Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Sermon, "Us and Them: Agreeing and Disagreeing," 1 Corinthians 1:10-18

Sermon 2/19/17
1 Corinthians 1:10-18

Us and Them: Agreeing and Disagreeing

            I was visiting with a parishioner yesterday, and she was telling me how she mostly watches sport on TV because she doesn’t think there’s anything else on worth watching. She said, “I thought it would be better once the election is over, but…” and she let her sentence trail off. I’m sure we can easily fill in the rest for her. We thought tensions would ebb – but there is so much fear, so much anger, so much pain, so much hurt, so much division. I have strong political views, and I’m sure many of you do as well, but I’ve found myself wanting to disengage lately, even where I’m passionate about issues, because the level of meanness is exhausting. I’ve noticed that a handful of my friends have quit facebook altogether lately. Somehow we think that our words and actions online don’t count, and people seem free to be hurtful online in a way they remember not to in “real life.” I’m not giving up on facebook, but I will admit that I’ve used the “hide” feature more than once, allowing me to not see posts from people who have nothing nice to say. I’m weary. We talked last Sunday about our call to live out our baptismal vows, to seek justice and extend welcome in God’s name. But it is hard to act, to stay faithful and strong when it feels like everyone is getting clobbered out there in the world. I’m not na├»ve, and I don’t expect or even want us to all be of one mind and one voice. But I’m saddened and fearful when I see that disagreement turn into fights turn into wars.
And so today, we turn back to 1 Corinthians, the book we were looking at this fall when we talked about our theme “Church Can Happen Anywhere.” The Corinthians are the perfect community to think about when we need to look at conflict and God’s call to us in the midst of turmoil and division. Our passage for today comes from near the very beginning of 1 Corinthians. Paul doesn’t waste any time getting to the point of his letter to this new faith community. After nine verses of greeting and blessing, he jumps right in: “I appeal to you, in the name of Jesus: be in agreement with each other. Don’t have divisions among you. Be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” He goes on to describe that he’s heard reports from some of Chloe’s people. We don’t know anything much about Chloe – this is the only place her name is mentioned. But the verse suggests that she was a person of some significance or leadership in the church at Corinth. At any rate, Chloe’s people want Paul to know what’s been going on in Corinth.
In the early faith communities, one particular leader would be the founder – the first person who came to the place to share the message of Jesus and the good news about God’s grace. But that person would move on to other communities, and other teachers and preachers would eventually come and visit with the fledgling church. Apparently, at least three people have had an impact on the community at Corinth – Paul, Apollos, and Cephas – who we know better by his Hebrew name Simon Peter. All of them have been through Corinth and taught the people there about Jesus and how to be followers of Jesus. But something troubling has happened. People in Corinth have started identifying more with the messenger of the good news than with the message, and so instead of being followers of Jesus, people are claiming that they are followers of Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas. Each of these teachers would have had a unique way of sharing the message – just like no pastor you’ve had here is the same – but people are starting to divide and align themselves with whichever teacher they liked best.
Paul very quickly lets them know that this is not the way to go about things. “Has Christ been divided,” he asks, or “was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?” The unspoken resounding answer to all of these questions is, of course, NO. Paul says he was sent to proclaim the good news, but that his preaching wasn’t full of eloquent wisdom. This is a good thing though, he concludes, because then people know that the power of the message he shares is from Jesus and the cross, not from Paul himself. The message of Jesus and the cross might seem like foolishness to those who haven’t received it, who don’t understand the strength of Jesus offering his life for us – but when we get it, when we believe and understand – the message of Jesus is the saving power of God. Grounded in the message of Jesus, Paul spends the whole rest of the letter urging the Corinthians to work for reconciliation, and healing of conflict and division.
            Last week I shared with you John Wesley’s words from his sermon Catholic Spirit. He asked if we could be of one heart, even if we were not of one opinion. I want to tell you a bit more about the sermon those words come from. Wesley was preaching on a passage from 2 Kings. In the passage, we meet a man named Jehu who has been anointed by the prophet Elisha as the next king of Israel. Jehu is on a mission to stop the worship of the god Baal, and to destroy a temple to Baal, so that Israel will be faithful to God once again. On his way to confront the priests of Baal, he meets a man named Jehonadab on the road. Jehonadab is a Kenite, not an Israelite. He has some different ways of worshiping God, and he has a different lifestyle from Jehu and the Israelites. But he’s somewhat of a sage, a wise counselor among his people. Jehu sees him and says to him: “Is your heart as true to mine as mine is to yours?” And Jehonadab answers, “It is.” And so Jehu says, “If it is, give me your hand.” Jehonadab does, and together, they go to return Israel to a faithful worship of God.
            It is this exchange of words that Wesley uses as the centerpiece of his sermon. Wesley writes, "’If it be, give me thy hand.’ I do not mean, ‘Be of my opinion.’ You need not: I do not expect or desire it. Neither do I mean, ‘I will be of your opinion.’ I cannot, it does not depend on my choice: I can no more think, than I can see or hear, as I will. Keep you your opinion; I mine; and that as steadily as ever. You need not even endeavor to come over to me, or bring me over to you … Let all opinions alone on one side and the other: only ‘give me thine hand.’”
            Wesley sees a lot of room for being in relationship with one another even where opinions are very different. This was an important topic for him to think about, because he was long-engaged in a struggle with his own church, the Church of England, about theology and worship practices, and engaged in a struggle with his own Methodist movement about whether or not the Americas should break away from England to be their own people and own faith movement. Still, Wesley didn’t believe that relationships could flourish without solid common ground. That’s the “Is your heart as true to mine as mine is to yours” part. Here’s how Wesley interpreted these words. He asks: Is your heart right with God? Do you believe in God and God’s perfection? Do you believe in Jesus? Is Jesus revealed in your soul? Does he dwell in your heart? Is your faith filled with the energy of love? Do you love God with all your heart, soul, and mind? Are you busy doing God’s will and work in the world? Do you serve God faithfully and reverently? Is your heart right toward you neighbor? Do you love all people without exception, even your enemies? Do you show your love with good works? In order to say that your hearts were true to each other, Wesley expected you to be able to answer yes to all these questions! That’s a lot of common ground. Interestingly, Wesley doesn’t say anything about specific theological tenets, even though he would argue fervently for his points of view, and he doesn’t say anything specific about worship practices, although he had strong feelings about them, and he doesn’t even claim any particular religious tradition as correct, even acknowledging in his sermon that everyone thinks they’re right about everything, but no one really can know that they’ve got all the answers. (1) If, Wesley says, your heart is true to mine as mine is to yours, then we might join hands and journey together. We do this, he says, not by coming to hold the same opinions and practices, but instead by loving one another, praying for one another, and encouraging each other to love and good works.
            I find Wesley’s words to be powerful. He was an extremely opinionated person. He wrote about everything from politics to theology to nutrition to advice on how long people should sleep to writing a medical book with suggest treatments for a variety of illnesses. He considered himself kind of an expert in everything. I can only imagine that he was sometimes fairly difficult to be around. But even still, as right as he thought was about everything, he was more interested in finding some common ground for serving God than in making sure everyone else was just like him.
            The apostle Paul was like him – another strongly opinionated person who didn’t hold back from sharing how he thought things should be done. Yet, again and again Paul writes that in Christ Jesus, we are made new creations, and some of the old dividing lines fade in light of our identity in Christ. No longer Greek or Jew, male or female, slave or free – not because we’re all the same, and not because our diversity isn’t valuable, but because our common ground and common purpose is even more important. Paul Bellan-Boyer writes, “Clothing [ourselves with Christ does not erase our differences, but it does cover them, set them aside, put them in a new context … Paul does not ask that the Corinthians be identical – only that they cease to work at cross purposes, and instead work for cross purposes.” (2)
            I think, then, that’s a question we need to ask: Do we have some common ground that is more important to us than being right? Do we have some common ground on which we can build up our relationships? Do we have a common purpose that drives us? For many years, I served on the Board of Directors of the General Board of Church and Society or GBCS. That’s our denominations public policy and advocacy agency, located in Washington, DC. The agency, among other things, represents our United Methodist beliefs right on Capitol Hill. I’ll talk a bit more about their work next week, but today, I want to share this: GBCS would partner with a variety of different faith groups in order to amplify our voice on the Hill. Sometimes, we’d partner with faith groups where we had a lot of disagreement on a variety of issues. For example, United Methodists and Southern Baptists have different beliefs about a lot of theological and social issues. But we’d still work together when we could find common ground in our Christian identity on issues that mattered to both of us, even knowing that we would never share the same perspective on other important matters.
            “Is your heart as true to mine as mine is to yours? … If it is, give me your hand.” In the midst of disagreeing, passionately, about issues that are near and dear to us, I think we can find some common ground in simple things, ways we can agree to treat each other. We can speak to each other face to face when we’re disagreeing, speak to each other directly, rather than to others about each other. We can avoid making generalizations and stereotypes about groups of people. We can talk about what we believe and why we believe it using “I statements” – “I think this, I believe this” – owning our words. We can remember that our online words are still ours – who we are online is who we are – period. We can remember to be critical of ideas, but hesitant to be critical of people. We can listen – really listen – to people with whom we disagree. We can be kind and compassionate. Simple things. Basic things. But these basic things can give us common ground worth standing on with the rest of humankind!
            And then, we can push ourselves to go deeper, friends. Remember the questions that Wesley asked: Is our heart right with God? Is Jesus revealed in our souls? Do we love God with all our heart, soul, and mind? Are we busy doing God’s will and work in the world? Do we love all people without exception, even our enemies? Do we show our love with good works? Friends – if together we can say yes to all of those questions, if we will, if we strive to be able to say “yes” with confidence to all of this – what differences could possibly hold us back from accomplishing God’s vision for the world? “Is your heart as true to mine as mine is to yours? … If it is, give me your hand.” Amen.

(1) Wesley, John, Catholic Spirit, http://www.umcmission.org/Find-Resources/John-Wesley-Sermons/Sermon-39-Catholic-Spirit, and my own paraphrase of his words.  

(2) Bellan-Boyer, Paul. http://citycalledheaven.blogspot.com/2011/01/no-divisions.html

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Sermon, "Us and Them: The Dividing Wall," Ephesians 2:11-22

Sermon 2/12/17
Ephesians 2:11-22

Us and Them: The Dividing Wall

One of my favorite poems is Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall,” written in 1914. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” it begins. The poem describes two farmers – the narrator and another farmer who are neighbors. After winter, they find both set out to repair the wall between their properties, which has cracks and gaps after the weather of the season. As they’re walking the line together, the narrator asks his neighbor why they even need a wall, since the narrator has apple trees and the neighbor has pine trees, and it is clear which part belongs to each. The neighbor responds, “Good fences make good neighbors.” But the narrator persists: “‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it Where there are cows? But here there are no cows. Before I built a wall I’d ask to know What I was walling in or walling out, And to whom I was like to give offence. Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, That wants it down.’” But in the end, his neighbor only repeats the proverb: “Good fences make good neighbors.”
I wonder: is that the only way we can relate to each other? Across fences? Is that the best we can hope for when it comes to being neighbors? Somehow, when Jesus calls to us throughout the gospels to love God and love neighbor as we love ourselves, I feel like he had something deeper in mind. And yet, we’re experiencing a time of extreme division, polarization as a nation, as a global community, and I’m sure you would agree that the impact of this division is spilling over into our local communities, into our everyday lives. Here, in our own congregations, we have some folks who voted for Donald Trump, and some who voted for Hillary Clinton, and maybe some who voted for someone else, and some who chose not to vote. Can we still be in relationship with each other? Could we actually talk about what we believe and why without resorting to arguments and heated words and strained friendships? And where does our faith come into play in the midst of this?
            Today we’re starting a new sermon series: “Us and Them.” We’ll be thinking about how we respond, as people of faith, to a nation, a world divided. We’ll be asking ourselves what God calls us to do and say, how God calls us to act, in light of all that is happening around us. And we’ll ask questions about what it means for Christians to be involved in politics. Should we do that? How do we do that? We’ll see what we can discover together over these next few weeks.  
            Our reading today is from the letter to the Ephesians, the community of Jesus-followers in Ephesus. We kind of drop right into the middle of the letter, where the author has been talking about God’s grace and how the Christians in Ephesians have been blessed and redeemed not by good works, as if salvation is something we can earn, but simply by the abundant gift of God’s grace. The Christians in Ephesus are Gentiles; that is, they were not Jewish or converts to Judaism. Instead, they simply became followers of Jesus once they heard the gospel, the good news preached to them. In the early church, there were a lot of different feelings about Gentile followers of Jesus. Some folks thought Gentile Christians should convert to Judaism as a part of their discipleship. After all, Jesus was Jewish and never abandoned following Jewish customs even as he taught people a new way of understanding their relationship with God. But others thought it made more sense simply to follow the teachings of Jesus. Circumcision was a physical difference that marked these groups of Christians. Jewish Christians were circumcised, and Gentile Christians were not. In many of our New Testament readings, like in the writings of Paul, we discover that there are ongoing tensions between the two groups of Christians, and how they related to each other and the church as a whole.
            Our author, though, doesn’t see any reason for tension and division. In fact, just the opposite. He argues that in Jesus Christ, those who were “far off” – that is those who were Gentiles and not part of the covenant God made with the Israelites that we read of in the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament – those who were far off are brought near to God, near to God’s promises. “For [Christ] is our peace,” he says, and in his very flesh “he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” Jesus creates “one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace.” All of us are reconciled to God through the same Jesus, he argues, so any hostility we have is put to death in the process. Jesus isn’t sent just to one group of people, but to all. Jesus proclaims peace “to you who were far off and peace to those who were near,” he writes, and all of us have access to one God, one Spirit, through Christ.
            That’s not all, though. God doesn’t just knock down the dividing walls between us. Instead, God calls us to build something up, together. We read, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”
            In other words: our citizenship, our allegiance is important. But before we get to any national identities, and certainly before we claim allegiance to any political parties, our primary citizenship is as members of the household of God, and our primary allegiance is to Jesus. Our lives without God were no lives at all. But Jesus gives everything, even his life, to reconcile us to God and one another. And so God calls us together, to work together to serve God in love. Jesus is the cornerstone. The apostle and prophets, the teachers of faith are the foundation. And together we create whatever dreams God is calling us to make a reality in this world.
            Our citizenship is in the household of God, and our allegiance is to Jesus, who we’ve promised to follow as our Savior. What would that change about how we relate to each other if we reminded ourselves of that, our primary identity? John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, shared these words in his sermon called On a Catholic Spirit: “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may.” What do you think, friends? Can we love alike, and be of one heart, even if we aren’t of one opinion?
            Next week we’ll be talking more specifically about what we do when we disagree – vehemently even – with each other about important issues. But today, as we think about the dividing walls, the barriers we’re putting up between heart and heart, here are some things I’ve been thinking about:
We might not understand someone, might not understand why they think the way they do. What should be our response when we don’t understand why someone believes what they believe? We might not understand why someone is afraid. You might not understand why someone is afraid of terrorists or losing our national identity. How might you help ease their fears? You might not understand why someone fears they will lose their rights, lose their protections under the law. How might you help ease their fears? We might not even be able to consider someone a friend, because we’re so baffled, disgusted, even by what they think and feel. We might even count them as an enemy. Even so, how does Jesus call us to treat our enemies? Jesus challenges us to love them! But if your enemy interprets your words and actions to be hateful or hurtful instead of loving, it’s likely your approach to loving your enemy needs some significant work!
            It wasn’t long ago – just last month, in fact, that we talked about Jesus’ baptism and renewed our baptismal covenant as a congregation. Still, I think it is worth looking at again, particularly looking at the questions and responses we’re asked when we’re baptized, when we stand for someone being baptized, or when we are confirmed or become members by professing our faith. Here’s what we’re asked:
On behalf of the whole Church, I ask you: Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin? The response: I do. One mark of our citizenship as God’s children is a commitment to turning away from evil. We commit to repenting of our own sin. This isn’t a call for us to point out the sins of others, but to examine our own lives, and to turn back toward God if we’ve been going in a different direction, away from God. That’s what repentance means – turning our minds, hearts, and lives back to God’s direction.
We’re asked: Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves? The response: I do. We accept both the freedom and the power, the responsibility, to resist evil, injustice, and oppression, however they show up in the world. Resisting evil isn’t exclusive to the realm of politics. Fighting injustice and oppression isn’t something we support because of our political affiliation. It’s part of our baptismal identity. When we see people hurting in God’s world, we’re called to respond because of our identity in Christ Jesus. We’re called to combat racism, and fight discrimination, and champion the poor, the orphan, the widow, the stranger, the most vulnerable that God lifts up all throughout the scriptures. It’s a part of our very baptismal covenant to do so, because our citizenship is in the household of God, and we have to stand up for all of God’s children.
We’re asked: Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races? The response: I do. In our baptismal vows, we confess that it is Jesus Christ, and not the President, or Congress, or the Supreme Court, or anyone else who saves us. We promise that it is Jesus who is our Lord, Jesus who we serve, and not our own agendas, and not the promise of success and power and fortune. And we remember that God has extended the same invitation to all people, and all kinds of people.
And finally, we’re asked: According to the grace given to you, will you remain faithful members of Christ's holy Church and serve as Christ's representatives in the world? Our response: I will. We represent Jesus in the world. We take it pretty seriously that our elected officials represent us in our nation’s politics. We expect them to listen to our concerns. We expect to be able to hold them accountable or we can choose not to elect them anymore, not to have them represent us anymore. We give it a lot of weight, don’t we? How much weight do we give to our vows to represent Christ to the world? Are we doing a good job of representing Christ’s interests in the world? Do we listen to his concerns? Are we a good representation of Jesus to those around us? How do we demonstrate our allegiance to Jesus?
Do good fences make good neighbors? Maybe. But I think we can do better. Jesus is our peace, and he is constantly working in our lives to break down the hostilities that we make between ourselves and others. He brings together those who are far off and those who are near, so that we might be one body in Christ, serving one God, members of the one household of God. So friends, as we begin, though we may not always think alike, let us love alike. Though we may not always be of one opinion, let us be of one heart, in word and deed and spirit. There’s far too much at stake in our world for us to let it be otherwise.

Monday, February 06, 2017

Sermon, "How Will You Measure Your Life? By Who and How You Serve," Mark 10:35-45

Sermon 1/29 & 2/5/17
Mark 10:35-45

How Will You Measure Your Life? By Who and How You Serve

            We’ve been spending the last couple of weeks thinking about how we measure our lives: How the world asks us to measure ourselves, how we think of ourselves, how God measures us. One of the ways we measure “success” is by how much power we have. We think about how much power we have over others and how much power others have over us. We use phrases like power suit and power walking and power lunches and power foods. Many of us might have an initial impulse to say that we don’t have any power. But we all have power. Power is the ability to do things, the ability to control things or people, the ability to direct or influence things. We all have some spheres in our lives where we exercise power. And we also have a deep desire to not being under the power of others. It’s a part of our national identity, in fact. We want to be self-determined people, in control.
            Pastor Adam Hamilton suggests that the more power we have, the harder it is when others try to control it. He recounts two situations where a person’s power was demonstrated in their insisting on their own way and refusing any restrictions on that power. He went to lunch with a man who insisted to the host that they would sit in a section of the restaurant that was closed off for the evening already. He put up a fuss until the host gave in, and Hamilton found himself embarrassed and worried about what the restaurant staff would do to their food! Another time, Hamilton was standing in line at a store behind a person who was trying to return an item but they didn’t have the receipt. They wanted to get cash back, but the store policy was to give store credit when there was no receipt. The person berated the cashier until the cashier finally gave in. Hamilton asks, “What price does your character have, just so you can get your way?” The world teaches us to seek after power, but it isn’t a very good measure of our life. We don’t want to measure our life by how often we’ve gotten our own way, and how often we got to be in charge, and by how many people we get to boss around. (1)
            So how will we measure our lives? Today we’re thinking about what it means to measure our lives by who and how we serve. Just like we do, even Jesus’ closest followers, the twelve disciples, struggled with their desire for power. In fact, the scriptures tell us that they were regularly arguing with each other about which of them was the greatest! In chapter 9 of Mark’s gospel, just a chapter before today’s text, the disciples are fighting over who is the greatest. Jesus, overhearing, says to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” And then he takes a small child and puts the child at the center the group of disciples, telling them that to welcome a child is to welcome Jesus, to welcome God into their lives.
Just before our text for today begins, a man approaches Jesus asking what he has to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus talks to him about the commandments, which the man says he keeps, and then Jesus tells him he should sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor and then follow Jesus. And the man goes away grieving, since he was very wealthy. Jesus then talks about how difficult it is to enter God’s kingdom, and the disciples wonder how anyone could enter the kingdom. Jesus tells them that with God, nothing is impossible, but that the last will be first and the first will be last.
            And somehow, just after these scenes, apparently not absorbing anything from the previous conversations, we encounter James and John saying to Jesus, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Wow – the boldness of the request! But we shouldn’t blame James and John alone – clearly all of the disciples were interested in these seats of power. Jesus presses them, asking if they could really handle all that is implied – if they could face what Jesus will face in order to claim those honored seats – and they insist that they can. Naturally, their claim to seats of honor causes a fight among the twelve, who are mad at James and John. But Jesus says to them, ““You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Throughout the gospels, Jesus talks about these role reversals, about flipping things upside down in the expected order of the world. The exalted are humbled, and the humbled exalted. Last first and first last. And here, Jesus, the teacher, the master, comes not to be served, but to serve, to give his life. Whoever wants to be great must be a servant, he says.
            Jesus calls us to something different than a quest for power and control over others, which is amazing, because Jesus is God-in-the-flesh, the son of the Creator of the Universe! Jesus has the ultimate power! But again and again he astonishes his contemporaries and astonishes us by showing that true power, true strength is found in serving, not being served. Some of my clergy colleagues and I were talking about how hard it is to do the right thing as pastors when people come to the church seeking financial assistance. Often people seek help from the local church – if you can’t go to the church, where can you go? – and it is hard to know what to do, what to give, who and how to help, how to help in ways that will really transform people, rather than leave them in the position of needing to ask, to beg really, again and again. We talked about how it was hard to serve others well in these situations. And I began to wonder why Jesus never seemed to run into struggles like this. We never see him trying to decide whether or not to help someone. And then I realized why: Jesus never had to make these kinds of decisions, and didn’t have folks asking him for the same kinds of material help, because Jesus had already completely poured himself out as an offering to others. He’d opted out of having the power of giving or withholding charity. He’d decided already that he would be the one relying on the welcome of others, rather than being the one with the power to invite or not into his home. No one asked him for things because Jesus kept no things, nothing, for himself. Jesus tells us that to be great, the way God sees it, we must be servants, not those who seek to be served, seek to be masters, seek to have power. We must be servants. Jesus does this to the extreme – he gives his life as a ransom for many. He even gives away his very life. We’re called, too, to give our very selves away as we serve others. The less we hold onto, the less we’ll struggle with how we’re best supposed to serve, because what we’ll have to give will simply be ourselves, and that’s the very best we have to offer.
            As much as we like to think we’re completely independent, completely self-sufficient, we’re all living our lives in service to something. Sometimes we’re serving the notion of power, or the quest for status or things or money. But we spend our lives serving whatever we’ve made most important. (2) The questions we have to ask ourselves is who and how will we serve?
            Several of us have been participating in a book study these last several weeks focusing on Michael Slaughter’s book Dare to Dream. The aim of the book is to help participants create a “God-sized mission statement for [our lives].” In the most recent chapter we ready together, Slaughter says that we go through three phases in our life. In the first, our prayer is “God bless me.” When we realize we can’t do it on our own, that our own power isn’t enough, we pray, “God save me!” But our aim, Slaughter says, is for our prayer to be “God use me,” where our lives are focused on doing God’s will, serving God and serving others. Slaughter writes, “I don’t want to play at being the church; I want the real thing. I would rather die at age sixty-two knowing I have been about the work and purpose for which God sent me, than to live to age ninety asking what it was all about. …No matter where we are on the ladder to God’s dream … we can’t take anything with us except what we have done for God. What you have done toward your unique God-purpose is the only thing that will live beyond your earthly existence.” (63) He continues, “Your life mission will always be connected to God’s redemptive purpose, not your own self-interest.” (62)
The most common prayer of our faith is the Lord’s Prayer. We pray it in worship on Sunday, and many of us probably pray this prayer in other places and settings throughout the week as well. It was certainly part of my prayer routine from childhood. How many times have you prayed that prayer? Every time we pray it, we say these words: “You kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” We pray, over and over, for God’s will to be done. Do we mean what we say? Of course, I hope and pray that sometimes, many times, our will and God’s will are one in the same. That, I think, is the goal we aim for in our Christian life. But sometimes, our will, what we want, is different from what God wants for us. Sometimes this isn’t just because we want something that’s wrong or bad or evil, but because God has something in mind for us we haven’t even imagined yet. When we claim the title of disciple, when we say that we’re servants, when we pray for God’s will to be done, I want us to be fully aware that what we’re saying is that God’s will is more important to us than our own, that we’d rather see God’s plans carried out than ours! It is in fact the very prayer that Jesus prayed in the garden before he was arrested – if it be your will God. But not as I will, but your will be done. God’s will be done. We pray it over and over. I hope, I seek for myself and for you that we learn to live it, to embody it more fully. We are servants not because God is a tyrant over us, but because we follow this Jesus who shows us that strength and power come from humble service, and deep relationship with God is born of learning to let God’s ways be our ways.  
The difference is choice. God never forces us to be obedient, to choose to place our will below God’s will for us. But God does ask us to do so. God asks us to choose to let God’s will be the guide of our life. God asks for our servanthood. And God doesn’t ask something that Jesus doesn’t model himself. “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Jesus lives as a servant, placing our lives before his own life, obedient to God even to the point of death on a cross. Jesus chooses. He chooses servanthood. He chooses God. He chooses us. 

            Now it is our turn to choose. Who and how will we serve? Our answer and our commitment to our answer are measures of our lives. Let me close with the prayer Adam Hamilton uses to begin each day: “Lord, I am your servant – what do you want me to do today? Send me! My life belongs to you – do what you want with me today! Where do you need me today? I’m yours!” Amen. 

(1) Hamilton, Adam, http://cor.org/leawood/sermons?q=&year=2014#d/sermon/1545/cor_l
(2) Lose, David, "Pentecost 21B Who Will You Serve?"

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Sermon, "How Will You Measure Your Life? By How and What You Give," Luke 6:27-38

Sermon 1/29/17
Luke 6:27-38

How Will You Measure Your Life? By How and What You Give

            When I was little, probably between 3rd grade and 6th grade, I was a part of 4H. You can focus on a lot of different skills in 4H clubs, but mine was focused on cooking and sewing in particular. I remember gathering around the kitchen counter of my leader’s home, learning how to cook and bake. Only, there were a lot more rules involved in the cooking and baking than when I learned at home. In 4H, you learn how to do things the 4H Way. Seriously, that’s what we learned to call it. The 4H way of cooking in baking involved a lot of precision, and very careful measuring, and mixing things in separate bowls, and combining them carefully, and washing hands between every step, and making sure to use your level whenever you measured flour. And there definitely was no licking batter off the beaters at 4H. Every year, I would take part in a cooking demonstration at the Westernville Town Hall. I’d prepare a poster board with the recipe I was going to make, and then have to tell a roomful of people how to put together the recipe, making sure, of course, to do everything the 4H Way. Believe it or not, I used to be petrified of public speaking, and these demonstrations were among some of the most terrifying times in my young life!
I loved being a part of 4H – don’t get me wrong. 4H was a centerpiece of my social life! But cooking and baking at home with my mother and grandmother was a lot different. I can’t remember, to be honest, ever using a level to precisely measure something. There were a lot of recipes in our family that included helpful instructions like “until it looks right,” if it was even written down at all. Tasting the batter was a right of the baker. My grandmother was always making a little extra dough so that if she was baking bread, for example, there was always enough to make us kids our own little mini-loaves to have. Everything was made with a generous hand.
I think about going out to eat with friends. I have a couple of friends, friends I love dearly, but they drive me a little crazy when it comes times to dividing up the bill and calculating a tip. I try to be a generous tipper. Not excessive – I couldn’t afford some of the extravagant gestures I read about sometimes in the news. But generous. However, I have a few friends who, though sufficiently well-to-do, seem to use the $5 or $6 that might be a reasonable tip as the place to start pinching pennies, shortchanging the server by a $1 or $2 – something that would really add up for the server but not make much of a dent to my friend. I believe in being frugal, thoughtful with how I spend my money – but if I’ve already decided to go out for a meal, I don’t want my savings to come at the expense of my server.
Today we’re continuing to think about how we will measure our lives. We talked two weeks ago about who and how we love – and I asked you to be intentional about your loving actions. You even got an extra week to work on it! Today, we’re thinking about measuring our lives by how and what we give. What do we give? How do we give it? Our gospel reading today is from Luke’s gospel. It’s part of what’s called The Sermon on the Plain, a big chunk of teaching from Jesus that takes place while the disciples and crowds are gathered together to hear him. He touches on many topics, some in depth, some with short sayings. Our passage for today is a kind of medley of teachings, but Jesus’ words coalesce around some common themes. He teaches that crowds to love their enemies and do good to those who hate them. Perhaps we are enough used to or familiar with Jesus’ teachings that those words no longer stop us in our tracks, but they’re pretty extreme. Love your enemies. He calls us to give to anyone who asks from us, to give even to those who don’t bother with the asking! “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” After all, he says, if we only love those who love us, and do good to those who do good to us, what does that say about our character? Everyone can do that! Jesus expects more of us than being nice to people who are nice to us. “Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.” When we do this, we’re modeling behavior after God’s, because God is kind and merciful, even to those who are ungrateful and evil. Don’t judge, don’t condemn. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Finally, Jesus concludes: “The measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
            When we measure our lives, friends, what kind of measure are we using when we give? Are we measuring the 4H Way, making sure to be exact, not a pinch too little or too much? Are we like a stingy tipper, cutting corners in what we give to others to make sure we have as much for ourselves as we want? Or do we look to how God gives, how God measures? Jesus says the measure put into our lap is one that is running over. And indeed, throughout the scriptures, we find images of God’s abundance, God’s extravagance in giving. Just yesterday at Katie Moore’s funeral, we shared together in the 23rd Psalm, saying, “My cup runneth over.” How does God give to us? God gives like one who knows there is no end to the supply of what is available. God gives like it is God’s greatest joy to give to us. God gives to the kind and loving, and to the ungrateful and hard-hearted. God gives to us like we’re God’s favorite things in the world! God gives with a generous measure, always putting in extra for us.
How do we give? There are many places in the Bible where we get to listen in when someone asks Jesus a question. I read that there are about 65 questions that Jesus gets asked across the gospel accounts. There are a variety of questions, but I notice that several of them that lead to some major teaching from Jesus in response share a theme. Here are a few of those questions: Is it lawful to cure on the Sabbath? Do I have to pay taxes? How many times must I forgive someone? Is seven times enough? Who is my neighbor? What do I have to do to get eternal life? Do you sense the theme? As I hear them, in all of these questions, if we strip away to the core of it, the person is asking: What is the very minimum I can do and still be ok? What’s the least I have to forgive? Who is not my neighbor? How little can I give? How little can I do and still “get into heaven?” It seems like a lot of times we want to know: What’s the least I can give and still be ok? I’m not just talking here about how we give financially – although that’s something to consider. I think sometimes we act like we want to know the least we can give of our time, our energy, our lives, our hearts, our control, our plans, ourselves, and still be ok with God.
God wants so much more from us and for us! God want us to do unto others as we’d love for them to do to us, to measure for others like we’d like them to measure for us. Our best bet, as always, is to follow God’s example. How does God measure with us? I don’t want God to be using a level, making precisely sure not to give me too much, making sure not to leave too big a tip, trying to save few pennies when it comes to blessing me or my loved ones, frankly. I’m so thankful that God is so generous, so extravagant, so ready to fill our lives to overflowing! I want to learn to measure with the same measure God uses on us.
Pastor Adam Hamilton shares about a conversation he had with a man who runs auctions, especially estate auctions, where a persons’ possessions – often a whole household of trinkets and furniture and treasures and collectibles – will be auctioned off at a special event. The auctioneer says he often talks to families before the auction to give them a few words of warning about how this will feel. He tells them, “We’re going to take your life’s work and dispose of it in 4 hours.” But Hamilton reflects that the auctioneer’s words are only true if we see our life’s work as the stuff we’ve accumulated. What if, Hamilton asks, your life’s work is to pour yourself out into other people? “We can only take with us what we give away,” he says. (1) How are we giving? We are called to pour ourselves out in generous measure, overflowing the lives of those we meet with love and compassion, just as God does for us.
What’s left is simply to discover what it is that we’re called to give. Here’s what’s on my list: Love, of course. Mercy. Forgiveness. Compassion. Our time, which we treasure perhaps even more than our money. Our hearts. Our selves. All of us have these gifts to give. And all of us live in a world that is aching with need for the very things that we can pour out with a generous measure, and still find ourselves with yet more to give. This week, I want you to pay special attention to what you give and receive. Who will offer you forgiveness, and who will you forgive this week? Who will show you compassion? Where will you offer mercy instead of condemnation in a world that thrives on instant judgment? How will you spend this gift of your time this week? Who can you make time for? How will you give your heart to God this week? What will we make our life’s work? How generous is the measure you use?
“A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” Amen.


Sunday, January 15, 2017

Sermon, "How Will You Measure Your Life? By Who and How You Love," John 13:1-17, 34-35

Sermon 1/15/17
John 13:1-17, 34-35

How Do You Measure Your Life?

            Some of you may have heard of this little thing happening in our church right now. The RipIt Ministry, which just continues to blossom in new ways, has just kicked off its annual challenge. This year, seasoned mentors are pairing up with folks who are trying to reach some fitness goals to help guide and support them in their journey. I decided, with a little convincing from Amber Ormasen – have you ever tried to refuse a request from her? – to take part. One of the first things we had to do was get weighed and measured. It’s not my favorite experience, for sure. But it’s hard to measure your progress if you aren’t really sure where you started. I’ll be able to measure my progress in pounds lost, but also in changes in inches. Of course, those measures aren’t the only measures that are valuable. Folks might measure how many seconds they can hold a plank position before and after the challenge, or whether their cholesterol has improved after eating healthy for a few months, or whether they just feel better. But whatever way we do it, I know folks talking part in the challenge will be looking for ways to measure the impact of what we’ve been working on.
            We’ll be thinking a lot about how we measure things as our worship focus for the next few weeks. I think we’re busy measuring most areas of our lives. We want to know – how do we measure up? How do we compare? How are we doing in life? How do we stack up? Our question for the next three weeks is this: How will we measure our life? The question isn’t whether we will measure our lives or not. We’re all measuring – whether we’re aware of it or not, whether we know how we’re measuring our lives or not, whether we’re happy with our measurements, or not. We do measure our lives. So for the next few weeks, we’ll ask ourselves: How do we measure our lives? We’ll ask how we do it now. How do you measure your life right now? What measure are you using? What results are you looking for that tell you you are “on track” or not? And we’ll ask how we should be measuring our lives. How does God measure us? How does God ask us to measure our lives?
            So how do we typically measure our lives today? We might measure our lives by what salary we earn and how successful we are at work. That’s where we spend the bulk of our time, most of us, and a lot of our sense of self-worth can come from being measured at work. We might get bonuses or raises or a good review or be rewarded for being employee of the month. We might be in positions of power that give us status. We might get a new, prestigious title, or measure our worth by the size of our office. In sports, we keep track of how many points were scored, or how many yards someone went, or how many homeruns someone accumulates, or how fast or how high or how far someone could go. We give awards for best acting and best directing and best writing and if you don’t qualify for any of those, you might win best dressed, at least. We’re measured in school by our grades and our scores on standardized tests, by our attendance records. We’re measured by our appearance – how much we weigh, how tall we are, what brand of clothing we’re wearing. I think more and more we’re measured by how happy we can make ourselves look in facebook photos and Instagram pictures. So many ways that we add up and measure the value of our lives. How do you measure your life?
            It’s not just out in the secular world that people try to measure success like this. I have to tell you: when pastors meet, typical questions are: How big is your church? How many people are in worship? What’s your budget? How many people are on staff? There’s a tendency to think that bigger is always better, and that success in ministry means getting appointed to larger and larger churches. It can be pretty toxic, pretty stressful, this culture of measuring each other’s worth in this way. I wrestle with the allure of wanting to measure up. I would argue that meaningful ministry is about so much more than numbers, but I also get excited when we have more, and I also feel acutely aware of how much we have, or don’t have, of everything. When we measure, I feel like we set ourselves up to be disappointed with our results.
            How will we measure our lives? Rev. Adam Hamilton shared that when he meets with families to plan a funeral for a loved one, most people don’t talk about the achievements their loved ones racked up at work. Few people pull out the plaques or trophies or awards that their beloved had accumulated. What they talk about is how loved they felt. They talk about the time they got to spend together. They talk about the times they laughed together or cried together as a family. They talk about the quality of their loved one’s character – how kind or brave or caring or compassionate they were. (1)
            How will we measure our lives? No matter how much time we spend pursuing other aims, it seems that what really matters is who and how we love one another. Jesus tells us that the greatest commandments are that we love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and that we love our neighbors as ourselves. But how on earth do we measure love? In the Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament, the writings speak of loving-kindness, of steadfast love. In the New Testament, the gospels and letters use the word agape for love, a word that has the connotation of a selfless, self-sacrificing love. In other words, just claiming that we love someone – that we love God, or that we love one another – isn’t enough. Our love has to be demonstrated in real action. Our love has to show in what we do and how we live. Jesus talked about this as bearing good fruit. We heard John the Baptist mention in the text we read just last week – we’re called to bear fruit – the fruit – what we have to show for our lives – is how we’re measured. Again and again Jesus shares parables suggesting that God looks to make sure we’re growing good fruit in our lives. So how do we love in a way that gives us something to show? How do we measure our lives by who and how we love?
            Our gospel text today shares a scene that we typically hear on Maundy Thursday, the night that Jesus celebrated what we call “The Last Supper” with his disciples, the night that he was betrayed and arrested. The word “Maundy” is from a Latin word that means commandment. Jesus gives us in this passage what he calls a “new commandment.” But of course, the new commandment Jesus gives is one that is actually not new at all: He commands us to love one another as he has loved us. So that leads us to the question: How has Jesus loved us?
Where Matthew, Mark, and Luke all write about Jesus sharing a final meal with his disciples during Passover, John focuses on something entirely different: a foot-washing. During supper, Jesus gets up, prepares, and sets about washing the feet of his disciples. Some of you may have participated in a ceremonial foot-washing as part of a Holy Week service before, or in some other setting. When I was about to be ordained, our bishop at the time Bishop Violet Fisher washed the feet of all of us who were in my ordination class. It can be a deeply moving experience. But I also think it is one that’s a bit hard for us to translate into contemporary culture. In Jesus’ day, foot-washing was a common practice. People walked in sandals on dusty roads, and whenever you entered a home, it would be common to wash your feet. But you would wash your own feet or it would be the task of a slave to wash your feet. If you weren’t a slave, you would never wash someone else’s feet. And if you were the higher ranking person, if you were the teacher for example, you certainly wouldn’t be washing the feet of your disciples. Jesus was taking on the task of a slave. When he washed their feet, it was an act of humility, service, devotion, love, an act of love he offers on the night before he will even give his own life as a demonstration of his love. I have a hard time even finding an act we could offer someone today that would compare to what Jesus offers the disciples.
            No wonder, then, that Peter reacts how he does. Disbelieving what is clearly happening, he asks Jesus, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” He insists that Jesus will never do such a menial, humbled act for him. But Jesus tells Peter that if Peter wants to have a share in Jesus, he needs to receive what Jesus is offering. And then Peter is in, whole-heartedly! Once Jesus has finished washing the disciples’ feet, he says to them: “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord … So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” And it is then, in this context, that Jesus says “I give you a new commandment that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
            Jesus has demonstrated what he means by loving one another. When Jesus shows love, it means that he’ll trade in his status as teacher for that of a slave instead. When Jesus shows love, it means he will serve others in ways that most people would consider beneath them. When Jesus shows love, he humbles himself, that the other person might be lifted up. He offers his very life as an act of love. This is what I mean by loving as I have loved, Jesus says.
How will we measure our lives? By who we love and how we love. We are God’s strategy for loving the world. We are God’s plan for redeeming the world with love in action! (1) That’s an amazing responsibility, an amazing gift that God entrusts to us. We can measure our lives by the fruit that our love-in-action grows. And we love-in-action by loving like Jesus – by forgetting about our status and instead thinking of how we can serve others, by humbling ourselves so that others can be lifted up, by putting others first, by sharing with them the valuable gifts of our time, our attention, our heart.
I challenged the children to think about how they would put their love into action this week, and I want to challenge you to do the same thing. Love might seem like a hard thing to measure, but Jesus says we can see good fruit, a sign of love’s presence. I want you to pay attention, to keep track this week, and challenge yourself. When can you demonstrate love for someone? When you are at school, at work, at the store, at a meeting, out for a walk – how can you – how will you – practice lovingkindness this week? And be on the lookout for ways that others are demonstrating their love for you! When you see good fruit in someone else, when you notice their loving actions – take note! Next week we’ll talk about what kind of fruit we saw this week.
How will we measure our lives? By who and how we love. Jesus shows us the way, as he washes our feet. How will we love? Like Jesus does. Amen.

(1) Hamilton, Adam. Sermon,

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Sermon for Baptism of the Lord Sunday, Year A, "The Baptism of Jesus," Matthew 3:1-17

Sermon 1/8/17
Matthew 3:1-17

The Baptism of Jesus

            Many of you know that I spent this last week at Sky Lake, which is one of our conference camps, down in the Binghamton area. Pastors are supposed to take some spiritual renewal time each year, and this was mine. I spent the week doing some worship planning, thinking about the ministries of the church, and spending some time in prayer and reflection with God. While I was there, I was thinking about my own time as staff person at Camp Aldersgate, some 22 years ago now.
As soon as I was old enough, I applied, and spent a summer lifeguarding and working in the kitchen. The staff was made up of young people mostly between the ages of 16 and 25, aside from some of the older year-round staff, which is pretty typical. And it’s a pretty intense experience. You’re with this group of people all day every day for a summer, and most of the people are, like you, at the stage in life where you are trying to figure out who you are and who you want to become. It’s a time of making some pretty major life decisions. And when you’re all going through that together, it can be intense and meaningful and life-changing. One of the hardest things to remember, though, when you part of a tight knit group like that, is that even though you have such deep connections with the friends you are working with, and even though you are loving your time with your team, it isn’t your experience that is the one that matters most. It isn’t your satisfaction, or you feeling great about how things are going that matters in the end. Everything that you do is for the campers who come to spend time there, learning about God, learning about who Jesus is, and how they can get to know Jesus, and draw closer to God. Camp is for them, not for the staff. And so if the staff is having the best time of their lives, but the campers aren’t, then the great experience of the staff is worth, well, nothing much, because the camp is not serving its purpose. That’s tough to remember when you are a young adult on the brink of all these significant life changes and decisions. And yet, the life-changing experience that many campers have every summer will tell you that (at least most of the time) the staff remembers what they’re all about.
            I was thinking about this this past week: times when our purpose, our mission, is not for ourselves and our own benefit as much as it is for someone else, for others. I was thinking about that when I was wrestling with our text for today. Today is Baptism of the Lord Sunday. It’s a day when we remember that Jesus was baptized, and we reflect on what that means for us. And as I think about his baptism, I keep asking: who is it for? What purpose does Jesus’ baptism fulfill? Is it for himself? Is it for others? How? It’s nice to remember a meaningful event in Jesus’ life, but why is it meaningful, and what does it have to do with us now?
            Jesus’ baptism is an important event for us to think about for a few reasons. First, it is one of very few events in Jesus’ life that are recorded in all four gospels. That tells us that it was significant – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all write about it. It’s also the starting point of Jesus’ public ministry. We’re not sure about much of what Jesus was doing between the time of his birth and the time he came to John to be baptized. But his baptism is the beginning of everything we do know. Once he is baptized, Jesus spends time in the wilderness, and then from there, it’s three years of preaching and teaching and healing and ministry seemingly non-stop until he is arrested, executed, resurrected. So for Jesus, his baptism marks a beginning, something he feels he must do as he begins the work he came to do.
Baptism wasn’t a brand new thing, though. It wasn’t created by John the Baptist. When we read about John baptizing people, he wasn’t doing something unfamiliar to the people. The literal meaning of the word baptism is “to be dipped” or “immersed” in water. Baptism was a cleansing ritual, a rite of purification that people would participate in when they wanted to make a new start. When John begins calling the people to repent, that is, to make a 180° turn around in their life, to get going back on God’s path, it wouldn’t have been surprising that baptism was the ritual that was paired with their act of repentance.
            What John does is add his specific meaning to baptism – he explains that he is baptizing for repentance, in preparation for the coming of God’s reign on earth. And he notes that Jesus, too, will add meaning to baptism – a baptism with, John says, “Holy Spirit and fire.” Eventually, the apostle Paul and the early church will add more layers of meaning to baptism – baptizing in the name of the trinity: in the name of God, in the name of Jesus Christ, and in the name of the Holy Spirit. Our particular faith traditions add layers of meaning to baptism too. In some traditions, baptism is a decision-making moment when a person commits to being a follower of Jesus. In our tradition, we emphasize God’s action in baptism. We celebrate baptism as an outward sign, the public celebration of God’s grace at work in our lives and our acceptance of that grace, or, in the case of those who cannot accept it for themselves, a commitment from family and sponsors to nurture them in the knowledge and love of God, that they may someday confirm those vows themselves. 
John’s focus, though, was clear: this baptism was a sign of repentance in preparation for God’s coming reign. So one of the big questions we have in this text is “Why does Jesus need to be baptized?” In fact, John even asks this question. He says to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” After all, if baptism is a sign of a commitment to repentance, then Jesus doesn’t fit in. Our understanding of Jesus is that he is without sin. He is God-in-the-flesh, even as he is fully human, so he doesn’t need to repent. But John was hearing people’s confession of sin as they came for baptism. Why, then, does Jesus get baptized?
            He responds to John’s question saying, “Let it be so for now; for it is proper in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Frankly, that’s not immediately a very helpful response is it? What does it mean that his being baptized “fulfills all righteousness?” First, Matthew, throughout his gospel, is particularly interested in showing that Jesus is a fulfillment of the messiah promised in the Hebrews scriptures. This conversation between John and Jesus that we’re sort of eavesdropping on is a way for the gospel-writer to tell us that Jesus is the messiah, even if he isn’t what we were expecting. Second, Jesus says he fulfills “all righteousness.” Righteousness means justice, being set right in our relationships with God and others. When we’re in right relationship with people, we experience God’s justice, God’s wholeness. That’s righteousness. So Jesus says that his being baptized is a part of the process of bringing about justice in the world. How does his baptism achieve that? Well, his baptism is a sign of affirmation for the message John has been sharing. Jesus may not need to repent, but it’s his public proclamation that this is the mission he’ll be about – the one John describes – announcing the arrival of God’s reign right into the middle of our world and our lives. Jesus getting baptized is a way that Jesus can publicly claim the vision John has already been telling folks about. John’s been calling people to bear good fruit in their lives, and Jesus is going to show them how to do it. God doesn’t call us to repentance and leave us alone on the journey, in the struggle. Jesus is with us, leading us. He claims our journey as his by joining us in baptism. Finally, Jesus says, “Let it be so for now.” His wording suggests that this baptism is something he does that is the right thing for just the right time. Whatever Jesus was doing before, now is the right moment, God’s time, for Jesus to begin to act. His baptism announces that to everyone. And when Jesus comes up out of the water, God’s voice is heard, as God’s Spirit descends like a dove on Jesus: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” God’s words are confirmation of John’s message, and Jesus’s baptism, and Jesus’s claiming of his identity and path.
            So, why is Jesus baptized? I think, like everything he does, it is for us. He pours out his life for others. His purpose in the world is not to serve his own interests, but to be hope and light for the world. We’re not baptized because Jesus is. Rather, Jesus is baptized because we are, and his purpose is to join in fully with our lives, that in so doing, we have someone to follow, who leads us to the heart of God.
            Today, as we remember baptism, and we remember how Jesus, too, was baptized, immersing himself in our world and our struggles and our wilderness journey, I hope that we can see this time, this remembrance, this reaffirmation of our faith as an act that helps prepare us for the mission to which God is calling us – whatever that turns out to be! Just as Jesus’s purpose is to serve others, that’s our mission too: living for others. And that’s the purpose of our church, our community of faith. We can be lulled into thinking that we exist for our own comfort. We come here for our strength, our learning, our comfort, our support. Indeed, I hope we find those things as we gather as a community of faith. But the church exists not for the comfort of those who have already come to know God and commit to being disciples, but for those who are still searching and seeking, for those who don’t even know they’re looking for something yet.
            This act of renewing our baptismal covenant reminds us that we know who we are, and who we belong to. We are God’s children. We belong to God. God claims us. We remind ourselves of who we are in God so that we have strength to go out and serve others. This act of renewal also reminds us that we’re not alone. Baptism is not a private act. It’s an act of community. Jesus’ baptism joined him to the people among whom he would minister. Our baptism, our remembering our covenant together reminds us that we are a congregation, a community of faith. We can’t be the church alone. We can’t follow God by ourselves. We need God, and we need each other. This act of renewal is our way of saying to God that we’re ready. We’re all in. We’re with Jesus. His mission is our mission. We’re ready to follow.
Following our time of renewal this morning, we’ll sing a hymn by one of my favorite hymnists, Ruth Duck – a hymn for baptism called, “Wash, O God, Our Sons and Daughters.” As we prepare our hearts and minds, I invite you to hear words from the last verse of this hymn: We your people stand before you, water-washed and Spirit-born. By your grace, our lives we offer. Recreate us; God, transform! Let that be our prayer – Recreate us God. Transform our lives. We’re ready. Amen.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Sermon for Epiphany Sunday, "Light of the World," Matthew 2:1-12

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

Light of the World

Maybe in my second or third Christmas at my first church appointment, I read about this great idea for a Christmas Eve service for children. I don’t remember where I read or heard the idea. But the gist was this: You take several warm Christmasy blankets and spread them all over the chancel area, and get a rocking chair to sit in, and then, during the Children’s Sermon, you read a book to the kids, while they’re all snuggled onto the cozy blankets. And the book serves as message for the adults as well. I just loved the idea. I bought several copies of a book I thought would be meaningful, and I had four people set up to stand with copies throughout the sanctuary, to turn the pages along with me as I read, so that the adults could follow along too – we didn’t have any big screens that I could project the images on in my first church.
Everything was planned, and I was so excited about it, and could just picture how awesome the service was going to be. And then Christmas Eve finally came, and it was a disaster! I got the kids all settled on the blankets, and started to read the story. But kids are so so wound up on Christmas Eve. They’re wearing these fancy outfits they’ve never worn before, and probably brand new shoes, and they’ve been eating Christmas cookies all day, and they just want to go home and go to bed so they can wake up and see what Santa has brought. It is not exactly, as it turns out, the best time to ask children to sit demurely in front of a congregation full of people and listen quietly to a lovely storybook. The kids were restless almost immediately, and a few pages in, they were bored and on the verge of revolt, I could tell. I started to panic. The book was taking much longer to read than I had planned, and I was losing what little attention from the kids I had. I started simply summarizing what was on each page, flipping through the story faster and faster. Of course, this left all of my helpers out in the congregation scrambling to figure out which page I was on. Everyone was confused, and no one seemed to be having this perfect experience I had in my head. Mercifully, eventually I made it through the book and sent the kids back to their seats. But I was devastated by how awfully everything had turned out. All my plans, ruined.
A bit later in the service, I made my way over to the choir loft to serve communion to the singers sitting there. My hands were literally shaking with stress and anxiety over my failed service. One woman, Dee, looked at me with concern in her eyes. She asked, “What’s wrong?” I said, sarcasm dripping in my tone, “Oh, everything is just going so well!” Wasn’t it clear to her why I was so upset? But no, she just looked confused by my response. After the service, her response was echoed by others. They had no idea why I was so upset. They’d experienced a meaningful Christmas Eve worship service, a celebration of the birth of Jesus, and apparently, I hadn’t ruined everything with a poorly received story for the kids. Apparently, I was the only one having a crisis. Apparently, I was the only one who had concluded that the service had been ruined. In reality, though, the only one whose experience was ruined was my own, and I had done that to myself. I had this picture in my head, these expectations of how everything was supposed to go, and when I didn’t find what I was looking for, when where things ended up on Christmas Eve didn’t match the plans I had, I let it overwhelm me with disappointment.
            Have you ever experienced something like that? Have you ever had a vision or a plan or had a picture in your mind of some event – where you had it all mapped out in your head, how things would go, a journey, physical or metaphorical, where you set out with a clear aim, or goal, or purpose in mind, only to find when you reach your destination that what is waiting for you, what really happens, is not at all what you expected? How did you feel, when things unfolded so differently than you had in mind? Did you totally lose your cool like I did? Did you go with the flow?
Our scripture text for today is about a journey like this – plans all laid out, but nothing unfolding as anticipated. Today is Epiphany Sunday. 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 the Bible does tell us 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 we do know that 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.
Imagine if the Magi reacted like I did that Christmas Eve when my plans didn’t go as I wanted. 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 this so-called new king was just a regular baby born to no one special. But Matthew says they were overwhelmed, not with disappointment, but “overwhelmed with joy.” 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 it all. They didn’t judge Mary and Joseph and Jesus by their outer wrappings. They recognized the Holy in the child Jesus. The Epiphany is the coming-to-light, the shining-forth of Jesus as light of the world. 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, what plans and schedules have we made, what results are we looking to see? 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 calendar year, at the end of our journey, at the completion of our plans? And then, what will we do when, inevitably, what we find as the days unfold is not what we were expecting. What will the light of Epiphany reveal to us?   
One of my favorite authors is 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. In her book Why Not Me? 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, without the harsh brightness revealing every detail that we’d rather keep hidden. I think about this fact sometimes with my phone’s camera. On most smart phones, if you use it to take a “selfie,” the camera automatically switches to a setting called “beauty face.” I love it! It gives your skin a nice uniform glow, erases any imperfections, and subtracts about 5 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?
Epiphany is a time when 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? 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? We start out to change our lives on our own, without the grounding, the source of our being. Jesus 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: In 1 Corinthians 13, 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 only our failures. 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 formed and blessed and placed in this world so that we can serve and give and bless others. We 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 what we didn’t plan or expect. 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. And I believe we won’t be disappointed when we embrace God-revealed to 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 not-at-all what we expected, but instead, shining in the light, exactly what we’ve needed. Amen.