Friday, February 05, 2016

Sermon, "Invitational: Deep Waters," Luke 5:1-11

Sermon 1/31/16
Luke 5:1-11

Invitational: Deep Waters
            I’m fascinated by the fact that for all that we know, as much as we have discovered, for all of the world we humans feel like we have conquered, there are still so many that things that we don’t know and can’t control, so much that we are learning yet, every day. Even today, every year, scientists discover entirely new species of plants and animals. And one part of our world that is rich in things yet-to-be-discovered is in the mysterious fathoms below – the deep, deepest waters of the ocean. In 2015, for example, scientists discovered this Ceratioid anglerfish that lives in the nicknamed “midnight zone” of the ocean. It doesn’t look like other anglerfish – one news article described it as looking like a “rotting old shoe with spikes, a scraggly mustache and a big mouth with bad teeth. And it has a long, angular fishing pole-looking thing growing out of its head.”[1] Or there’s Greedo, named after the Star Wars Bounty Hunter, or these things, which as of late summer, scientists had not yet been able to determine whether they were a kind of jellyfish or something else entirely. They were discovered on the sea floor near Australia. It fascinates me – and let’s be honest – unnerves me – to think there is so much undiscovered in the deep, dark waters of the ocean.
            I had those images in mind this week as I was reading our gospel lesson from Luke, and thinking about deep things, deep waters, bringing to the surface what has been deep, deep down. In our gospel lesson today, we find a familiar scene – Jesus preaching and teaching, the crowd gathered, and the setting – the lake of Gennesaret, where many fishermen would be busy at work. When the scene opens, we read that Jesus is standing by the lake and the crowds are “pressing in on him to hear the word of God.” What an image! They’re impatient – anxious – hungry to hear God’s word – that’s how excited they are about what Jesus has to say. They want the words that he’s about to speak. Have you ever been so eager to hear the Word of God?
            Now, in the chapter before this one, after his baptism, after spending 40 days in the wilderness, Jesus had just begun his ministry, marked by preaching and healing, including a woman described as the mother-in-law of Simon. But we haven’t yet met Simon, really, until this passage we read today. So keep in mind that when Jesus encounters Simon Peter with his boat, he’s already connected with him through the act of healing. So, with the crowds pressing in, Jesus sees fishermen washing their nets and their boats nearby on the shore, and he gets into the boat of Simon Peter and asks him to put out a little way from the shore. This way, Jesus can comfortably teach the crowds from the boat without being smothered by them in their excitement. When he’s done teaching, he turns to Simon, and tells him, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Not a suggestion – not a question – but a direction, an imperative. Peter responds in a way that I admire, since I think most of us wouldn’t respond so openly. Jesus wasn’t a fisherman; he was a carpenter, and now a teacher; Simon Peter was the fisherman. And Peter knew where to fish. And Peter knew that they had already been fishing all night without catching anything. But Simon Peter didn’t respond that he knew better than Jesus, or that they tried what he said already and it didn’t work, or that this new way wouldn’t work. He said instead, “Master, if you say we should try it, we’ll try it.”
            So they let down their nets, and begin to catch so many fish that their nets are breaking. They signal for help, and another boat comes, and still, there are so many fish that both boats are filled to the point that they can barely stay afloat. Peter, overwhelmed, falls on his knees before Jesus and says, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!” But Jesus responds, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” And with those strange words, Peter, along with James and John, the sons of Zebedee, partners with Simon, leave their boats and nets and everything, and they begin to follow Jesus.
            “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” I’m struck by the phrase, and all the meaning this biblical image holds for us. If we think of our spiritual lives, our souls, as this water, we can find many ways to think about this text. Shallows waters are safe places in our lives and in our hearts, where we can put our feet on the ground and keep our heads well above water, and where everything that is there is easily visible to the eyes. The deep waters – there is so much there that you might never see or know it all, and you can’t touch bottom, and you have to work harder to stay afloat, but some of the most fascinating things are found in the deep water, and you have to be a strong swimmer, or a strong boater, or with someone who is strong enough for both of you, to spend a lot of time in the deep waters. You can spend all of your time in shallow water, but most swimmers aren’t satisfied with that, are they? I spent some years as a lifeguard, and administered many swim tests to young people who wanted permission to swim in the deeper water in the lake, or in the deep end of the swimming pool. Even knowing it was really too much for them, children just wanted to try out that deep water. So if we’re thinking about our souls as the waters of this passage, what is Jesus saying to us? Go to the deep water. Go again. Go deeper. Simon Peter makes it clear they’ve spent all day out on the lake, fishing, without catching anything. But Jesus won’t let them give up, call it quits, move to another spot, or bring the boats back to shore. There are more fish than the disciples will know what to do with in that lake, and Jesus will help them find them, if they trust him and do what he commands.  
Where are we spending our time in the waters of our soul? I think it is astonishingly easy to spend all of our time, all of our lives, in what God would consider the shallow waters. Not taking risks. Not digging deep. Not exploring the unknown. Keeping our feet firmly planted, never heading out to the deep where we’d have to rely on having Jesus in the boat with us in order to make it through. I can tell you that I’m generally not a risk-taker. I don’t like roller coasters. As some of you probably know, I don’t even like statistically safe airplanes. Spiritually, I wonder if I have any more sense of adventure. How easy it is to do the bare minimum instead of giving heart and soul to God. It is easy, sometimes, for me to understand exactly what the scripture is saying, what Jesus is asking, and somehow easier to make a list of reasons why I can’t quite do what is required.
We’ve been talking about being an invitational people – thinking about the invitations God extends to us, and the invitations we extend to others. God’s invitation to us today is to explore the deep waters of our faith. When I think about the dreams for Apple Valley that we’re exploring this year – being fruitful and prayerful and invitational and missional, I see them all as challenges to head to the deeper waters of our faith. So even as we struggle with the straight-forward invitation of asking a friend to come to church with you, I think God is already calling us deeper – not just to invite someone to church, to attend worship, to attend and event, but to invite someone into relationship with God, to invite someone to come and see what God is doing in your life, to invite someone to journey, along with you, in discipleship, in faith. When we talk about being invitational, we’re not talking about attending an event with a start time and an end time. We’re talking about inviting people into a relationship that will change their lives – even as we ourselves again and again say “Yes” as God calls us to let down our nets one more time.
Last week, I asked you to think about how you might do a bit of Show and Tell during worship today. I told you I’d ask if there was anyone who might be willing to talk about something God is doing in their life. Well, it’s next week. So I’m extending an invitation, an invitation to share with us a minute or two about what God is doing, or has done in your life that needs sharing. This is chance to practice – here where there are plenty of lifeguards on duty – going a bit out into deeper water. Would anyone like to share what God’s been up to?
Peter’s response is so powerful, so moving. “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” The deep waters are full of abundance that God invites us to discover, and in the life of the church, even when it means letting down our nets for what seems like the millionth time in the same waters, I believe that God promises us a catch of fish that is beyond our imagining.
“When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.” Let us go and do likewise.


Thursday, January 28, 2016

Sermon, "Invitational: Come and See," John 1:35-50

Sermon 1/24/16
John 1:35-50

Invitational: Come and See

            My mom watches my nephew Sam every day after school. He gets off the bus at her apartment, and he hangs out there til his parents get out of work. I’ve sometimes been around when he gets out of school, and I like to ask him about his day. But the conversation usually goes like this: “Sam, how was school today?” “Fine.” “What did you do today?” “I don’t know.” “Did you have gym?” “No.” “Music?” “No.” “Art?” “Yes.” “What did you do in art?” “Painted pictures.” You get the point. Pretty much, you have to drag information like this out of Sam. It is certainly possible it was indeed a typical day at school. But it is also possible that there was a parade or a concert or he got an award or the President visited, and his description of the day’s events are likely to be the same. He tolerates school. But despite how easy the learning is for him, or maybe because of that, he doesn’t love it. And he’s probably not going to talk about it much more than he has to.    
            Some years ago at our conference camps, like Casowasco and Aldersgate and Sky Lake, they began giving out beads, color-coded, to children at summer camp. Throughout the week, you might get a blue bead if you go swimming, or a red bead if you help build a campfire. You might get a special bead if you participate in a cookout, or a counselor’s bead if your counselor sees you doing something really thoughtful and selfless. You might get a white bead for Christian leadership if you help design a worship service. The idea behind the beads is two-fold. First, the beads encourage children to try new things. It’s amazing what the incentive of a bead does! But it also helps kids tell the story of camp to their families when they get home. Sometimes, after a week at camp, a conversation with a parent or church member might sound like a conversation with Sam about his day at school. How was camp? Fine. Did you have fun? Yes. The beads can help kids remember and tell the story. I got this bead because of this cool thing that I did. The beads are a tool to help kids share their experiences.
            That’s kind of the idea behind “Show and Tell.” Do they still do Show and Tell? For many of us, our very first experiences of public speaking were in bringing some object to school – a special toy, a souvenir from a trip, a favorite book – and then telling our classmates about it. Letting kids bring something they love already helps kids be comfortable getting up front and sharing. They’re just talking about what they know and love already. Easy.
            I’ve been thinking about this – talking about what we love, telling our story, show and tell, as I’ve studied our gospel lesson for today. Over the next few weeks, as we think about what it means to be invitational, we’ll be looking into a few stories where Jesus invites people into a life of discipleship. And as we watch Jesus invite people into relationship with God, invite people to follow him, we’ll think about how we both respond to Jesus’ invitation and invite others to journey with us. Today, we turn to the gospel of John. We’re at the beginning of the book, still in chapter 1. We find that John the Baptist is standing with two of his disciples, two who had been following John and learning from him and his teaching. John sees Jesus walk by, and says of him, “Look, here is the lamb of God.” Seemingly just at this word, John’s disciples realize they’re meant to follow after Jesus. When Jesus sees this, he asks them what they are looking for. They call him teacher, and ask where he is staying. And Jesus responds, “Come and see.” They do. And this is how Andrew and one other become disciples of Jesus. Andrew, then, invites his brother, Simon Peter. He says to him, “We have found the Messiah,” and he brings Simon Peter to meet Jesus.
            The next day, Jesus sees Philip, and says to him, “Follow me.” And Philip finds his friend Nathanael and tells him, “We've found the one about whom Moses and the prophets wrote.” Nathanael wonders if anything good can come from Nazareth, apparently thinking that it is a place that produces nothing interesting, and Philip responds, “Come and see.” The scene ends with Jesus revealing that he already knows Nathanael’s heart, and presumably, Nathanael, along with Philip and Andrew and Simon and at least one more – they’ve all become followers of Jesus. I notice that Jesus doesn’t give a lot of information and details in this story of call, this story of invitation. He doesn’t need to know what the disciples believe and he doesn’t give them a set of his beliefs. He doesn’t quiz them or test them. He doesn’t give them a lot of instructions. He just says, when they’re curious about him, “Come and see.” Check it out! Come take part! It’s such a welcoming invitation. The message Jesus communicates is that not only will he share with them, but they’ll even get to take part, to participate, engage with whatever he’s all about right away. Come and see!
A few of us attended a District Day with our Bishop last week, and enjoyed a time of worship and praise. One of the musicians said, “worship is not a spectator sport.” Everyone cheered in agreement. Unfortunately, we then proceeded to try to sing songs where no music and no words had been provided. Most people mumbled awkwardly. You could tell exactly where in the room the people were who knew the song already. I know we sing new songs here, but I try to give you a fighting chance with some words or music or a tune you already know! Indeed, we became just spectators.
            It made me think of a lecture I heard last month from Lutheran priest Nadia Bolz-Weber. She shared with us how, at her church, when you walk in the door, you’ll find a number of folders set on a table that contain instructions for how to help with a different part of the service. You might see, for example, the gospel lesson in a folder, or the call to worship, or words to say to collect the offering, or a folder with instructions for helping to assist with communion. Anyone can participate in the service. So if you are there for the first time, and you want to help, you can walk in, pick up a folder, and find yourself reading the gospel lesson that day. That’s something they really focus on in her congregation. Removing barriers to participation. Although you can always learn more and attend classes and workshops and trainings – which are good things for your growth as a leader and for your spiritual development, the clear message that you’ll get at her church is that you are invited to take part right way, that you don’t have to be “special” or holy or ordained or certified to take part in worshiping God, to take part in serving your neighbor, to be part of the community of faith.
I told you before that it’s a challenge to get Sam to tell us about his day at school. But it isn’t that Sam is reluctant to talk about everything. Like many children his age, he gets pretty enthralled by the latest thing that he loves. For a while, it was all Pokemon. Sam could spend hours talking to you about Pokemon, and showing you his cards, and looking at his books about Pokemon. Hours. Lately, it’s Skylanders. Anybody familiar with Skylanders? It’s a video game with matching toys and books and things to purchase, of course. And Sam will say to me sometimes, “Aunt Beth, I want you to ask me any questions you might have about Skylanders. Anything you want to know.” He’s completely serious. I try to explain to him that I know so little about Skylanders I can’t even ask good questions, but he’s so sincere, so eager. He loves this thing, these Skylanders, and he wants to draw you in to the world that he loves. For something really important to Sam, he’s totally ready to say, “Come and see.”
            Have you ever felt that way about something? What do you love so much that the best thing you can think to do is share it? Imagine a new parent or grandparent and the enthusiasm with which they’ll show you pictures of a new baby. What else do you feel like that about? Because that’s how Jesus feels about the invitation he offers. “Come and see!” he says. He hardly says anything else at all before he’s inviting, inviting, inviting. He can’t wait to have you become part of the story.
            What about you? What brings you such joy, such excitement, that you can’t help but want to show and tell about it? What brings you such happiness that you want to tell someone all the details about it? What makes you want to invite someone else to come and see what you have experienced? I believe that among us we have experiences of God’s love and grace and movement among us that are worth sharing. I bet, if we let ourselves get going, we could spend a lot of time talking about how God has been good to us, how following Jesus has shaped our lives. I bet many of us could point to some aspect of our lives and say, “because of Christ,” because of God’s love, because of following Jesus, because of church, because of Apple Valley, and then share a story about God at work in us.
            When we talk about being invitational, that’s what I’m interested in. I want to hear about what God is doing in your life. And I am praying that you are so moved by what God is up to that you just have to say to those around you, “Come and see.” Next week, I’m going to be asking if there’s anyone here who wants to do a bit of Show and Tell. I’ll be asking if there is anyone who might be willing to talk about something God is doing in their life. I thought about asking you to do it right now, today. But I’m giving you a heads up. I won’t call on anybody. Please don’t skip church next week because this sounds scary. I’m just going to extend to you an invitation, an invitation to share with us a minute or two about what God is doing, or has done in your life that needs sharing. It’s kind of a practice, to remind us of how good it is to share with others about what we love. So I want you to think about that this week. What has God done in your life – what is God doing – that you need to share like you need to share the newest pictures of the precious children in your life? God is at work in us, in our world today, and at work here at Apple Valley. Jesus calls to us: “Come, and See.” Amen.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Sermon, "Invitational: The Guest List," Luke 14:12-24

Sermon 1/17/16
Luke 14:12-24

Invitational: Guest List

            When I was a child, we were allowed to have a birthday party every year, but we had to alternate the size of our party every year. One year, we’d be allowed to invite as many friends as we wanted, and the next, we were allowed to invite perhaps two or three friends to do something special with us, like going to Skate-a-while. I’m one of four siblings, and this policy helped to keep birthday party spending under control, since it seemed like it was always someone’s birthday. Either way, big party or small party, determining the guest list was an important matter. Did you invite your whole class? Even the kids you really didn’t get along with? Or did you leave a few people out? What about friends from church? Or friends from camp? And if it was a small party year – how to choose the two or three who were your very closest friends? I remember making lists in my diary, trying to figure out exactly who would be invited.
            It doesn’t get much easier as adults. I officiate at many weddings, and sometimes in the planning process the couple will lament to me that they’re having trouble figuring out who to invite. One couple had their guest list pared down to a certain number of guests, only to have the respective sets of parents add dozens of names to the list that they felt just had to be invited.
            Today, as we continue to think about what it means to be an invitational church, we turn to a parable from the gospel of Luke that centers on, believe it or not, the guest list for a party. The scene of our text today is set at the beginning of chapter 14, when Luke tells us that Jesus has been invited to the home of one of the prominent Pharisees to share in a meal on the Sabbath. Pharisees were religious scholars, interpreters of the law of Moses. And Luke tells us that they’re on the lookout, watching Jesus very closely while at supper, almost expecting him to break the laws governing the keeping of Sabbath, which he is prone to do. He doesn’t disappoint. He heals a man, arguing that doing so is as necessary as pulling someone from danger, helping them up from a fall, things allowable on the Sabbath.
Next, Jesus makes note of how people come in to the dinner table and look to choose the places of honor. He tells people that those who choose the best places for themselves should watch out, lest the host come and tell the guest they must give up their seat for someone more important. This might not communicate to us today when we think of being invited over to a neighbor’s for dinner. But if you think about being invited to a wedding reception, one of the few places where it is common to be assigned seating that might be related to your closeness to the hosts of the event, you get the idea. You wouldn’t want to sit too close to the bridal party’s table, unless you knew that was where you were supposed to be – perhaps unless you were family, or close friends. How embarrassing would it be to be asked to move? Jesus gives this example to make a broader point, a familiar refrain of his throughout the gospels: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Jesus continues saying “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’” The people Jesus lists – the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind – all of these people would have been on the fringes of society. They would not be at the Pharisee’s table. Who people ate with was a fairly regulated affair in Jesus’ day. There were rules to be followed and hierarchies to be observed, just as Jesus’ comments about who sits where suggest. And as we’ve talked about before, even today, who we actually sit down and eat with, share meals with, even today – that tends to be a pretty small group of people. If they weren’t already, the others dining with Jesus were probably getting pretty uncomfortable.
One of the fellow dinner guests, hearing Jesus, responds, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God.” It’s hard to tell if he’s agreeing with Jesus, or just convinced that he will be among those dining with God, but his words prompt Jesus to share a parable.
Someone gives a dinner and invites many people. And when the time comes for the dinner, he sends his slave out to let the invitees know that it is time to come to the feast. But suddenly, they all have excuses, and can’t attend. The slave reports back to his master, and that master is angry. He sends the slave back out, to the streets of town, and then further out into the roads and lanes, to invite the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame, inviting more and more until the house is filled. ‘For I tell you,’ the master concludes, ‘none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.’
The party giver in this parable isn’t just mad because people had other plans and didn’t drop everything for his party. When Jesus mentions that the slave goes out to call the guests to come when the banquet is ready, this isn’t the first time they’re getting the invitation. In Jesus’ day, the invitation would have happened in two parts. “(1) the initial invitation some time ahead [of the event], and (2) the actual summons to the meal when it is ready.” You can think of it as the invite to dinner, and then the host actually telling you, “Dinner’s ready,” so that you come sit at the table. The guests the slave summons would have already been invited and RSVPed ‘yes’ to this banquet some time before the summons that takes place in our passage. So their excuses now represent a sudden, last minute change in plans. And their behavior, then, as now, would be considered impolite. For all those people to not show up would result in bringing shame on the host.
The excuses the guests give aren’t very sound, either. The tract of land purchased already would have been examined before this time. The oxen would have been tested. The new groom would have known about the wedding when he was first invited and could have refused then. The guests, one after the other, give excuses, and their excuses, coming at the last minute, after they’d already said they were coming, represent a great insult to the host, and a very weak attempt on the part of the guests to cover their own rude, neglectful behavior.
And when the master sends the slave out to invite more guest, Jesus lists the same group of ‘unwanted’ community members that Jesus mentions before he begins telling this parable – the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. When the master sends the slave out yet again because there is still room, the roads signify people even farther from the center of acceptability. These people would be considered ritually unclean, socially unacceptable. These people, the master invites into his home.
How we understand this parable has to do with what role we assign ourselves in the story. Who do you think we are in this parable? Maybe we first think of ourselves as the master of the house – the one throwing the party. After all, if Jesus was just advising the Pharisees on who to invite to their dinners, that would be a logical conclusion. If we are the masters throwing the party, what’s the message for us? Just, perhaps, what Jesus has already said. Those with an abundance to share ought to share it not with those who already have enough of their own, but with those who are poor in material things. We might conclude that we need to expand our vision, so that we’re seeing not just who is already here, in our lives, in our church, but wondering who it is that might be in the streets of town, who it is out on the proverbial road. I imagine our lives as concentric circles. We’re at the center, with our family, our loved ones. Maybe our church family is next, or close friends. Then maybe co-workers, acquaintances. If we’re the master, Jesus is asking us to figure out who is in these circles way out here, at the edges, and is asking us if we have invited them into our faith communities, into our lives, into our hearts.
But maybe we are simply someone on the guest list, not the master throwing the party. If we’re on the guest list, which part of the list do you think you’re on? Are you in the first round of invitations? Second? Third? If we’re on the guest list, and God is the master, (which sounds a little more likely, doesn’t it?) how do we respond to God’s invitation to us? How do we respond to Jesus’ invitation to discipleship? Perhaps we are like the guests who were on the original invitation list. We said yes to God – that’s why we’re here, after all. But when it came time to actually be disciples…well, something really important came up. Are we waiting for a better offer? Maybe one that doesn’t involve this whole humbling-ourselves thing? Are we letting our lips RSVP yes to God’s kingdom, while meaning for our actions, our lives, to remain unchanged? Do we think that if we are not ready to come, or if we don’t like the guest list, God’s party gets rescheduled? Cancelled? If we can’t be the host, do we just not want to come at all?
Here’s what I think. We are the slave in the story. A servant of God. We’re the messengers. We get to deliver the invitations – but the invitations are God’s invitations. Because the party is God’s. The feast is God’s. God is the party-thrower, the inviter, the host. It’s God’s table. It is not our party, and not our guest list. We’re not the ones in charge. We’re not the hosts. We don’t choose who gets invited or not. We can help out, but it is God who is setting the banquet table. It is God’s role to determine the guest list. And God’s guest list is really long. It contains lots of surprises. Even the kids in our class we don’t like, but God is inviting them anyway.
We’re messengers, sent from God into the world to share God’s invitation to relationship, to discipleship, to the party that is life with God. And sometimes we’re like the slave in the story, returning to God with bad news that some people have declined the invitations, and expecting, perhaps, that God will stop there. But God is going to send us out again and again, pushing us to travel to the places we don’t normally go, sending us with piles and piles of invitations to distribute. God is throwing the party of a lifetime. We have the great privilege and responsibility of serving God and helping to deliver the best invitations people will ever receive. So let’s get to work. There are a lot of invitations to deliver. Amen.   

Sermon for Baptism of the Lord Sunday, Year C, "Invitational: Baptism, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Sermon 1/10/16
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Invitational: Baptism

            Today is Baptism of the Lord Sunday. Every year, on the week after Epiphany, the liturgical calendar focuses on the Baptism of Jesus. It is one of the few events in Jesus’ life and ministry that is recorded in all four of the gospels, and in all of the gospels, it seems to be the event that kind of starts things off. Jesus is about thirty years old when he comes to be baptized. And before his baptism, we don’t get much insight into what he’s been doing. Other than his birth, we see him when he is presented at forty days old in the traditional ritual of purification, and then again when he is twelve, when he visits the temple with his family. But aside from those instances, the first we see of Jesus is when he is thirty, and he comes to John the Baptist to be baptized.
We talked during the season of Advent a bit about John and baptism. Remember, baptisms were not a new thing – water rituals that signified cleansing and beginning and renewal were already part of Jewish culture. What John does is tie it to his specific message. Remember, John has told the people to bear good fruit in their lives, advising them how to live by preparing room in their hearts and lives, readying themselves for the work that God is about to do. As a sign of their decision to live in a new way, John baptizes them.
The people start to wonder if John is the Messiah, but he points them in a different direction. John speaks of one who is to come after him. He says, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming … He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” And then, Luke tells us in a couple of short but important sentences that Jesus has also been baptized. He writes, “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”
I read an essay this week by theologian and preacher Karoline Lewis who drew my attention to one phrase that we find repeated in the baptism accounts. Luke says that when Jesus was baptized, and praying, the “heaven was opened.” In fact, in Mark’s account, it says that the heavens were “torn open.” It is a very deliberate act. In Jesus’ days, people understood that the earth was separated from heaven by a dome in the sky – as described in the creation story in Genesis. The dome in the sky is the line of division between heaven and earth. And for the gospel writers, in the act of Jesus’ baptism, that division is broken in a clear way as Jesus receives a sign of the Holy Spirit and words of affirmation from God – “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased. Lewis writes that the significance of Jesus’ baptism is this: “that which separates us from God is no longer … God is no longer behind the firmament, up in the clouds, at a distance, but here among us.” (1) Jesus’ baptism is the demonstration to the world of what God is willing to do to be close to us – cross boundaries, break down walls, step across dividing lines, tear open the heavens to get closer to us.
I was reading about the meaning Epiphany, not just to share in worship with you last week, but also to share out in Rochester where Epiphany was the topic of one of our weekly faith chats, where we discuss almost anything that comes to mind and try to look at topics in light of our faith. So I learned a bit more about the history of how and when and why Epiphany has been celebrated in the church than we had time for during worship last week. And I was surprised to discover that in the early church, Epiphany focused not only on the visit of the Magi to the Christ child, but also on the Baptism of Jesus. In fact, in the Eastern Orthodox Christian traditions, this is still today the focus of Epiphany – Jesus’ baptism. Instead of focusing God-in-the-flesh, the incarnation of God in Jesus’ birth, Epiphany in these traditions focuses on Jesus’ baptism as the light-bulb moment of God’s desire to be with us in the flesh. And when you think about God opening the heavens in order to set start to Jesus’ ministry with these signs of affirmation, it is an Epiphany moment. How much does God want to be in relationship with us? Enough to break down and break through anything that is in place that might separate us from God.  
Do we have any Harry Potter fans here? I’ve been thinking about one of the first chapters in the first book in the series. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Harry, just before his 11th birthday, receives an invitation to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Well, sort of. In the world of Harry Potter, mail comes through Owl Post. Owls deliver letter and messages and news. But Harry's aunt and uncle, his guardians, are Muggles - non magical people. And they don't want Harry to have anything to do with the world of magic. So when a letter comes for Harry, delivered by an owl, his aunt and uncle refuse to give it to him. But, somehow, it is known that Harry hasn't received his letter, his invitation to attend Hogwarts. So another owl is sent. And when his family withholds that one from him, another is sent, and another, until owls are coming in through the doors and windows and chimney and every which way. Finally, after Harry's family flees home just to avoid letting Harry receive his invitation, his letter is hand-delivered to him on a secluded island by the Hogwarts game-keeper and half-giant Hagrid. Clearly, for the magical community, it is of utmost importance that Harry receives his invitation. They will do absolutely anything to make sure that Harry is invited to attend school at Hogwarts.
I couldn’t help but think of that scene as I was thinking about Jesus’ baptism, and the message God sends to us in this act. Jesus’ baptism is an invitation to us – an invitation that God extends to us over and over to be in relationship with God. To journey with God. To build a life with God at the center. And God will send us invitation after invitation to make sure we know that God wants us – even to the point of opening the heavens to give us the message. That’s how important it is to God that we know that we are invited.
Over the next several weeks, we’re going to be thinking about what it means to be an invitational people. That’s one of our key words that we’re focusing our ministry on here at Apple Valley. Our key verse for invitational, from the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus is “The Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” It speaks, again, of God’s determination to find ways to invite us into relationship. Now, over these next weeks, I want us to think about who we invite, how we invite, exactly what it is we’re inviting folks to be part of. But before we move there, we remember that our invitational nature is grounded in God’s invitation to us. And I want us to remember how God invites us, how deeply God wants to connect with us, so that we might embody that as we learn to be invitational in relating to others.
So, today, we remember. We remember Jesus’ baptism. And we give thanks for the invitation that God offers to us – celebrated in our own baptisms, and renewed today, and again and again. There is no boundary, no border, no dividing line, no wall, no obstacle that will keep God from seeking us out. God opens the very heavens to reach us. We’re invited. Remember, and be thankful. Amen.

Monday, January 04, 2016

Sermon, "Epiphany," Matthew 2:1-12

Sermon 1/3/16
Matthew 2:1-12


On Christmas Eve, as we were talking about this deep longing for home that most all of us understand, I shared with you how this “journey home” was a trope that we see played out in some of our favorite movies. For example, I mentioned the classic The Wizard of Oz, and how Dorothy, nearly as soon as she leaves Kansas and ends up in Oz, is already trying to get back home. But of course there is another trope, another part of this story, and many of the same movies, that is also at play here, and that’s the quest to find this certain thing, this item, this person that is going to be the solution to the problem. In Dorothy’s case, she is, of course, off to see the Wizard, the wonderful Wizard of Oz. Her desire is to go home, but she’s been told that the Wizard of Oz is the solution – he will tell her what she must do to get back to Kansas.
And of course, as is the case in many of these movies, when Dorothy finally arrives to meet the Wizard, it isn’t at all what she expected. The Wizard turns out to be a sham. At first, Dorothy is terribly disappointed. But, the Wizard does help the Lion, the Tinman, and the Scarecrow realize their dreams – realize they have the courage, the heart, and the brains they’ve so desired. He tries to help Dorothy too, and when his plans fail, it turns out Dorothy already has the means to get home, clicking together her ruby slippers. Her adventure has not been at all what she expected. The Wizard wasn’t what she expected. She didn’t expect to meet these three who became dear friends along the way, and didn’t anticipate that she had the ability to defeat the Wicked Witch and find her way home. But despite her journey bringing her nothing she expected at the start, Dorothy leaves for Kansas ready to go home having loved and learned from her strange experiences in Oz.
I’ve been thinking about journeys like Dorothy’s – journeys where we set out with a clear aim, or goal, or purpose in mind, only to find when we reach our destination that what is waiting for us is not at all what we expected. Have you ever had a journey like that? Our scripture text for today is about a journey like this. Today is Epiphany Sunday. It’s also just the 10th day of Christmas. As I mentioned last week, the season of Christmas in the church calendar lasts 12 days, starting on December 25th, when Christmas begins, and ending on January 5th, the day before Epiphany. Epiphany day is January 6th, but when Epiphany is not on a Sunday, we celebrate Epiphany on the closest Sunday before the 6th. The word Epiphany is from a Greek word that means literally “coming to light,” or “shining forth.” Epiphany is the day when we celebrate the Magi, Wisemen from the East, coming to see Jesus and bringing him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. This is significant because it represents that Jesus is light to the whole world, celebrated even by these foreign strangers, not just the people of Israel, not just a chosen few. Jesus is the light of and for the whole world.
We really know very little about these wise men. They appear only in this passage from Matthew. Matthew describes them as men from the East, which maybe may have meant they were astrologers from Persia, interpreters of stars and dreams. The idea that they were kings comes from a verse of a Psalm that talks about kings bringing gifts to the Messiah – a loose connection at best. The number three was just layered onto tradition over time, perhaps because three gifts are named, along with traditional names for each of three wise men. But again, these ideas are not mentioned in the Bible. What we do know from the Bible is that these wise men came to the palace of King Herod looking for a newborn king, since they had seen a star that was significant to them.
We don’t even know why the Magi would be interested in seeing a new king of the Jewish people, since they themselves were not Jewish. But what we do know is this: when they were looking for this new king, they expected to find him at the palace. That’s right where they went – straight to the palace, to have an audience with Herod. They expected, perhaps, that Herod had a new child who would eventually become king, or some other similar chain of events. Instead, they find a baffled and frightened Herod, who has no idea what they are talking about. They’re sent to find this new king by Herod, guided by additional details about the child’s likely place of birth, and eventually, finally, they find Jesus with his mother Mary. They have brought gifts for the child that would have been appropriate at the palace: gold, frankincense, myrrh. Costly gifts.  And so they offer these gifts to this child, Jesus, who they find not in a palace, but in a normal home, in a small town, the child of a carpenter and his wife, totally normal by every visible clue.
The Magi could have decided they had gotten it all wrong and taken their gifts and gone back home, disappointed that they had come so far only to find that the Wizard of Oz was just a man behind a curtain. But Matthew says they were “overwhelmed with joy.” I love that phrase. Nothing went as planned, but they simply changed their course as a new plan was laid out for them. They went where they were led. And they were thrilled with where they were led. They didn’t judge Mary and Joseph and Jesus by their outer wrappings. They recognized the Holy in the child they saw. The Epiphany is the coming-to-light, the shining-forth of Jesus as light of the world. And it wasn’t what the Wisemen set out to see. But what was revealed to them by the light was nonetheless exactly what they were seeking, overwhelming them with joy.
I’m wondering what we are expecting, as we journey with God. As we begin a new year, what destinations do we have in mind? I’m wondering about what solution to our problems, what fix for our troubles, what cures for what ails us we are expecting to find at the end of the yellow brick road. And I’m wondering, then, what we do when, inevitably, what we find in Oz, or underneath the Star of Bethlehem, is not what we were expecting. What will the light of Epiphany reveal to us?   
I’ve been reading the book Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling. She’s the writer and star of the TV show The Mindy Project. Or you might know her as a writer and actress on The Office – she played Kelly Kapoor. She’s a very funny writer, and she spends one chapter of her book divulging, with great wit and sarcasm, all of her beauty secrets. One of them? Stay in the shadows! We look best, she insists, under the forgiving lighting of shadows, out of the light, tucked away into a corner a little bit, without the harsh brightness revealing every detail of ourselves that we’d rather keep hidden. I think about this fact sometimes with my camera on my smart phone. On most smart phones, if you use it to take a “selfie,” the camera automatically switches to a setting called “beauty face.” It gives your skin a nice uniform glow, and erases any imperfections and subtracts about 5-10 years of wrinkles and lines from your skin. Selfies, after all, are pretty close-up pictures – and do we really want to see everything about ourselves that the camera might reveal?
Most of us know what the word Epiphany itself means in everyday usage. Epiphany means a sudden realization of the truth about something. It's the lightbulb moment, the "A-Ha" moment when the pieces fall into place and comprehension succeeds. It's the moment of recognition. Today we celebrate that the light of the world is shining. But more than just acknowledging the light of Christ, our task is to look closely at just what the light of Christ is revealing in us. Our task is to let that light shine into our lives and bring all of the dark places out of the shadows. What would it mean if the light of Christ focused on your life and made visible everything that has been hidden and unseen? What unexpected things might we see, discover, when the Star of Bethlehem shines on us?
I’ve been thinking about this in two ways: First, I think letting in the light of Christ would make us deal with aspects of ourselves and our behaviors that we try to hide in the shadows, or cover up with “beauty face” mode. Do you struggle with envy or coveting what others have? Are you facing an addiction that you can’t control? Are you holding on to resentments or conflicts with others that you have been unwilling to resolve? God at work in us reveals all those things – uncovers them, not so that we can be judged and condemned, but so that we can be healed and redeemed and move forward. This is a time when so many of us are making New Year’s Resolutions, and I think that the reason that so many of us fail in our efforts is because we don’t really examine what’s behind our feelings – why aren’t we happy with what we have, always longing for what others have, for example? And we never ask for support – we start out to change our lives on our own, without the grounding, the source of our being. It is Christ who is the light, and we can’t shine without that source, God, empowering us.
What would it mean if the light of Christ focused on your life and made visible everything that has been hidden and unseen? Here’s the second way: We don’t see ourselves very clearly. One of my favorite verses of scripture is from 1 Corinthians 13. Not the beginning part, love is patient, love is kind, although that’s very lovely. No, my favorite part is near the end of the chapter, when Paul writes, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” I think that may be our hearts’ desire – to be known fully, completely – and also our deepest fear – that someone will see us – flaws and imperfections and things we’d rather keep in the shadows. So often, we look at ourselves and see our failures, our faults, our flaws. We gloss right over the gifts we have, the way that God has created us, the strength we have, the ways that we have been uniquely formed and blessed and placed in this world so that we can serve and give and bless others. We just don’t see in ourselves all that God sees in us. And so we let ourselves off easy, because we’re convinced that we can’t do what God knows we can do and do well. When the light of Christ brings everything in us into view, when we let that light shine in all the overshadowed places, then we start to see ourselves as we really are, as God created us, and as God is calling us to be. God sees us, all that the light of Christ reveals in us, and is overwhelmed with joy in us.
That’s the journey of Epiphany. We find at the end of the long road we travel not some magic solution. Instead, we find the light of Christ, light of the world, shining back at us, dispelling the shadows, revealing who we really are. God isn’t disappointed in what’s revealed in us. God is full of hope at all that yet might be in us. May we, like the Wisemen, lay our very best gifts as an offering of thanksgiving at the feet of Christ, overwhelmed with joy. For we find there perhaps not at all what we expected, but instead, shining in the light, we discover exactly what we’ve needed. Amen.

Friday, January 01, 2016

My 2015 Reading List

 Books I Read in 2015

My reading pace definitely dropped off once my sabbatical ended and I started commuting to Rochester three times a week, but still, I got some good reading in this year (and listened to a lot of good audio books too!) (Here's a link to my goodreads page with all of these books, in case you want more details, since I'm too lazy to link to all the books on Amazon this year...)

1-3. Dashner, James, The Maze Runner, The Scorch Trials, The Death Cure. 

Not my favorite series ever or anything, but I enjoyed these. 

4.     Aslan, Reza, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

I like his writing style - quick-paced, narrative, compelling. He makes the scene come alive. But his biblical scholarship I didn't find convincing. He gives all the New Testament texts equal weight, while I think most mainline biblical scholars have a much more nuanced understanding of the differences between the authority of Mark and John, for example. His arguments against a traditional understanding of the identity of Jesus are predicated on a literal reading of the gospel texts to begin with. 

5.     Mack, Sylane, Convinced!

This is a personal story of a woman's experience with childhood sexual abuse and her faith journey as a result of that abuse. It was painful to read, certainly, and tragic. But the most tragic part of the read for me was that the author told a woman at her church about the abuse while it was still ongoing and the woman told her that she needed to forgive her abuser. She did nothing to help her out of the situation. She did not contact authorities. She did not tell the child it wasn't her fault. I was so appalled by this. The author and her siblings never got the help they could have. I spent the whole book imagining what some true intervention, counseling, read adult help could have done for this family, these children. 

6.     Stookey, Laurence Hull, Let the Whole Church Say Amen! 

We used this book in our Lay Servant class for United Methodists seeking additional training in the area of prayer. Stookey's book is as much a book on grammar as it is a book on prayer. I had participants in the class who I had to talk out of never wanting to pray in public again, because they were so overwhelmed by all the things they ended up feeling like they were doing wrong. Stookey discusses a lot of compelling prayer issues/topics, but he doesn't leave much room for those who pray differently, and doesn't offer much nurturing encouragement along the way. 

7.     Poehler, Amy, Yes Please

I just didn't really like this. I felt like Poehler felt like she was supposed to write a book because Mindy Kaling did and Tina Fey did. I haven't read Bossypants (yet) but Kaling is a hilarious writer. Poehler - her book felt like she didn't enjoy writing it, and it showed. And I think with this glimpse into her life - I liked her a little less than when I started.  

8-12.     Riordan, Rick, Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, The Sea of Monsters, The Titan's Curse, The Battle of the Labyrinth, The Last Olympian. 

Again, like the Maze Runner series, I enjoyed these, though not near the top of my favorites list. I liked the first couple and the last book better than the others. And I liked that my brain could recall learning some of this mythology at one point, though I had forgotten some of the details since whenever we had a unit on this in Social Studies.  

13.     Ferguson, Dave and John Ferguson, Exponential: How You and Your Friends can Start a Missional Church Movement

I can't remember how I came upon this book. Theologically, I have some differences with the authors. But I found their approach compelling and inspiring. I've thought about it a lot over the past year, although I have yet to approach work with my congregation in any similar kind of way. 

14.     Fulgham, Nicole Baker, Educating All God’s Children

We read this book in one of my research project groups. Education reform isn't an area about which I'm most passionate, although it is certainly desperately needed. Fulgham makes a strong case for why all people of faith should care, and offers ways to get involved.  
15.  Slaughter, Michael, Dare to Dream

I am not a huge Michael Slaughter fan. If he hadn't lost me before, he definitely lost me when he came to our annual conference to speak one year and demonstrated how great he is at push-ups while he was talking. Nonetheless, we read this book in a clergy study I was in, and then I used it with my congregation. It is accessible, and helped us start talking about our vision for our congregation and our lives. 

16.  Edelman, Marian Wright, The Sea Is Wide and My Boat Is So Small

I picked up this book thinking to use it with my research group, but opted for Fulgham's book instead. Still, I read this. Edelman is a poet and prophet. This is an easy read full of essays/poems that will inspire and challenge. 

17.  Hudson, Trevor, Questions God Asks Us 

We read this book in my clergy study group. Each chapter reflects a different question posed to us in the scriptures. The questions make for some deep reflection and soul wrestling. 

18.  Rowell, Rainbow, Attachments

I've confessed in past years that I got hooked on Hunger Games fanfiction. It's really a little worse. I also follow a ton of Hunger Games tumblrs. This is because some of my favorite fanfiction authors also post shorter stories on tumblr, or highlight stories I night not otherwise hear about. They are also, I've found, a great source for picking up on the best new YA literature (and, ok, some not-so-great YA literature too.) Through tumblr, I happened on Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell (see below under audiobooks.) It immediately found a place on my favorite-books-ever list. So of course I immediately set out to listen to or read all of Rowell's other books. Attachments was one I read. Not my favorite, but only because everything of hers I've read is great, so they can't all be the best. Still loved it. 

19.  Kelly, Joseph, Behold How Good It Is: Jews and Catholics in Rochester

I started working at St. John's Meadows in June, a retirement community in Rochester, NY. One of the residents there recommended this book, by a local professor. We're an interfaith community at St. John's, with large Jewish and Catholic populations (Protestants too, of course), and the book recounts local interfaith history between Jews and Catholics, especially over the last several decades. I read the book, and then was able to get Dr. Kelly to come speak at St. John's. It was a great event, and we had great attendance from all of our faith communities. 

20.  Weems, Lovett, and Tom Berlin, Bearing Fruit: Ministry with Real Results 

This year at Apple Valley, the church I serve, we've talked about being Fruitful, Prayerful, Invitational, and Missional - that is how we are talking about God's dreams for our congregation. I found this book as a resource to help us focus on fruitfulness, which is our overarching theme/keyword. We found this really helpful as a congregation, and some of my parishioners have really taken their challenges to heart, starting new ministries because of how this book encouraged them. 

21.  Brown, BrenĂ©, Rising Strong 

This was another read with our clergy group. I'll admit I expected to hate it, writing it off as "pop psychology." And after a few chapters, I still held that view for the most part. But then partway through, the chapters started resonating with me. I found (find) myself thinking about her book frequently. I was moved to tears more than once with a "yes, that's me, I experience that" kind of reaction. And I immediately lent the book to a friend who I thought would also find it helpful when I was done. 

22.  Lehr, Teresa K., Lighting the Way: A Celebration of the First One Hundred Years of St. John's Home

One of the residents at St. John's shared this with me. This book focuses mostly on St. John's Home, the skilled nursing care part of the St. John's family. This book wouldn't really interest folks who are not familiar with St. John's, but it was pretty interesting to me as someone who works there. The book also provides a fascinating look at the changes in how we care for the elderly among us in general. 

23.  Goodwin, Craig L., Year of Plenty

I just finished this on New Year's Eve, just in time to count it in my 2015 books. Goodwin recounts a year he and his family changed their eating and purchasing habits, buying used, buying local, eating sustainably, growing their own food, building relationships with those from whom they bought food, etc. Nothing earth-shattering here, but I really appreciated reading a story like this from a Christian author (pastor) who acted from a faith perspective. He writes about the emptiness resulting from our consumeristic/materialistic culture, and offers this example of intentional living as a way to counteract that, in small ways. I was inspired. 

Selected Audiobooks: I usually choose light, fast-paced stuff to listen to so I stay alert while I drive. Here are few standouts: 

Evanovich, Janet, and Goldberg, Lee, The Job, The Chase, The Heist - I used to be a huge fan of Evanovich's Stephanie Plum books, but they've gotten pretty awful over time. These books, co-authored with Lee Goldberg, based on a fun pairing of an FBI agent and a world-class thief, are funny and light and remind me of Evanovich's earlier Plum books. 

Rowell, Rainbow, Eleanor and Park, fangirl - Eleanor and Park is one of the loveliest books I have ever read. It is just a beautiful story. Love, love, love it. Fangirl was also pretty awesome, and especially enjoyable since it focuses on twin sisters who are into fanfiction. (The book is way better than that sentence implies.)

Condie, Ally, Matched trilogy - The first book was pretty good, and I thought the series was surprisingly good. But books two and three were bad and worse. Disappointing. 

Cass, Kiera, The Selection trilogy - Ok. Not great. Not awful. 

In progress: 
Kaling, Mindy, Why Not Me? - This will probably be done in the next couple days, and is awesome, of course. 
Smith, C. Christopher and John Pattison, Slow Church - I've been reading this (appropriately) SLOWLY. It is just not moving right along for me. It may still be in this section of my review next year. 

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Sermon for Christmas Eve, "Home for Christmas," Luke 2:1-20

Sermon 12/24/2015
Luke 2:1-20

Home for Christmas

I will admit to you that although some of you have heard me preach many, many times, I really only have a small repertoire of sermons. No, I don’t preach the same thing week after week of course. But I think if you boiled them down, you’d find the same themes running through my sermons again and again. God loves you so much, and God gives you this love and grace freely, without price. There’s nothing you can do to earn it, and nothing you can do to lose it. That’s one sermon. Or there’s this one: what God wants from you is everything! Your whole heart! Your whole life! Or another: God can do amazing things in you and through you if you open your life fully to God. Another: God wants you to have abundant life. Stop settling for stuff that doesn’t really satisfy. It will never work.
I don’t feel too badly about this though, my repeated themes, because Jesus did the same thing in his preaching and teaching. When asked to sum up all of what God says to us, Jesus said that it came down to the greatest commandments – love God, and love neighbor. Jesus said that everything in the writings of the law and the prophets could be summed up in these two commands. Perhaps if we could do those two things well, consistently, completely – love God, love neighbor, we could move on to more advanced topics.
I’ve been thinking about how we have these repeated themes – these stories we like to tell. And even though we have thousands, millions of books and movies and plays and TV shows and fairy tales in our world, we can really boil them down to a handful of tropes, a handful of themes that we like to hear and tell, just with different names, a different setting, different costumes – but the same story.
Two people meet. They fall in love. Some conflict arises and their love is threatened. The conflict is resolved, and love conquers all! A dark villain arises, threatening to conquer the world. An unlikely person, who doesn’t seem to have any special powers at all, is able to conquer the villain in some unexpected way, using smarts instead of strength, and saves the day. And then there are stories about getting back home again: somehow, people are separated. Someone has left home for some reason, and all they want to do is get back home. And the whole story is about their journey home, through trials and tribulations, and the story ends when people are reunited.
Think of it: Dorothy is a little discontent with her humdrum life in Kansas. But somehow, without meaning to, she gets caught up in a great adventure in Oz. Nearly as soon as she’s there, though, she begins to long to go home. She faces many trials and dangers, and finally, she learns that home was in her grasp all along. She returns home with some clicks of her heels, and discovers that everything she needed and loved was right where she started.
Chance and Shadow and Sassy, two dogs and a cat, get separated from their family and travel across the country until they find their way home again.
Hobbits Frodo and Sam and a fellowship set out to carry a powerful ring across Middle Earth so they can save the world from evil, but eventually, they make it back home to the Shire.
I’ve been thinking about these stories of home lately – our deep desire and longing to find home, be it a physical place, or a group of people we want to get back to. I think at Christmas, when we have all these emotions and expectations swirling around the holiday, all tied up with family and relationships and how everything should be, these stories are particularly powerful.
 I'll be home for Christmas. You can count on me. Please have snow and mistletoe and presents on the tree. Christmas Eve will find me where the love light gleams. I'll be home for Christmas if only in my dreams. Kim Gannon wrote this classic made famous by Bing Crosby in the 1940s. He wrote it thinking of all people who couldn’t be with their loved ones at Christmas, and of course it was particularly poignant for those serving in World War II who were separated from their families and longing to make it home. Home for Christmas. It’s a powerful image.
This story – journeying home – is the story of the whole Bible, in fact. God creates humanity, but they turn away. Adam and Even leave the garden. God’s people wind up as slaves in Egypt. And Moses spends decades trying to lead them to a new home, renewing their relationship with God. Jesus tells us of a prodigal son, who took his family inheritance and ran off, and found himself with nothing. He makes the journey home – and finds that he is welcomed back with open arms.
It’s the story of our favorite songs of faith, too: “Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound, that saved a wretch like me – I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.” We sing, “Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.” It seems we are always seeking home, seeking God, on this journey of life, encountering trials and tribulations, longing for something more than we’ve found in all the other places we’ve been looking.
Tonight we read of another journey – Mary and Joseph, traveling to Bethlehem. Once there, because the inn is full, Mary delivers Jesus and lays him in a manger. We read of shepherds, watching their flocks. An angel appears and tells them there is “good news of great joy for all people,” and sends them to see a child, Jesus, who the angel calls Savior, Messiah, and Lord. The shepherds make the journey, find the baby, and praise God as they return to their fields. And Mary, we read, keeps all that she hears and sees and ponders it in her heart, treasuring all of it.
This, too, is a story about home, even though we find Mary and Joseph far away from theirs. Instead, it is a story about God announcing to us that we are home – with God – that God is home with us, and in us. And to show it, to prove it, to convince us that God is home with us and we are home with God already and always, God gets as close to us as possible by becoming one of us. Can we understand, can we glimpse the depth, the magnitude of God’s love for us? Can we comprehend the lengths to which God will go to make a home in our lives?
I have a cat, Ella, and when I’m home, Ella is usually in arm’s reach of me. When I’ve been away for a few days, she’s so clingy when I get back that I’m afraid I will step on her, because she’s always underfoot. And if I’d let her, she’d most like to sit right here. She wants to be as close to me as she possibly can be.
Studies are increasingly showing what many have known intuitively for generation upon generation. If it is possible, one of the best things for newborn babies is to have skin to skin contact with their parents. Even babies who are preemies, who need extra attention – if they can have that skin-to-skin contact – there’s healing and strength in the touch.
I’ve talked with my mom about a pattern I’ve seen in my family, immediate and extended, and maybe you’ve seen it in yours too. My older brother always talked about getting out of our hometown. He couldn’t wait to get away from Rome. And he finally did – when he was an adult, he moved out here to the Syracuse area. Not far, but not Rome. And I moved out here. And my brother Todd was living out here. And eventually, my Mom moved out here too! And by the time she moved out here, my older brother, who was the most anxious to move away from home, was most anxious to get Mom to move as close to him as possible. She lives about 3 minutes away from him, and sees him nearly every day, much to everyone’s joy. I’ve seen this in my extended family, where my cousins slowly moved to Arizona over the years, and finally my aunt and uncle moved there too – to everyone’s delight. So maybe everybody left home. Maybe no one moved back to their hometown. But they brought home to where they had moved!

This is how God loves us: so much God wants to be even closer than in arm’s reach. So much that God gives us life and strength the closer we draw to God. So much that God will find us and bring home to us wherever we go. The story of Christmas is a story of a journey, and a story of home. We keep telling it again and again. And maybe each time we tell it, we’ll know it a little better, understand it more fully, believe more deeply. God creates us. God loves us. We love God. We turn away anyway. God loves us. God loves us. God loves us. God helps us find our way back. But God is with us when we start out. And God is with us even when we’re trying to journey away from God. And God is waiting for us with open arms when we return home. Because God will do anything to make a home with us. That’s the story of Christmas. God-in-the-flesh to be God-with-us. Always. Home for Christmas. Amen. 

Monday, December 14, 2015

Sermon, "Home for Christmas: Over the Back Fence," Luke 1:26-45

Sermon 12/13/15
Luke 1:26-45

Home for Christmas: Over the Back Fence

Last month, noted biblical scholar J. Ellsworth Kalas died at age 92. He was a prolific author, and I’ve used many of his resources in my years of ministry. He wrote a whole series of short studies on the scripture that were called “From the Backside” – the Parables from the Backside, the Old Testament from the Backside, Beatitudes from the Backside. Each book took a very relatable, straight-forward approach to drawing out themes from the scriptures, but by looking at the scriptures in a new light, from a different angle, focusing on minor characters or small details. My favorite is Christmas from the Backside, and I have had a particular chapter on my mind as I’ve reflected on Mary and Elizabeth this week. Kalas includes in his book chapters like “The Scandal of Christmas” and “Three Votes for an Early Christmas,” and he also includes a chapter called “Christmas Comes to a Back Fence” that focuses on the interaction between Mary and Elizabeth and the significance of women to the birth story of Jesus. He imagines the sharing between Mary and Elizabeth of the extraordinary happenings both are experiencing, juxtaposed against the common, ordinary setting of Elizabeth’s home.
We can envision this conversation between Elizabeth and Mary in a place where women might comfortably talk together. In the time when Mary and Elizabeth met to share and talk over their life-changing news, there weren’t many public places where women might gather for conversation. This conversation, then, is one that might take place in the kitchen, in the yard, by the fence, certainly a conversation that took place at home. And it is here, likely at Elizabeth’s home, in this ordinary place, talking about ordinary and extraordinary things, that we read of Elizabeth being filled with the Holy Spirit, the first time in the gospels this happens. We usually think of the Holy Spirit coming at Pentecost, falling on the disciples as they began the work of the church. But it fills Elizabeth first, as she rejoices in what is happening in both Mary and herself, saying, “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” They both believe, Mary and Elizabeth, ordinary though they may be, that God is doing something extraordinary in and through them.
There are, of course, many miraculous things about the birth of Jesus and the connected stories as told in the scriptures. There are God’s messengers, the angels, popping in and out of the lives of everyone from Mary, mother of Jesus to shepherds in fields, and a sky fully of heavenly host. There’s Jesus, born in a stable, a star that guides the way, and eventually Wisemen from the East who perhaps practice astrology and bring strange gifts to the baby. There’s Elizabeth, pregnant beyond the known age of child-bearing. There is, of course, the very fact that Gabriel tells Mary her child will be the Son of the Most High God, conceived through this overshadowing of the Holy Spirit. The birth of Jesus is extraordinary.
But there are far more things about the birth of Jesus that are entirely typical. Mary experiences the limitations that unexpected pregnancies place on young women. Elizabeth feels her baby moving around in her womb. Mary wants to share her news with her cousin, and be with someone else who is experiencing what she is. Above all, we know nothing about Mary or Elizabeth that leads us to believe that they are in any way different from any other women of their time and place. We don’t find anything to suggest that they were especially pious or holy or spiritual or devoted or faithful. Perhaps they were, but the biblical writers don’t bother to share that if that’s the case. And this child, Jesus, who will be born, will not be of noble birth, will not be born in a palace, will not be born into luxury or status. He is not going to be born a prince or a king – not by standards his world will recognize. Despite God’s host of messengers, despite the shepherds that will come, despite the star, despite the visitors from the East, I think the normalcy of Jesus’ birth is just as, maybe more important than the attention-getting uniqueness of it. After all, this is God-with-us, and God can only be with us if God is really with us – born like us, born among us, born to experiences that most of us, not just a few of the elite of us have, born to a regular young woman, like any number of other children would have been born on the very same day. The birth of Jesus is ordinary.
We so often look at the world around us and divide what we see into two realms – sacred and secular. There are holy things and holy people and holy place – cross and altars and clergy and churches and sanctuaries – and then there’s ordinary stuff – our homes, our workplaces, our stuff, our food, and all the regular people. But that’s not what we see in the Christmas story. That’s not what we see in Mary and Elizabeth. That’s not what we see in scriptures. Instead, we find again and again that God shows up unexpectedly in our ordinary place, and by God’s very presence, by God’s showing up in our regular old lives, they are made holy. That’s what God does in communion – ordinary bread and cup become extraordinarily the living body of Christ. In baptism regular old water becomes a sign of new life, rebirth. Fishermen and tax collectors become disciples. Children become keys to understanding God’s reign on earth. And two ordinary women become the mother of the Christ-child and the mother of the prophet who will prepare his way. That’s what happens when God shows up in our ordinary – what God touches becomes Holy.  
I think sometimes we spend so much effort seeking out what we think is holy and sacred so that we can draw close to God. Instead, I wonder if we can start looking for the ways that the holy is all around us when God shows up in the ordinary stuff of our lives. Perhaps you’ll notice a holy moment when you are in the midst of the chaos at a busy shopping mall in these weeks leading up to Christmas. Perhaps you can make note of the holy in our midst when you see the kind of gifts children prepare for their loved ones with such care and creativity. Maybe you’ll experience a holy moment as you roll out the dough for Christmas cookies, or when you hear a carol on the radio as you drive to work. When you see examples of God-with-us in the everyday of life, you’re seeing something holy.
Kalas writes, “I’m trying to say that Christmas shows us that no part of life is unimportant to God, and that none of it is beyond God’s interest. And if that be so, not one of us is beyond God’s care and concern … So if you’re wondering where Christmas will happen this year, I’ll answer with a question: Where do you expect to be?” Because Christmas happens where we are. Christmas comes right to our homes, and right to our hearts. God loves you, God loves me, God loves us enough to become one of us, to show up in every part of our world, in every aspect of our lives. The gift that we can prepare for God this Christmas is to offer to God every bit, every piece, every part of our ordinary lives. And then, get ready: Because everything God gets to work on can becomes something extraordinary, something holy. And blessed are we who believed that there will be a fulfilment of what is spoken to us by God! Amen.