Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Lectionary Ruminations 2.0 for Sunday, December 1, 2013, the First Sunday of Advent (Year A)

Lectionary Ruminations 2.0 is a revised continuation of Lectionary Ruminations. Focusing on The Revised Common Lectionary Readings for the upcoming Sunday from New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible, Lectionary Ruminations 2.0 draws on nearly thirty years of pastoral experience. Believing that the questions we ask are often more important than any answers we find, without overreliance on commentaries I intend with comments and questions to encourage reflection and rumination for readers preparing to teach, preach, or hear the Word. Reader comments are invited and encouraged. All lectionary links are to the via the PC(USA) Devotions and Readings website.


Today’s Readings are for the First Sunday of Advent, which means this is the first Sunday of a new Liturgical year and the beginning of a new lectionary cycle, “Year A” or the year of Matthew. Preachers and Teachers new to the Revised Common Lectionary and Lectionary based preaching, teaching and Bible study may not be aware that each cycle in the three-year Lectionary cycle focuses on a different Synoptic Gospel. Year A is the year of Matthew. Year B is the year of Mark. Year C is the year of Luke. Passages from John appear in all three cycles, especially during Lent and Easter. Thus, preachers and teachers, for their own edification, preparation and as a spiritual discipline, might read the entire Gospel of Matthew as soon as practical. They might also read a brief and broad theological commentary on Matthew, all in preparation for a year of preaching, teaching and liturgy.

I used to think of Advent as a bi-focal season. On the one hand, we look back and prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus, or his first coming. On the other hand we, we look forward and prepare to welcome Christ at his return, or his second coming. I have recently come to think of Advent as a tri-focal season. With the Hebrews we see a longing for the first coming of the Messiah. With Christians throughout the centuries we also rejoice and celebrate the fulfillment of Hebrew prophecy as we prepare to celebrate Christ’s birth, but we also prepare to welcome him when he returns, whatever that return means and looks like to you.

How do these three foci influence our interpretations of Advent Readings? Can we focus on each reading using all three lenses or do some readings lend themselves to one lens more than the others? Are we perhaps missing anything by consciously or unconsciously limiting ourselves to only one or two viewpoints? What other viewpoints might there be that we have not considered?

Speaking of celebrations, this blog post marks the second time for me to ruminate on the first readings in the three years cycle of the Revised Common Lectionary, thus the name change from Lectionary Ruminations to Lectionary Ruminations 2.0! About the day and hour when I will no longer write and post my ruminations, no one knows. Until that unexpected hour, I am glad to begin Year A with this First Sunday of Advent post and to initiate the new Liturgical Year with Lectionary Ruminations 2.0.

2:1 I find it interesting that biblical prophecies are introduced in a variety of ways. Some prophets receive a word, some hear a word, and others see a vision. How does Amos “see” “the word”? Does it make any difference that Isaiah was the son of Amoz?

2:2 Does “in the days to come” set this Reading in the Apocalyptic genre? From our perspective, have these days yet arrived and passed? The mountain of the Lord house being established as the highest of the mountains is probably a comment about the mountain’s political and religious stature, not its geographical height, which is around 2,500 feet above sea level. What does it mean that “all the nations” shall stream to the mountain of the Lord?

2:3 In that that Jerusalem is sacred to three faiths and people make pilgrimages there, this prophecy seems to have been fulfilled. How does this vision inform the teaching ministry of the church and the church’s involvement in higher education?

2:4 What is a plowshare? What is a pruning hook? How can Christians in an urbanized setting far removed from any agriculture find meaning in implements of war being transformed into agricultural tools? Perhaps a modern image might be “They shall transform their nuclear weapons programs into building nuclear reactors for producing electricity!

2:5 What does it mean to “walk in the light of the LORD”? How does the image of “walking in the light” add to our observance and celebration of Advent?

PSALM - PSALM 122:1-9
122:1 This verse seems to echo Isaiah 2:3. Does this first verse establish this Psalm as a Psalm of Ascents? As worship attendance declines it seems that more and more people are not glad to be invited to go to the house of the LORD.

122:2 Is this an allusion to standing on holy ground or within a protected environment?

122:3 What is the meaning of “firmly bound together”?

122:4 Note that here “the tribes go up” whereas in Isaiah 2:2 “all the nations shall stream” to the mountain of the Lord. The Psalmist may have envisioned only Jews going up to Jerusalem, yet today adherents of three faiths, and non-adherents as well, go up to Jerusalem. How does one give thanks to the name of the LORD when the name of the LORD is not to be pronounced?

122:5 Why is “thrones” plural? Who sits on these thrones?

122:6-7 Jerusalem certainly needs our prayers today. Do you ever pray for the Peace of Jerusalem? How do the very recent conversations with Iran inform our prayers for the peace of Jerusalem? What is the meaning of “Jerusalem”? Think “salem” and “shalom”.

122:8 Are the Psalmist’s relatives and friends living in Jerusalem? Do you know anyone presently living in Jerusalem?

122:9 How does one seek good for Jerusalem? As we pray for Jerusalem and seek its good, does it matter that the Temple still lies in ruins?

13:11 The phrase “Besides this” suggests we are missing the previous point. Can we properly interpret this passage without reading what came before? The salvation alarm clock is ringing. While the final clause is true, how much closer is a mere two thousand years compared to an unknown timeline?

13:12 “The day is near” points me back to Psalm 112:9. What are “works of darkness”? What is the “armor of light”? Why am I thinking of the Dead Sea “Ear Scroll”?

13:13 While “drunkenness” stands alone, note the pairing of “debauchery and licentiousness” and “quarreling and jealousy”. What is debauchery? What is licentiousness?

 13:14 Is the admonition to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” a reference to baptism, or something else? Is putting “on the Lord Jesus Christ” an illusion to baptism? How can we realistically “make no provision for the flesh”? Is this a call to asceticism? Is there a difference between maintaining health of the flesh and gratifying its desires? Why am I hungry for a Graham Cracker and a bowl of Kellogg corn flakes?

24:36 “that day and hour” certainly places us in the Apocalyptic genre. There is an interesting juxtaposition between not knowing “that day and hour” within the context of the liturgical and secular calendar. While no one knows “that day and hour” we all know that Christmas is now only twenty-four days away, and still most of us will not be fully prepared when that day finally arrives. Is “the Son” that does not know the day and hour the “Son of Man”?

24:37 How will the “days of Noah” be like “the coming of the Son of Man”? Those with a theological education will undoubtedly understand the “Son of Man” reference but I wonder how most people in the pews and in the Church School Class will hear and understand it. How much do teachers and preachers need to translate theological terms and phrases and theological baggage such as “Son of Man” when we encounter them in Scripture or can we simply gloss over them? See Daniel 7:13.

24:38-39 These verse answer, somewhat, the question about the “days of Noah” and “the coming of the Son of Man” comparison, but what do they teach us?

24:40-41 More agrarian imagery that we may need to translate into the postindustrial and more urban context. At one time these verses seemed to be some of the favorite among apocalyptically minded evangelicals employing “the rapture” as an evangelism tool. Since I have lost touch with that segment of the church, I wonder if they are still popular passages. It seems that in both verses people are still going about their daily routines in spite of Christ’s assumed imminent return.

24:42 This is good advice regardless of one’s position on the theological spectrum. On the other hand, I am also familiar with Aesop’s fable about the boy who cried wolf.

24:43 How does this follow from what proceeds it? The Lord might come like a thief but he is not a thief. The emphasis is on being spiritually awake. We want the Lord to break into our homes and lives.

24:44 The phrase “be ready” seems synonymous with “keep awake”. Consider again the question I raised regarding verse 37. There seems to be a tension between being told that the “Son of Man is coming” but not knowing when he will come. It sounds a little like making an appointment for repair service in the home on a certain day but not knowing what time the repair person will arrive, or knowing that UPS or Fed-Ex will deliver a package on a certain day but not knowing what time. What is a healthy balance between certainty and ambiguity?

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Revisiting Rocky Point in West Virginia's Dolly Sods Wilderness

            One of my favorite summits is not a summit at all.  It is a barren rocky outcrop projecting more than a hundred feet from a ridge, its farthest edge offering a magnificent view of the valley over a thousand feet below.  One guidebook describes it as offering “spectacular views from a huge flat (but heavily dissected) rock outcrop … an impressive outcrop of Pottsville sandstone that offers the most spectacular views in the S (forested) portion of Dolly Sods Wilderness.  Magnificent view of Red Creek Canyon makes the scramble to the top of the rocks worth the effort.”  (Monongahela National Forest Hiking Guide, 8th Edition, p. 183)
            I first hiked to and fell in love with this pseudo summit and the wooded campsite located less than a hundred yards away during a late December backpacking trip in 1976.  It is one of my favorite places in the whole world and one of the places I go in my mind when I want to relax and reconnect with nature.  I recently hiked there again after not having been there for over six years.
            When I remember my recent trek I recall standing in the nearby campsite amidst a grove of tall pine trees.  Having been planted in rows decades ago, the trees ascend forty to sixty feet into an almost cloudless November blue sky, their trunks three to five feet apart.  With no branches on the bottom third of their trunks, I walk easily amongst them.  The trunks remind me of columns in a cathedral, columns supporting a ceiling of green pine boughs.
            Decades of dead and decaying fallen pine needles form a soft spongy pad underneath a carpet of day old snow an inch or two deep.  The scent of fresh pine above and around me as well as the decaying matter below my feet speak of a rich vibrancy—life amidst death. At an elevation of nearly 3,700 feet, this evergreen grove is an ethereal sanctuary.
            On the nearby exposed Rocky Point, perched above the valley floor from which I had hiked the 3 ¾ miles, prevailing westerly winds sometimes whistle and sometimes howl as it flows through the needles, branches and trunks of wind stunted one sided pine trees, their branches pointing east with the wind.  Hawks and other birds occasionally soar overhead.  At times I can hear their call.  I notice a jet’s vapor trail in the distance to the east, its u-shaped curve suggesting it was left by a military jet on maneuvers.
            There were no cars in the parking area when I hit the trail three hours earlier.  I have not seen a human since I left the car.  The only evidence of civilization is a few fire scorched rocks and logs, unnecessary remains and reminders of campfires in the camping area, a couple communication towers off in the distance, and jet trails high in the sky.  The jet trails and communication towers cannot be helped.  Adherence to Leave No Trace principles could have prevented the camp fire scars.
            I experience this peaceful wilderness setting high in the Alleghany Mountains as a thin place where the veil between the worlds is as thin as gossamer.  It is a liminal place where earth meets sky and I find renewal and communion with the sublime.
            On the hike back down to the car, following fresh bear tracks in the day old snow still covering the trail, tracks that had not been there four hours earlier, heightens my awareness but does not diminish from my sense of having been one with the wilderness.  I will undoubtedly return to Rocky Point many times in my active imagination, and hopefully in reality sooner than later.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Lectionary Ruminations for Sunday, November 24, 2013, Christ the King (Reign of Christ) Sunday (Year C)

Posted each Thursday, Lectionary Ruminations focuses on the Scripture Readings, taken from the New Revised Standard Version, for the following Sunday per the Revised Common Lectionary. Comments and questions are intended to encourage reflection for readers preparing to teach, preach, or hear the Word. Reader comments are invited and encouraged. All lectionary links are to the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible via the PC(USA) Devotions and Readings website, but if you prefer another translation, feel free to use that instead. (Other references may be linked to the NRSV via the oremus Bible Browser.) 

23:1 Who are these shepherds?  Why would any shepherd destroy and scatter sheep they are responsible for?

23:2 How have the shepherds scattered the flock?  How have the shepherds driven sheep away?  How do we read this passage after nearly a half century of membership decline in the mainline church?

23:4 It sounds that in the midst of the failure of the old order shepherds that God will raise up new shepherds in their place.  What might this mean in a mainline church where many Teaching Elders (Ministers) are younger than the governing body of Ruling Elders?

23:5 Will this righteous branch be like a new shepherd, replacing the old shepherds?  From a Christian perspective, have these coming days already been fulfilled? 

23:6 How else might we translate “The LORD is our righteousness”?

The PC(USA) Devotions and Readings website identifies this as a Gospel reading but it functions as a Psalm or Canticle.  Does it make a difference how we label or identify it?

1:68 Who is speaking? Why does this sound so familiar?

1:69 Does it make a difference that this mighty savior has been raised up “in” the house of David rather than “from” the house of David?

1:70 All the prophets or just some of the prophets?

1:71 So this savior saves from enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.  Note that sin is not mentioned.

1:72 Which covenant is being remembered?

1:73 What oath did God swear?  Why would God swear an oath?  What would be our recourse if God did not keep this oath?

1:74 Does this mean that we are saved for service?

1:75 How do we serve in holiness and righteousness?

1:76 What child?  Is the profit going to prepare the way for the LORD God, or for the mighty savior?

1:77 What is salvation if we are not aware of it?  How does forgiveness of sins save from enemies and from the hand of all that hate us? (see 1:71)

1:78 Is there a difference between mercy and tender mercy?  Is tender mercy different from stern mercy?  I love the poetic and metaphorical “dawn from on high” because it leaves so much to the creative imagination.

1:79 How do we handle the image of sitting in darkness with racial sensitivity?  How does the image of giving light to those who sit in darkness naturally flow from the image of the dawn from on high?  Can we be guided in the way of peace without light?

1:11 This verse reminds me of a modern Celtic caim by David Adam which includes the petition “Keep strength within, keep weakness out.”

1:12 is this the same light as in Luke 1:79?  Who re the saints in the light and what is their inheritance?

1:13 Why do I keep being drawn back to Luke 1:79.  I am also being drawn to the John’s Prologue.

1:14 Is redemption synonymous with salvation?

1:15 How can anything serve as an image of something, or someone that is invisible?  What is the difference between being the firstborn and pre-existence?

1:16 Does this verse justify equating Christ with the Sophia of Proverbs?  What does it mean that “in him” all things were created, and created “through him and for him”?

1:17 I would love for a theoretical astro-physicist to reflect and expound on this image, especially as it relates to cosmology and cosmogony.  Perhaps this could be worked into a future episode of The Big Bang Theory.

1:18 Where else have we encountered this body metaphor? Does being the firstborn of the dead have anything to do with being the firstborn of all creation? (see 1:15)

1:19 What is the meaning of “dwell”?  Does this suggest anything less than permanent?  How does this relate to essence?

1:20 Why do all things need to be reconciled to God?  How can peace be made through the blood of Christ’s cross?

23:33 When who came?  What place is called “The Skull”?  Who crucified Jesus? 

23:34 For who was Jesus praying?  What does it mean to cast lots?

23:35 How had Jesus saved others?  Why did Jesus not save himself?

23:36 Is “mocking” the same as the “scoffed” of the previous verse? How is offering sour wine a type of mocking?

23:37 Is this a mere re-phrasing of 23:35?

23:38 How does this inscription negate the questions raised in verses 35 and 37?

23:39 Once again, this sounds like an echo of verses 35 as well as verse 37.

23:40 What are we to make of the juxtaposition of these two criminals and their statements and attitudes?

23:41 How did this criminal now that Jesus had done nothing wrong?

23:42 Why am I once again thinking of The Jesus Prayer and The Philokelia?

23:43 What are we to make of the “today”?  What is paradise?

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

11.12.13 (a free verse poem reflecting on a winter weather hike)

Crunch, crunch
Autumn’s first snow
Fresh over fallen, dry leaves

Small white flakes
Flirting through bare branches of Beech
Lighting on hemlock boughs

I outstare a whitetail at thirty paces
With not even a camera to shoot it
After a few precious moments it scrambles away

A military jet strafes the tree tops
At near supersonic speed
Reminding me that freedom has its costs

At twenty-two degrees
This November Canaan afternoon offers
Retreat, solace, renewal

Four miles of hiking
Medicine for the mind
Balm for a bruised soul