Isaiah 42:1-9, Acts 10:34-43, Matthew 3:13-17, Psalm 29

The horizon of our possibility reaches the very edge of the earth … and beyond.

I’m not exactly sure when but it was something like 10 years ago when I headed off to a conference in Nevada and we took the opportunity to go see Hover Dam. I had seen it in numerous pictures, and I expect a movie or two. But still it was very impressive. We were also take-in by Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the US. From our perspective, you could not see the vastness of the lake. You could see the steep white sides where the water was several feet below normal levels. It looked a bit like the white cliffs of Dover. It was kind-of cool, until you saw the boat docks sitting on the ground, because the lake wasn’t just seasonally low, the lake was low because of drought. Lake Mead, and the Colorado River basin provide water to the entire south west; from Wyoming to California’s imperial valley, the source of 15% of our food supply; the lake and river provide water to 40 million people.

This week there was an article in the New York Times about the 14 year drought, the worst in 1250 years, which has area reservoirs at less than half their capacities. Lake Mead is currently at 1106 feet, (above sea level) at 1075 rationing begins, at 1050 drastic rationing begins, at 1025 rationing is draconian, at 1000 feet, Las Vegas runs dry. The era of “big water” is coming to an end. But people are creatively responding: a desalination plant, recycling sewage effluent, treating and returning to Lake Mead nearly all in door water use of southern Nevada. Much has been done, there is more that must be, and can be done. [i] In the face of extreme threat people are positively acting.

In preparing for today, the connection between the water crisis and the centrality of water to baptism, and Jesus’ baptism by John merged. But before we get there, let’s back up a bit and look at the back story of Jesus’ baptism as told by Isaiah.

It’s some 2500 years ago Israel has been taken into, well actually Israel, as the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom has been destroyed, and what is now called Israel, Judah, the Southern Kingdom, has been conquered, which is bad enough, but she’s also been taken into exile. And that means she is separated from the Temple, the home of God on earth, which effectively separates God’s people ~ from God. People are wondering if has God deserted them. Given that God’s city, and God’s Temple have been burned to the ground, people are wondering:  Is there still a God? Isaiah’s prophecy emphatically says Yes!  And he does so by speaking directly to the pain of tragedy, the pain of exile. He does so by naming how a divine servant will bring justice. Amy Oden writes:

Isaiah shifts Israel’s gaze here from themselves back to the wide casting of God’s promise and plan. The horizon of possibility is no longer the hand in front of my face but the very edge of the earth’s curvature. [ii]

It’s important to note, the servant will not act alone, four times the prophecy quotes God I the Lord and then names a specific action.

Six centuries and a decade later, Israel, Judah, is once again conquered. I’m not sure they are ever not conquered. They are used to foreign Kings and Emperors but this one also claims to be god, well at least a demi god, or the/a son of god. Even though the Temple is magnificently restored, and all the proper sacrifices are being made it’s all a bit edgy, it’s not quite right. A sign of trouble are communities of folks, who live in isolated communities, like the Essenes who live in Qumran, where the Dead Sea scrolls were found, who preach a different relationship with God. Many of them practice a baptism that washes away sins. Perhaps the most dramatic of them is John the Baptist. Not only is John baptizing folks, he is declaring the kingdom of heaven has come near. [iii] He is proclaiming

the [presence] of one who baptizes with water and the Holy Spirit, … [whose] winnowing fork is at hand. [iv]

One day, as John is baptizing people in the Jordan, this promised savior shows up and asks John to baptize him. John doesn’t want to, he isn’t worthy, he believes he should be baptized by Jesus. Jesus replies:

Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.

And John, humbly, obediently baptizes Jesus. Immediately the Holy Spirit appears, and God pronounces Jesus to be his son, with whom he is well pleased. Unlike Mark, who presents this as a private conversation, Matthew presents it as at least partially public. God’s voice parallels Isaiah’s prophecy:

Here is my servant                        This is my Son,

my chosen                                         the Beloved

in whom my soul delights           with whom I am well pleased. [v] [vi]

It is clear that Matthew is presenting Jesus to be the servant of Isaiah’s prophecy. Here is the one who will bring justice to all people.

The idea of Jesus as the servant presented by Isaiah several times, is common. It’s in the text of Handle’s Messiah. But, there is a wrinkle with the servant passage in Isaiah 42. Though there are problems with her ability to act, Isaiah’s prophecy reminds Israel that she is God’s servant. Verses 5-9 build on God’s previously calling Israel to be a covenant to the people, to be a light to the nations. [vii] It’s also clear in Matthew’s Gospel that Jesus is inseparable from the body of Christ, inseparable from the church. And I’ll admit, if it were left up to the Church, to us  there would be reason for despair. [viii] But is isn’t; and we aren’t alone. Remember ~ four times in Isaiah’s prophecy God says  I the Lord …  and names supporting divine action. In submitting to baptism, Jesus is

Standing in solidarity with those who often feel unworthy of God’s love and grace [it] is a powerful act that is vividly portrayed in this text and throughout the ministry of Jesus. [ix]

In short, the church, we, never have been, and are not now ~ alone.

A final little interpretive bit: Jesus says it is right for him to be baptized, to fulfill all righteousness. In English, ‘righteousness’ infers following established norms and obeying the law. In scripture, ‘righteousness’  infers fulfilling the covenant relationship  with God and with each other. In short ‘righteousness’ is fully living in relationship with God, everything starts from and moves towards God. Remember Joseph, who is righteous because he seeks to follow established custom and law, and is going to quietly put pregnant Mary away, and who is so righteous, is in such strong relationship with God he violates all that and humbly obeys God, marries Mary, etc …. [x] Jesus is fulfilling righteousness in humble obedience to God, in bringing the Kingdom of heaven to earth. John is righteous, in humble obedience to Jesus and baptizes him.

And so what. Well here is where the water story comes in. It’s a story of crisis. What was carefully planned, has failed. But the leaders have not simply thrown up their hands in despair declaring Woe is us! They have set about making dramatic changes.

The church is in a crisis moment. What was envisioned has not come about. There has been too much Woe is us! too much holding on to what no longer is, nor can be. It’s almost as if the water of baptism, is of less consequence, [xi] of less value than drinking water. It’s almost as if we Do the baby as a hedge just in case all this God stuff is real, or to placate Grand Mother. It is our calling by our baptism to continue Jesus’ ministry proclaiming the Kingdom of Heaven is here! And yes, it is a frightening task, it is an overwhelming task, but we are not alone. And yes, we will have to make dramatic changes, which we will intentionally set about this year, with:

Welcome Home,
Friday Families,
Brewing Faith, and
Stephen’s House,

and more; and we will not be alone.

Those planning how to respond to growing water shortage in the Colorado River basin cannot see the future; but they are not deterred from doing their best, and they are acting. I/we cannot see the specific details of the future of the Church, save faith that it will be,  and I believe that a cloudy vision shouldn’t deter us from acting. And we will begin acting by:

renewing our baptismal vows,
reminding ourselves of our relationship to God,
reminding ourselves that we are God’s people, God’s beloved
with whom God is well pleased,
reminding our selves we are called to bring justice to the world,
reminding our selves that we are not alone
that:
The LORD shall give strength to his people; *
the LORD shall give his people the blessing of peace.
reminding ourselves the horizon of our possibility reaches the very ends of the earth.


[i] MICHAEL WINES, Colorado River Drought Forces a Painful Reckoning for States,  nytimes.com,  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/06/us/colorado -river-drought-forces-a-painful-reckoning-for-states.html

[ii] Amy Oden |WorkingPreacher.org, 1/12/2014, Commentary on Isaiah 42:1-9

[iii] Matthew 3:1

[iv] Matthew 3:11b,12

[v] Ben Helmer, episcopaldigitalnetwork.com http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/2013/12/31/1-epiphany-a-2014/, 1 Epiphany (A) – 2014, January 12, 2014

[vi] New Interpreter’s Bible, Matthew 3:13ff

[vii] New Interpreters’ Bible One Volume Commentary

[viii] Center for Excellence in Preaching ****

[ix] Karyn Wiseman, WorkingPreacher.org, 1/12/2014, Commentary on Matthew 3:13-17

[x] New Interpreter’s Study Bible, Holman Bible Dictionary, righteousness

[xi] David Lose, Baptismal Problems and Promises, Jan 5, 2014, WorkingPreacher.org

And so, Monday, still in post marital stupor (our daughter’s not ours) I reflected upon marriage. I’m not entirely sure what happened to Tuesday, except that it started one city, continued in a second, and ended in a third. Even though I read commentary, which Tuesday is supposed to be given over to, the time to reflect in written word set with the sun. Wednesday began in the dark hours of the early morn with a road trip to Little Rock, for a class on Family Systems, and ended with a road trip in to the dark of mid-evening. No cerebral functioning, never mind time, for written reflection.

It has been three, now four days of muddled mess; even so a phrase has risen into prominence. Daniel 7:18 But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom for ever—for ever and ever. What has caught my attention is the commentators debate over who the holy ones of the Most High are. This afternoon a blogger colleague (http://draughtingtheology.wordpress.com/2013/10/31/rest-in-peace/) of mine wrote from Ecclesiastics 44 which cajoles us to sing the praises of famous men, … and of others [of whom] there is no memory.

The Episcopal, and other, traditions know the famous men and women, we call them Saints, and there is a book full of their stories, nearly one for every day of the year. However, in reflecting on all the people I met at our daughter’s wedding, and their genuine generosity, which so benefited our daughter, I am drawn to explore the holy ones of the Most High as those whose stories will one day be so much dust in the wind. Except …

One concept in Family Systems theory is the multi-generational effect of our family’s story; my grandfather’s behavior impacts how I respond to the world around me. So to the extent genuine generosity has a positive effect on our daughter it will have a positive effect on generations to come. To the extent that effect allows her to have and share a relationship with the Most High … well the story of the Most High continues. Even if memories fade with setting of the sun, the love shared has and will touch the lives of generations never known. So, to the greats and great-greats I never knew: Thank you; and to the greats and great-greats I’ll never know may some genuine generous act be a blessing to you.

My uncle is known for saying fish and family smell after three days; and all my life, except for family vacations (where each family had its own space) I never knew him to stay more than 3 days, often including arrival and departure. He knew something of the limits of hospitality. Hebrews proclaims an unlimited hospitality.

Sunday’s reading begins with “Let mutual love continue.” and moves to three exhortations which are literally (in Greek) expressions of love, the first of which is philoxenis, love of stranger, or hospitality. In this week’s commentary Erik Heen notes that in the first century hospitality, welcoming the stranger, was the only way most people could learn about the wider world. (i) So the host, who is generally seen as providing a benefit to the guest, receives a benefit as well, thus there is a mutual benefit to host and guest. Heen previously writes that God’s redeeming work through Jesus is outside the walls of the Temple, (in Jewish thought the only place redemptive sacrifice can be offered), outside the city of God, on the land of stranger (the Romans). Thus Heen weaves together the redeeming work of God in Jesus and love of the stranger.

The concluding verses of today’s reading begins with the admonition to “… continually offer a sacrifice of praise …” and ends with the reminder to be generous. Noting that Jesus’ sacrifice was completed amidst stranger, that generosity extends to strangers.

The hook is we, as host, benefit from generously offering to strangers, as do the strangers. Those with means are called to heal the sick, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless etc. Such acts of generosity become ministry when done in love, which includes allowing ourselves to be changed by the stranger who comes into our lives.

And all this time, I thought hospitality was my gift, hum.

 

i. Erik Heen, Working Preacher, September 1, 2013, Hebrews

I’m back. Well almost back. Our oldest daughter ‘s marriage was wonderful, even though ceremony times were changed due to prodigious rains. I was surprised how my view of the world subtlety changed as the moment came closer. I am continuing to be surprised how my world view continues to change in the days following. (Of course it could also be the influence of youngest daughter’s impending marriage.) In any case, my awareness of my changing world view may be contributing to seeing a clarion call for all humanity to change our world view and behavior in this weeks Lectionary.

Hosea continues his teaching about the twin notions of divine mercy and judgment. Colossians 3:1ff does have another of (pseudo) Paul’s lists. It also proclaims that there is no difference between people in God’s eyes; yet again. It is a proclamation of radical equality. Together, radical equality, mercy and justice form a strong biblical moral foundation. Luke’s tale of the rich man who pulls down his barns in order to build bigger ones, to store even more grains and goods is not living from that foundation; and thereby is starkly applicable today. Note, it is not a shelf, nor a pantry, but a barn. IE it’s a lot of stuff. It raises the question of how much is enough. It also points out, as one commentator notes, in storing so much for himself the rich man is denying grain for those without. It is also important to note it is more than his ‘life’ demanded of the rich man, it is his ‘soul’. (Perhaps ironic, since that is the way he refers to himself?)

To be clear, I believe the message is for all of us, not just the 1% or the 25% nor even the top 75%, but the 100%, all of us. The message is for us to change the way we see the world to divine values not any set of worldly values. It’s only through God’s eyes that we can see each other, see our selves as God intends. It is only thorough these divine values that real change in the human condition can come. May be that’s what my daughter and her partner taught me. What a blessing.

Proper 11 

Amos 8:1-12
Psalm 52
Colossians 1:15-28
Luke 10:38-42

Focus:  a different Sound of Silence

Amos rails about injustice,ingrained cheating of the poor merchants selling less for more by dishonest weights. Pseudo Paul writes about  … completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions … having just written that Christ’s work is all sufficient. And Martha still gets miffed at Mary for sitting at Jesus’ feet, while she goes about doing the expected, the mandatory work of hospitality. And of course there should be the news from last week, but at this point I can’t remember any of it. No, what has my attention is silence. As soon as the idea of the differing silences in Amos and Luke, came to mind, Simon and Garfunkle’s Sound  of Silence echoed through my mind. I googled the lyrics.  [ I played it for the congregation]

Hello darkness, my old friend

I’ve come to talk with you again

Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence

In restless dreams I walked alone
Narrow streets of cobblestone
‘Neath the halo of a street lamp
I turned my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
That split the night
And touched the sound of silence

And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening|
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence

 “Fools”, said I, “You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you”
But my words, like silent raindrops fell
And echoed
In the wells of silence

And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said,
“The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls”
And whispered in the sounds of silence [i]

 The opening verse is always haunting, for I have often been inspired in a nap. I’ve even been known to take a nap in search of softly creeping visions.  

The third verse’s imagery of people talking without speaking, or hearing without listening, or writing songs that voices never share all because no one [dares] disturb the sound of silence. is frighteningly relevant. We live in a culture: where leaders will not speak the truth, because they fear retribution, not in general elections, but in the eccentric primaries; or where preachers hold back, in fear for their pulpits. Or doctors don’t speak,    because they are afraid to say ‘death.’ It is telling that in the coverage of Nelson Mandela’s illness and birthday no one has said the word ‘death’ which everyone knows is inevitable, if for no other reason than he is 95; but no one ~  disturbs the sound of  silence.

And even when the few brave speak their words, like silent raindrops [fall] … in the wells of silence. Like many, like most, I’ve demeaned Edward Snowden’s actions, and folks railing against him contrasting security against security procedures, but never pondering the possibility of prophetic work, all the while wondering why we don’t get equally enraged by the massive data collection activates of Google, Face Book, Axiom, Credit Bureaus etc…

In the meantime, we all go tripping along paying homage the latest god des jours,  this sport’s personality, that celebrity, another advertising selling character, the latest techno billionaire; so distracted, we blithely pass by all the prophetic warnings written on the subway walls and tenement halls, [only] whispered in the sounds of silence.

Sound of Silence is largely a reflection on human behavior. Amos points to a silence that is the consequences of human behavior. The famine is coming, then God’s word will no longer be heard. Even when Israel seeks God’s counsel, it will not be heard. All they will know, is the sound of silence; a silence born of silence. I have known times when I could not hear God’s voice, but that was because I was hearing without listening. I expect many of you know similar times. I expect you know the chilling effect of silence,  born of our actions. I cannot imagine the depths of silence, born of God turning away, of God ceasing to speak; no word at all, neither through dreams, nor music, nor poetry, nor through priests nor prophets nor kings. Sheer sacrilegus silence.

[a ten count silence]

And then, there is Mary. We all know she is sitting at Jesus’ feet. We all know Martha is furious, because she won’t get up and help. We all, at least I suspect, we all imagine Mary sitting cross legged, head tilted to one side, slightly back, eyes in glazed admiration, her face all aglow in blissful adoration. We have forgotten that in that day to sit at another’s feet, is primarily for the purpose of learning.  All teaching was oral, there were no books, or they were very, very rare; so teachers spoke, and students, sat at their feet, and listened. And adult students listened, to become teachers, to spread the teachings of their teacher. Paul became a Pharisee by sitting at the feet of Rabbi Gamalile; [ii] who, curiously enough, when Jesus was brought before the Sanhedrim counseled moderation and calmness. [iii] Back to the point; Mary is sitting at Jesus feet to learn, to become a teacher, to share Jesus’ teachings.

My connection is that moment when you are in rapt attention, absorbing not just the words, but the very essence of the gleaning offered, frequently in rapt silence.  It is through such silence that the sounds of silence are whisked away in whispered wonder the Kingdom of God is here! And since we know God’s ear is never totally turned away (yes there was the exile, but, there was also the return,) we know sheer sacrilegus silence gives way to the sounds of shredded sack cloth, and the profound prayers of God’s people discovering they are beloved, discovering they are home, discovering they are sent out to share the Good News that shatters the sounds of silence.

Welcome happy morning my dear friend, it’s good to greet you once again …

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


[i] Lyricsfreak.com © 2009

[ii] Twelve Months of Sundays, Years A, B and C, Tom Wright, 2000, SPCK

[iii] Easton’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Matthew George Easton

Illustrated Bible Dictionary: And Treasury of Biblical History Biography, Geography,  Doctrine, and Literature.

 

In this morning’s reading from 1 Samuel are the foreboding words: and there they Saul king before the Lord in Gilgal. We know from early in the story it is God who ‘made’ Saul king. It seems to me Israel might have benefited from a descendant’s wisdom, the Psalmist who wrote:  I lift up my eye to the hills, from where is my help to come? (note: the hills are the presumed living places of local gods, usual customary sources of help) My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth. We too should remember this tid-bit of wisdom for help, comes not from NSA surveillance not it’s detractors, but from our living, God.