Search This Blog

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

January 26, 2014

Gospel: Matthew 4:12-23
1st Reading: Isaiah 9:1-4
2nd Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:10-18

None of our readings for this morning use the word “calling” but especially the Gospel might make us think of times that we felt “called” by Jesus to follow him, as the Disciples were called as they cast their nets into the sea. “Calling” used to be a word that was used just for the ministry. Priests, pastors, monks, and nuns were thought to be called by God and everyone else just did their jobs. But Martin Luther, through his reading of scripture, came to the conclusion that we are all called by God. This Gospel supports his idea.

During Jesus’ time, Rabbis all had followers and students, and he was a Rabbi. They would have selected the cream of the crop to be their Disciples and help them carry out their ministry. It really says something that Jesus goes to these fishermen. They aren’t students. They don’t know their Bible. They aren’t special or holy in any way. They are just regular guys doing their jobs. Jesus invites them to follow him and they become his Disciples. This says to me that God calls regular people like you and me.

Maybe I should explain that before I worked here, I was a receptionist in an optometry office, I processed fraud claims for a bank, I worked in a lab testing food at National Frozen Foods, and have also done some babysitting and blueberry picking. I was the first in my family to go to college and none of my grandparents even graduated from high school. At my house we said “warsh” and “crick” and always ate better when we were receiving food stamps. So you see my point, that God calls regular people to all kinds of ministry.

We each have a call story, like these Disciples—a story about when we first began to know that we were a child of God. Some of us might start with our baptism. Others have had a mystical experience in which we saw God or felt led to do something or felt God’s peace. Others refer to friends and family that taught them about God’s love or demonstrated it through their actions.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but in our church brochure on the front page it says, “Ministers: All God’s People.” Did you know that you are all ministers? We are all Jesus’ Disciples. We all have been called by God into faith and service. Some of that service is done at church and through church. Some if it is done in our family. Some is done in our day job or housework. Some is done in the wider community. Does that mean we are all day spouting scripture and inviting people to church or to invite Jesus into their hearts? Maybe some who are called to that, but for many Lutherans it doesn’t mean that at all.

To be called by Jesus, means living and working in such a way that our lives give glory to God. Martin Luther said this, “What you do in your house is worth as much as if you did it up in heaven for our Lord God…We should accustom ourselves to think of our position and work as sacred and well-pleasing to God, not on account of the position and work, but on account of the word and faith from which the obedience and the work flow.” He affirmed that we are all called, that our work is useful to us and to others to make our society work. When society works well, people have food and shelter and the basic necessities of life that are gifts from God. Can you see how sweeping a floor might give glory to God? What would it mean to sweep the floor as if it was God’s floor or to prepare food as if God was going to eat it or to fix the screen door as if it was God’s door? You know the satisfaction of work well-done. Maybe that is the presence of God making God known in our every day lives, maybe that is God’s calling us to see God in each situation.

We also, hopefully, learn and grow from doing our daily work and that is from God. I don’t know if I learn something every time I sweep, but if I am paying attention I can appreciate something beautiful in that moment—the sound of the broom, the thankfulness that we have food to eat that then falls to the floor, the amazement at that little spider that is inevitably trying to escape the pile. God is there if we pay attention. Martin Luther affirmed that through our work we encounter Christ in our neighbor if we’re open to it, if we look for him there. Our work brings us face to face with other people, some of whom we find an affinity with and it is easy to see that we are encountering Christ. Other times, it is more like this reading from 1 Corinthians where the people are arguing and division are causing chaos. People are taking sides and making allegiances. And Jesus calls us in those instances, to look for Christ in the other person. Paul, who is writing this letter, who established that church in Corinth, reminds them that their first allegiance is to Christ, who unifies all of us and makes us into one family. There are people that we come across that we don’t necessarily have a lot in common with, who we might not like very much. But we are invited to look for Christ in that other person, to have compassion on them, to look for the best in them, and to treat them like we would treat Jesus.

We’d love it if to be called meant to be around a bunch of nice people and do a lot of nice things that always made us feel good, to be wise and eloquent and graceful. But here is Jesus who is beginning his ministry, and he is called away from the home is used to because of a threat that ended the life of John the Baptist and threatens him too. You’d think he’d be called right to a big city where important people live and work, to a big religious center like Jerusalem where he can gather the best of the best. Instead, Jesus is called to a border-land, to Capernaum by the sea. Here, Jesus has access to all kinds of regular people and they have access to him. His ministry does not discriminate. He’s just there ministering to people. And he isn’t going around asking everyone to welcome him into their heart. He’s out there healing and sharing the Good News that God’s reign is not about following a bunch of rules, and the divide between the holy and the regular people, but that we are all God’s people and that God is accessible to regular folks. He’s bringing healing and hope, building relationships, feeding people and caring for them. Sometimes I think of this as an assembly line where Jesus is healing 60 people in an hour. But this time, I pictured Jesus sitting down with people and spending the time getting to know them, showing them tenderness and attention, really breaking down barriers to get to know people. Healing is so much more than mending a wound on the skin. It can be a very deep process, and I have the feeling that Jesus was doing this deeper kind of healing.

Jesus stands in those divides, the lines we draw between us and other people, and straddles the line. We sometimes draw the line between church and the outside world, as if those were separate. Jesus says that is a false line. What we do in church ought to impact what we do in our everyday lives and the world ought to have some effect on what we do here. That is partly why we brought in the newspapers last month and put them all over the walls, to remind us that the world is part of everything we do here. And we always include in our prayers people and places that need God’s love and grace, not that our words would be enough, but that God would turn our prayers into actions that would actually bring practical help to these people and places. These kinds of exercises help weave the two strands of church and the world together the way God sees them. We draw lines between the holy and ordinary, like I was talking about the calling of a pastor and the calling of anyone else—God calls us all to ministry. Jesus welds those together when he walks among the people and goes to the outlying areas. Jesus shows us that smelly, rowdy fisherman can be better Disciples than holy men set apart for ministry, like the priests and Levites, who are always trying to trick Jesus into saying something they can arrest him for. He’s saying that the divide between darkness and light isn’t as clear as we thought. “Those who lived in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined.” Those who experience darkness in their lives are promised God’s light. The divide between foolishness and power isn’t so clear: “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

Jesus is called to straddle those borders and sew them up, join them, bridge them. We are called too, whether we are pastors or bus drivers or housekeepers or teachers or engineers or camp coordinators or students or grandparents. We are called into ministry to bridge those gaps with Jesus. We are called not to draw lines, but reach across them, to erase them, to forget about them.

We are called by God into ministry in our daily lives, to follow Jesus. This calling happens throughout our lives. God called us in our baptism to follow him and even before that. God has called us every day since. What would it mean to listen for and consider God’s call every day? What would it mean in every situation, or at least more often, to ask ourselves what it would mean to erase those lines and bridge those gaps? What is God calling me to in this situation? Where is God in this? As we leave the sanctuary, who do we talk to, who do we sit with? As we leave this church, do we say hello to our neighbors and find out how they are doing, build relationships? Do we exercise and eat right and take care of this body? Where do we buy our food and how does that impact people around us, how does that draw lines or erase them? How do we plan our week in such a way that we can more clearly see Christ in our midst?

Jesus lived his life and gave his life to erase the lines between us, to erase the lines between those who have abundant life and those who live in want, between the holy and the ordinary, between us and them, between heaven and earth. That’s a free gift of God in Christ Jesus. As a thankful response, we are called to live in the new reality he created, rather than bend to the lines that the world would have us draw that are so damaging to so many people. We are instead invited to become nets of grace, gathering people to Jesus and sharing the deep healing and hope that Christ has shared with us.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

January 19, 2014

Gospel: John 1:29-42
1st Reading: Isaiah 49:1-7
2nd Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:1-9

The Oscar nominations have been announced. A few weeks ago, we went to see one of the films that has been snubbed, “All is Lost” with Robert Redford. Good movies can be parables, and I find myself thinking of this film quite a bit. I’ll give you the thumbnail. Man sails boat in bliss. Boat gets a hole in it. Man tries to fix it but can’t. Man tries to contact several sources of help but can’t. Man looks to a higher power to get help. Man gives up everything in last ditch effort to contact help. Man finds peace.

We missed the first shot of the movie because we were still in line for pizza, but I imagine Robert Redford sailing alone in peace on the ocean. He’s got all his comforts—food, a bed, warm clothes, a really nice boat. He’s alone, though. Maybe it is his choice to get some alone time. Maybe nobody likes him. In this moment, he has no one and no one has him. I get the feeling he is sailing and floating without much focus.

Maybe the Disciples were a little bit like this, going through life, doing what needed to be done, nothing in particular having their attention, not really going in any particular direction. I can relate. Sometimes you just go with the flow because that is where you are in life.

When we walked into the theater, there was a hole in Robert Redford’s sail boat. His boat had hit a shipping container. There are many different kinds of shipping containers in our lives, that put holes in our boats and interrupt our aimless sailing. Someone gets sick, someone dies, we have financial troubles, we lose our job, a tree falls on our house, we wreck our car, we go through a divorce. In these moments, we realize we can’t do it alone. We recognize our own mortality. An awareness of our failures runs around and around in our minds. We experience suffering. But not all these shipping containers are bad. They might be someone new in our lives who wakes us up to a reality we needed to see. It could be a book we read that really makes us think. It could be a religious experience, an epiphany, in which we see our life and our dissatisfactions and we know we have to go in another direction.

For the Disciples, I think their shipping container was Jesus. They met him and they were intrigued and they got moving because he got their full attention. That shipping crate punched a hole in their family life, it removed all their possessions, it took away their jobs and all the ways they found meaning in their lives and put them in a crisis situation in which they were learning, but they weren’t really sure where they were going or what the outcome would be.

Usually this crisis gets us moving. We go from aimless sailing, to focused surviving. That’s what Robert Redford does. One of the first things he tries to do is to establish contact with someone who can help him. He tries to use the radio. He brings it up to the deck of the boat. Then he brings up the battery. Robert Redford is the epitome of manliness and strength. We had to look up his age when we got home—77. He’s got this very heavy boat battery that he is carrying up the stairs and you can see how weary he is. You can see the weight pulling down on him. He’s weak and vulnerable. He needs help. But his ties to community are gone. He’s put himself in a situation in which he is all alone. He has no community, no relationships to help him. He’s on his own. He’s not able to contact help with the radio.

He works by himself to repair his boat on his own. But another storm hits and his boat is destroyed. He gets out the life raft. And just before he severs the ties with his sail boat, he goes in and grabs a strange brown box. Just a little later, we find out it is an instrument of navigation. He has to read a book to figure out how to tell where he is on a map, because he never had to do it that way before, but he is able to track his movement across the sea.

With this instrument he peers up at the stars. He tries to orient himself and find help via the light of the stars. This was a metaphor for the way we look for help when our sailboats run into shipping containers. Sometimes other people can help us and sometimes they can’t. Sometimes we’ve burned all our bridges or our usual ways of communicating just aren’t working. But if we can remind ourselves to look up, to look beyond the crisis of the moment, we might find a little guidance from a heavenly body, from our Advocate the Holy Spirit, from our part in a story of timelessness and beauty, from our relationship to something greater.

The Disciples were looking God in the face, but they didn’t know it. They only knew their life was changing and they were following. They were asking Jesus to rescue them, but he only said, “Come and see.” He only said to open their eyes to suffering around them, to a bigger story of who God is, and to the power of the Holy Spirit to change our world.

In the same way, Robert Redford’s navigational instrument didn’t save him, but it indicated how he might find himself on a path to be saved, made him aware of the shipping lanes he was approaching, and told him to keep alert to the possibility of being saved. Both the disciples and Robert Redford were being swept along again, only instead of being in a trance or being aimless, they were ready to see. They had no choice where they were going. The current was taking them. But they could open their eyes to how God was at work around them.

Maybe it is a good thing for us, too, to admit that the current is taking us certain places that we are helpless to avoid. Or maybe there is a way we can steer the boat a little bit and make ourselves easy targets for the Holy Spirit. For a couple thousand years we have built these sanctuaries, churches to be places of refuge and protection for people in need, quiet places where we can come and worship and experience God. But there is a hole in our boat, sometimes literally when the ceiling or window leaks or the ants try to take back their space. But there is the other hole, which is that people don’t trust organized religion to protect them, save them, or anything else. Our hole is that people aren’t coming like they used to. We send out a mayday. We find out that all the other churches have run into the same shipping container. We start bailing and mending our boat, and it works for a while, but pretty soon the water comes rushing back in. Sooner or later, we need to get out of the boat.

The Disciples ask Jesus, where are you staying. They are hoping for some safe shelter where they can be cozy. Jesus says to them, “Come and see.” He doesn’t expect the poor and hungry to come to him or the disciples, he expects the disciples to forfeit their comforts and sanctuaries and homes and families and come out to be with the people in need. Jesus is asking the same of us. It will probably be a very long time before this building is no longer. But what would it mean to come and see like Jesus invited the Disciples? We are Disciples too, right? What would it mean to do our ministry out there? One way we do this is Spirits and Theology. We gather once a month at a pizza parlor, share a meal, and discuss theology. Because it isn’t in a church, people invite others who are uncomfortable at church and we get some visitors there we would never get here. We go out from this place to gather food for the pantry. We participate in Backpack Buddies and go and see where God is at work, elsewhere.

There are so many ways we can expand on that. We could put a labyrinth in the parking lot where people could go and meditate on their faith journey in nature. We could put a garden on the property to grow food for the food pantry. We could go to our neighbors around here and tell them about the pantry and ask them if they’d like to participate. We could attend neighborhood association meetings and find out what’s going on in the neighborhood and see how we might help. We could put together kits of food and other necessary items and take them to Your Host Motel. We could have church in the park in the summer time. We could do a Johnson Creek waterways cleanup. I know we can’t be all things to all people, but Jesus is calling us to come and see, and we get to practice that now before our boat sinks.

Several times, large ocean liners passed right by the little life raft adrift on the ocean. Mr. Redford even sends up flares that they don’t see. For too long the church has been an ocean liner—powerful, focused on its own goals of delivering religion and making profits, losing an occasional shipping container that trip up small sailboats and punch holes right through their hulls. We’ve missed the people drowning right in front of us, waving their hands, hoping for a friend, a hand, a relationship. But now we find ourselves on a life-raft, realizing that we need each other to get through life and that in our power we have at times ignored Jesus in our midst, wasting away in an ocean all alone. And maybe the life raft is the place to be, or maybe a much smaller boat that can get to people, that makes it easy to come and see and work with others.

Life may make us feel adrift, but the one we rely on is steady. In the Gospel, 4 times this morning we find the Greek word “meno” that means to remain, stay, or abide. God is both those steady stars, that steady hand that is reliable, that remains with us, and the portable boat that can reach us when we are all over the place. That’s what it means that God is both human and divine, limitless as Creator, in all places and times, and limited as Jesus the Son of Man in a specific time and place. May we find God’s steady hand reaching out to us when we are adrift on the ocean. May we be God’s saving hands to others who are suffering and in need. And may we be willing to get out of the boat to come and see when Jesus invites us into something greater than we could ever imagine.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

January 12, 2014

Gospel: Matthew 3:13-17
1st Reading: Isaiah 42:1-9
2nd Reading: Acts 10:34-43

In Sara Miles’ book Take This Bread about her journey from atheist to unlikely Christian who ran a food pantry at St. Gregory Episcopal Church in San Francisco, she talks about an impromptu baptism. They distribute the food right there in the sanctuary and one day Sara was unloading groceries and noticed a 7 year old girl she knew from the pantry standing by the baptismal font. She offered her a snack. The girl instead asked whether the water was God’s water to make you safe. This girl had a lot of trouble in her life. Sara couldn’t promise that the water would make her safe, but understood her need for a connection and strength in the midst of crisis and pain. Sara asked her if she wanted the water and the girl said she did, so Sara baptized her then and there. Then she brought her directly to the priest for a blessing and anointing and the priest told the little girl, “Jesus is always with you, no matter what happens to you, even when bad things happen to you, you’re not alone.”

This child came in fear to a place she felt safe—the food pantry where she received bags of groceries that gave her life. Who knows where she had come from? Sara noticed that she had a split lip. Had she been in a fight? Was she physically abused by an adult? Did she have a fall? Did she bite her lip in worry? Whatever her situation, God shows no partiality.

Phillip tells a story in the book of Acts that he was traveling with an Ethiopian Eunuch telling him of the good news of Jesus Christ when they came to a stream and man said to Phillip, "Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?" So there he baptized him, even though Jewish laws would have prevented it. Was he circumcised or not? Did he know what kinds of foods were clean or unclean? What Christian community would he worship with all alone in Ethiopia? FYI: There is a group in Ethiopian Christians who trace their religious belief back to this man in the Bible. And the most pressing question of all, would God accept this man, damaged goods in the view of society and Judaism because he was a eunuch, he had been neutered?

Yet, the scriptures are clear, God shows no partiality. That reality was dawning on Peter as he was making this speech. He wasn’t preaching on a topic he was really comfortable with. This was brand new to him. He had just “finished” an argument with God about which foods were acceptable to eat and which ones weren’t when he got this message about Cornelius and his household coming to faith. It was just starting to dawn on him that God’s message wasn’t about food at all, but about different kinds of people. “What God makes clean, you must not declare unclean,” God said to him about the food. The same was true of people. God had accepted this Gentile—this foreigner, uncircumcised, uneducated in Jewish ways of living in community, a Roman and therefore an oppressor of Jewish people. God sent the Holy Spirit to Cornelius and his family, just as God had sent the Holy Spirit on Peter and the disciples. Now Peter found himself having to accept all these new people into the community. Peter was experiencing the brand new thing that happens when God’s Spirit comes to people that is promised in the Old Testament reading for this morning.

The baptism of Jesus is another one of these unconventional baptisms. John stops him. This isn’t the way it should be. “You should be baptizing me, Jesus.” Jesus’ baptism raises some questions. Why did Jesus need to be baptized? He didn’t sin. He didn’t need to be washed.

Maybe we focus too much on sin when we baptize. At Jesus’ baptism, he was named and claimed and blessed by God. He got God’s affirmation. Isn’t that just what happens in our baptism? We are claimed by God and the community as part of something bigger than ourselves. We claim a history of God’s people throughout the ages who emerged safe from the ark onto dry land, crossed the Red Sea, and whose brother was baptized at Jordan. We are named and honored as important to God, as insignificant and helpless as we are. We receive God’s affirmation.

To some extent, we do baptize to make ourselves and our children safe, like the little girl at the food pantry in San Francisco wanted to be safe. We do it to satisfy family expectations. We do it because that’s what was done to us. We do it because we fear for ourselves and our children.

All motivations are mixed, though. At a baptism, family members and friends come together and share memories and strengthen bonds. In that moment a word of hope is spoken, a congregation makes promises and opens their arms, parents make promises to teach children prayers and read the Bible to them, adults make promises to participate in faith community where they will hear a word of hope and experience the love of God through other people.

Sara Miles was baptized as an adult maybe a year before she baptized this little girl. She didn’t have a lot of the preconceived notions of baptism that many of us have—that a baptism has to fit a certain picture (It should be a baby in a white dress with two parents by a pastor in a church service after some study and discussion.) All she knew is that Christ had unexpectedly claimed her and called her into this totally foreign community. She was reading the Bible and trying to do what it said. So when this little girl came to her, she made herself this girl’s servant, and gave her the water of life that she asked for, no questions asked. Who was she to question this child’s request or think that she was more qualified to be baptized than this little girl. Sara realized that this is baptism into a life of servanthood. Yes, we are called and named and special to God. And to be a child of God, we are called to be servants to others so that they know they are special to God and loved and part of something greater.

In our church, we ordinarily baptize here at the font during the church service. A person might be a baby, a child, or an adult. We baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in God’s name. We believe in one baptism. You don’t need to be baptized over and over again, although if you have been that’s fine, too. We believe more that it is God’s commitment to us that is being expressed. We make commitments, too in baptism, but we know who is the reliable one. We like to baptize during church, so that the community here can express its commitment to the newly baptize and welcome that person as a representation of the Christian Community everywhere. In some cases, we don’t baptized during church. We baptize in the hospital in an emergency. In that case, if the person gets well, we acknowledge that baptism at a later date in church. Not everyone feels comfortable coming to church for a baptism, so we can bring church to that person. We take some water and some oil for anointing and some members of the community to express that welcome. Some small babies in our church are baptized naked. What a blessing to have a font big enough to do it! There is something about a new creation there, the something completely new that God is doing. And there is a sense that all of us stand naked and exposed before God, not in shame, but completely loved for who we are, and don’t need to cover anything up before God.

I like to think of baptism as a kind of bath. I have the joy of bathing my son. Yes, he gets stinky, food in his hair, spots that are hard to reach. I don’t love him less because of that. But I know he needs to be washed. He sometimes tries to wash himself, but mainly I do it for him while he plays. And when I pull him out of the bath, I wrap him up tight in a towel and snuggle him close. We look together in the bathroom mirror at ourselves together and usually he likes to go show his dad how clean he is. It is a ritual of love, that is refreshing and beautiful, that says to my son that he is beloved and that he is part of something.

In our faith we sometimes talk about original sin and how babies are born with sin because of Adam and the sin we inherit from the beginning. I think it is important to emphasize that God created us good and nothing changes that. Yes, Martin Luther pointed out how demanding and self-centered babies are, but I am not so sure that is evidence of sin, but of little people making sure they will survive by demanding food and attention which we ought to lavish on them as much as is healthy. However innocent we start out, we are communal people and we are going to find ourselves part of systems and communities that teach us bad habits. It may be a matter of survival then, too, what we need to do make our way through this world, but still we make choices all the time that harm other people whether we are aware of it or not. Sin as the separation between us and the disregard for what happens to other people so long as I have my comfort, selfishness, will occur in pretty much every life.

God doesn’t ask that we just feel worse and worse about ourselves and bask in our misery. God asks for a changed life. God says repent. God says change. God says to participate in the new and surprising thing that God is bringing about. God says to follow the way of Jesus, though he was God, still he allowed John to baptize him and bless him. He humbled himself to become a servant to all. He showed that God shows no partiality, even to God’s own Son, but gave us the invitation to all become Sons and Daughters and servants.

God is bringing about something new as God promises. That new thing is justice. It isn’t justice by a heavy hand, with weapons and cops and military like we are used to. It is a gentleness that smoothes out the inequalities we perceive and shows us that we’re all on level ground and equal in God’s eye, that God shows no partiality. The way God delivers this message of gentleness is different. God is not going to use force or impose anything on us, but says in the scriptures this morning that this breath of God won’t bend a bruised reed or extinguish a dimly burning wick. There is a gentleness in God’s way of delivering gentleness to this world. So we are called to be servants in a very gentle way of each other and to treat all people as Children of God and as our own brothers and sisters.

Holy Baptism is called a sacrament in most churches. Martin Luther defined a sacrament as "a divine covenant of grace and blessing transmitted in the visible form." It was a promise of grace from Jesus as stated in the Bible that we can experience now through some visible, touchable element. Jesus was baptized as it says in the Bible. He commanded us to baptize and be baptized according to the Bible. He promised that we would know God’s grace and love through baptism. Water is the element that we can see and touch and taste and hear and smell that conveys this grace. Jesus’ words are the promise that accompanies it.

I keep going back to the river of Jesus’ baptism. It is part of a cycle bringing life to people. Snow falls on the mountains. It melts in the spring and makes its way down streams that flow into rivers. People wash in those rivers and gather their water from there, they irrigate their crops with those rivers and those rivers give life to fish and livelihoods to fishermen. That water evaporates, becoming clouds which then snow on the mountains and it all starts all over again.

In the creation story, God creates the heavens and the earth and separates the waters from the land. God blesses animals and people through this amazing water cycle that keeps water flowing and giving life. That water flowed down from the mountain, and God used it to bless Jesus that day. Jesus used it to bless his disciples and they used to bless their communities until eventually the river flowed to us here. And now it is our job to gently share it with people in need—make abundant life available to those who need it most.

Sara didn’t really follow the “proper” baptismal procedure according to church, but she listened to the Holy Spirit who is both gentle and wild and good thing she did because that little girl was truly in need to hear a word of grace and be touched by God’s river of love. May we receive that river and share that river with others, until abundant life will overflows and God’s new thing becomes our everyday.

January 5, 2013

Gospel: John 1:1-18
1st Reading: Jeremiah 31:7-14
2nd Reading: Ephesians 1:3-14

Where Matthew and Luke begin with the nativity or the geneology of Jesus, John is more poetic. He is linking the Christmas story with the story of all time. Yes, Jesus enters our human story at his birth, but, according to John, Jesus always has been and always will be.
“In the beginning….” This part always gets my imagination whirling. The beginning of what? Did God have a beginning? Is this just how we refer to this time we can’t describe? Is this just before everything else existed—maybe the beginning of the universe? I always imagine this great darkness and then a little pinprick of light, an explosion of light and heat, the whirling of planets and heavenly bodies. In this beginning, this indescribable time, God had a word, but no one who could hear it. God had a need to converse and communicate. God spoke this word and the universe began to take shape. All things came into being through this word that God spoke. This word is Jesus Christ, or the Christ Spirit, which brought life into this universe, this world.

What a great opening to a book! This paragraph links Christ’s story to the story of all time. It creates a proper setting to tell us who the hero of our story will be—where he came from and where he is going. God is setting this world in motion through Jesus and the purpose of God’s creating action is to bring life and light.

Notice that in the very beginning all things are in unity, created by God for good. Then, very early on the story mentions darkness. This always gets my imagination running, too. What is this darkness? Is it separation? Is it greed? Jesus has come as the light into a world that doesn’t get him or want him, a world of darkness. Certainly some of this darkness is death. The light of the world is coming and we know that the powers of this world will try to put the Christ Spirit to death and it seems that they succeeded, except we have this promise that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.

Just because the light is coming, doesn’t mean our lives will be painless and we won’t encounter suffering. We know we will and do. We sometimes wonder if this darkness is an absence of God, but this reading shows that where there is darkness, the light will shine. And be assured from the very beginning, that the light will prevail and that God isn’t entering our story in this way as a last-minute rescue attempt, but as part of a larger plan that has been in the works from the very beginning. The story of Jesus begins at the very beginning of everything, continues as God shines light on people throughout history, builds as God is born into this world as a human to experience the light and darkness that we all experience, is not snuffed out when Jesus is killed, but prevails, bringing light to all people.

And what is this light? Is it that Gospel light in the old Spiritual that we’re gonna let shine? Is it telling the good news? Is it when good things happen? The light is revealing the truth that the presence of God is all around us in everything from the very beginning. It shows the reality that we have trouble seeing and that is God everywhere in everything for all time.

This morning we are still celebrating Christmas. We’ve got a newborn baby here. We’ve been singing about how well he sleeps and how Mary has been pondering and getting a little weepy as the little drummer boy plays his best for the Christ Child. But we all know babies don’t stay little. It isn’t long and they are smiling and learning to grab things, walking and climbing and the next thing you know they’ve grown up. The same is true of little baby Jesus. He didn’t come to stay a baby, but to grow up and take his light to the world, let people know of God’s love and grace.

Jesus as a baby has some light to shine, to show us how to be vulnerable and helpless. He has light to shine on what it means to learn and grow throughout your life and how to walk in accompaniment with others, humbling yourselves to learn from others. But by next week, the scriptures will be showing us Jesus all grown up, starting his public ministry. Soon he will be challenging us and shining a light on our lives. This light will show us quite plainly where we’ve gotten off track, the barriers we’ve put in front of other people, the games we play for power and influence. But it will also illuminate the path into the arms of God, remind us of God’s values, and show us who we really are as Children of God.

“The word became flesh and lived among us.” Those words spoken at the beginning of the universe still reverberate, only we are here to listen and receive those words. God is communicating to us through the life of Jesus. What once were words are actions in a human being, actions that we can accept or reject, listen to or ignore. Jesus is the living word, not letters in a book, but hands and feet walking this earth showing what God’s word looks like in action.

That light is shining in the darkness and illuminating who God is. God is involved in everything here on earth and in our universe. God is in every plant and animal and human, in every river and mountain, in every ray of light. God has always been involved, is now, and always will be. The difficulty is that God is so omnipresent, that we lose our ability to see it. The light has come to show us that we’re not alone, to show us that God is loving and generous, and to show us who we are.

That light is shining in the darkness illuminating the truth about who we are. Yes it shows our shortcomings, but it also reveals how God sees us. It reveals that we are all one under the Creator. It illuminates how richly God has blessed us with every good gift. It illuminates that we will be gathered to God again along with all things in heaven and on earth in the fullness of time. And it illuminates that we have an inheritance, which gives us a responsibility to use that inheritance to further the light of Christ in t he world. We are also called to be witnesses like John the Baptist. We haven’t just read words in a book, but we have personally experienced the saving power of Christ in our lives. We are not the light, but we reflect the light to those we meet so that all may know the love, welcome, and justice of God.

Down in the gutter by Immaculate Conception school,
i discover a tan, two-inch, plastic figurine of Jesus. “Jesus-of-the-car-tire,” i call him:
His pedestal and fancy mantle, chipped and flecked with grime,
clearly aren’t in the pristine condition some Christian toymaker intended.
His right forefinger still points to heaven, though, and his left hand rests just below
a brightly shining sacred heart. Don’t think he earned either gesture until he
dropped from some pupil’s pocket, got stepped on, ignored, and eventually
run over. Yet that child tearfully searched
hours for him, combed the whole route
from home to school: not because the Lord
looks regal in His heavenly robes and sovereign stance
but because he’s light and small enough
to nestle in someone’s pocket.
-- Patricia Campbell Carlson

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Christmas Eve 2013

Gospel: Luke 2:1-20
1st Reading: Isaiah 9:2-7

This is one of my favorite jokes. I know I’ve told it to several of you before: “What did the rat say to the pigeon? Are you an angel?” I love it because it is about perspective and relationship. I’ve heard it said many times that pigeons are glorified rats, and to a rat, a pigeon must seem something glorious.

This evening we have neither rats nor pigeons in our readings or traditions, but we have shepherds and angels. The shepherds were the rats of society. They slept outside. It has probably been awhile since they bathed. At a time when all the world was to be counted, it seems that they counted for nothing. Why else were they not in the towns of their birth, like Joseph?

Yet, the pigeons come to them, nonetheless. The angels come to them, of all people! The shepherds weren’t used to anyone paying them any attention. They had never heard fine music and trained voices before, let alone heavenly ones. I think of God, hatching this plan, wanting to tell someone to come and see the new thing God was doing. This is God’s birth announcement. Only God doesn’t send it to the kings and queens and the rich and famous. He knows they’d just chuck this announcement in the trash. They probably get hundreds of birth announcements every year. Think of God chuckling as he imagined the reaction of the shepherds to this display of light and sound, to this news. Usually, nobody cared to include them in any kind of celebration. But God goes to them! God had their full attention.

God goes to them, because God knows they will be responsive. They will get it. “Here is a king for someone like us. We don’t have to worry about having the right clothes to go visit. He’s living in a barn. We’ll fit right in. We don’t have to have the right gifts or worry we’ll say the wrong thing. This is a baby who won’t judge us by our job or clothes or way of talking.” This was news they were ready to hear. Nothing will ever be the same again. If you are comfortable and you hear that, it isn’t going to be good news of great joy. But to the shepherds, something new coming into this world meant something good. They were excited and joyful. They paid a visit to the Holy family. Then they went out and shared the happy news and the story of their experience with anyone who would listen.

God also goes to them, because they are shepherds. God is announcing the king of the shepherds to the shepherds. Jesus is one of them. Here they are just outside the city of David, shepherds, just as King David had been as a boy. Now God was coming as a shepherd king to look out for the people, tend and care for them, and save them so that none will be missing. By announcing to the shepherds, God is showing the kind of King Jesus will be. Jesus will talk to shepherds, even if no one else will. Jesus will live like a shepherd, wandering the land, and having no place to lay his head. And Jesus will rescue like a shepherd, and lay his life down for the sheep.

We get to spy on this close encounter in the fields by night. I wonder who else finds themselves witnessing this birth announcement. Were there people living nearby who heard and saw what occurred? I like to wonder what the sheep thought of all this! It is almost as if God, bypassing the rich and well-situated and going to the shepherds sweeps all of us into this story. We get to hear and imagine how this went and think to ourselves, what about me is like a shepherd? In what way am I a little rough around the edges? When have I been an outcast? When have I had no possessions in this world? When have I given of myself to the care of another? We who have been insiders and enjoyed the privilege of riches and being invited to the party, find ourselves on the outside looking in and learning from those we might have otherwise dismissed. We get to learn from them what it means to welcome our Savior.

Tonight we hear that the light shines in the darkness. At times the light is dim and it seems there isn’t enough to shine on everyone. At times resources are slim and some are left out—there isn’t enough food, enough energy, enough loving families, enough education. The entrance of Jesus into this world was a reassurance that there is enough light and joy for everyone. That the good news and the light and the music went first to the shepherds meant there was enough for them, the last of the last. If there is enough for them, there is enough for everyone. All good things originate with God, food, warmth, shelter, light, love, and joy. God is abounding in all those things. Jesus came to show us that this world is full of all these good things. It is simply a matter of sharing them, of valuing one another enough to spread them around. It is a matter of not fearing, because when we fear we take matters into our own hands, we hoard and collect. When we no longer fear, we find love, we accept a Savior, we humble ourselves to go and visit a helpless, squalling rugrat, we act more like shepherds.

The angels say, “Fear not, for we bring you good news of great joy.” Jesus became human. He experienced fear. But he didn’t let it rule his life. He was directed by love, instead. Here he is, a tiny baby. He probably has his nights and days mixed up. And his mother swaddles him. Swaddling helps calms little babies who have been used to being all squished in the womb. It helps them feel protected. Here he had come from the heavens, from the beginning of time, to being confined in a womb month after month, and now found himself exposed and open, arms flailing, eyes lacking focus, unable to help himself in any way. So his mother wraps him to help him feel secure. Jesus took on the confinement of the womb, the limits of a human body, to come and be one of us. He took on our joys and our fears. He accepted the limits of a human life in order to help us break out of the limits we place upon ourselves and others that keep people from fully living life. And as a consequence, he later found himself, once again wrapped in bands of cloth, the grave clothes he discarded in the cave where he was buried, at the resurrection. Then suddenly, the limits were thrown away, or rather neatly folded there. Jesus threw off the limits of prejudice and judgment his whole ministry. He threw off the limits of arbitrary rules of society that kept people like shepherds in their place. And finally at his death he threw off the limits of life and death and broke the barrier between the world and the Kingdom of God. He extended new life to all God’s children. Knowing that we can live in God’s Kingdom now, we are freed from all our limitations to serve God, serve our neighbor, serve God’s beautiful world. The opportunities for Kingdom life are limitless.

Jesus came into this world, by starting out in a womb, then in a manger, and snuck right past our barriers and limits we tried to put on God. God has been here all along with love for us, but we rejected the message. God came to us through Moses and we twisted the laws into ways of earning God’s love, and complained and got lost a lot. God came to us through kings, but we still weren’t satisfied and went our own way. God came to us through nature—trees clapping their hands, flowers blooming in the desert, a snowy mountain right outside our window—and we missed the point and exploited the earth for our own gain. So God sneaks right in as a little baby, somebody nobody would notice, in a manger, a place no one would think to look, in the most ordinary situation, a birth, just like every other human or animal. May you find the Christ Child sneaking into your life this season, and growing into the Christ who challenges us to throw off the limits that we place upon ourselves and others, and instead repeat the sounding joy of God’s love to everyone from the shepherds to the angels and back.

There are no rats, only angels, because God has lifted us from our old life and given us wings to fly, with new perspectives to see our neighbors and new possibilities for ourselves and for this world.

December 21, 2013

Gospel: Matthew 1:18-25
1st Reading: Isaiah 7:10-16
2nd Reading: Romans 1:1-7

Remember when daytime TV was full of the tabloid talk shows of Jerry Springer and Montel Williams and Ricki Lake? Remember those wild audiences, getting into fights, cheering and booing the guests, and the chants of “Jerry! Jerry! Jerry!” Please don’t tell me this stuff is still on the air. I remember wondering how much of it was real and how much was staged and I remember wondering how long we would have to endure this horrible “entertainment.” I didn’t really watch it, but I was exposed to it through pop culture. I especially remember the episodes in which various deadbeat boyfriends would have a paternity test and the results would be revealed on the air. It always seemed like the ones you hoped were the dad, weren’t, and inevitably the ones you hoped would never procreate, seemed to be the one.

Joseph may not be on daytime television, but everybody in his village would have known his business and everybody would have been talking about it. This is an honor/shame society in which people pressure each other into conforming. That’s how values get enforced and passed down through the generations. Everyone knew Mary and Joseph weren’t living together and had never been alone together. Everyone heard Mary’s unlikely explanation for her pregnancy. Everyone saw the look of pain on Joseph’s face, once he got the news. Everyone expected him to break off the engagement, have her stoned, or banish her and the child.

The people of the village valued the same things the world values: protecting your own genetic line, avoiding looking like a fool, sexual conquest, and revenge. This is the usual way.

But Joseph is unusual. The reading says he is a “righteous man.” I think “righteous dude” was a complement from the 80’s, but we really talk that way or use that word very often. When we hear “righteous,” we think “self-righteous.” We think self-important. Let’s substitute the word, “just.” Joseph was a just man. He was fair. He was level-headed. He put others first. He acted with faith on an ongoing basis. He lived by his just values, very different from the values of the world.

Because Joseph was just and fair, he gave Mary the benefit of the doubt and he found himself the protector of the Son of God. He was willing to stand tall in the face of embarrassment and do the right thing. He put others before himself. Because of all this, he was a key player in Jesus’ birth. He probably also taught Jesus a lot about how to be a just and righteous person—the kind of person who could grow up and put all others before himself.

Joseph is just and righteous, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t afraid. The angel picks up on this fear and tries to reassure him. The angel confirms Mary’s story. Certainly Joseph continued to fear, but he didn’t let that stop him from doing what he knew was right. Because of his faith, we have all gained a Savior.

His whole life, he would have faced the glances, the comments, the whispers. There were probably times he doubted himself, when he looked at Mary and wondered if she had duped him, if he’d been a fool to believe. Nevertheless, he followed through on his commitments.

Joseph is unusual, so we have something to learn from him. We can look to Joseph and learn what it means to act justly and compassionately, even when we’re afraid.

We sometimes feel overwhelmed at the pantry and wonder if we will have the energy and resources to go on. We don’t know what the future will bring, but for now it brings life to our church community and the neighborhood. The need is pressing. It is hard to imagine our church without the pantry and worse to imagine our neighborhood without it. It is difficult, but it is worthwhile.

When we witness someone being bullied, it is so frightening and difficult to decide what to do or say. Will it be worse for the victim if I speak up? Will I place myself in harm’s way? Yet that person needs to know they aren’t alone. The situation isn’t likely to change unless someone intervenes. Who will be the one to stand up for what is right?

In the next few months, I’ll be attending continuing education about the impending ecological crisis. We’ll read scriptures and scientific readings, use rituals and faith practices, and discuss and act to find hope in this struggle and to use that hope to face the challenges before us. I’m scared out of my mind about the changes the planet is facing. But to continue with business as usual and to continue to follow the world’s value system of using and abusing the earth, is absurd. Something has to change. I have to move forward and learn what God’s values are in this situation and how to be compassionate with both myself and this earth. I’ll keep you posted.

Maybe step one, is to follow Joseph, and allow ourselves to dream and listen to our deepest longings and connections. Who cared what the world thought? He knew within himself what was right and he held steady. He did what was right, not just for him, but for the greater good. What would be happen if we paid more attention to our dreams and what God might be saying to us through them? What would happen if we listened to our deepest longings for a better world and looked for ways to fulfill those hopes?

Another step is to look for those human connections. King Ahaz looked to his armies to solve his problems with his enemies. The prophet Isaiah told him to look for a sign in the people around him. God basically said, “Look at a newborn baby and then tell me again that war is the answer.” King Ahaz wanted more lands and more power. God was telling him he was looking in the wrong places for signs of God’s favor. If you want to know that God is present, look to a new family, and you will see it there.

Joseph seemed to understand that this project was bigger than him. He took into account the people that would be affected. He saw Mary as a person to be respected and valued, even if she hadn’t been faithful to him and valued him. He imagined a baby who would grow into someone with something to offer his community. Society would tell him to see only a betrayal and it would have been in his rights to get even, but even before the angel came and explained it all, we know he was a just man because we know he wasn’t going to make a big fuss. He saw Mary’s humanity, the baby’s humanity. And once the angel reassured him, he honored all of humanity by taking Mary to be his wife and protecting her and the child.
Our job, too, then is to see one another’s humanity and honor that. It is easy to see people and make a judgment. It is harder to get to know them and to value them as a human. It is hard to give them the benefit of the doubt. Yet, that’s what God does for us. All sin and fall short of the glory of God, and all are saved through him and given new life. When we recognize and honor one another despite our differences, we will be creating a world in which God’s love is known and shared.

Finally, we all have a calling. We mostly think of pastors being called to God’s service, but God is calling all of us to draw closer, to listen to God’s dream, to play our part in the story of God’s saving work. Joseph was called to be a father to God’s son. Paul was called to be an apostle. Paul reminds us that we are called to be saints. We all have a calling regarding Jesus, and that is to share God’s love. It might seem a little scary. People might be scandalized and offended at who we share God’s love with, who we see as a human being worthy of being loved. But we are called to love, and it is God who loves through us, because God is love and that love can’t be contained.

As awesome as Joseph is, he is only a shadow of who God is for us. God gives us the benefit of the doubt, comes as a human to live our life, faces his fears, and gives his life to make us family. We are God’s children, and God is raising us as God’s own to share God’s love with a fearful world.

The world is pregnant with the loving and saving power of God. It is the power of God with us. God has been with us from the very beginning in everything we experience. God is with us in Jesus, God in human form. God will be with us, whatever may come. And the “us” is expansive, to include unwed mothers, tiny babies, old men, cowardly leaders, duped fathers, guests of Jerry Springer, Jews and Gentiles, Evangelicals and Mormons and Muslims. God’s love knows no bounds, and we get the most amazing privilege to be those saints showing in our actions the limitless bounds of God’s love.