What do you notice about the language? What is missing in this psalm that appears in many other psalms? Who is the focus of this psalm? How is that focus represented by the psalmist’s language, in other words?

“The need of the other is related to our faith and hope in the kingdom of God” (Wallace, p. 116). How is this statement reflected in today’s psalm? How is this statement reflected in the other passages for today? How is it reflected in your own life this Advent season?

Romans 15:4-13

“If I’m king, where’s my power? Can I form a government? Can I levy a tax, declare a war? No! And yet I am the seat of all authority. Why? Because the nation believes that when I speak, I speak for them. But I can’t speak.” Colin Firth, as King George VI, says this in the film “The King’s Speech.” He feels a sense of impotence, of helplessness at what he perceives to be a weakness on his part, as he stutters when he speaks. Part of that is his feeling that he does not have a voice, that his voice does not matter.

Today’s passage is all about voice. Paul is wrapping up his exhortation (parenesis) to the Roman community, hoping that his words, his voice will help this community of Jews and gentiles work toward listening to each other instead of finding fault with each other. However, Paul has not yet traveled to the community at Rome; they do not know him except by reputation. Is it possible that Paul felt slightly unsure of himself in this context? Was he concerned that his voice would carry no weight, even though his experience and standing with the other early Christian communities to which he wrote gave his words authority?

We cannot answer this question with any surety, though we can remember that just like King George, that Paul was a thinking, feeling human, as are we. We can also, in this Advent season, marvel that Paul’s voice is with us still. And that his voice gives us hope for our own voices.

Read verse 5 again. What do Paul’s words “so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” mean for us as Christians? How do you put them into action?

In this passage, Paul uses the word “hope” rather than “faith” or “love.” How might these concepts be linked for Paul? For the Roman community? For Christians today?

Matthew 3:1-12

“In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’” With these words, Matthew sets in motion his narration of Jesus’ adult life. We see Jesus through John’s eyes, through John’s ministry. How does this affect our expectations of the rest of Jesus’ life, as Matthew relates it?

How do you read the gospels, for instance, today’s passage? This might seem like an easy question on the surface, but take a few moments to reflect on this. Do you read these words of Matthew to answer your own questions? In other words, do you have questions already formed in your mind when you come to this text? Questions about Jesus, about God, about yourself in relationship with God, Christ and the Holy Spirit? Or instead, do you approach the text seeking information, to learn what Matthew has to say about John and Jesus, in this case?

Either way, do you hope for a clear-cut meaning, something that is direct and to the point? Words that provide clarity, whether in response to one’s questions or easily accessible information? We often hope that meaning will be right on the surface. Possibly, we ask someone else to tell us the point of the story – summarize it in one sentence. Perhaps someone asks that of us. How do you respond when someone asks you about the gospels, when someone asks you about today’s passage, which can be problematic if we, as Christians, don’t ask questions of the text?

During this Advent season, maybe our answer should be, “Let’s read it again, together.”

New life stirring in an old stump, 2 Advent (A) – 2013

December 8, 2013

Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12

We encounter a strange image for the coming Messiah in our lesson today from Isaiah 11: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” Now picture what this looks like, you’ve seen it before. A tree gets chopped down to a stump, and a little shoot starts growing out of it at some point.

Most people view this as an unwanted eyesore. These little shoots that grow out of stumps are actually known by the unflattering name of “suckers,” and there are all kinds of remedies on the Internet for how to seal off a stump and prevent it from giving out new shoots of life. Having these ragged little branches growing out of it makes a tree stump look unkempt and messy and homely.

Israel’s enemies had tried every way they knew to seal off the stump of Jesse that was the root of the throne of David. War, slavery, imprisonment, starvation – Jesus’ ancestors suffered all this and more. There had not been a viable king on the throne of Israel for generations. And yet, somehow, there is still life stirring in this burnt-out old stump.

Now, in the season of Advent, is when we see the little tiny shoot begin to sprout. It is so fragile! One wrong move and it could die. Too much water, too little water, the wrong amount of sunlight or wind, even a tiny bug could come along and destroy it, and it is totally defenseless.

When you think about it, it is an odd image to use to describe Jesus. He’s the new King of Israel, and he is described as a fragile branch growing out of an unsightly old stump. Not a very triumphant or powerful image. But that’s what Advent is all about. It is about coming to terms with the profound knowledge that God chose to come to Earth in such a vulnerable state: a defenseless human baby.

Neither a baby nor a wee branch growing out of stump is going to last long against any enemies. But that is also part of reorienting our mindset during Advent. The angel says to the shepherds, “Be not afraid.” That is what lies behind the courage to let Jesus be born as a helpless baby, the little shoot out of the stump that could be cut down at any moment: The knowledge that we have entered a new era of peace. God’s kingdom has arrived. Isaiah paints a picture of what that kingdom is like in our lesson today: “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.”

Peace and wholeness, the Kingdom of God, have arrived. We are in a safe place. It is safe to be vulnerable, to reach out, to stretch out and grow. The interesting thing about branches on trees is that they grow right on the edge. Very little of the growth of a tree happens internally, down in the trunk. New cells are produced right at the very edge and build outward, fragile but brave.

What are the edges of your life that need your attention to really start growing? What are the parts of you that feel unfinished and vulnerable, that you are afraid to let out into the light? We must internalize the message of the angels of peace, we must hear and respond to the command “Be not afraid” in order to let that new growth within ourselves have half a fighting chance.

It feels strange to be talking about the fragile budding growth of new tree branches when we’ve just now really settled down into winter. But that is an important sign as well. The new life and new growth that Jesus brings do not always arrive in the obvious places. We need to look for birth and growth within ourselves and our neighbors in the cold, forgotten, frosty and inhospitable places as well.

And the storms that we experience are important also to our new growth. Back in the ’90s you may recall there was a project called Biodome, an effort to create a totally self-contained biological environment, a mini-Earth sealed away from the outside world. Some of it was successful, but one of the most baffling disappointments was the trees. They had the sunlight and water and nutrients they needed, but as they grew, they couldn’t stand up straight. They flopped over on the ground, weak and limp.

The scientists finally realized one vital ingredient of the outside world they had forgotten: wind. In nature, the wind blows and causes tiny microcracks in the trunk and branches of trees. Trees rely on this trauma for their growth. Standing straight to the wind, breaking a little but rebuilding at the same time, is what helps them grow stronger. Did you ever think that you might need the fierce storms of your life? That they might be as pivotal to your growth as the good days of sunshine?

Because John the Baptist does descend like a furious storm in our gospel today. He arrives with locusts and vipers and axes and fire. How does his warlike message of the wrath to come square with the promised peace of the wolf lying down with the lamb?

Remember the image of the shoot growing up out of the stump? Take a step back and consider how that environment was created. A tree had to be chopped down to a stump in order for the new shoot to grow up out of it.

John the Baptist says, “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees.” He is the very personification of that message. He has arrived to shock us out of our complacency, to call us to chop down and root out all the old habits of greed and shame and selfishness that have grown up in our souls.

Advent is the beginning of the new church year, and it is time to begin with a fresh slate. We are told by John the Baptist to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” What does that mean? All the old condemnations of ourselves and others are to be chopped down and thrown away, making room for the new shoot of Jesse to grow up within us. That is how we prepare the way of the Lord. John the Baptist is not preaching a message of condemnation, but rather one of liberation, of freedom from the thick, choking overgrowth of sin that has trapped us in misery and hopelessness.

And for all the ferocious strength of his message, which we must take seriously to heart, what action does John the Baptist take? From what act does he take his name? Baptizing. Even as he pours down the fire of his words, he also pours out the gentle stream of water on the heads of the inquirers and seekers at the River Jordan, blessing them with the cleansing stream that foretells the Living Water. He waters the potential of the believers, that a new shoot of life might have the chance to blossom and grow.

So too is the season of Advent our own opportunity to test the edge of the waters of Jordan, gathering our courage to let the Holy Spirit of baptism – with the fierce fire that burns away the brambles of sin and the gentle water that nurtures the fragile growth of new life – once again cleanse our souls as we prepare for the Christ child.

In the season of Advent, the season of expectation and possibility, the spirit of the coming Christ is looking for fertile ground in which to grow up, a new shoot out of the old stump. Isaiah proclaims that “on that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.”

We can make ourselves that dwelling place, made glorious and new by Christ’s presence. Let us dedicate ourselves to hosting the coming Christ within us, and we will find ourselves manifesting grace in completely new ways that we never expected, newborn shoots of life growing up to bear good fruit.

Let’s be like Jesus, and branch out.

 

— The Rev. Whitney Rice is priest-in-charge of the shared ministry of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Shelbyville, Ind., and St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Franklin, Ind., in the Diocese of Indianapolis.

 

Bulletin Insert: 1 Advent (A)

Advent

[Scroll down or click here for ready-to-print PDFs.]

Photo by Benjamin Nussbaum

Photo by Benjamin Nussbaum

Today the Episcopal Church celebrates the First Sunday of the season of Advent, which will continue for four Sundays, until Christmas Day. The word “advent” is derived from the Latin word adventus, which means “coming,” and during this season, the church enters a time of preparation and expectation for the coming of Christ “in power and glory” (Mark 13:26).

In addition to preparing for the celebration of the birth of Christ,  the readings and teachings during Advent  also prepare the church for the Second Coming of Christ. At Christmas, the “first coming” of Jesus Christ, he is celebrated as savior; for the Second Coming, the scripture readings often instruct us to prepare for him to return as judge.

Leaf from a 13th-century Polish manuscript of the “Graduale cistersiense” with a chant for the First Sunday of Advent, beginning “Ad te levavi.”   (Photo via Wikimedia)

Leaf from a 13th-century Polish manuscript with Advent chant (Photo via Wikimedia)

Traditional Chant for the First Sunday of Advent  (Psalm 25:1-2)

Ad te Domine, levavi 

To you, O Lord,
I lift up my soul;
my God, I put my
trust in you;
let me not be
humiliated,
nor let my enemies
triumph over me.
Let none who look to
you be put to shame.

(Book of Common Prayer, p. 614)

 
Download bulletin insert as PDF:
full page, one-sided 12/1/13
half page, double-sided 12/1/13

black and white, full page, one-sided 12/1/13
black and white, half page, double-sided 12/1/13

Spanish bulletin inserts are available on the Sermones que Iluminan website.

Bible Study: 1 Advent (A)

December 1, 2013

Brian Pinter, General Theological Seminary

“Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (Matthew 24:44)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44; Psalm 122

Isaiah 2:1-5

Isaiah in this passage paints with the colors of peace and pilgrimage a visionary portrait for the future of all peoples. All nations, he prophesies, will live in peace because they recognize Israel’s God as the true God. This passage makes it clear that strife, hostility and fighting thwart God’s plan for peace. The course of enmity and conflict leads to a way of living that is inauthentic in light of God’s hope for humankind. When God’s law finds a permanent home in the human heart, war and violence are renounced.

The prophet recognizes that his people – and all people – are far from realizing this vision. The image of pilgrimage (vv. 2-3) subtly instills the truth that all humanity must struggle to overcome tendencies of violence, but that this journey will find peace at its end. The pilgrimage to Zion will be a long walk toward a change of heart that accepts the wisdom of God’s vision. At the journey’s end, the prophet foresees abundance regarding both temporal and spiritual needs.

Despite these divine promises – that walking in the way of the Lord will bring peace to all humanity – most of us are afraid to trust God completely in God’s vision for peace. Rather, the quick resolution that comes with winning, defeating, besting, etc., often proves irresistible. Isaiah’s prophecy we hear today summons us to hear God’s vision for us again.

What are the obstacles, personal and societal, which impede us from walking “in the light of the Lord” toward the age of peace on earth?

What must you change about your own life in order to fully respond and live the vision for peace the prophet presents?

Psalm 122

Scholars suggest that this psalm was sung by pilgrims upon arrival in the holy city of Jerusalem. Thematically, it is closely linked with our previous text from Isaiah. Notice, for example, how verse five of this psalm speaks of the “thrones of judgment,” similar to Isaiah’s proclamation of God as the arbitrator among the people (v. 4.) More significantly, the resounding hope for peace is again expressed.

This psalm reminds us of the proper orientation for, and culmination point of our lifelong pilgrimage – the peace that permeates every aspect of our lives. Not only will there be peace among nations, as Isaiah foretold, but also in the lives and hearts of every pilgrim who enters the city gates. Peace in the biblical sense meant not the absence of strife, but the fullness of life – right relationship, freedom from fear and the satisfaction of physical and spiritual needs. Jesus embraced this notion of peace and sought to bring it to all he encountered, as is evidenced by his healing miracles, exorcisms and preaching of God’s peaceful reign. The final two verses of this psalm serve as a challenge to all who hear: Do we have hearts wide enough and hope strong enough to say to all of our fellow human beings “peace be within you,” and “I will seek your good”?

Which word or phrase from this text resonates with you?

How does this text challenge you and/or give you hope?

Romans 13:11-14

Paul’s words in this passage present an interpretive challenge to modern readers. The apostle speaks in apocalyptic terms, anticipating the immediate return of Jesus and the total transformation of the world. The church (for the most part) no longer shares Paul’s expectation of imminent apocalypse, so what are we to make of his exhortation?

Continuing our theme of pilgrimage, the traveler on the spiritual journey gradually grows in relationship with Jesus, ultimately experiencing a total metamorphosis. The disciple becomes Jesus through a transformation of will, desire and action. Notice that Paul calls the hearer to express this metamorphosis through a change in one’s way of living – renewed integrity, authenticity (verse 13) and above all, peace. Paul, without saying so directly, is calling us to die to self (i.e., die to the self-centered but ultimately small desires that so often define us as we seek our own security and personal fulfillment). When we die to self, we are now free to assume the larger mind of Christ-consciousness – that way of seeing and living in the world that is characterized by compassion and love. This is the ultimate destination for the heart of every Christian wanderer.

Spend some time in quiet prayer with Paul’s teaching to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” How is the Spirit moving you to interpret that for your own life?

If Paul were writing to us today, how might he recast verse 13 for our times? What issues would he enumerate?

Matthew 24:36-44

This gospel text affirms that Jesus will indeed return, but that no one, not even Jesus himself, knows the day or hour. Such knowledge has been reserved to God alone. Some Christians, however, have interpreted the exhortation to “be ready” to mean that one must be physically prepared for the events that will accompany the Second Coming. Others attempt to calculate when this event will occur. Interestingly, such predictions and calculations often attract widespread public attention and curiosity.

While mainstream Christians usually don’t get caught up in the hype and anxiety that surround apocalyptic predictions, such incidents, as well as today’s gospel text, invite us to reflect on a few significant issues. Often, spiritually and emotionally, we distract ourselves from what is essential by focusing our attention and energy on that which is tangential and often beyond our control. But in the end these are pseudo concerns that draw us away from responding with maturity and wholeness to the Christian call for transformation of heart and mind.

In what ways do you succumb to the temptation to excessively focus on peripheral issues over which you have little control?

How might you apply Jesus exhortation to “keep awake” (verse 42) to your own life and circumstances?

Remembering God’s time during our time, 1 Advent (A) – 2013

December 1, 2013

Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44

How does your time look between now and Christmas?

Is your calendar for the next four weeks a jumble of “musts”?

There’s shopping, wrapping, shipping, delivering. There are the Christmas cards. There’s the tree to be bought, trimmed and watered every day. There’s the outside decorating. There’s whatever baking we might do. There’s a “Messiah” concert and a family gathering. There’s an Advent wreath-making dinner and a caroling party in two weeks. There’s the school holiday program and the office Christmas party. Don’t forget the gifts for the folks who help us get through: the person who cuts our hair, the letter carrier, in some places the doorman and the super. There are people to pick up the airport, perhaps. Maybe there are some December birthdays, for good measure.

It’s all there on your calendar, be it paper or digital, and it’s all your time.

And then there’s God’s time. It’s all contained within the circle of the Advent wreath, the wreath with the first candle lit this morning. It’s the beginning of Advent, the beginning of the church year, that big wheel of time that every year turns us from the waiting of Advent to the joy of Christmas, to the waiting of Lent to the joy of Easter, to the waiting of Eastertide to the joy of Pentecost, to the joy of life in ordinary time and back again.

So here is the span of God’s time we enter this morning. This candle marks the beginning of the time we will spend with the prophet Isaiah, that prophet from the Hebrew Scriptures known and trusted and quoted by the writers of the New Testament.

The light of this candle infuses today’s readings. Isaiah implores his listeners to walk in the light of the Lord into the kingdom where people do not learn how to make war but instead turn their energies toward cultivating the earth and not destroying it.

Paul echoes Isaiah’s vision when he urges his listeners to wake up, to leave the works of darkness and to put on the armor of light. Paul also echoes what he had heard that Jesus said to his disciples, the words that Matthew attributes to him: “Keep awake therefore.”

Next Sunday we will light the first and the second candles, and Isaiah will remind us what happens in the light: growth, a green shoot from a dead stump. Paul will remind us of Isaiah’s prediction about that dead stump of David’s line bearing new fruit in the person of Jesus. John the Baptist, the one Isaiah predicted would come, will appear in the blinding sunlight of the desert, telling us to prepare the way for the one who will use water and fire to make us his own.

On the third Sunday when we light three candles, Isaiah will tell us about deserts that bloom, the blind who see and the lame who leap. James will remind us in his letter that it takes time for the earth to bloom. He will use the prophets as examples of those who waited patiently for their faith to bear fruit. Jesus will confirm John the Baptist’s suspicions about him: indeed, he is the one whom Isaiah predicted. Through him the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the people hear the good news of the coming of the kingdom.

On the Fourth Sunday of Advent, four candles will burn in this wheel and the promises will soon be fulfilled. Isaiah will tell us about a young woman who will give birth to a son and name him Immanuel, “God with us.” Matthew will set Jesus’ birth to Mary and Joseph in the light of Isaiah’s prediction. Paul will tell the Romans that Jesus fulfills everything the prophets promised us.

Finally, we will light this central light and on Christmas morning we will hear John begin his gospel with those mysterious and powerful words: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all the people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. … And the Word became flesh and lived among us … full of grace and truth.”

And so the circle of Advent time comes around again. But Advent is not a time when we go through the motions of remembering a story whose ending we already know. It’s worth remembering that we begin our journey around this wheel this morning with Jesus’ own prediction of how he will come to us again. Advent is about Jesus coming once and promising to come again. This time of Advent is about the light shining in the darkness but not obliterating the darkness. It is about the kingdom having already come near to us but not yet having been fulfilled.

There is much work left to be done – and not just all we face these next four weeks. But you know what? Christmas always comes whether we get it all done – perfectly – or not.

Will the kingdom come in a similar inevitable way? What will we have done to hasten its coming? Will we recognize it when it comes? Who are we? Which farmer in the field? Which woman grinding meal? Will we go about our pre-Christmas tasks, marking out our time, and forget about the Advent stories of God’s time?

Or, perhaps, can we overlay these two arcs of time, taking good care of the tasks that will make for a special holiday season and staying awake for the signs of the kingdom – of God’s time – breaking into our time?

Because it is not that we shouldn’t enjoy the hustle and bustle of the secular season of “X-number of days until Christmas” – even though some preachers are known to guilt us into thinking it is less-than-Christian to fall for this month’s commercialism. Last year about this time, J. Mary Luti who is a United Church of Christ pastor, wrote in her blog that she was “simply getting tired of listening to sermons in Advent that draw a sharp line between the bad world of getting and spending which barely acknowledges or even notices the reason for the season, and another good world in which none of that goes on and into which Jesus is born properly, cleanly, to the sound of angels singing, not cash registers ringing.”

That second world, she said, doesn’t exist. We only have one world – this world we live in, the one in which God finds us and loves us because of our longing for something beyond ourselves. Jesus never asked us not to be human, Luti pointed out. Jesus became human and came into the chaos of our world to show us how to navigate our way through it using love and compassion as our touchstones.

In a book of prayerful poems called “Being Home,” Gunilla Norris strives to live in the overlap between our time and God’s time. She wants to be a steward of her everyday tasks in such a way that allows her not to despise the din of the world and its tasks, but to use them as a portal into deeper living.

In a poem called “Polishing the Silver” she prays:

As I polish let me remember
the fleeting time that I am here. Let me let go of
all silver. Let me enter this moment
and polish it bright. Let me not lose my life
in any slavery – from looking good
to preserving the past, to whatever idolatry
that keeps me from just this –
the grateful receiving of the next thing at hand.

 

— The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg, D.D., is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service. Prior to joining ENS in the fall of 2005, she was curate and then assistant rector at Christ Church in Short Hills, N.J. She is priest associate at Christ Church in Shrewsbury, N.J. and lives in nearby Neptune. She worked for nearly 25 years as a journalist before becoming a priest.

Bulletin Insert: Last Sunday After Pentecost (C)

Christ the King / Thanksgiving Day

[Scroll down or click here for ready-to-print PDFs.]

Stained-glass window in St George’s Episcopal Church,  Newburgh, N.Y.   (Photo by Matthew Green)

Stained-glass window in St George’s Episcopal Church, Newburgh, N.Y.
(Photo by Matthew Green)

Today, many parishes within the Episcopal Church celebrate the Feast of Christ the King. This feast day falls on the last Sunday of the liturgical year, the Sunday before the beginning of Advent.

According to “The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church” (Oxford University Press, 2005), The Feast of Christ the King was first instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925 as a “celebration of the all-embracing authority of Christ which shall lead mankind to seek the ‘peace of Christ’ in the ‘Kingdom of Christ.’”

Collect for the Feast of Christ the King

Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen (Book of Common Prayer, p. 236).

(Photo via Wikimedia)

(Photo via Wikimedia)

Thanksgiving Day, November 28, is also this week – a major feast day on the liturgical calendar. The Episcopal Church first began celebrating Thanksgiving Day after the American Revolution. The first American Prayer Book, in 1789, replaced the four national days of the 1662 English Book of Common Prayer with propers for Thanksgiving Day. This coincided with the first observance of Thanksgiving Day as a national holiday by the United States in 1789. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln instituted the tradition of celebrating Thanksgiving Day each year on the last Thursday of November.

Collect for Thanksgiving Day

Almighty and gracious Father, we give you thanks for the fruits of the earth in their season and for the labors of those who harvest them. Make us, we pray, faithful stewards of your great bounty, for the provision of our necessities and the relief of all who are in need, to the glory of thy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen (Book of Common Prayer, p. 246).

 

Download bulletin insert as PDF:
full page, one-sided 11/24/13
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black and white, half page, double-sided 11/24/13

Spanish bulletin inserts are available on the Sermones que Iluminan website.

Thanksgiving (C) – 2013

Giving thanks for a faithful God

November 28, 2013

Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 100; Philippians 4:4-9; John 6:25-35

O God, take my lips and speak through them. Take our minds and think through them. Take our hearts and set them on fire. Amen.

“Gratitude” becomes a buzzword every year around mid November. We see it on jewelry commercials, see it on grocery-store billboards, and hear it on radio advertisements. There is almost no way to avoid a word so inextricably bound to our cultural vocabulary. As with most widely used words in the American vocabulary, “gratitude” runs the risk of losing its revolutionary nature.

In today’s reading from Deuteronomy, we heard how the people of Israel were given specific instructions about how and when to present their first fruits before God. Deuteronomy’s vision for a sacrifice of gratitude is both simple and complex. The offering is given to the priest, and then the worshiper responds with a retelling of the Abraham and Exodus stories.

This seems a bit odd to our modern ears. Why go through the trouble of retelling a story that’s been heard thousands of time before? Why recount the mighty deeds of God in the history of Israel? Why contextualize the land of the fruits being offered to God? Those are all valuable questions, but one even more pertinent may be: Why not? Why not recall God’s track record of grace in the life of Israel?

It is easy to assume that the people of Israel were just as inclined as we are to forget the divine origin of their numerous gifts as the people of God. They were inclined, like we are, to imagine themselves as the source and end of all they had.

They had to be reminded of the ways in which God fulfilled God’s promises to their ancestors. They had to be reminded of God’s faithfulness.

At the center of God’s personality is a profound generosity. When it comes to blessing and loving the human family, God holds nothing back. Everything we have is a gift from God, because everything we have belongs to God.

This reality of profound generosity stands at the center of today’s gospel lesson. Jesus is attempting to escape a crowd of listeners when they suddenly appear at his side. They ask him when he arrived on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, and he says, “I assure you that you are looking for me not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate all the food you wanted.”

That statement alone is proof that Jesus needs new public relations!

After another exchange of questions, the crowd asks, “What miraculous sign will you do, that we can see and believe you? What will you do? Our ancestors ate manna in the wilderness, just as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”

It is obvious that this crowd was familiar with the Exodus story. What they weren’t familiar with, though, is the starring role Jesus had played in sustaining the people of Israel on their trek toward the Promised Land.

“It wasn’t Moses who gave you bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. … I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

In an instant, Jesus inserts himself into Israel’s collective history, as the life-sustaining Presence who guided them through desolation to liberation. In an instant, Jesus connects himself to the God who brought Israel “out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm,” the God who showers down manna from heaven and leads Israel into a land filled with good things, even milk and honey.

Gratitude is tricky. It can easily become a cumbersome process of making a mental list of things one is thankful for or another source of feelings of spiritual inadequacy. Gratitude, in the vision of Jesus and today’s Deuteronomy reading, is much deeper than a list; it is a way of life that grows out of God’s faithfulness to Israel.

While our consumer culture tells us to be grateful for the stuff of life, God invites us to share in profound gratitude for life itself. “When you offer your first fruits to the priest,” says God. “Remember the land from which the fruit comes. Remember that I gave you this land.”

This fruit-bearing, promise-keeping, wilderness-wandering, faithful God is the fountain of life, the source of all goodness. On the surface, this sounds right. But when the surface is scratched, it challenges everything American culture assumes about assets. We have things because we want things. We have things because we work hard for things. We buy things because people will like our things.

The challenge of God in Deuteronomy and in Jesus Christ is this, though: Rethink your gratitude. Are you grateful for things, or are you grateful for people? Are you grateful for the things that make life convenient, or are you grateful for life itself?

What if God had never delivered Israel from Egypt or Jesus hadn’t ever given himself as manna in the wilderness? What would the people of God had given thanks for? Each other? The dust? Breath? Life?

Maybe.

Israel’s “maybe” leads today’s people of God, assembled here, to give thanks and recall all that God has done for, with and through us, to place ourselves in the ongoing narrative of gratitude. It forces us to practice a counterintuitive, countercultural Thanksgiving, giving thanks not for our bounty and excess, but giving thanks for life’s most basic gifts: bread and wine and each other. It forces us to acknowledge Jesus’ presence at the center of it all: sustaining and nourishing us as the manna of God.

So, pilgrims on this journey of gratitude: Remember all that God has done, and give thanks.

 

Broderick Greer is a second-year Master’s of Divinity student at Virginia Theological Seminary and a postulant in the Diocese of West Tennessee.