Genesis 1:1-5:1In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
3Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.5God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
Genesis 1:1-5 is one of my favorite scriptures and I have read, and reread it many times. I can imagine the pleasure God had at that first light because light always gives me pleasure. To see the sun rise in the morning gives me great pleasure. The sky goes from velvety black to a dark blue and the birds begin their morning song. Then the first threads of sunlight break free of the horizon and begin to paint pinks, violets, and rose in the sky. The color increase to oranges, and yellows until the Earth turns just ever so slightly and the first sliver of the bright sun is visible. Now there is a grand chorus of bird song to add to the majesty of the morning. For me that is pure magic.
I grew up on a farm in Ohio and before dawn I went out to feed, cattle and horses. In the dark I would stop and watch for the incredible start to the day. I simply love morning! I love the return of light! At those moments I can understand how ancient peoples came to worship the sun. To them it was magic; they didn’t know about the earth’s rotation, they weren’t even sure that the sun would return. For them the welcome sight of the light of day meant they had survived the time of dark and fear and now there was light and hope.
Light warms our home, Earth and produces the chlorophyll for plants to grow and provide the food for all of us animals, humans included. Light, warm light, life giving life. The very air we breathe is dependent on light and the process of photosynthesis. Our very lives depend on the light that comes from our medium sized star we call the Sun. Without the warmth of the light our planet would be a cold and barren hunk of rock without life. God breathed the breath of life over the waters and that breath was preceded by light.
Now our planet, in its journey around our sun, is tilting it’s northern face once again away from that life giving, warming light and that means shorter days and longer, colder, dark filled nights. Oh I know the darkness has its place. It is a time of rest and renewal for plant and animal alike. And as a person who has lived with the land I know plants and animals need that time of rest, whether it is one short night or the long winter nights. But I am a creature of the day and already I yearn for the warmth of the spring morning when the sun rises with the trumpet of bird song.
On December 21st I will rejoice and offer a prayer of gratitude as the earth once again tilts the northern hemisphere back to the sun. Spring will come again, just as it has every other year. I will watch with growing anticipation the shortening of the night and lengthening of the days. And when that warm spring morning comes the birds and I will be there to welcome the return of the light.
May the light of God and the Universe give you joy this day.
Numbers 23:9a for from the top of the mountains I see him, from the hills I behold him;
On this beautiful Tuesday I ask only that you take a moment of silence. Hold in your hearts, the pain, suffering and loss from the deaths in Charleston North Carolina, Chattanooga TN. To remember the loss of so many who have needlessly died from Sandy Hook, to Marysville. As we lift up our eyes to the mountains open our hearts to those who suffer; the victims, the families. Hold the perpetrators in your heart as well, pray that light will enter the dark well they live in and bring them out of the darkness of their own making. Amen
Genesis 2:1-3 Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.
‘Resting from our labors’, this is such a lovely phrase. Even God knew when to rest and let his new creation be. He even made it a sacred moment in time. While scripture identifies the seventh day as a time of rest for most of us there is no real strict rule as to when to take a day of rest, a time of Sabbath. Nor is there a set time limit for how long our rest should be.
Today is Tuesday and most likely you are in the midst of your busy lives. But, even when we are at our busiest we need, yes need, to take a moment out of our day to center ourselves in order for us to be the people of the Divine. So I am offering you those few moments. Take a few minutes and using the Visio Divina instructions below, let yourself rest in your quiet place. Find your center and spend a moment of rest with God.
Study the picture slowly, taking a first glance noting the colors, people, places and things. Remain with the image for one to two minutes. If you would like, jot down a few words about the image.
Take a second, deeper, look. Where is there movement? What relationships do you see? Engage your imagination. Where are you in the artwork? What do you see from that perspective? What deeper meaning emerges?
Respond to the image with prayer. Did the image remind you of an experience, person or issue for which you’d like to offer thanksgiving or intercession? Offer your thoughts as prayer to God.
Find your quiet center. Breathe deeply. Relax your shoulders, arms and legs. Rest in this quiet center. Let God pray in you. God prays beyond words.
Matthew 25: 36 “I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
One of the books I read while I was on my sabbatical was Fields of Blood, Religion and the History of Violence by Karen Armstrong. As always I was impressed with her writing and level of scholarship but more than that in this book Ms Armstrong lays out the reasons for our love of violence and power.
Right at the beginning she identifies one of the factors in our continuing struggle between living in a harmonious world or living in a power driven world, the construction of our brains. We have 3 brains, the old brain or reptilian brain is responsible for our fight or flight actions. It drives us to defend our territory for food and other resources, it is the self-centered part of the brain, most concerned with keep ourselves safe; the mammalian limbic system, which formed over the core of the reptilian brain is our second brain. It is responsible for new behaviors such as care of our young and the formation of allies with others; and the new brain, the third brain, the neocortex, is responsible for our “reasoning and self awareness that enables us to stand back from the instinctive, primitive passions.” (pg 4-5)
Ms. Armstrong proposes that the reptilian brain and limbic system are dominant within power systems that manipulate and control others. The limbic system extended the actions of the reptilian brain to include family or a community unity but, still, this drive for power and control of others for territory and resources requires violence. It wasn’t until about 20,000 years ago when the neocortex evolved did the idea of standing back and evaluating actions was there any question about the use of violence. Humanity really didn’t have a chance of becoming a reality until after the evolution of the neocortex and we have yet to learn how to use the “new brain” to begin to evolve into who we are meant to be. By this I mean most of us haven’t learned to overcome the impulses of the reptilian brain and limbic system and use our neocortex to evaluate our surroundings or our actions. In general we humans are “subject to conflicting impulses of [our] three distinct brains.” (pg. 5)
Fortunately there is hope for us all. A few of us are developing our neocortex’s and discovering what it means to be truly human. I was listening to NPR this past Sunday morning when a story about Dr. Kent Brantly was broadcast. Dr. Brantly was one of the American Doctors who contracted Ebola last year and survived. He was asked to deliver the graduating speech to the 2015 graduating class of the Indiana University School of Medicine. What he says about compassion is important for all of us to hear (italics are mine):
“In the first seven weeks of treating patients with Ebola, we had only one survivor; one survivor and nearly 20 deaths. Losing so many patients certainly was difficult. But it didn’t make me feel like a failure as a physician because I had learned that there’s a lot more to being a physician than curing illness. In fact, that isn’t even the most important thing we do. The most important thing we do is to enter into the suffering of others. And in the midst of what was becoming the worst Ebola epidemic in history, we were showing compassion to people during the most desperate and trying times of their lives. Through the protection of Tyvek suits and two pairs of gloves, we were able to hold the hands of people as they died to offer dignity in the face of humiliating circumstances, to treat with respect the dying and the dead. And in my opinion, that made those weeks, those difficult weeks of my career a success.”
Compassion isn’t offering help, it is being with the suffering of others, it is living the suffering, walking together down a road you may or may not know where it leads. That is what Jesus did. He entered into the suffering of others, he walk the road to where ever they were headed, that is one, maybe the first, step to becoming human. Dr. Brantly has taken a step on a road most of us are afraid to even look at let along step onto. The Prophet Micah tells us “He has told you, O mortal, what is good and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8). To do justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly with God, sounds easy does it not? Ask Dr. Brantly how easy it was for him and he will tell you it is the hardest road you will ever walk, but if we wish to be the humans God has always wanted us to be it is a road we must walk.
This week my spiritual practice is more of a spiritual way of life. I would like to invite you on a journey with me to become the “human” God wants us all to be. To look at our actions by taking a step back and asking ourselves the following questions (I am sure there are more than these and please let me know what you would ask):
Does this action support justice or impede justice?
Is this action a loving act?
Does that action move me closer to God or does it separate me from God?
Simple questions, but, sometimes hard to answer. Our lives are filled with gray areas and we will need to determine how those gray, in between, spaces fit into our lives and either nurture or kill the life we want with God. This is not an easy practice or an easy way to live but I believe, at least for myself, a profitable one. I know I will stumble and so will you. That’s OK, just pick yourself up and start over again. Failure is a lesson in how not to do something. Loving life as God meant it to be was and is never easy. Just remember you are not alone.
In the last weeks God’s creation has seemed anything but good. Terrorist attacks, ambushing of police, and police shootings of unarmed young men continue to rent the very fabric of our society. Yet God did not create an evil world, in fact God proclaims this world a good world where everyone, and I mean everyone, has what they need to live and be the person they are meant to be. It is our choice’s, not God’s, that have created a world that is unsafe.
Spending time in silent contemplation with a focus on what we could have been, and still could be, seemed the only way for me to center myself and see the world as good. So today I offer as our prayer of the week another Visio Divina using the above painting of the Garden of Eden by Jan Brueghel.
1. Study the picture slowly, taking a first glance noting the colors, the placement of the plants, animals and, people. Remain with the image for one to two minutes. If you would like, jot down a few words about the image.
Take a second, deeper, look. Where is there movement? What relationships do you see? Engage your imagination. Where are you in the artwork? What do you see from that perspective? What deeper meaning emerges? What feelings about the world rise in you? Are there any images that you are particularly drawn too?
Respond to the image with prayer for the world. Did the image remind you of an experience, person or issue for which you’d like to offer thanksgiving or intercession? Offer that prayer to God.
Find your quiet center. Breathe deeply. Relax your shoulders, arms and legs. Rest in this quiet. Let God pray in you. God prays beyond words.
Please do not let your belief, or non-belief, in the Garden of Eden and the subsequent fall from grace prevent you from seeing the good things in creation. Our world is in need of prayer right now. All of our people, all of creation is crying and in pain. Let your prayers go out into the world and let them lead you to be the person God has always wanted you to be.
Sermon – Epiphany Sunday
January 5, 2014
Queen Anne Christian Church Seattle, WA
Matthew 2:1-12 (Common English Bible [CEB])
Coming of the magi
1After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. 2 They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”
3 When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him. 4 He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote:
6 You, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah,
because from you will come one who governs,
who will shepherd my people Israel.”
7 Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.” 9 When they heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were filled with joy. 11 They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.
Greek derivation of Magi, (Strongs Hebrew, Chaldee, and Greek Dictionary)
3097.magos mag’-os (of foreign origin (7248); a Magian, i.e. Oriental scientist; by implication, a magician:–sorcerer, wise man, [interpreter of dreams, prophet]. (plural, could refer to a male or female wise person)
The story of the Magi is such a familiar story. We have heard this story so many times before and I am sure all of us are able to repeat it without difficulty, at least the surface story. I was confronted with this simple story, which is anything but simple, when I chose to meditate on it for Epiphany Sunday’s Sermon. Sitting in silence, letting the words of Matthew settle into my subconscious I realized there is so much more to this tale than I first believed. There are also way too many questions to address in a single sermon. If you ever wanted to experience an abundance of graces just read this story carefully. I could go into the fact that the gender and number of the Magi is never mentioned in the scripture and that the Magi were gentiles; or the Magi don’t visit the stable, they come to the home of Joseph and Mary; and because the story of the killing of the Bethlehem’s children that follows the Magi’s visit lead scholars to believe Jesus could have been as old as 2. And, that’s just few of the questions I found in these 12 verses of Matthew Chapter 2. What did intrigue me, and what I will discuss, was never addressed by all of the learned theologians I perused. What I wanted to know was the reason these learned gentiles come in search of a child, a child born to a carpenter and his wife. And, what unknown gifts still hides in this story for me, and all of us, beyond the pretty tale of rich strangers visiting a destitute baby?
First of my questions was what did the Magi expect to find when they arrived in Jerusalem. Since they came to the city of the kings of Judea they must have expected to find the child born there, and to parents with more than a lineage to David. My guess is they had expected to find a somewhat wealthy family, or at least fairly well off. After all they were looking for a King and you normally don’t find one living in the home of working class people. They must also have been confused and terribly disappointed that no one knew what they were talking about. I mean, the birth of a King is big news isn’t. Doesn’t everyone celebrate the birth of a King? It isn’t until King Herod calls them for an audience do they learn that the prophets foretell the birth of “the anointed one,” “the Christ,” was to happen in Bethlehem. I have no doubt they left somewhat confused. But, eventually they find the baby living in the home with his mother and father. They even bring gifts, and while Mary might have preferred diapers, the gifts they gave were costly and fit for a King. (By the way Bethlehem and the gifts are never mentioned again, why? Another question to confound me.)
They were seeking a child, an infant King, someone who would turn the Roman world upside down and I can only imagine their surprise at finding the child in such humble circumstances. They brought gifts Herod would have drooled over, gold, frankincense, myrrh. Wonderful gifts but not really practical for the family they found, well the gold was probably most welcome. But frankincense and myrrh those aren’t baby gifts. Frankincense and myrrh were used to perfume oils and ointments for the purification of worship spaces and the anointing of the dead.
Now I know what Matthew was implying by the gifts: Gold was the symbol of Jesus’ kingship, frankincense the symbol for the priestly role Jesus would be called to live, and myrrh a foretaste of what he would endure at the end of his life. But I think these gentile scholars brought something else and it has been bequeathed to us today and our children. The Magi brought the gift of “seeking God’s face.”
God has always welcomed us and longed for our inquisitive search for the face of the Divine, and She encourages us to reach for her Holy arms. One of David’s Psalms says it well:
30 I will praise God’s name with song;
I will magnify him with thanks 31 because that is more pleasing to the Lord than an ox,
more pleasing than a young bull with full horns and hooves. 32 Let the afflicted see it and be glad!
You who seek God—
let your hearts beat strong again
— Psalm 69:30-32 (CEB)
And in the Book of Acts Paul tells the Athenians “27 God made the nations so they would seek him, perhaps even reach out to him and find him. In fact, God isn’t far away from any of us.” (Acts 17:27) No God is never far away, we are. And, seeking the face of God is one of the joys of creation we should do more often.
The Magi were the first to seek God’s face in its incarnated form, the face of a child. For Matthew the Magi represent the mission Jesus gives his disciples to reach out to all peoples but especially gentiles, and those born within the great humble mass of humanity, in all its lovely diversity; poor and rich, young and old, all genders, all races, and all people.
For me the Magi represent the longing to see God in the face of my beloved, my grandchildren, best friend, and all creation. I too want to see the incarnated God, I too long to see the ever present being in the first light of dawn, and I do see it in the face of my beloved when he first opens eyes in the morning. The Magi have passed this longing down to us and I am grateful for the gift and grateful to pass it on to the next generation.
The Magi’s gift of presence to a child in a humble home was passed on to us through Jesus’ presence in his life, death and resurrection. Now it is our mission to be present to the incarnated child born to humble parents. To recognize and honor the incarnation born in each of us, through our gifts to the world whatever they may be; caring for each other, the environment, our nation, and our world. It is up to us to be the Magi of today and visit the child in a humble home, to offer the gold of our love, to purify our mistakes with the frankincense of compassion; and to anoint those who pass on to the next world with the myrrh of God’s blessings and praise. In a Judean desert David writes:
God! My God! It’s you—
I search for you!
My whole beingthirsts for you!
My body desires you
in a dry and tired land,
no water anywhere. 2 Yes, I’ve seen you in the sanctuary;
I’ve seen your power and glory. 3 My lips praise you
because your faithful love
is better than life itself! 4 So I will bless you as long as I’m alive;
I will lift up my hands in your name.
— Psalm 63:1-4 (CEB)
So too are we called to offer our praises to God, honor the child that lives today, in each one of us, and in all of creation. Seek the face of God in all you meet, child, adult, male or female, and all of God’s marvelous creation. Look in the eyes of your loved ones, your companion animals, see the face of God looking back. Amen
G-d fashioned me from the heart of the SPIRIT,
and all creation with me.
I cannot see the immensity around me,
only the little shelf I stand on do my eyes perceive.
I think my knowledge is so great,
that I no longer need G-d.
Yet all that I am is because of G-d.
All the strength in my arms
is worthless; all the knowledge
of my mind takes me nowhere.
I stand like a child on the side of a mountain
but see only trees, not knowing
much more lies beyond the next bend
I say “I see the mountain,”
I say “I understand,” yet much lays hidden
in caves so deep I cannot imagine.
I think I am so smart,
yet G-d knows how much is still to learn.
My hope for success has no future
without the G- d of creation.
Only the LORD of all
can grace me with life and vision.
Only when I open the ears of my heart
to the SPIRIT within and around me
will I find what my heart seeks.
I hear the voice of the Ancient of Days calling:
“Trust in the LORD, and rest in the SPIRIT.
Only then will your door to life and hope
open wide and your path made smooth.
Our hearts together will beat as one
and they will sing with joy.
The sound of lute and harp
will resound in our ears
and the taste of sweet celestial honey
will delight our mouths.”
All I have to do is trust, to rest, to give to G-d.
Why or why is that so hard?
Let your steadfast love, O LORD,
be upon us, even as we hope in you. Psalm 33:22
Mark 8:34 And he called to him the multitude with his disciples, and said to them, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.
I love the Gospel of Mark, it encourages me to ask questions and this verse in his gospel is one of those that drives me crazy with questions. The reason is I’m not sure whose cross I’m supposed to carry. If I take it literally, which is how it is most often interpreted, then I am to bear “my” cross and follow Jesus. But If I look at this scripture from the way Jesus responded to all of those who did follow him and surrounded him as he taught, then, this verse takes on new meaning for me.
What if, just what if, Jesus is telling us to carry the cross of someone who is suffering and not our own cross. Yes I know that flies in the face of orthodox interpretation but then I’m not orthodox. Those in my ecclesial tradition of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) read and interpret scripture and Holy Writings for ourselves. We do have to defend our interpretation and in that defense we either modify or enlarge our understanding of what scripture has to say. So here is my defense of my interpretation Mark 8:34 that “the cross Jesus is asking us to pick up is not ours but the cross of my neighbor and both of us then follow Jesus.”
First of all these words of Jesus are recorded in all three of the synoptic Gospels, but not in John. Now it could be that Matthew and Luke simply copied Mark, after all they used Mark as their blueprint for their own Gospels. But, the fact that it appears almost word for word in each of three synoptic Gospels leads me to believe this was something Jesus did say or could have said. Jesus also never said anything that would contradict what he “did” throughout his life of a servant to the disadvantaged, displaced, ill, elderly and disabled. Jesus’ life as it was recorded in the synoptic Gospels was less about what he said and all about what he did.
It is also one of the verses that is almost always misused or misquoted to, or by, those who are having a difficult time. How often have you heard the words “well that is my (your) cross to bear.” Something about that phrase has always bothered me. It’s used to trivialize suffering or difficult times for people and I think that is wrong. I don’t believe that Jesus would have ever told anyone that and I believe the “traditional” interpretation of this verse of carrying my own cross may not be what Jesus had in mind when he called to his disciples and the multitude.
Jesus always cared for those who could not care for themselves. His ministry was to those who had been discarded by society, bringing them back into relationship with their communities and with God. We often see him tired and totally worn out from giving of himself to those who needed him. And my question is; is that not carrying the cross of the other long? In fact we see death in so many ways in the ministry of Jesus, and not just Lazarus (John 11:41-43), a widow’s son (Luke 7:14), or Jairus’ little girl (Matthew 9:25, Mark 5:41, Luke 8:54). We see those who are dead and buried simply because they don’t fit society’s profile of “normal,” the blind, the infirm, and the mentally disabled and we see them resurrected from their death to life by Jesus who returns them to their communities. Every story of healing is a story of death and resurrection and it is Jesus who takes the burdens, i.e. their crosses, of those who have died to life restoring them to family and community. Jesus was teaching a Way of Life, and, one in which we as his followers were to emulate. That means caring for those who have died to society, bringing them back to life by restoring them to God, their families, and their communities. If we are going to be followers of Jesus then it is not our salvation that we are to be concerned with. No, it is the resurrection and life of those who have been pushed outside of society and left to die to life.
Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe the way I reach God is the only way. I believe there are many paths to God and each person will find their own path in their own good way and time. But If I am carrying the cross of those who are disadvantaged than I do it in the name of my faith in Jesus and give the space for those who are in my care to find the best way forward in their own way. To relieve the suffering of others, carrying their cross, is enough for my task. I can’t make the decisions as to how the move forward for them that is their choice. It could be that they choose to refuse my help and that is OK, they then have chosen to remain where they are in their spiritual lives.
Jesus never forced his pathway on anyone so why should I. Remember the story of the 10 Lepers (Luke 17:12-19)? Jesus healed ten but only one returned to thank him. Jesus asks where the other nine were but that’s as far as it goes. He doesn’t take revenge on them by making them lepers again just because they didn’t return to follow him. He let them choose their own path so that is what we are to do as well. (Here is a side note from this former statistician: actually 10% isn’t a bad response, in most instances you can expect only a 10% to 20% return on anything you put forward.)
So carrying the cross of someone else means opening a door for them, or clearing a pathway that allows them to return to a right relationship with God, no matter what that may look like for any particular individual. It means walking along side someone supporting their burdens while they sort out their lives and relationship with God no matter how they worship, or name God. Not an easy task for sure. We can see the effects on Jesus throughout scripture in his perpetual fatigue. Yet Jesus never complained and that too is a goal we are to reach for and it too is very difficult.
Now the next question is, if I am carrying someone else’s cross who is carrying mine. And that’s a tricky question. Do you remember that during the trip to Golgotha Simon of Cyrene (Matthew 27: 32, Mark 15:21, Luke 23:26) was conscripted into carrying Jesus cross? This, for means me, Simon supported Jesus’ burdens and Jesus was now the one who was in need of life. Jesus find life in his own resurrection, a resurrection had had given to so many others throughout his lifetime.
My lesson of the scripture is someone else is walking with me and supporting my burdens while I support the burdens of those who are disadvantaged. The person supporting my burdens is Jesus and I am supporting Jesus’ burdens in my walking in the way He taught. Now that is a big cross to carry! I am not sure I know how to fulfill this task, but I do know that I’m not alone; in fact I am never alone. I have others on the same pathway and I always have the presence of Christ and the Holy Spirit to hold me up and cheer me on. I am not perfect at following the teaching of Jesus but grateful that He’s not too picky and forgives me my all too often mistakes and stumbles. While I strive to be Jesus like I often miss the mark and that means I’m not always helpful. All I am asked to do is to keep trying and moving forward on the path. I mean after all he taught those 12 male disciples and they never got it right so I figure I’m in good company.
Life is what I want, for me and for all that I meet. It’s not my job or task to determine what that life will look like for someone else, I only need to worry about what mine looks like. That is sufficient unto the day. All Christ, God, and Holy Spirit want is for me to try, that’s all, and I am forgive my wanderings from the path and am welcomed back when I find it again. That is all I can do, that is all any of us can do.
May your journey be a joyful one, but if it’s not then I pray that you let someone support you and help you back into life.