Questions and Reflections

January 2015

A Reflection on Jonah

If someone asked you what the book of Jonah was about, would you mention the whale?

The story of Jonah is an interesting one so knowing about the whale is a good start. The story is filled with details that are an odd fit for a biblical story. The main character, Jonah, does everything in his power to run away from God. When God first calls him to send him on a mission to Nineveh, to the capital city of the enemy of his people, Jonah runs to the sea. He hires a boat to take him to Tarshish, a mythical place far away from God, like El Dorado or Mordor. Jonah runs, thinking that God's power is limited and that the sea would shield him. But it doesn't. God sends a storm that stops the boat in its tracks and Jonah is tossed into the sea. The whale comes and eats Jonah but not to kill him. Instead, the whale is sent by God to save Jonah and bring him to the shore. 

Jonah tries to run from God but God doesn't give up on him.

God wants Jonah to visit Ninevah, tell them that God has seen their evil ways, and that God will destroy them. Now, there's nothing in Jonah's message that asks for the people to change. There is just the warning that something is about to happen. But, somehow, the people of Nineveh do change. They hear God's voice in Jonah's words and they ask for forgiveness. The capital city of the people against Jonah and Israel hears God's words. They listen. And if even Jonah's enemies can listen to God's voice, then everyone is available to God.

The story of Jonah continues after our verses (Jonah 3:1-5,10) today. Jonah hears that God will no longer destroy Nineveh and Jonah gets angry. He continues his pattern of wanting God to do what Jonah wants to do. But God refuses. God isn't in the business of just doing what we want. God is in the business of redeeming, savings, loving, and resurrecting others. And if God is willing to save Nineveh, then God is willing to save us too.  



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A Reflection on Genesis 1

The first reading is Genesis 1:1-5.

The opening words of our Genesis reading today are memorable, aren’t they? These words, “In the beginning when God created,” announce the start of it all. Before this, there was nothing. After these words, everything comes. This feels like the nexus of history’s beginning.

Yet these opening words are not the best translation of the Hebrew. There is a general sense of status, of standing still, in our English translation of Genesis 1:1. But the essence and the emotion underpinning these Hebrew words is more than just an announcement of the start of time. These words contain feelings of freedom and activity that is centered less on time and the start but rather on who starts this all: God. A better translation that gets to this essence is: “At the beginning of God’s creating…”

“At the beginning” is a much more potent expression of God’s creative acts. Rather than focusing on the “when” of God’s action, we are instead turned to see what God does. We’re not just looking at time or seeing the start of a linear profession of history that brings us to today. Instead, the focus is on God and what God does: God creates. God generates. God activates. 

God is active in an ongoing and creative relationship with Creation. God’s story is a story of activity in the past, future, and present. Without such an active engagement with Creation, our gathering together today would just be a remembrance of what God’s done in the past. We would be telling stories of history that would always feel partially distant from us. But we’re here because God is still active in the world and active in our lives. That’s our proclamation, and God’s promise to us. God doesn’t act only in history. God acts today. And, for that, we can say, “Thanks be to God.” 



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Unexpected Encounter [Sermon Manuscript]

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Matthew 2:1-12

Pastor Marc's sermon on Epiphnay Sunday (January 4, 2015) on Matthew 2:1-12. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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So, each Christmas, there’s always one gift that I seem to dig into right away - and it’s usually a book. So this year - I kept that tradition alive - and consumed an autobiography. But it wasn’t just your standard run-of-the-mill autobiography. It was a choose-your-own-adventure autobiography. Neil Patrick Harris, who you might have seen on Doogie Howser MD, How I Met Your Mother, and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog - wrote a really awesome autobiography. And he based it on the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure series. In these kinds of books, the story’s written so that the reader gets to make the decisions about what happens to the characters. So, if the main character in the story has to choose door #1 or door #2, you as the reader get to pick the door and see what happens. If you choose door #1, you turn to page 24 but if you choose door #2, you turn to page 57. Each time the character is faced with a choice, the reader gets to make the choice. And, usually, we’d end up making the wrong choice and the main character dies in one of those extremely gory and impossible kinds of death. 

And, so, in Neil Patrick Harris’ autobiography - the reader gets to make some choices about how Neil’s life turns out. So I started reading it - getting into it - read about his youth in New Mexico and his first auditions for tv … and then I started to fall into a habit I developed years ago when I read these kinds of books. I stopped making choices. Instead of following the directions - for example - “for a less happy memory from the following year, turn to page 42 or to meet your own two cute kids, turn to page 276,” I just turned to the next page. I stopped choosing - stopped following directions - stopped following the script. I just flipped to the next page.

And the story got weird. 

Because I know bits of Neil Patrick Harris’ life. I’ve read his interviews. I like him as an actor. I follow him on Twitter - but I started seeing his life out of order. And Neil kept dying ridiculous deaths - only to come back to life on the next page. I wasn’t following the script - I wasn’t following the expected order of things - so the story got strange. It felt out of whack. 

And this feeling is the same kind of feeling that Matthew, in our gospel reading today, wants us to have. Because the characters in our story - the wisemen, King Herod, and the chief priests and the scribes - they kinda have a script on what to expect when it comes to the Messiah. They all knew what choices they were going to be given, They knew the scenarios on how this Messiah figure is going to work. But there’s a weirdness here because none of the characters experience what they planned to experience. In the choose-your-adventure story of the Messiah, everyone got to the end of the page and expected to find a choice on where to go next. What they didn’t expect was that God was planning to upend the script - to ignore their scripts - and, to invite them, and us, to just turn the page to see what comes next. 

So - there’s these wisemen from the east. And they seem to be astronomers because they’ve seen a star and they believe that the star is telling them that a king has been born in Israel. So they pack their bags, hit the road, and go to where they expect to find a newborn king - the palace of King Herod. If you’re looking for a king, the place where kings live is a good place to start. But when they get there, they run into something odd. They ask to see this newborn king and...there isn’t one. So the wisemen ask where this new king is because the baby wasn’t where they expected him to be. Their script - their understanding of how kings work and where they are - isn’t right. 

Now, King Herod, when he meets these wisemen - he gets spooked. A new king means that there is someone out there who is going to take his throne. So King Herod does a little digging and discovers that this Messiah is going to be born in Bethlehem. That’s the script. But the king and the priests and the scribes - the ones who have the script partially right - they don’t go to Bethlehem. They don’t go try to find this new king because they don’t expect to find the newborn king right now. They don’t expect the Messiah to even be a baby right now either. So they don’t go search - instead they just send the wisemen on because they don’t expect the Messiah to be found in this way. 

So Herod and the Wisemen seem to have this script on how the Messiah - is suppose to come. But no one seems to notice that God isn’t following the expected script. So if this story is showing us characters who are following the scripts they have for God - then what are our scripts for God? 

I think we all carry our own scripts for God - our own assumptions of just how this God-thing works. And if we narrow this topic a little bit - I believe we all carry our own expectations of just how the faith-life - the faith journey - is suppose to work. Going to church - or not going to church - that might be a part of it. Reading the bible, being active in prayer, making sure that we go to Sunday School and Confirmation and adult bible studies - maybe that’s how the faith-life works. Or maybe it’s singing in the choir - or going to all the social events where we do things together - maybe being around people all the time - maybe that’s how the faith-life works. Or maybe just being quiet - when we’re in study, deep prayer, and off on silent retreats in the woods - maybe that’s how the faith-life works. 

Now, I actually like all of these scripts. And they can work really well to feed our faith - to help us be connected to God and feel God’s presence in our lives. If our faith is being fed - we need to do more of that, not less. So the danger isn’t the script - but there is a danger in letting that script limit our vision, limit our perspective on just how God acts - on just how our faith life can be experienced. The danger is in thinking that the script that feeds us is the only script that can feed other people too. The danger is in expecting God and our faith to work in a specific way - rather than seeing - and knowing - that God, not our scripts, not our expectations, is going to feed our faith. Our scripts don’t limit what God can do. They don’t limit God’s interaction with us in our lives. But our scripts can limit how we see God in our lives and where we think God can possibly be. And if we aren’t open to seeing how God is actually working - how God is actively interacting with us right now - we can’t tell our full story. We can’t share our honest experiences - or lack of experiences - with God. 

The story of the wisemen is a story where scripts - where our expectations of God and faith - are expanded. The choose-your-own-adventure that King Herod and the wisemen were on - they thought they knew what was going happen when they got to the bottom of the page. They thought they knew what options they would have - what their script says - what pages and future events they will turn to. But what they didn’t expect - what they didn’t know - was that the script they were following - wasn’t the script that God was following. God’s invitation isn’t just to turn to page 47 or 23 or 98 or whatever page we expect to go to. No, the invitation in the story of the wisemen on this Epiphany Sunday - is to see God working in unexpected ways - to see how God’s revelation in Jesus Christ is a very strange thing - it’s a very unexpected thing - and this is an invitation to help us expand our vision of God and our expectations of God. Because this journey with God - this journey of faith - isn’t just a choose-your-own-adventure story that we’re directing. This journey with God is about seeing ourselves as chosen - and living out God’s story for us, with us, and through us - since - like those wisemen from the East who had no clear idea what to expect when they saw that star announcing Christ’s birth - we’re living out a chosen-by-God-adventure. We’re part of God’s story - and we’re invited to share that story - to live in that story - and to see all of it, fully, clearly, and authentically. We’re invited to see God in the unexpected places - to see God living in and with others in ways that don’t feed us - and to see how, in those unexpected places, God is inviting us to have unexpected encounters - so that we can spread God’s story - not our script of God’s story - with everyone we meet. 

Amen



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Reflection: On Isaiah 60

The story of the magi coming to Jesus is one of my favorite images in all of scripture. It's an image full of creative mystery. These magi or kings come from the East, from somewhere else, and they bring with them unknown languages, cultures, clothing, and habits. They are different but beautiful and they come to see a baby in a manger. 

The story of the magi is seen as a fulfillment of this passage from Isaiah 60:1-6. These magi represent the kings who come to Zion (to Jerusalem) and bring their gold and wealth to the only place in the world where God's divine light shines. The hope underpinning this passage rests in Israel's experience with the Exile. After the depopulation of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple by Babylon, the hope in the community taken to Babylon rested in reversal. They saw the Temple and the city destroyed. They prayed that their experience of being dragged out of Jerusalem and watching their wealth consumed by other empires would be reversed. Israel would depopulate and consume Babylon like Babylon consumed Israel. 

The imagery, while beautiful, is also shortsighted. Isaiah wants what happened to the Jerusalem community to happen to other communities. Isaiah's experience is so raw, harsh, and current, that Isaiah struggles to see hope in a different way. Israel longs to be rescued from their experience of oppression but there's a feeling of tit-for-tat within this passage (and the verses that follow) that is troubling. Are our prayers to God merely a call for revenge? Is God really just going to do the same to our enemies as our enemies did to us? Or is God's hope something more? 

The story of the magi visiting the Christ child shows that God has something more in store. Hope is not just a reversal of our experiences. Hope is a resurrection of them.



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