Reflection for January 29, 2017

Micah 6:1-8, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, Matthew 5:1-12

Someone once said, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Another person said that the only thing that stays the same is that things are always changing.

And probably both of those things are true. We live in a time of accelerated change and constant flux. Many of us in this room have experienced so much change it is hard for us to remember what life was like. Others of us have grown up with so much change, it is hard for us to find stability in life. But too much stability is not good for us either. This week we renew our American love of large rodents with Ground Hog’s Day on February 2nd. The great comic film for that day has as its theme the tiredness we know as we over and over again we live the same winter day with no sense of relief.

The readings today also speak to what is and what is changing. The readings are from Micah, an ancient Hebrew prophet, Matthew, the gospel we are reading for this year, and once again another late winter reading from I Corinthians.

In the passage from Corinthians, Paul writes about the folly of our thoughts as we go through life. We consider something as wise only to later on discover, as time change, that it was pretty foolish. We put a lot of stock in something, but as things evolved, we sometimes sense we were not that wise after all. Almost every field of human endeavor from science to theology, from economics to politics, from relationships to values: all of that has been guided by wisdoms that have exhausted their usefulness and run into their limitations as we find ourselves over and over again living in a different world. In times of accelerated change, wisdom gradually becomes tarnished and then discarded in the face of new realities. And conversely what was once seen as foolish, something we may have thought outlandish, is now the cornerstone for living.

As things swirl for Paul in a first century that was also a time of great change, he points to something that may seem strangely foolish but in the end is important. He points to Jesus, the odd one, whose humiliating death reveals a suffering God of love in our broken world. In Paul’s world, gods were seen as powerful, almighty forces that needed to be appeased and whose demands needed to be satisfied. Paul, however, stands that wisdom on its head. In the swirling first century, he offers a Jesus humiliated on a cross, revealing the depth of God’s love for those who are broken. What a strange new idea. What change.

Change is swirling in the time of Micah the prophet. The wisdom of the day is that the God of Israel is worshipped in a temple with the sacrifice of animals to atone for sin. The correct worship of God brought the favor of God. And a great religion had been built around this central wisdom. And that wisdom is managed by those in charge, the priests and the kings. But the wisdom of the wise becomes foolishness in the hands of the poet Micah.

For Micah points to something else about God. Does God really care about how many bulls are sacrificed in a temple? Is that really a good thing? And if it is what God is all about, then maybe we should sacrifice humans, too? What would God really want? The blood animals or children? No, it’s not that, Micah says. Then Micah writes a few lines that are almost three thousand years old, but somehow have never changed, lines around which even we, in our own swirling times, can build our lives:

God has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

If you want to boil everything down to the basics, Micah is your poet. What is good? Justice. Compassion. Humility. Walking with God. These speak of a goodness that has not changed. A goodness that draws close to the divine essence. And according to Paul, this God has taken his own advice. For Paul’s God is a god of justice, a god of compassion, and a god who walks in humility with us, even suffering as we suffer for the sake of love.

And I love the grammar of Micah’s poem. It’s phrased as a question. How we do justice, compassion, humility and walking with God is not predetermined by the poet. We are asked to do that in a question that requires each of us to find our own answer.

In their swirling centuries, Micah and Paul challenge the wisdoms of the day, and as things change through the centuries, we have their stabilizing words to help us navigate our own changing seas.

In the beatitudes, the teaching Rabbi Jesus does something similar. He takes the conventional wisdom of the good life, and turns it on its head. The beatitudes also make the wise foolish and the foolish wise.

For those who are humble in spirit are walking with God, and the slings and arrows of others do not matter.

For those who mourn, find in their deep loss a hope that you don’t really know until you have suffered the loss of the one you love.

For those who sit quietly in the corner are generally listening carefully and will in the end have the insight we all need to make it through. Leadership is really a quiet thing.

For those who seek God will find God. It may come to you in surprising ways, but if you look for God, God will be there. And if you are not looking for God, you won’t find God anywhere.

For those who offer justice and mercy, will find themselves receiving it sometime down the road.

For those who work for peace, work for the salvation of the whole world, as they lead us beyond the destructive cycles of violence that consume us.

For those who are bullied will someday lead all of us to understand how important it is to treat everyone with dignity and respect.

The wisdom of this world becomes folly in the hands of this Rabbi Jesus, and those who suffer in the end will be precisely the ones who lead us through suffering into new hope. And that is why we still to this day, in spite of all the changes in our world, look to the wisdom in the folly of such teachers as Jesus, and Paul, and Micah with their new ideas.

And those ideas remind us if you are hurting, there will come a time when God will use you to accomplish some wisdom not yet seen. And in the meantime, do justice, show compassion, and walk humbly with God.

 

Reflection for January 22, 2017

Isaiah 9:1-4, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, Matthew 4:12-23

For decades now, Judy and I have made the drive several times a year between Wisconsin and Peoria, Ill. where she grew up and her parents still live. That means that we go down to Rockford and then continue south on I39 for awhile. It’s usually a peaceful drive. There is hardly a hill or turn in the road. And although the farmland is some of the richest in the world, it is not visually exciting. After awhile we leave the interstate and drive through a few very small towns in central Illinois on our way to the big city of Peoria.

And a couple of those towns are absolutely depressing: dilapidated and dreary beyond description. One especially, feels like the set for a zombie apocalypse movie. As you slowly drive through, keeping below the speed limit and trying to shield yourself from the sense of despair that the place exudes, you can almost imagine zombies stopping the cars and making mincemeat of those who dared to invade this space. Another of the towns along the Illinois River, reminds me of the small river town in which I grew up, only this one in Illinois is much deeper into the dilapidation and decay that comes when the economies of life that supported these places have moved on. Most of the young people leave as soon as they can, for obvious reasons, and no one new moves in. Every time, for awhile on that trip, I feel that sense of depression that comes from a place that has become the place that no one wants anymore, the place that is rejected, and the place where hope has been lost.

These towns are part of the despair we know throughout the upper mid-west, not only on the flat plains, but also in larger cities like Detroit, Cleveland, and even Milwaukee, where economic dislocations have created rust in the factories, decay in the neighborhoods, and hopelessness in the heart. These are the places despised and rejected in our own time and space. And these places are the Naphtali’s and the Zebulun’s of Isaiah this morning. The places destroyed by the empirical forces of their time, the places everyone wanted to leave, the places that bred despair as destruction and then decay overwhelmed: these are the places of which Isaiah speaks. And these places exist all over the world. The big ones that involve extreme violence we hear about on CNN, but everywhere, in every nation, there are breeding grounds for darkness, places of steep decline or sudden destruction that we all wish we could just past through on our way to somewhere else.

These are the places that people leave as we have become a globe of refugees on the move. And the destruction of hope in such Naphtali’s and Zebulun’s is perhaps our most burning issue while millions try to escape the violence, poverty, and emptiness that such places breed.

Human despair is not only caused by places of despair. Human hope and joy can be lost at the hands of a disease, a death of a close friend, the sudden loss of a job, the ending of an important relationship, or even a difficult Wisconsin winter. Any constellation of problems can overwhelm us as individuals and as a people. And it is to this human despair that both Isaiah and Matthew speak.

Isaiah’s wisdom is that what goes around comes around. What is up one decade is down the next. That what is dark will become bright. And that God’s presence is revealed as we travel the cycle from despair into new light, as things come together again, as we make the decision to trust and hope that we will not always be down. God will restore the Naphtali’s and Zebulun’s. We can shine again. It will happen. It is part of the cycle of life.

I think the wisdom of Matthew is more complex. Yes, there is the cycle of life. Darkness is followed by light. Death is followed by new life. But Matthew speaks of the motivations to move into the world of hope again. And this clip of Matthew this morning reminds us that tragedy and companionship matter very much as we crawl out of the emptiness we feel back into a promising future.

John the Baptist’s execution is a tragedy of immense proportion to the cause of religious renewal in Palestine. It is also the event that clarifies and intensifies the mission of Jesus. Tragedy can do that. It can destroy our spirits. But it also can become that which reveals and then intensifies our purpose and our reason for living. In Matthew, the tragedy of John’s death clarifies the mission of Jesus. This is part of the wisdom of recovery in Matthew.

And then there is the issue of companionship in the book of Matthew. I know that traditionally discipleship is seen as the theme of this passage. This is the call of the disciples if you will. From here on the disciples follow Jesus. But this following thing may have been the other way around. Jesus may have followed the disciples. Or at least they were companions to each other along the way. The Galilean fishing industry was more sophisticated and complex than we might think. Fish from the Sea of Galilee were considered a delicacy in the first century Middle East. Galilean fishermen were selling their fish in a variety of places and countries. They were international exporters, capable of sustaining an industry that involved not only fishing, but also preservation, transportation, and selling in a variety of markets and cultures. These people were able to handle several languages and currencies. They navigated various import customs and tax codes. These were sophisticated entrepreneurs. They traveled extensively through the area for business. As we know more about this industry we sense how the recorded journeys of Jesus follow the trade routes of fish merchants.

So there would have been no better equipped people for the mission of the gospel. Jesus followed these fishermen on their journeys, as these fishermen now not only sold their fish, but also shared this new idea of hope in their troubled times. Jesus followed the disciples as much as they followed him. They were companions along the way. Just as we need useful and mutually beneficial companions whenever we rebuild from tragedy, recover from darkness, look for a new light, and bounce back as the cycle of life moves in our direction again. Jesus uses the tragedy to recover. And he uses his companions to help him access the bigger future. And that is how this thing called hope grows. In places and hearts that need new life, wherever they may be.

 

 

Anniversary Reflection for January 15, 2017

Isaiah 49:1-7, I Corinthians 1:1-9, John 1:29-42

Well this is the Sunday we recall the 161st anniversary of the St. John’s Lutheran Church. Last January, we celebrated the 160th in a big way. The committee worked for a couple of years to develop a wonderful array of events and display to commemorate our history in mission in this neighborhood since 1856. At the 160th, the bishop came and spoke. Special guests were invited. We had a big crowd that Sunday. A wonderful luncheon followed. A good time was had by all.

But the 161st anniversary is not as big of a celebration, for obvious reasons; and we don’t have a special speaker this morning. And we don’t have the catered meal following worship. But we do have coffee fellowship, thanks once again to the many volunteers who Sunday after Sunday provide the food and hospitality. And I’ll try my best to turn the readings for the day toward thoughts of an anniversary.

Of necessity, and it’s a wonderful and good necessity, anniversaries are focused on the past. We have a rich and full 161 year history of mission and service in this city and neighborhood. Many of us recall important and everyday events in this space and on these grounds as we have lived our lives. You can see much of that history on the 160th anniversary banner back there in the gathering space on the west wall.

But what if we were to celebrate not only the past of our congregation, but also its future? The banner for the coming years would be blank, of course. But as time goes by, it would be filled with significant events. Some of these events we can predict. Others will simply happen. Some will be challenging. Others will be the cause of great joy. What I would like to do is note something about each of the readings for today, and then shape some of the future we are facing together in our neighborhood in light of those passages from the Bible.

Each of the readings is rich in themes. But let me lift up one from each reading. The ancient passage from Isaiah s a reminder that from the beginning, the people of God are called to live our lives not just for us, but is also for the world — not just for Israel, but for all the nations, as Isaiah puts it. We are called to be a people beyond ourselves.

The second reading is the beginning of Paul’s letter to an ancient congregation in Greece. It is one of his longer letters, and although he heaps praise on the Corinthians in this introduction, as the letter proceeds though its chapters; it’s clear that there are several problems. What these words tell us today is that even a congregation that has as many problems as they did in Corinth, even a struggling congregation, is given the strength by God to get through it all. No matter what is being faced, no matter what the challenge, we are strengthened by God for the task, and we will make it through.

The third reading from John is about many things. But in this story, several understandings and approaches to Jesus and the faith become amalgamated or brought or woven together in one story or narrative. In the earliest Christian congregations, the followers of John and the followers of Jesus and their memories are woven together, along with the idea of the spirit, and John’s baptism, along with the identity of Jesus as God’s anointed sacrifice to end all sacrifices just as the old sacrificial system was dying out in the first century. And all that amalgamation is brought together in a congregation that feels like a mystical monastery where people gather to pray, to discern, to discuss, and to learn. The gospel of John with its mystic weavings is probably the work of a monastic community. The mystic tradition of John is built by amalgamating and interweaving various ideas and themes of the people of God into one story of cosmic mystery and significance.

And on this 161st anniversary, as we live into our future, whatever that holds, we will continue to live beyond ourselves, we will amalgamate various themes and concerns into one congregational mission, and we will be strengthened by God for these endeavors.

What will our next few years be like? What might fill in the blanks in a time-line of our future? I think more than ever we will be moved beyond ourselves by forces at work in our society and by the passions in our hearts. We will be serving those in need precisely when resources for assistance are drying up on many fronts. And we are positioned to face those challenges. When I came here fifteen years ago, we were giving away as a congregation approximately $15,000 in the emergency fund each year. The last few years we have been averaging close to $50,000. And in the last couple of years that $50,000 has been amalgamated. Because of our reputation, location, and administrative capacities, Porchlight has located its housing assistance program at St. John’s. Last year that program gave about $150,000 to people for housing assistance as they also came to this place. An additional Porchlight employee now works in the building. Funds are distributed every day and into the afternoon instead of every other morning. Between the two funds, last year close to $200,000 was given as assistance to people who came through our doors. The foot traffic some days is incredible. No wonder we have trouble keeping up the cleaning and the bathrooms stocked with toilet paper. And all of that is wonderful. And the way things are going, our future will involve more of this sort of amalgamation as we are given the strength by God to meet the growing challenges in caring for those in need.

What will our next years be like? I believe that our years will be filled with more art and music. St. Johns always has had a good core of musicians and a tradition of strong musicians on staff. This will continue. And we will find ourselves at the front of renewal of liturgical forms as we face our changing times. And art will be more a part of our lives. The Backyard Women’s Mosaic project is collaborating with our LWF quilters group on new paraments which will begin to be assembled this coming year. The altar, pulpit and pastor’s stoles will take on a new look. And our exterior is getting a makeover as well.

And we will continue to be place of shelter during the day and night, practicing hospitality as well as we can to those who are homeless and the mentally ill. Night shelters in church buildings may slowly over the next decade be phased out, as more and more cities move to a housing first approach to homelessness. But that will take awhile. And in the meantime, the night shelter will be woven with the day shelter for the mentally ill, as we continue to do what we can to serve those who are most vulnerable. Each day, more people come here in the day or the night for shelter than come for worship on Sunday. And with the assistance, refugee settlement, AA groups, and women’s jail ministry, right now, over 90 percent of the people who come through our doors do so to receive some kind of assistance. We know the challenges of living beyond ourselves. And we know what it means to be amalgamated for the good. And we know the challenges of all this can be overwhelming but that God will give us the strength to make it through.

The same financial strengths that enabled us to be trusted as a partner in financial assistance efforts have also been effective at eliminating our own building debt. The gradual transformation of our building to be a center for service as well as for worship left us with a debt of over $700,000 just eight years ago. This month that debt is only $70,000. And before too many months it will be retired. What then? Well, there will continue to be needs for mission and service the building which houses it.

And there is something else. Recently in worship reflections like this sermon, godly play, and adult forum time, we have been articulating a new way to approach the gospel stories of the life of Jesus. The memories of Jesus as told in each gospel reflect the mission and day to day approach of the congregation that does the remembering, as much as anything else. Jesus is a healer in Mark, a social economist in Luke, a mystic in John, and a teacher in Matthew. Hospital, commune, monastary and school are the contexts of the congregations that remembered Jesus. And the congregation both shapes and is shaped by their recollections of the life of Jesus. This gives us a refreshing and useful understanding of how God works in our life together and in this place. This recognition of the importance of the congregational perspective and the unique mission of each congregation will be necessary for our future.

For this congregation so dedicated to caring for those in need is now finding itself in a changing neighborhood. Development has made the Cap East neighborhood one of the trendiest places to live in Madison. 70% of the people in our neighborhood are now between the ages of 18 and 30. That’s one of the greatest concentrations of this age group anywhere. We are sitting in the middle of a millennial ministry. What do we do with that?

Well, confident in God’s strength, we reach beyond ourselves. We amalgamate with others, like the synod foundation, our own foundation, and the Siebert foundation to conceptualize plan and sustain a ministry of exploration and initial interaction. This week we began interviewing for the director position for the community ministry project. We will be doing more, and then more in this area in the years ahead. Our future depends on this. And by our future, I do not mean the survival of St. Johns, but I mean the future of the church, of the ELCA, as it seeks to finds ways to engage a new generation not so interested in churchly things like celebrating a rich and glorious past, but which is known for its passion for caring for those in need.

So our future will be challenging. But we are agile. We are problem solvers. We are motivated by the compassion of Christ to partner with others to reach beyond ourselves. And we are certain that God will give us the strength we need to accomplish and then celebrate our future.

Reflection for Epiphany, January 8, 2017

Isaiah 6:1-6, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12

Well, it’s been an interesting couple of weeks in Wisconsin. Fog and rain on Tuesday. Cold on Wednesday. Hard to know really what the weather is going to be like. I’m glad it didn’t snow for once on Sunday. Generally, I do think it’s getting colder though. Lake Mendota usually freezes over mid January, and I think it it’s done that again this year. This week I can take my ice tent out on the lake and spend some time meditating on the color white and winter emptiness. Emptiness is a great theme for meditation, especially as we face a new calendar with all those empty days.

In some ways I’m glad 2016 is over. It was a difficult year for some. Perhaps Mariah Carey’s performance on New Year’s Eve before the ball dropped was a fitting way to just get the year over with. And now we face 2017. The way things are going, I may need to spend some more time in my ice shelter contemplating white emptiness on the lake.

At the end of 2016, the governor decided that we could not talk about global warming, at least not on the DNR website. I guess global warming doesn’t exist, or doesn’t involve human activity or something like that. In the old days it used to be that we would deny the findings of science for religious reasons. These days we deny science for political ones, I guess. But whether it’s the church or the state it’s always sort of awkward when one or the other tells people to not believe what scientists say.

Oh well, I guess if I can’t talk about global warming, then perhaps I should talk about cosmic brightness. Cosmic brightness, although similar to global warming, is not quite the same thing. And it’s probably the case that the government will not take my sermon on cosmic brightness off the website. Well, we’ll see what 2017 brings.

Now cosmic brightness is actually a thing. It’s not a scientific thing. It’s a religious thing. It’s a theological thing. It’s an Epiphany thing. And this is the festival of Epiphany. This is actually cosmic brightness Sunday. So it’s good to talk about the growing light of God, in our tradition, in these readings, and in our lives. And if there is some overlay on global warming, well, that is all purely accidental.

Cosmic brightness is our growing capacity to see, especially to see God. We say that cosmic brightness is growing and that God is responsible for it: although we also know that we can either hasten the brightness by what we do or blot it out completely depending on how we live our lives. The word Epiphany means to see. And light, growing light, the light needed to see, to discern, and to find one’s way has always been embedded in the festival of Epiphany. Sages followed the light of a star to the baby. We light candles and string lights all through Advent and Christmas and Epiphany.

And Epiphany with its emphasis on light, growing light, is perhaps the most ancient of these winter festivals. Epiphany was originally a Christian makeover of early pagan festivities to mark the growing light that comes following the winter solstice. The solstice sometimes is still marked today with Nordic bonfires. And as the sun warms the earth in ever longer days, we have a sense of the warmth and light growing in our lives. Cosmic brightness.

The Epiphany season of winter with its cosmic brightness has another meaning for me as well. In January I personally enter the overwhelming brightness of the snow blowing in the sunlight on Lake Mendota. This is the month load the ice shelter on a sled and pull it out on the lake for a day of reflection, meditation, and prayer. It’s good for my body. Good for my soul. And good for that vitamin D my doctor always says I need more of this time of year. I don’t drill holes. I don’t fish. I just sit and think, or walk and contemplate on the lake.

As you know, a bright sunny day fueled by a Canadian high on a snow covered lake can be one of the brightest experiences one can have. It can be a bit disorientating, somewhat blinding. Best to wear a hat with a visor, and a good pair of sunglasses. Even then, the brightness can be overwhelming. The horizon and all the lines one uses to define where and perhaps who one is can be lost in the sun and snow. Cosmic, one might say, in its intensity. Like the brightness of the temple vision of Isaiah with those winged creatures emerging through the bright haze.

Martin Luther’s poem (ELW 868, Isaiah in a Vision Did of Old) on Isaiah’s bright vision captures the intensity of the cosmic brightness:

Isaiah in a vision did of old

The Lord of hosts enthroned on high behold,

Whose splendid train was wide outspread until

Its streaming glory did the temple fill.

Above God’s throne the shining seraphim

With six fold wings did rev’rence unto him.

With two each seraph hid its glorious face,

And two about his feet did interlace,

And with the other two he soared on high,

And one unto another thus did cry:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts!

His glory filleth all the earth!”

The beams and lintels in the crying shook,

And all the house was filled with billowing smoke.

 

Now the first and third readings are about following brightness into the great cosmic mystery, or insight or discernment, following bright star which guides us.

But they also are political. A lot could be said about Isaiah, but it’s clear that the relationship between Isaiah and the king or government was, well, complicated. Like the relationship between the sages and the king was, well, complicated. The people of God are always in a rather complicated relationship with the state. Supportive and supported in some ways. Adversarial in others. As the principalities grind on and on, the people of the brightness know that things will get difficult. Some years will be better than others. But they also know that this too shall pass.  It’s that way with Isaiah and the king, as Isaiah, in the most dismal of times, sees a ray of hope for the future. It’s that way in Matthew with the sages who have a complicated relationship with this king: perhaps too complicated for us to figure out. But whenever faced with the intrigues of confounding principalities, the people of God always find their way through the dark streets by following their star, walking into the light, following their dream, seeking and basking in the cosmic brightness.

And what of that Ephesians reading? What do we do with Ephesians this morning on Epiphany?  Well, Ephesians reminds us that the brightness is cosmic. The Christ of Ephesians is the cosmic Christ. God in Christ is for the world, for all things, for all people, for all creation. In Ephesians, the brightness is for the cosmos. It is creation, the earth, the ancient and future cosmos that longs for salvation. And we bumbling creatures may yet need to learn what God knew from the beginning: that the cosmos needs to be cared for, nurtured, and redeemed. It is the cosmos, the heavens and the earth for which we care because our God is the creator God wanting and seeking the redemption and renewal of all things, ta panta. So whatever the governor says, it is Epiphany. We, who follow the light, who know the brightness of a Canadian high over our frozen lakes, who experience the cosmic Christ, who know of the growing cosmic brightness, also know that we should tread lightly on this earth, using only what we need, and leaving only our footprints in the snow .

Reflection for January 1, 2017

Numbers 6:22-27, Galatians 4:4-7, Philippians 2:5-11, Luke 2:15-21

     This is the first Sunday of the season of Christmas and the readings all are tuned to this. But it is also New Years Day and the festival of a new year may be important for us as well. With the New Year perhaps we might begin with the theme of time.

Time is a basic human understanding. Humans become aware of time. It is something deep within us. We tend to time. It becomes an organizing principle for our lives. It is quite possible to live life without a sense of time. Children do it well. Many of God’s creatures do not have a sense of time.

But we humans do, especially as we grow older. We develop and deepen a sense of the past, present, and future. And these three dimensions of human experience together provide the framework we use to approach life. We recall or remember the past. The past shapes who we are and will become. We live in the present, a moment really, that cutting edge as the future becomes the past. And in the present things are real and significant. Then there is the future coming into the present: coming at us with all its inevitable movement. The future is what we look forward to, and sometimes press toward, either with anticipation or anxiety. We live in time: its past, present, and future. In order to be happy we need a balance between these three things. We can be overcome by nostalgia, and that is not good. We can be so overwhelmed by what is going to happen that we lose our capacity to live in the now. That is not good either. But we also can ignore the past and the future challenges and possibilities only at our own peril.

And then we measure and track time. We use watches and calendars, and all sort of numbering and calculating systems and structures to keep track of minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades, centuries and millennia, tracking all this while we witness the future becoming the past on the edge of the present.

And the festival of a new year always draws us into such a consideration of time: its passing and its meaning as it goes by. In our biblical tradition, time is appreciated in three different ways. Time is at first cyclical. It repeats itself, as the days, weeks, seasons and years all rise and fall. The daily cycle of morning, midday, evening and night is compounded by the weekly cycle which is the point of the creation story at the beginning of the Bible. More than anything, Genesis chapter one is a story about what a week and a weekend should be: times of work and rest repeated in a cycle over and over.

The story says that God worked and rested and so should we in a seven day cycle. And these daily and weekly cycles are embedded in the turn of the natural and churchly seasons as we move each year from Advent into Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and the time of the church, before we once cycle back into Advent. Time is cyclical.

But in the Bible our days are also numbered. With each cycle, we do not stay the same. Time is not endless, and we do not have an infinite number of days. We grow older and older and older. And so time has a direction to it. It has a sense of moving along, passing by, having a beginning and an ending from which we came and to which we are headed. The Bible treats time in this way as well, noting for example the number of our years in Psalm 90, or in the movement of all creation in the book of Revelation in its linear trajectory back to God at the end of time. We are all headed somewhere. And that somewhere involves the movement through life, and then death, and into new life. And much of the Bible casts time in this way.

And then there are times in the Bible when time has fullness: when the time is right or ripe. This is the special moment that crashes or floats into our lives often independent of the cycles and linear direction of time. Something happens that breaks into time. At such moments we actually lose track of time. Time seems not to be present. We are absorbed in the now, the significance of this event, this moment, this present state. Sometimes we are so preoccupied with the movement of time, we have trouble living in the fullness of time, appreciating what is happening now. But the Bible is filled with such moments in time, especially as God breaks into our lives.

So today we recall that we are creatures in time. We are defined by our past, present, and future. We experience time as a cycle. Today we start a fresh year in that ever flowing stream of years. And we experience time as the passing of the years and generations as all creation moves not only in a circle but also back to the creator through the miracle of death, resurrection, and new life. And we experience the now, the moment, the present which sometimes lifts us beyond all time in its significance and wonder.

Now these ancient readings today speak of time in its various arrangements. Numbers, it turns out, is actually an interesting book of the Bible, even though at first it appears to be a jumble of rather odd rules and regulations. For example, in chapter five, we have regulation regarding the trial by ordeal of women suspected of adultery followed by the regulation for the creation of a strict monastic order. Then comes this blessing we have this morning. And the blessing is then followed by requirements for the offerings to the temple that should be made by leaders in the community on a regular basis. Numbers goes on and on like this. And much of this material cannot and probably should not be used to shape our lives in specific ways.

But what is happening here in this collection of religious regulation is that ancient patterns of Hebrew worship are being grounded in the memory of the people, its history; and then applied to daily life; as that worship becomes situated in temples, rather than tents or mountaintops, led by priests, according to the cycles of time marked by an agricultural society in the early Iron Age.

And in this slice of Numbers we have this morning, we are reading a blessing that is to be said over and over, recycled again and again, by the priests of the temple as the seasonal and yearly offerings are marked by repeated sacrifice at the appointed times in the calendar. The blessing of Aaron said over and over. It is the reminder that in the cycles of our lives: in each day, each week, each year; we come into God’s presence and we are blessed by God. And even today, we might use this blessing to remember that God is with us as we renew our sense of a coming year.

There is a priestly responsibility attached to this blessing. The book of Numbers is big on mandates. The blessing is a responsibility to be executed by the priest. And even though much of Numbers does not apply to us; I should, as pastor of this congregation, extend to you over and over, as time rolls on, the assurance that God’s countenance will be with us even when we are not sure what the future days or years will hold.

Now the second reading has adoption in it. And so we think of time in a different way. Time in the second reading is not treated in a ritual way that shapes a liturgical calendar as in Numbers. We used to think that when Paul spoke of adoption he was using a metaphor for God’s love for us. But as we have learned more about the churches of the New Testament, we have discovered that they had several important missions: healing or hospitals and care for those in need are two activities that shaped their thought and writing. But adoption of abandoned Roman children was also a very significant mission. In Roman society, unwanted children, especially female children, were frequently abandoned. These abandoned children were left to die. But Christian congregations literally adopted many of these rejected infants. This was a part of the mission of many congregations. And as these children grew in the congregation, this theme and mission of adoption became more important. And for that matter it still is in the church. When Paul writes to the Galatian congregation, as many as a third or half of the people he is talking to were adopted.

There is a special moment in adoption when one literally and legally becomes the child, a member of the family, and heir. This is a special moment in time and stands in the memory of the adopted one beyond all cycles and seasons. And it is to this special moment, literally experienced by so many Galatians to which Paul refers in the reading this morning. We all have those special life changing and soul changing moments, encounters with God and humanity that change everything. And it may be the case that 2017 will hold one of those moments for you.

And in the third reading this morning, time is neither cyclical nor momentous, but is moving on. The shepherds come and go. Mary ponders with the passing of time: what did that special moment mean? And then following the ancient cycle based on the week and a day, on the eighth day, Jesus is circumcised and given a name, a name that is given before birth by angels who are guiding and watching the movement of time on its way back to the creator. Jesus, Mary, the shepherds, sages, and all creation are moving along the edge of time into their future into the coming embrace of God.

Today, may you find the blessings of this year as God’s face shines on you. May you have both days of labor and rest on a regular basis. May you know the joy of a momentous day. And may you sense how we are all moving through this and all the years back to the one who created time itself.