Friday, January 30, 2009

Give Him Glory

I've enjoyed many things about working on my family tree: getting a better sense of our whole family history, reconnecting with distant (geographically or genetically) relatives, and especially seeing old pictures, documents, and letters. Last summer, my Great Aunt passed away, and my family has kept in better touch with her daughter, (my first cousin once removed, if you're keeping track), and she recently sent my mother some pictures and other things my Aunt Betty had that she thought we'd like to see.

Among the items: A letter my mom wrote to my aunt when my mom was 11. (That's her on the left in the picture above, at about 8 or 9, with my late Aunt Nan, center, Aunt Bet, right, and Uncle Bill, the baby in the middle.) I don't remember my mom having many things like this to show me - things she worked on at that age. My mom is not a saver/journal-keeper/keepsake-storer like I am. So now I have this letter, and love having it, love a little insight into my mom's young mind. She writes at to close: "At the moment, I am trying to think of something to say. Guess I'll have to say Good-by." That just cracks me up! But also in the letter: A poem my mom wrote, called "Give Him Glory."

Give Him Glory - Karen Mudge

As I behold these wonders
As I see these glorious sights
As I remember all our privileges
And all our laws and rights

I wonder if we've deserved all this
Have we earned these wonders rare?
God gives us love and tenderness
But do we act as if we care?

No one stops to thank Him
It's time he gets some praise
We thank you for these things, Dear Lord
To you our glories raise.

Sweet and thoughtful. Obviously, my Aunt Bet thought so too, since she still had it in her possession 45 years after my Mom wrote it!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Sermon for Third Sunday after the Epiphany (non-lectionary)

(Sermon 1/25/09, Luke 12:32-34, Matthew 25:14-30)

New Beginnings: Heart and Treasure

John Wesley, early in his ministry, established some boundaries for himself related to his income. He figured out what his expenses were, what he need to spend and save. And then the rest, he would give. And he determined right at the start that he would keep the same budget regardless of how much he was earning. And so through the years, as his income increased, particularly as he became such a notable figure, Wesley kept the same budget, had the same expenses, and simply increased what he gave as his income increased. He already knew what he needed to meet his budget – the rest, for him, was left over, excess.

I’ve always admired Wesley for his position, for his ability to stick to something that may have seemed like a na├»ve proposal for a young priest. I remember when I was about to finish seminary and start my first appointment. I was going to go from living off of student loans and a part-time work study job to actually having an income of about $30,000 a year. And I remember telling my congregation about how rich I was feeling. My income had suddenly quadrupled and my bills were staying more or less the same. How could I help but feel anything but rich? I told them that I hoped I could hold onto that feeling, and try to be a little like John Wesley. And yet, though I committed to tithe, to give 10% of my income back to the church, I found myself falling short, month after month. How could this be? How did I expand into my income so quickly when I had felt so rich such a short time ago? Finally, I had to reorder how I spent, and I had to give my tithe first. Amazingly, when I did this, I found I still managed to make it through the month, although certainly I had to be more careful with my spending. And here, in Franklin Lakes, I have a still larger salary. And I still give my tithe first, but I also managed to expand my spending right into my larger income. Sure, some of my expanded spending means actually being able to make my student loan payments, a move that means I might actually have them paid off by the time I retire from ministry. But mostly, I can’t point to very significant things that I’ve done with my extra money other than this: Spend. Consume. Accumulate. Acquire stuff. And while maybe that’s to be expected, while maybe no one is surprised that this is the case, I find it very troubling. Next week, you’ll hear Rev. Rich Hendrickson preach on the very first text I ever preached on – the Parable of the Rich Fool. And two lines from that Parable are ingrained forever in my heart: First, “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” And second, where God asks the Rich Fool, “The things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So when I think about my stuff, my spending, my expanding into my growing salary – I truly am troubled. What’s enough? Is my behavior just something to get over, to expect, to roll with? Or should I be expecting a little more of myself?

Today, one of our gospel lessons is from the gospel of Luke, just after the passage Rev. Hendrickson will preach on next week. Jesus has been telling the crowds and disciples not to worry, and he follows up with these words: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. I love this verse, and I love it because it is deeper than it sounds. It’s easy to remember, and I think sometimes we forget to really think about verses that we might know by heart. Why does Jesus order this sentence this way? He doesn’t say “where your heart is, there you’ll find your treasure.” No, he says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” I think the difference – the order – is important. We’d probably like it to be that where our hearts are, our treasure is, because it’s easy to think of where our hearts are – with our loved ones, with God, with friends, and family, right? But Jesus says that where our hearts really are is determined by where our treasure is. And what is it that we truly treasure? We might answer one way – a way that isn’t being very honest with ourselves – but Jesus seems to see it differently: Our treasure is what we store up, what we gather and collect and keep for ourselves. So what are you storing up? What do you treasure? What do you spend the most time storing up? What in your life do you hang onto most tightly? What are you working for, what do you spend the most energy accumulating? Because that’s what you really treasure, and where your heart really is, Jesus says.

What am I storing up? I can only tell you this. When I moved to seminary, I took my possessions in two cars. When I moved to Oneida, I rented a small U-haul. And when I moved to Franklin Lakes, a lot of money was spent on a very large truck to get all my things from there to here. I’m storing up something for sure. And while it is easy to explain away all that I have as a part of life, I’m still uneasy, because Jesus has some pretty clear things to say about storing up, and treasuring, and where my heart is.

So what does all of this have to do with our stewardship campaign? With our Consecration Sunday next week? With our giving? Well, let’s shift gears a little bit and look at our other gospel lesson for today, The Parable of the Talents. Like most of Jesus’ parables, this parable is meant to tell us something about what the Kingdom of God is like. It appears late in Matthew’s gospel, in the midst of several other parables. A man going on a journey calls his slaves to him and divides among them care of his property. One slave receives one talent, one five, and one ten, each, we read, receiving according to ability. The slaves who receive five and ten talents immediately take them, trade with them, and double their money to present to their master when he returns home. But the slave who received just one talent dug a hole and hid the money, and returned it to his master on his return. When the master returned, he praised the faithful servants for their stewardship of his talents, and said, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave. You have been trustworthy in a few things; I will put you in charge of many things.” But when the third slave returned the single talent to his master, explaining that he thought his Master was hard-hearted and harsh, taking what was not rightfully his; the Master rebuked the man, and took the one talent from him and gave it to the one who had already been given ten. And so, Jesus concludes with that strange sentiment: “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what we have will be taken away.”

It’s that concluding sentence that makes me think I don’t really understand the rest of the parable. I think the parable is about using the gifts God gives us, and being good stewards. But then, with that last sentence, I’m confused. “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what we have will be taken away.” I can understand God wanting us to use what we’ve been given – but taking away from those who have nothing? Giving to those who already have so much? Even if we’re talking about more than just money here, isn’t that just a spiritual version of the poor getting poorer and the rich getting richer? Will God take anything from those who already have nothing? Does that make any sense?

Just recently, I’ve been reading a book about asset mapping in congregations. Asset mapping is taking a look at your congregation and figuring out what you really have – not what you don’t have, or want, or used to have – but counting up all the resources we do have, right now. When times are hard in a congregation, it can be easy to quickly think of what we don’t have instead of what we do. This book is meant to shift that focus, to help a congregation very quickly see all that they have. I’m looking forward to working with the book with our Ad Council, and starting to really count our blessings, because I see that Franklin Lakes has so many assets. In this book, the author, Luther Snow, reflects on the Parable of the Talents, focusing in on this troubling verse about God taking away from those who already have nothing. He writes, “How can you take away something from nothing? It’s impossible. So maybe ‘those who have nothing’ do have something after all. Maybe the point is not how much we have, but how much we think we have. The [slave] with the one talent had more than nothing, but he acted as though he had nothing. He did nothing with the talent . . . He may have looked at the other two [slaves] and thought, ‘Compare to them, I’ve got nothing’ . . . It is as if the master is saying, ‘You had my valuable gifts in your hand, and you didn’t think they were valuable.’” (1) So maybe we can better understand what Jesus is saying when we think of it in this way: From those who think they have nothing, what they really do have will be taken away. And from those who feel like they’ve been richly blessed, they’ll be blessed even more. The slave with one talent didn’t have nothing. He had something precious – he just wouldn’t see it.

So I circle back to the question of what I’ve been storing up for myself. What do I want to be storing up? What if I focus on treasuring most those talents, those assets, those gifts and blessings that God has put into my hands? Of course everything I have is a gift from God – but I mean to focus on storing up what God has given me rather than what I’ve taken for myself. Does that make sense? What if I store up, focus on increasing and growing what God puts into my hands? What if that’s what I spend my time and energy and money and focus and life on? What if we do that as a congregation? What if, for example, we look the young people in this congregation, and begin to treasure them deeply, and seek to work with them and invest in them so that we find the blessings we have in these youth multiply like talents? What if we treasure our relationship with CUMAC so much that we start to find more and more ways to build relationships and awareness and support of a mission in great need, so that we find we’re true partners in ministry? What if you so treasure the relationships you have within the congregation that you become more and more invested in each other’s lives, so that your friendships return to you countless blessings?

Jesus said it is God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom, to give us everything, to bless us beyond our imagining. It is God’s pleasure to give. Next week, Rev. Hendrickson will ask us to consider carefully what we give, but especially why we give. Why do you think God gives to us? Sometimes when we think about giving, we get caught up in budgets and spending and debt and making ends meet. Those things are important, for sure. But it’s not why we’re called to give, any more than God gives to us out of obligation. It is God’s pleasure to give to us out of God’s abundant, endless love. Why do you give? What if what we spent our time storing up was treasures in the kingdom of God? What if we looked into our hands and saw them overflowing with God’s blessings? What if we gave because what we treasure is our relationship with God, and with God’s creations? What if we gave because we saw that God gave us so much we just didn’t even have room to keep it all for ourselves? What if?

Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your [God’s] good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Amen.

(1) Luther Snow, The Power of Asset Mapping, 138-139.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Reflections: Bishop's Convocation

I spent a few days this past week at the Bishop's Convocation (for the GNJ conference) at Willow Valley Resort in Lancaster, PA. Willow Valley is a very nice facility, if you ever have the occasion to be in Lancaster. I somehow wound up with a gorgeous room with a whirlpool tub in it, the gym on site is much better equipped than most hotel gyms, and the site is close enough to stores and restaurants while also being in the middle of Amish country.

Our theme at this gathering was Prayer in the Life of the Pastor, and we had a mix of speakers. Our first was a presentation a bit off-topic perhaps, but one I was glad for: Larry Hollon, the General Secretary of UMCOM, shared a presentation on the new marketing/advertising campaign of the UMC, RETHINK Church. Hollon talked about looking to the future - the challenges and opportunities for ministry that our changing world provides. He talked about, for example, how Google's tracking of search terms could provide indication of a rise in cases of the flue almost 10 days sooner than the CDC could announce a trend. Google has made this an official tool, with a site where you can track the flu based on searches for flu.

The new campaign includes a video segment that I really like (featuring James Earl Jones as narrator), a brochure you can look at, and a website,, that will more completely launch in May, but is already 'up' with a space for people to enter thoughts. Hollon also talked about a presence on YouTube, facebook, using texting, partnering wtih Google, etc. Sounds like they are making a real effort to engage in some new ways of marketing the UMC, and he talked about the struggle when you are also serving a denomination that has a lot of people in it that really just want Interpreter delivered by snail mail. We also talked about how this campaign is really great - but how UMCom can only give a great campaign - it's up to churches to live up to the great commercials. How do we make sure we're the church envisioned in the video?

On day 2, our speaker was Renita Weems. I really enjoyed her time with us. She talked about this being an "auspicious moment in the kingdom of God” as she reflected on the inauguration of President Obama, and as we talked about the "prayer journey of a minister, the waxing and waning of a minister's prayer life," she wondered (and posted on her blog about) how difficult it will be for the President to be able to worship, always in the view of cameras, watching his every emotional reaction, or lack thereof. "Faith is not the absence of doubt, it is what you do in spite of doubt. Preach as if you’ve heard from God. If not, preach what you heard last time you heard from God!" (I can't remember if she was quoting someone or not...)

Prophecy happens within a particular context – preaching, prayers happen in context. We are called in a particular moment. No such thing as “Have sermon, will travel.” If your grandchild finds your sermon, they should be able to tell from it what year (close) it was written. Contextual. Did you reference anything real in the world? God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. "God is – but you ain’t.” We are creatures of our context. Not enslaved to it, but shaped by it. Something that only you can preach because of where you come from and what you’ve gone through. Each of us really has only one theme, one message. What's yours?

We did have a couple of other speakers, although I didn't take many notes. I enjoyed getting to know some of my NJ colleagues a little better, enjoyed a time of retreat. Check out that Rethink Church campaign - good? bad?

Monday, January 19, 2009

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Sermon for Second Sunday after the Epiphany

(Sermon 1/18/09, 1 Samuel 3:1-10, Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18, John 1:43-51)

New Beginnings: Hide & Seek

Sometimes people say that they’re the kind of person who just can’t say no. People ask them to do something, to perform some task, do some favor, sign up for some responsibility, and though the person asked really doesn’t want to, they find themselves unable to say no. I can relate to this. I understand how easy it is to become overwhelmed by tasks and responsibilities and how easy it is to feel the pressure to say yes to something that we really would rather not do, that we don’t have the time, the energy, the passion required to do. It’s hard to set boundaries for ourselves, to set limits, and find balance, in a world that increasingly wants us to be constantly available to do, do, do. That’s a real issue for us to consider.

And yet, on the other hand, I’m afraid that sometimes we can use our working-on-saying-no to escape from saying yes when we’re too afraid of what we’re being asked to do, or not ready to give so much, or not ready to step out on faith, or not ready to answer a calling. I can think of times in my life when I said no to something not really because I had too much on my plate already, but because of some deeper excuse I wasn’t ready to name out loud: Fear, doubt, pride, wanting to be in control. We can surely think of times when we said yes to something when we really wanted to say no. But can you think of times when you said no but should have said yes?

You may have seen ads for or seen the recent Jim Carrey movie called “Yes Man.” The movie is actually based on a book by author Danny Wallace, same title, which describes Wallace’s actual real-life attempts at becoming a person who says yes to new opportunities, yes to crazy propositions, yes to experiences and happenings he’d otherwise rather refuse. Wallace talks about how transformed his life is when he starts to say yes instead of no. What if we said yes? Of course, there’s always a need for balance, for discretion, for good judgment. We can’t really say yes to everything that’s asked of us, or our lives will be like Jim Carrey movies, and I don’t think we want that!

But still, there’s one way in which we should always say yes, and never say no, at least as far as I can figure out, and that’s when it comes to responding to God’s call, God’s requests, God’s plans for our lives. We should say yes to God, in every situation, in every context, in every circumstance. As far as I can tell, as far as I can understand, God’s plan always is better than our own plan. Sometimes our plans are the same, but where God’s plan varies from our own plan, the smartest thing we can do is say yes to God’s plans. Still, sometimes, I think we respond to God as if God is someone who’s asked us for one favor too many, one demand too great on our schedule, one thing that pushes us too far. What happens if we say no to God? And what happens when we say yes? And why wouldn’t we say yes? If God is God, why say no to God? How can we dare? As loving as forgiving and full of grace as God is, still, how can we refuse the very God who creates us, the God who is the source of all life, anything? How can we say no to God? The only way I can explain our behavior is by guessing that some of us still don’t believe that God is calling us. Otherwise, how could we say no, if we really believed God was calling us?

Today we read two stories of call. First, in the Old Testament, we hear about the boy Samuel being called by God. Samuel is called to become a prophet in Israel. But when God calls, Samuel, still a child here, is confused about the voice he is hearing. Samuel was being raised in the temple, under the supervision of a man named Eli. We read that “the word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread,” a sentiment we perhaps would like to apply sometimes to our current-day situation. One night Samuel is lying down in the temple and hears God’s call: “Samuel, Samuel.” He think the voice is Eli, so he runs to him and says, “Here I am!” Eli says he did not call the boy, so he goes back to bed. This exchange repeats two more times, and Eli realizes God is calling the child. Eli directs Samuel to answer God next time Samuel is called. So God calls again, and Samuel responds, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” So begins Samuel’s life as a prophet to Israel and an eventual mentor to the first Kings of Israel, Saul and David.

When God calls Samuel, he’s not sure what is happening. He’s young and confused, and Eli is a source of guidance for him in responding to God’s call. I think we can sometimes find ourselves in the same situations. Perhaps we do feel we’re being called. Perhaps we know God is asking something of us. But maybe we can’t clarify what that is yet. Maybe we don’t know how to talk to God and figure it out. In this story, Eli’s role is indispensable. He is a mentor, and he helps Samuel understand his call. In my own life, I have had formally-named and informal mentors throughout my journey who have helped me answer a call to ministry. Without these voices of encouragement, I’m not sure what might have happened differently for me. Who in your life can you hear as a mentor? And who can you be a mentor to? I think often we over look our own power of influence. You may be the voice someone needs to hear – the voice that helps someone understand how God is using them.

In the gospel lesson, we read about the call of two of the disciples, Philip and Nathanael. Jesus simply walks up to Philip and says, “follow me.” Philip apparently agrees, and gets up to find his brother Nathanael, announcing to him that they’ve found the one about whom Moses and the prophets wrote. Nathanael is a skeptic, a little sarcastic. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nazareth wasn’t known for its goodness or for great heroes. Philip responds, “Come and see.” So Nathanael agrees, and just on seeing Jesus is convinced. When Jesus tells Nathanael he knows all about him without having been told anything, Nathanael is committed. But Jesus challenges him: “Do you believe because I told you these few things? I’ll show you things greater than this.” And with this exchange, Nathanael, like Philip, becomes a follower of Jesus. Maybe you are more like Nathanael than you are like Samuel. Maybe you need proof. Maybe you aren’t easily convinced, and need some hard evidence before you’ll be convinced God is talking to you. God is willing to do what it takes when God calls you.

The Bible is a collection of stories of people who are called. But why are they called? It isn’t for their goodness, their faithfulness, their devout and spiritual lives, I can tell you that much. Where in the Bible is someone chosen for a task because of their goodness? Because they are so special, or devoted, or righteous? King David, a hero of the faith, uses his power as king to seduce a married woman, and when he realizes she’s pregnant, he has her husband killed in battle. Jacob, who becomes the father of the twelve tribes of Israel, gets his role by tricking his blind and aged father into a blessing. Moses, who leads the people out of slavery into the promised land, is called by God just after murdering an Egyptian man and fleeing the scene of the crime. Paul is chosen to lead the early church after spending years of his life as a rabbi hunting down and persecuting followers of Jesus. Even Mary, mother of baby Jesus, does nothing that we know of that is special or particularly righteous that earns her God’s favor.

So how does God choose us for special purposes? Why were these people chosen for God’s plans? Why does God choose Samuel and Philip and Nathanael? I can find, throughout the scriptures, only one thing that those called and chosen by God have in common. One thing unites all of them, Samuel, Nathanael, and all the rest. It is so simple, it is staring us in the face. When God calls, they answer, and they say yes. That’s it. That’s all that sets them apart. Sometimes, like Samuel, they get confused about who is calling at first, and need clarification. Sometimes, like Nathanael, they are skeptical at first. Sometimes, like Moses, they complain and whine until God makes adjustments and they finally agree. Sometimes, like King David, they agree but continue to make lots of mistakes, leading sometimes sinful lives. Sometimes, like Philip, they just get up and go. But eventually, they say yes, and trust that God will enable them to do what God asks them to do.

Friends, we are already chosen by God. You are chosen. How can we believe ourselves to be anything but chosen? Do you remember the psalm we heard today? “For it was you, God, who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made – that I know very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.” You are already chosen. What God would make you with so much care, if not because God had plans and hopes and dreams and responsibilities and challenges for you? You are created, and so you are chosen. You are a child of God, and so you are chosen.

What makes a difference is whether or not we will respond. What makes a difference is whether we say yes or no to God. But we are already chosen. If you don’t believe that, I encourage you to read Psalm 139 again and again until it sinks in. If you don’t believe that, I urge you to talk to someone you trust, and ask them what they think about God’s plans for you. If you don’t believe that, I ask you to read the scriptures and just try and find someone who was so perfect and gifted that God had to call them. And then find all the people who did God’s work who also screwed up a lot, made mistakes, committed sins. And tell me which list is longer.

Responding to a call from God isn’t always easy. You might have trouble understanding or hearing or figuring out your call. That’s ok. Your life is a journey – you can figure it out over time, with help, with prayer, with practice. But do respond. Do answer God, because you are chosen. And when it comes to answering God, I pray that your answer is always yes.


Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Bishop Woodie White's annual letter to Martin Luther King Jr.

Every year since 1976, now-retired Bishop Woodie White writes a birthday letter to Martin Luther King, Jr. I always look forward to it, and this year have especially been curious about how Bishop White would capture the historic election of Barack Obama to the presidency. Answer: with great joy! Here's the letter, take a look.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Sermon for Baptism of the Lord Sunday

(Sermon 1/11/09 - Mark 1:4-11)

New Beginnings: Water & Spirit

Today is one of my favorite Sunday’s in the church calendar – Baptism of the Lord Sunday, the day we remember the baptism of Jesus. Last year we didn’t get to celebrate this Sunday together because I was on a cruise ship in the Caribbean somewhere, which I’m trying, unsuccessfully, not to think about! But I’m glad to be able to share this day with you today. In my ministry, one of my absolute greatest joys is in sharing the sacrament of baptism with you. Captured in this act is so much hope and promise. Captured in the water is the promise of God’s love and the sharing of God’s spirit breathed out into human lives. Today, we’ll have a chance to remember our own baptisms, and renew the vows that were taken on the day when we were baptized. If you’ve not yet been baptized, it’s a chance for you to listen and learn and anticipate, as you hear the commitments and hopes that come with the celebration of baptism. We share in this act today because today is the day we celebrate Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist.

Matthew and Luke begin their gospels with stories about the birth of Jesus, which we’ve just heard over the last few weeks. And even John, though he doesn’t have a nativity story, talks about Jesus in the beginning, being the word, being the light of the world. But Mark has a different approach entirely. Mark is the shortest of the gospels, and Mark is also the oldest gospel, the earliest written, though still some 30-40 years after Jesus’ crucifixion. It is as if Mark, in his eagerness to record something of the life of Jesus, just can’t slow down enough to give us many details. When stories and parables appear in Mark and Matthew and Luke, Matthew and Luke always give us many more details than Mark does. Mark can tell some of our favorite stories in just a few scant verses. Mark 1:1 reads, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” And then Mark is off and running and immediately, we’re taken to today’s text, the Baptism of Jesus. Mark doesn’t seem to care who Jesus’ parents were, or how he was born. He wants to get to the point, the good news. And so for Mark, the only beginning that matters is Jesus’ baptism, which symbolizes for us the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus is ready to begin preaching and teaching in earnest, and he starts by being baptized by John, his cousin, as many were doing.

Today, we revisit a text from the gospel of Mark about John the Baptist. In our second week of Advent, we read the first part of this passage together, and heard John the Baptist preparing the way for his cousin Jesus. Here, we read again of him calling the people to be baptized as a symbol of repentance, a symbol of readiness to change the direction of one’s life, a symbol of forgiveness for sins. And then John tells the crowds about one who is coming, one who John is not even worthy to serve as a slave untying the master’s sandals. John talks about another baptism, a baptism not just with water, but a baptism with the Holy Spirit that this other one will bring. And then, Jesus appears on the scene. In Mark’s short and sweet style, the baptism of Jesus takes up just three short verses. Jesus comes to be baptized by John. And as Jesus is coming up out of the water, he sees the heavens torn apart, and the Spirit coming down as like a dove on him. And then, God’s voice: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Why does Jesus need to be baptized? In Mark’s short account, John asks no questions, but in Matthew, at least, John wonders too. Why does Jesus come to John to be baptized, when John is just the one preparing the way for Jesus? Today we celebrate baptism as an outward symbol of God’s grace that is already at work in our lives, from the time we are born, before we even know what to call it. And indeed, Jesus being baptized today could accurately reflect such a meaning. But when John the Baptist was baptizing, before Jesus began his ministry, the meaning baptism held was somewhat different, as John himself indicated. When the crowds were coming to John, he told them, “I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” John’s baptism has a different meaning – it is a preparation, a symbol of repentance, something John calls the people to do because he knows the kingdom of heaven – God’s reign on earth, has drawn near. The word for repentance in Greek is metanoia, and it is my favorite Greek word, as you may remember me saying before. It means literally, “a change of mind”, a change of purpose, a complete change of direction. John seeks people to come to him who need a complete change of direction, a total change of their mind.

Is this something that Jesus needs? Does Jesus need repentance? We immediately want to respond, “of course not!” because we understand today that repentance has the sense of asking for forgiveness. And we don’t believe that Jesus needs forgiveness – it is we who need forgiveness. Jesus doesn’t need to repent. I think, though, if we turn back to this other meaning of repentance, this idea of a “change of mind,” perhaps we can better understand why Jesus comes to be baptized by John. Jesus is about to embark on something new – we’re not sure how he has been preparing for this day, what he’s been doing before this. But we can gather that he drew comparatively little attention, at least, before this moment. So for Jesus, this was indeed a change of direction, a change of purpose. It was a beginning for him, a beginning of his public ministry, a beginning of the attention, good and bad, that would be lavished on him by friends and enemies. A beginning of a time he probably knew or at least felt already would end in suffering and pain, betrayal and denial. But a beginning of a time of hope and promise – his chance to reach out to people who felt rejected by God or who were rejecting God. A beginning. A new purpose. A change of direction.

In the United Methodist Church, we practice infant baptism. As long as churches have existed, those within the church have disagreed on whether or not infants and children should be baptized, or if individuals should wait until they are old enough to be baptized at their own request before receiving the sacrament. Our belief in the United Methodist Church is that baptism is primarily a symbol of what God is doing for us, not what we are doing for God. Baptism, as we understand it, is an outward symbol of God’s grace working within us. So this grace is working in us before we are even aware of it. From day one and before day one, God is already working grace through our hearts and souls, calling us into a relationship with God. When we are ready to accept God’s grace on our own, with our own voice, we go through confirmation, our public acceptance of the grace that has been at work within us, our public declaration that we’re going to do our part in this relationship with God.

This understanding of baptism as a symbol of God’s grace helps answer our questions about why Jesus comes here to see John, to be baptized. Why does Jesus need to be baptized? Jesus doesn’t need to turn a new direction in the same way we do – he doesn’t need to get off a wayward course. But his baptism does mark a change in direction for him, in that now he begins his ministry of preaching and teaching. Now he changes his identity from Jesus, child of Mary and Joseph, to Jesus, Son of Man and Son of God. So as he prepares for a new phase in his life, he marks this with his own baptism. Why? Because, I think, Jesus also seeks that outward sign of God’s grace and love working within him. Jesus is at the beginning of a journey that ends with a cross and his death. He’s at the beginning of a time of ministry that will have him constantly pursued by those who would harm him, constantly harassed by those who disagree with him, constantly on call for those who need his healing, his caring. Jesus will spend time during his ministry seeking places to draw away so that he can talk to God. Even Jesus needed these times of centering, focusing on his purpose. So, even Jesus must have been comforted by God’s clear voice declaring that he is loved by God, affirmation at the beginning of a difficult journey, that God is with him and in him and blessing him in his ministry, guiding him, touching us through him.

We hear again and again that God loves us and showers us with grace. God loves us unconditionally. But do we believe it? Sometimes, I think that we, like Jesus, can find comfort in an outward symbol that reminds us of the love of God we always carry within us. Since I’ve been here, we’ve shared together many baptisms. And as we have, I’m guessing that as we shower babies with an outward symbol of God’s grace, you are all sure of the inward grace and love that God is showering on them. As sure as we are of God’s love for these children, we can be sure of God’s love for us, for you and for me. It’s that simple, and that certain.

My great uncle Bob – you might remember he passed away last year – he was a United Methodist pastor too, and he performed my baptism when I was 5 months old. I can tell you it is a bond that he shared with me his whole life. The bond was special, of course, because of our relationship, and because of the path I’ve taken to become a pastor, as he was. But it is more than that. As a pastor, I’m bound to every person – child and adult – I baptize. How can one not be bound to another when one witnesses God’s grace and love outpoured upon another? In the same way, then, every time you witness a baptism, every time you recite with me the vows of the congregation to support and nurture one baptized, you too are binding yourself in this sacrament, through our mutual witnessing of God’s grace.

Today you have an opportunity to remember, if you’ve forgotten, the love that God has for you. You have an opportunity to remind yourself that you are God’s child, that God pours grace upon grace out into your life, and into your heart. You have an opportunity to commit yourself again to God’s plan for your life, by joining me in the baptismal vows. You have an opportunity for an act of repentance: a beginning, a change of direction, a new purpose for a new year, a parting of the heavens as God smiles upon you to remind you that you are Beloved. Remember your baptism, and be thankful for God’s grace.


Saturday, January 10, 2009

Question: Musicals

Each year at FLUMC for the past several years, a musical is used as a focal point for the season of Lent. Given our proximity to NYC, and the presence of several talented musicians in performers in our congregation, using a musical as a focal point has been a unique way of drawing folks in during Lent.

In the past, Wicked, music from The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Lion King have all been used as themes. This year, we're looking for a new musical. Currently, my music director and I have thought about Jekyll & Hyde or Jesus Christ Superstar. (OK, really, my music director has thought about Jekyll & Hyde, and I've thought about Superstar!) But I'm open to other ideas. What musical has the right kind of songs and themes to be adapted into a Lenten program?

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

What Might Have Been

So try not to think about what might have been
Cause that was then
And we have taken different roads
We can't go back again
There's no use giving in
And there's no way to know
What might have been
(Little Texas)

As another new year begins, I've been thinking about the year that has just gone by, and the years in general, that go by so quickly. Do you regret anything? Often, when asked this question, people respond that no, they don't have any regrets. I understand this answer, I do. One decision leads to another and another, and it's hard to regret one decision without regretting the place that you've ended up altogether. Regretting something means being sorry about what your life is right now, and hopefully, most of us don't feel that way.

But on the other hand, are we honest with ourselves when we say we don't have regrets? Perhaps the better way to phrase it is to ask if we don't wonder what might have been. What if I had stayed an extra year at college instead of graduating in three years? What if I'd gone to a different seminary? What if my family had moved to Schenectady as we once considered? What if I'd gone on the trip to Brazil instead of to do relief work in Mississippi? What if I'd taken that internship? It's so easy to wonder what might have been. I'm happy with my life and the way things are unfolding for me - but I just can't help but wonder sometimes.

In these instances, I can't help but thinking of The Chronicles of Narnia, by CS Lewis. In two different books in the series, I can think of characters struggling with what might have been scenarios. In Book 6, The Magician's Nephew, Digory rings a bell that wakes a witch because the inscription near the bell says that he'll be driven mad if doesn't ring it, always wondering what would have happened. Later, he comes to realize that of course, he was pretending to believe he would really be driven mad, and his rash decision had dire consequences. And in Book 2, Prince Caspian, Lucy can't convince her siblings to follow the only-visible-to-her-Aslan. Later, talking with Aslan, she realizes she should have followed him on her own. She asks Aslan if things would have worked out more easily if she had done so.

"You mean," said Lucy rather faintly, "that it would have turned out all right - somehow? But how? Please, Aslan! Am I not to know?"
Aslan responds, "To know what would have happened, child? No. Nobody is ever told that."
"O dear," Lucy responds.
"But anyone can find out what will happen . . . what will happen? There is only one way of finding out."

What might have been? Of course we can never know. And of course, I believe that actually knowing wouldn't satisfy our curiousity, it would just make us miserable, knowing and that still not changing anything. So is wondering even worth the effort?

I think Aslan is right. We can only know what will happen by the choices we make. And while some of the ways our lives unfold are beyond our control, the closest I come to regret is when I have to wonder what might have been because I didn't speak up, or I wouldn't take a risk, or I wasn't brave enough, or because I thought of my own self before someone else, or because I just didn't dare. I don't want to have to wonder what might have been because I was too afraid to do something or try something or experience something.

What might have been? Impossible to say. But what will be? There, I have some input.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Sermon for Epiphany Sunday

(Sermon 1/4/09, Matthew 2:1-12)

Sing We Now of Christmas: We Three Kings

Today is Epiphany Sunday, and it marks for us the transition between the Season of Christmas and the ambiguous season after Epiphany that marks time until Lent begins. Epiphany day is technically January 6th – 12 days after Christmas – making today technically the 11th day of Christmas. But we celebrate the Epiphany on the closest Sunday before January 6th when it doesn’t fall on a Sunday. Epiphany is the day we remember the arrival of the Wise Men or Magi, men from the East from a sort of priestly class, men whose religious practices included an interest in astronomy, to see the Christ-child. The Wise Men visit Mary and Joseph and the child sometime after Jesus is born – he was maybe already a toddler by the time they arrived at his home, even though we see many Magi in nativities. They brought gifts for the child, believing he would be a king – gold and frankincense and myrrh. Gold for a king, frankincense for priestly significance, myrrh, a perfume used at death in burial rites. There’s no mention of a number of Magi – some traditional stories numbered them anywhere between two and twelve. (1) But over time, of course, we’ve come to think of there being three Wise Men, perhaps because three gifts are mentioned and it seems to work out so nicely.

That brings us to the last hymn we’re focusing on this season: “We Three Kings.” This Epiphany Carol was written by John Henry Hopkins, Jr. in 1857. Hopkins was a Pittsburgh-born clergy person, author, illustrator, and designer of stained-glass windows. One year, he wanted to make a special Christmas present for his nephews and nieces. He travelled to the home of his father in Vermont, who was a bishop in the Episcopal church, and there offered to his family his dramatization of this text from the gospel of Matthew in the form of a hymn, “We Three Kings.” The hymn became published a few years after and quickly spread in popularity. (2) The hymn focuses in each of the three middle verses on the particular gifts that the Magi bring with them, as a verse each describes the reasons behind the gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

The word Epiphany is from a Greek word that means literally “coming to light,” or “shining forth.” Epiphany in our faith context is a day when we think of the light of Christ shining forth in the world – Christ coming to light. It’s particularly of note that since the Magi weren’t Jews, their visit to Jesus, recognizing him as a king, symbolizes that Jesus in the light of the whole world, not just of the then-very-small Jewish faith. Jesus comes to be light for the world – that’s what we’re celebrating on Epiphany Sunday. You might remember that back in the middle of Advent, we talked a lot about Jesus being the light of the world, and how because Jesus is the light, he expects us to be lights to the world also, when we let Christ shine through us, be reflected out from us to others. Christ is the light, and because he is, we are also called to share the light of the world ourselves.

Today, on Epiphany day, we can think of a similar comparison. The Christ-child is the main gift to us. The present given to us by God – God come to us in human form. We think a lot about gifts – what we’re giving and what we’re getting during the Christmas Season. But the gift at the center of it all is the gift to us of God-with-us in the Christ-child. I hope we try to let that sink in, even at this late hour, this eleventh day of Christmas. It isn’t too late for us to remember what the most important gift is. But as I was thinking about our hymn focus for today, “We Three Kings,” I started taking note of just how many of our Christmas Carols are about gifts – not only the gift of the Christ-child to us – but songs that are about the gifts that we bring to the Christ-child. Like we are lights to the world because Christ is the light, so, it seems, we bring gifts to the Christ-child out of response to the gift of Christ that God gives to us.

So many of our carols feature a longing desire to be able to return some sort of gift to Jesus. Of course, the Magi bring gifts – maybe gifts a bit out of our league – gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But today you also heard an anthem – “The Little Drummer Boy.” This song features a little boy who sings that he is poor like Jesus too, with no gift fit to bring for a king. But he decides to play his drum for Jesus, and Mary nods in appreciation and the baby smiles at him. Or there is the carol that we’ll sing later in the service, “The Friendly Beasts,” where each of the animals at the manger makes claim of a gift they’ve offered to Jesus: hay, the manger trough, a cooing lullaby, wool for a blanket, a ride to Bethlehem for the Holy Family. “In the Bleak Mid-winter” features a verse that reads, “What shall I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would give a lamb. If I were a wise man, I would do my part? But what shall I give him? Give my heart.” Or the Spanish carol, “What Shall I Give to the Child in the Manger?” which talks about bringing grapes and fig leaves and garlands to the baby Jesus. We receive the gift of the Christ-child, and through the years, through centuries of music, across continents, our songs seem to reflect our human response, a desire to return a gift to the baby Jesus, despite feeling that we might not have much to give. In most all of these songs, the narrator wonders if they have something worth giving – and in most all of these songs, the gift given to the Christ-child is something personal, meaningful, from the heart, of special significance to the giver, a gift that only he or she can offer. As appropriate as the exotic gifts of the Magi are for these strange figures from unknown lands, so only the drummer boy can give his drumming song, and so only the donkey can bring Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. The gift to us is personal – literally, God-in-person, and so the gifts given in response are personal – something of ourselves for the baby Jesus.

This makes a lot of sense to me. I love receiving gifts – I won’t deny it! – and I love giving them! And some of the most fun I have with gifts is giving them to my 1 ½ year old nephew, Sam. In fact, it seems to be a problem for the whole family. My brother and sister-in-law were lamenting this week that they had to rearrange their furniture to fit all the new toys people got for Sam. And what I’ve noticed about the gifts we give Sam is that most of the time, they represent something of us to Sam. My brother Tim gets Sam Yankees gear. Todd got Sam a book about Shakespeare. I’ve gotten Sam a little Drew outfit. Sam’s dad, Jim, gave Sam a travel mug this year just like the one Jim uses, so that Sam can pretend to drink coffee with him in the morning. Mom’s given Sam many items that say “Grandma” on them, or given him toys that remind her of her own children growing up. We all want to give a bit of ourselves to Sam it seems, to give the best of us, our favorite things, our passions, to Sam, so that he’ll love what we love, and know how much we love him!

I think it is meant to be the same for us when we think about Jesus, the Christ-child, the Savior. What do we have to give? What will we give to this child in the manger? What gifts do we come bearing today? Well – what are your passions? What brings you joy? What do you love doing? What do you do well? What motivates you? What gets you excited? For each one of us, we can answer these questions in different ways. We’re unique creations, uniquely gifted. But make no mistake, we can all answer these questions. Sometimes we don’t see ourselves as gifted. But I’m afraid that failing to see the gifts in ourselves can only lead to believing that God has somehow passed us over in creating us uniquely and purposefully. And I’m not willing to go there. So if we’re gifted, it is from these gifts that we can find something to return to the Christ-child. What can we bring him? Or course, we give a bit of ourselves, just like my family seeks to give ourselves to Sam. We bring our best, our favorite things, our passions. And we do it to say to God that we love God as God loves us. Truly, this season really is about gifts – giving and receiving – a gift for us that is priceless, and gifts from us that are unique and from our very hearts, from us, who we are.

We’re at the start of New Year. I know some people don’t like to make resolutions, but to me, resolutions are just signs that we have hope, just signs that we believe, despite our past mistakes, that we can do something different, something new, with the time and life that we’ve been given. And I always want to have that kind of hope. So this year, I’m asking you to make an easy resolution: Make this a year when you resolve to give gifts, give abundantly, give of yourself, and give out of love. What will you give to the Christ-child?



(2) William Studwell, The Christmas Carol Reader,