Monday, January 25, 2010

Sermon for Third Sunday after the Epiphany, "Filled: With the Spirit"

Sermon 1/24/10, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a, Luke 4:4-21


Filled: With the Spirit

Every time I come across this week I the lectionary cycle, I’ve chosen to focus my preaching on the gospel text of Luke. It’s one of my favorite passages. It’s Jesus’ first sermon of sorts, at least the first that is included in the biblical narrative. In it, he returns, filled with the power of the Spirit, to his hometown synagogue in Nazareth, as was his custom, we read. He stands up to read, and he reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then Jesus rolls up the scroll, sits back down, and says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” In reading this text from Isaiah, Jesus sets out, from the very beginning, with a very clear announcement about what he intends to be all about: good news for the poor, release for captives, sight for the blind, and freedom for the oppressed.

But our other scripture text today keeps catching my attention, calling to me to give it a second look, because I feel it really contains a message we need to hear right now. Our text is from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. The church at Corinth was a faith community that Paul himself founded, and he’d received word that “a lack of harmony and internal strife” had been troubling the congregation. So Paul writes this letter in response to the conflicts he’s hearing about, as a letter that reminds the community of how to live together as the Body of Christ. This chapter is one of the key themes in the book. Paul begins, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.” Paul then goes on to paint a vivid visual for us – he talks about the human body as the body of Christ, and compares each of us to parts of that human body, as we are part of the body of Christ. There is just one body of Christ, but there are different parts of the body of Christ, each of which has a different function. All of these roles are vitally important to the body of Christ, but none can exist on their own, none is more important than the other, and none has the right to say to the others, “I have no need of you.” Paul tells us that “God has so arranged the body . . . that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” We are individual members of the one body of Christ.

As we prepare for our Annual Meeting next Sunday, I think this text is something we need to hear and really consider. This week, our Pastor-Parish Relations Committee met with my supervising District Superintendent, David Underwood. He is also preaching today on Corinthians, and spoke to us about how this passage reminds us that the church is an organism, not an organization. The body of Christ is a living entity – filled with the Spirit, made of people, all of God’s unique creations. We are the body of Christ in the world – that’s a reminder that we hear every time we celebrate communion together. When the elements are consecrated, we pray, “make [these gifts] be for us the body . . . of Christ, that we may be for the world the body of Christ.”

We are called to be the eyes of Jesus. Right in our gospel lesson today Jesus talks about bringing recovery of sight to the blind. He certainly does this in literal ways through his healing, but Jesus was also about opening the eyes of those who were spiritually blind. He spoke about spiritual blindness as a more troubling problem, and frequently called the Pharisees blind guides, blind fools, the blind leading the blind. But Jesus always sees situations, and sees us, clearly, seeing through the facades we put on. When I searched the scriptures for references to Jesus seeing, I noticed that most often, we read that Jesus sees with compassion.

Jesus also sees those that others don’t see. In the gospels he sees children, women, those in need of healing. He sees the faith of people who are on the fringes. He sees the ones that others walk right by. Jesus sees us as we truly are, as we hope to be, as we might be, as we are trying to be.

How do we see people? Who don’t we see? How can we be the eyes of Jesus in the body of Christ? When I think about this congregation as a part of the body of Christ, I can think of those who truly act as the eyes of Jesus, really seeing everyone. We have a couple of people who are most likely to see you if you are a visitor – one standout person is almost always the first person to introduce himself to someone new. And we have some people who always see people who need help entering the building, who are always right there to open doors, operate the elevator, and put someone at ease. We have some people who really see our youth and children, who notice what is going on in their lives. We have some people who are really good at seeing who is not here, remembering those who have been absent for our fellowship and reaching out. We are blessed to have some people who are the eyes of Jesus in the body of Christ.

We are called to be the ears of Jesus. All through his teaching, Jesus would end his parables and sermons with the words, “Let all who have ears, let them hear!” Or, “Let anyone with ears listen!” When he stayed at the home of Mary and Martha, he praised Mary for just sitting and listening, rather than being busy with household chores. To have someone’s undivided attention is such a rare gift, and it was one that Jesus gave to unexpected people. Think about how you listen to someone who is speaking. We spend much of our time listening to someone with our minds actually in another place – we’re always worrying about what we are going to say next, how we will respond, or a million other things – what’s on our to-do list, what’s happening next, or even how we will fix a problem someone is sharing. But one thing I’ve learned over the years is that most people aren’t looking for you to fix their problems. They’re just hoping you care about them enough to listen to their experiences. Jesus gave his full attention to people. And he asks our full attention to what he teaches.

So how are we being the ears of Jesus in this part of the body of Christ? Who is particularly attuned to listening – to other people, to God’s call, to the Spirit’s leading? I know that we have some people here who have been good listeners when I’ve needed help. I know even just this week one in our family met to really listen to and talk with another member who has having a hard time. We have some people here who are anxiously listening for how God will call them, who frequently speak to me about wanting to hear God’s hopes for their lives. We have someone who volunteers many hours each week at a helpline and just listens when people call when they’re in times of deep crisis. We’re blessed to have people who can really listen when we are at meetings or council sessions and disagreements arise, who can really listen for the core of what someone is saying and understand another person’s perspective. We’re blessed to have those who embody the ears of Christ in this congregation.

We are called to be the mouth of Christ. Words are extremely powerful. Words can hurt or heal. I bet each of us can think over our lives and remember things that have been said – said in love or said in anger. Sometimes words are so powerful that years later we can remember word-for-word what someone told us. And because words are so powerful, we have to be careful, thoughtful, with what we say and why we say it. Every time we speak, we have an opportunity to be the mouth of Christ. Jesus said that it is what comes out of our mouths, not what goes in, that makes us clean or unclean. What has come out of your mouth that you are proud of? What have you said that has caused harm to another person? Jesus was someone who always spoke out of love, but also someone who spoke the truth, even when the truth was difficult to hear. When have you spoken up when no one else would? When have your raised your voice to call for justice, and when have you been quiet, letting an injustice go by without giving voice to the harm you saw done? And of course, Jesus used his voice to share the good news about God’s unconditional love, to share the news that we didn’t have to wait for God’s kingdom – that God’s kingdom was here, near, now.

How are we being the mouth of Christ in this body, this congregation? I urge you to consider carefully the power of your words, and how we speak to and about one another. We are blessed to have some people here who are so excited to talk to you about God and God’s love. We’re blessed to have a group of adults who are serving as teachers and mentors to our Sunday School students and confirmands – they, whether they realize it or not – are being the mouth of Christ as they share stories about Jesus and about their own faith journeys. We have a group of people who is dedicated to leading worship at an area nursing home every 6 weeks or so – they are acting as the mouth of Christ for people who don’t often receive that attention. We’re blessed with people who participate in worship through music and assisting and reading scripture – they are acting as the mouth of Christ. Some of you really work on inviting people to worship – some of our young people consistently invite friends to church or Sunday School or youth group – they are acting as the mouth of Christ, and we are blessed to have them in our congregation.

We are called to be the hands of Christ. Think about what you use your hands for. In Jesus’ day, most people’s livelihoods would come from manual labor – work done with the hands. What work do you do with your hands? In the gospels, Jesus uses his hands primarily for healing and blessing others, and again he focuses his that healing and blessing on those who are usually on the fringes of society, at the margins. Jesus also uses his hands to feed and to serve, even to wash the feet of his disciples. Physical touch can be a powerful way to communicate the love of Christ. I think of the feeling of holding a baby to be baptized, or the touch of hands that are joined with yours in prayer, or the connection made between you and me when we renew baptismal vows, or celebrate a healing service with anointing oil, or next month when we will be marked with ashes. We are called to be the hands of Christ – how do we use our hands as Jesus did?

We’re blessed to have hands in our midst that hold a shovel or bag of rock salt on snowy Sunday mornings. We have hands that helped with construction – or destruction – in our Sunday School wing downstairs, including hands that worked hard when no one else was around to see. A certain pair of hands frequently takes items from the narthex to the right spot in the food pantry. We have hands that do things like fill our altar candles, change our paraments which decorate our sanctuary, and ready communion bread, including hands that prepare communion bread nearly every single Sunday for our 8 o’clock service. There are hands that have mended my robe for me, and hands that have knit prayer shawls, and hands that have baked bread for food baskets. There are hands that collect and count our offering each week. We’re blessed with the hands of Jesus, hard at work in this community of faith.

And we are called to be the feet of Jesus. When I think of Jesus’ feet, I think of all the places his feet had to go. Jesus’ feet took him all the places no one else wanted to go. His feet took him to the home of a tax collector and the home of a Pharisee. They took him to Jericho and Syrophoenicia, to Sidon, to Nazareth, to Jerusalem. His feet took him to a leper colony, and up mountains to pray. His feet took him across the water, and eventually took him to his own crucifixion, where he gave his life freely. Jesus wanted us to think about where our feet take us too. Jesus said, “if someone requires you to go one mile with them, go with them also a second mile.” He was talking about a law that required Jews to carry the pack of an occupying Roman soldier for one mile if requested on the road. It was a law to travel that mile. Jesus told people to go further than was required – the extra mile. Where do your feet take you? I mean both literally and figuratively. When do your feet take you out of your comfort zone?

I see the feet of Jesus in this congregation. You’d be amazed, I bet, at the places these feet have been in the name of Jesus. Someone’s feet carry them to a city church to teach nutrition and cooking skills to those who really need to learn. Someone’s feet take them to P.E.A.C.E. right here in town to drop off food. Some feet have travelled on mission trips to serve those in need. Many feet have traveled to camp to learn more about God. Some feet will be traveling soon to serve meals to hungry people. Feet, young and old, stood in a mall ringing a bell for the Salvation Army. Where have your feet taken you? We have the feet of Jesus, right here in this congregation.

Sometimes we need reminding of how blessed we are to have such a full congregation of different and unique people. There is no one here who can bring to this congregation what you bring. And there is no one here who can bring to this congregation what the person who sometimes frustrates or challenges you brings. Yesterday, for a conference event I was attending, we had to read a document about leadership, which included words from a Luther pastor named Wally Armbuster. He writes, “harmony is not everyone singing the same note at the same time. That is monotony. Harmony is when everyone sings his or her own note and then listens carefully to others in order to blend together.” It isn’t always easy to live together and work together and be in ministry together when we have such different ideas about the best way to make things work. But what a blessing it is that we have so many people who are passionate about serving God in this place. Paul reminds us that we are bound together by something that runs much deeper than common interests or compatible personalities. We are bound together because we are one in the Spirit, one in the body of Christ. The tie that binds us is stronger than the differences that stretch us – and so we celebrate, and nurture those bonds, and we’re meant to nurture and care for our relationships within the body of Christ. We are the body of Christ in the world – we are the eyes, the ears, the mouths, the hands, and the feet that carry God’s love, made possible by the Holy Spirit that works within us. “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.” Amen.

Sermon for Second Sunday after the Epiphany, "Filled: To the Brim"

Sermon 1/17/10, John 2:1-11, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11

Filled: To the Brim

You might have noticed that last week and this week our sermons have had the theme of: filled. We’ll continue on with that for the next couple of weeks as well, and I chose this focus because I suddenly noticed, as I was preparing my preaching schedule, that the gospel lessons for several weeks in a row contained the word “filled.” And I think “filled” is a perfect word to describe how God wants our lives to be. My very favorite Bible verse is from John 10:10b – “I have come that they might have life and have it abundantly.” Jesus is all about giving us life – but not just any life. Full life. Abundant life. We live in a culture that is so full – of sounds and sights, of must-haves, of things an stuff – and yet people feel amazingly empty, always trying to fill up with the wrong things. The message of Jesus, though, is pretty clear. God is supposed to be the one filling us.

Things certainly have seemed quite full to me this week, as I prepared for worship today. On Tuesday, the world heard of a devastating earthquake in Haiti, and the news from the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere just seems to get worse as the number of casualties climbs. And yet, there are stories, too, of amazing hope and sacrifice, stories of people singing in the streets, hymns and Halleluiahs. We mourn the passing of one of our church members, Emily Brundidge, who died this week. My mind is with my mother, as she continues to heal from her ankle fusion surgery. Tomorrow I meet with a group of Presbyterian youth, who will be travelling to visit the United Nations next month in New York City. Yesterday I met with Communicators from four United Methodist conferences, to plan for our merger in July. Today you received the first formal announcement of our Annual Meeting, which take place two weeks from today. Things are feeling pretty filled up. No doubt a quick review of your week would bring up similar results.

And our themes in worship are full too – today we celebrate the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as we consider his work for racial justice. And beyond that special designation, our scripture lessons have weight and fullness in their own right today. Our reading from the epistle to the Corinthians talks about spiritual gifts, the variety of ways in which God gives to us unique qualities which enable us to serve and to help one another in faith. Our gospel lesson talks about Jesus changing water into wine at the wedding in Cana. Both these texts offer so many possibilities, but I keep returning to that word – filled. We are indeed filled to the brim, with our lives, with our need for God, with directions God can lead us in worship today. Where do we begin?

First things first. Jesus' changing the water into wine is generally considered his 'first' miracle recorded in the gospels. Well, it may be his first miracle, but other than chronological uniqueness, it doesn't seem to me particularly remarkable. Don't get me wrong - I haven't mastered changing water into wine just yet. It's more that the type of miracle Jesus chooses as his first public display of God-given powers seems a bit odd in choice. How does this miracle really help anyone? It saves the host of a wedding reception a bit of embarrassment from running out of wine, true. But no one is healed, no one's leprosy vanishes. No one's sight is restored. No raging storms are calmed. It doesn’t seem to be a life-changing event. Jesus simply changes water into wine, enabling a party to continue on for more hours, and boosting the host's status in the eyes of the guests who are impressed with the new wine's quality. What a strange way to make his mark in the world of miracles!

So if the particulars are not so impressive, as far as miracles go, anyway, what's so special about this event? Why is this the first? Why bother to include it in the stories of Jesus, when there are so many other things we wish we could know about the life of this Christ? Chances are, as usual, there's something more than meets the eye. We read that Jesus used 6 jars that were used for purification rites, 20-30 gallon jars, about the size of our street-side garbage cans. These jars he ordered "filled to the brim" by the stewards - you can just picture them, almost ready to spill over from fullness, like the commercial images of soda at fast-food restaurants, appealing in their abundance. Jesus changed these water jars into jars of wine. And when another tasted the wine, he called the groom and said to him, "Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now."

For me, these empty vessels represent our own lives - we are these jars, creations of God, ready to be filled up. Often we try to fill ourselves up with things we desire, things we think will bring us meaning. But others aren't fooled, realizing inferior wine, so to speak, when they see it. But God offers to fill us up, and to the very brim - first with the waters that would cleanse and purify us, as we remembered last Sunday, but then with the good wine, the best-for-last wine, the filled-to-the-brim-its-so-good wine that causes others to remark about our quality - that something-special substance in us. We can choose: the watered-down life of our own design, or the abundant brim-filled life that God offers.

Our quick response is to say that of course we want the full version - we want the real thing, we want to have the best wine to fill our vessels. But unfortunately, it's not as simple as that. If we don't want the watered-down version of possibilities for our lives, it also means we can't accept watered down versions of who God is, who Jesus is, or how Jesus calls us to live. Too often we want to skirt the issues Jesus confronts us with by watering them down, turning Jesus into a nice man with great ideals but not much realism about how to get along in the world. When he warns us about money we think he's exaggerating, when he tells us to drop everything and follow him, we're sure he forgot to take our jobs and our families into consideration. When he talks about loving neighbors, we are sure he wouldn’t have said it if he’s met our neighbors. When he tells us to turn the other cheek, we're convinced he never had a good look at the size of our opponent. When he asks us not to judge others, we can't help but point out anyway a few who don't meet God's standards, and when he talks about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting the sick, we're finally sure he's speaking metaphorically and not literally. We have to ask ourselves: are we ready for the good wine? Do we really want to be filled to the brim with such potent stuff? Isn't the watered down version actually a little easier to swallow?

On this special Sunday, we celebrate the birthday – and life – of Martin Luther King, Jr. Just as we often try to 'water down' the message of Jesus, we have also tried to water down the message of this radical man as well, making him more acceptable to our ears and our consciences. In recent years, for instance, clips of King have been used in commercials for the YMCA, for soda companies, insurance companies, Apple computers, a communications company, and even Cingular cell phone company, to promote their products. Is this his legacy? The poet Carl Wendell Himes, Jr., aptly and eloquently put into words this dilemma of watering down, writing: "Now that he is safely dead / Let us praise him / build monuments to his glory / sing hosannas to his name. / Dead men make / such convenient heroes: They cannot rise / to challenge the images / we would fashion from their lives. / And besides, / it is easier to build monuments / than to make a better world." (1)

Civil Rights activist Vincent Harding speaks similarly, "We must reclaim Martin precisely because the times demand it. As the bombs fall, as the poor cry out in greater numbers, as the earth convulses beneath the weight of global economic power, we must attend to the words and the life of this prophet among us. If we are content with little more than a vision of Black and White children holding hands . . . If we settle for a tamed version of Martin King as a moderate integrationist, we will fall prey to cynicism and despair, and we'll lack the imagination and social inventiveness necessary in genuine social struggle." (2) If you really examine the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr., you hardly find someone who everyone liked, someone who everyone agreed with, who didn't ruffle any feathers. He talked the talk, and walked the walk. His dream wasn't just words for the future - it was a plan of action he followed right then. He wrote, "I choose to identify with the underprivileged. I choose to identify with the poor. I choose to give my life for the hungry. I choose to give my life for those who have been left out of the sunlight of opportunity. I choose to live for and with those who find themselves seeing life as a long and desolate corridor with no exit sign. This is the way I'm going. If it means suffering a little bit, I'm going that way. If it means sacrificing, I'm going that way. If it means dying for them, I'm going that way, because I heard a voice saying, 'Do something for others.'" (1)

On this day that we read about Christ changing water into wine, and on this day that we remember the man Martin Luther King, Jr., let us not settle for something less than the gospel demands of us. Let us not reduce the gospel to a gift book of cute phrases to live by - perhaps another collection of heart-warming Chicken Soup for the Soul stories. Jesus’ teachings are so much more than that - they demand much more of us, and they reward us much more deeply, in more long-lasting ways. If we allow it, God fills us with good wine – Paul's letter to the Corinthians talks about the contents of our vessels - the gifts that each of us has, of wisdom, knowledge, prophecy, healing, faith, and much more. What's next is to pour ourselves out for others, pour ourselves out in service and sacrifice, pour ourselves out with boldness, knowing that God is filling us up as fast as we’re pouring ourselves out. The choice is ours: water or wine, empty, or filled to the brim, cheap substitutes, or the demanding and rewarding gospel of Jesus Christ. Do you want to be filled? Amen.

(1) As quoted by Vincent Harding, in The Other Side, http://www.theotherside.org/archive/jan-feb03/harding_print.html

(2) Vincent Harding, in The Other Side, http://www.theotherside.org/archive/jan-feb03/harding_print.html

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Every Member

This year, one of my resolutions is to visit every (local) member and constituent in my congregation. My hope is to spend some time talking about each person's relationship with the church (How did they start attending? Why? What have they been involved in?), and also talking about visions/hopes/dreams for the church in the months/years ahead.

If you had the opportunity to speak with every member of your congregation, what questions would you ask, and why?

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Sermon for Baptism of the Lord Sunday, "Filled: With Expectation"

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


Filled: With Expectation

Today, we find ourselves turning back to a part of a text we studied during Advent – a scene with the people gathering before John the Baptist, preparing to be baptized. Earlier in this chapter, John preached to the crowds about bearing fruits worthy of repentance. He called them a brood of vipers, and instructed them in ways of living that would prepare them to be good fruit. And today, we pick up with the tail end of his comments. We read that the people are filled with expectation, and they are wondering if John is the Messiah. But John says, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Then, suddenly, we read: “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized . . .” Only, the passage doesn’t tell us anything about Jesus coming to be baptized. No verses of conversation with John. No explanation of why Jesus would need to be baptized. Just, “When Jesus also had been baptized . . .” Here in Luke we read that after the baptism, while Jesus was praying, heaven opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him like a dove, and a voice came from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the other three gospels give us a little more detail, though all four accounts together are hardly ten frustratingly short verses total. This is an important scene – Jesus’ baptism is one of a few events recorded in all four gospels. But it raises for us some important questions. If John was urging people to be baptized as an act of repentance, if he meant people to come to him to receive a symbol of forgiveness for sins – why was Jesus there? Why did Jesus need to be baptized at all? Surely Jesus didn’t need repentance, or forgiveness, right? So what is this scene all about?

In our United Methodist and Presbyterian traditions, 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, though, 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? He doesn’t need to repent in the same way we do, but as I’ve mentioned, “to repent,” in its literal meaning, means to turn around, to turn back, to go a new direction – God’s direction. 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.

I think that Jesus, like the crowds, was filled with expectation and anticipation. He was about to make a huge change in his life. For thirty years, we have virtually no accounts of what Jesus was doing, what his life was about, what he said, who he spoke with. Apparently the gospel writers did not consider any of this significant, because it seems that the tasks Jesus was about, the preaching and teaching he had to do, the road to Jerusalem he had to take – all of this was to happen in such a short period of time. His baptism represents the beginning, and Jesus himself seems to see it as the starting point. So I believe that when Jesus came to be baptized by his cousin, though he may not have come to repent, he was certainly coming to mark a change in direction – a beginning. He was setting into motion a course of action for his life where there would be no turning back. No un-doing it. Here, Jesus was signaling he was fully ready to follow God’s call, God’s claim on his life. No doubt he was filled with expectation. And as he comes to the waters, as he makes this commitment through baptism, he hears God’s voice: “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” There, at the start, Jesus has an affirmation, a reminder, a confirmation of what he knows – he is God’s beloved, and God is well-pleased with him. With this heaven-opening proof of God’s love for him, surely Jesus is ready to begin his ministry with all the certainty he needs that God is with him, in him, and working through him in everything he will face over the next three years.

What stands out to me when I hear God’s words to Jesus in this text is that God is already well-pleased with Jesus. It’s a pre-existing condition, you might say. Jesus is at the start of his ministry. He’s about to do a lot of wonderful things. But he hasn’t begun yet. But these words from God don’t come at the end of Jesus’ journey. They don’t come during Jesus’ arrest and trial and crucifixion. They come at the beginning. At the start. Something that is already true. God is already well-pleased with Jesus, Jesus is already God’s beloved – just because. Because Jesus is the child of God.

And that is what we celebrate in our baptism. It’s symbol, a sign, a reminder, a way God speaks to us and says, “You are my child, my beloved, with you I am well-pleased.” Maybe our relationship with God, our parent-child relationship with God is different than how Jesus related to the one he calls Abba – but some things are just the same. God’s love for us is a pre-existing condition. It is an unshakable reality for us at the beginning of our days, not something God says to us only at the end, after determining whether we’ve measured up for not. We are God’s, beloved. With us, God is well-pleased, simply because of love for us. Simply because God created us. Already, God loves us.

We are just a few days in to a brand new year. Last week, I mentioned that I still like making resolutions, when many don’t, because I think resolutions are sign that we have hope that with God’s help, we can change, we can do new things, we can change behaviors, even change our world. I hope, ten days in, you are still filled with hope and expectation, anticipation, when you think about what 2010 will hold. I wonder, and have many hopes for my own life this year, and the ways I might deepen my discipleship, strengthen my response to God’s calling. And I definitely have hopes, expectations, anticipation when I think about our year ahead together as this small part of the body of Christ. I hope you do as well. And I hope you have, like I have, faith, that God can do in us what we can hardly imagine. But to believe that, to have that faith, to have expectations that are grounded in God, we have to get things in the right order. Don’t spend this year, or any time, trying to have the will-power, the strength, the energy to fulfill your expectations so that you can live up to God’s expectations of you and be showered in God’s love. Instead, remember – already God loves us. And from God’s love, we find the power and strength to exceed all our expectations, always living in God’s love.

Today, we will celebrate a reaffirmation of our baptismal vows. 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. You have an opportunity for a beginning, a change of direction, a parting of the heavens as God smiles upon you to remind you that you are Beloved. May God’s love bless you today, this year, and always. Amen.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Sermon for Epiphany Sunday, "Until Next Time"

Sermon 1/3/10, Matthew 2:1-12

Until Next Time

Today is Epiphany Sunday, and it marks for us the change between the Season of Christmas and the transitional season after Epiphany that marks time until Lent begins in late February. Epiphany day is technically January 6th – 12 days after Christmas – making today technically the 9th 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.

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. Jesus is the light of the world, and because Jesus is the light, he expects us to be lights to the world also, when we let Christ shine through us, and 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.

It is the gift to us of Jesus, the light of the world, that we celebrate on Epiphany. 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 ninth day of Christmas. It isn’t too late for us to remember what the most important gift is. On Christmas Eve, when I was talking about the Magi, I mentioned that so many of our songs talk about the gifts of Christmas – not just the gift to us of the Christ-child, 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.

Of course, there’s “We Three Kings,” which we will sing in just a bit. 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. But there are many others. 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. But there’s also “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. There’s “The Friendly Beasts,” which we sang at one of our Christmas Eve services, 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 I shall 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! Through high school, okay, college even, I used to tell everyone when my birthday was, how many days away it was, and give helpful suggestions for presents. But I also truly love giving gifts! And some of the most fun I have with gifts is giving them to my nephew, Sam. In fact, it seems to be a problem for the whole family. My brother and sister-in-law try, regularly, to prevent my family from getting too much for Sam. I’ve never seen my grandmother move faster than when she seemed to be racing my Great Aunt to get a present into Sam’s hands. I’m afraid that he sometimes says now, on greeting you for a visit, “What did you bring me?” It’s a problem.

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 t-shirt that says “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” a line from Macbeth. This year I got Sam a book while I was at the Grand Canyon. Sam got a guitar this year from his great uncle, so that he can play like daddy does. 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 as I’ve mentioned in the past, 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. For some, that means sharing gifts of music – singing, instruments. For others, that means crunching numbers – caring for the financial health of our congregation behind the scenes. Some of you share the gift of education – teaching our children, our youth, and our adults, and helping them grown in faith. Some of you have a passion for generosity – we celebrate about 30 families increasing their pledge to the church this year, and we celebrate such giving to our food baskets that we hand out that I had one recipient tell me she hasn’t seen her cupboards that full in a long, long time. You share your gifts for leadership, as many of you are preparing even now to step into new roles on our Parish Council and committees. And there are so many other ways you have and can choose to use your gifts to serve God. And we do it, we give, 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? Amen.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Sermon for Christmas Eve, "This Time"

Sermon 12/24/09, Luke 2:1-20


This Time

All Advent, we’ve been talking about time – The Time is Near. The Time In-Between. Time’s Up. In the Fullness of Time. And now, at last, the time really is here, the time that we’ve been waiting for, counting down to, preparing for, some calmly, others frantically. But however we got here, now the time is here. This is the time. And so that is our theme tonight – This Time. Luke seems to be right on program. He is so careful to pinpoint the time at which things happen in his gospels. He gives a little context. Because, after all, we might talk about the date when something happened – 1991, but then find it more helpful to remind our listener of the context – you know, when the elder George Bush was president and Iraq invaded Kuwait. Some context, to make sure our listener knows what we’re talking about. And so here, as he does elsewhere in his gospel, Luke describes exactly when these events are taking place. “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered,” he says, and continues, “This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.”

What follows in the Christmas story that we love and know so well, both here in Luke, and in other pieces of the story that we know in Matthew, is a description of what everyone involved did in those days, in that time, in response to the birth of the baby Jesus. We have an unseen innkeeper and all the guests at the inn who did have a place to sleep. No doubt the innkeeper and the guests had no idea who was being turned away. The innkeeper was just doing his job. But can you imagine such a miracle happening so close by to you, and simply missing it altogether? Going on with everyday things while the Christ-child was being born just outside your doors? We have the shepherds, a group of men who lived on the fringes of society, who literally kept company with more animals than they did people. They were an uneducated lot who didn’t get to be a part of regular society very often. It was to them that God’s messengers, the angels, appeared. They were naturally terrified when the angel appeared to them – but they took the angels at their word and quickly went to witness the miracle taking place. Later there were Wisemen from the East, who would journey over great distances to see the baby, a child not of their own race or culture, a child they really knew nothing about, but who they believed to be a king. They risked their lives to seek information from King Herod and avoid giving him answers about what they’d found. They gave gifts of great value to the baby Jesus. There’s Herod, who was so threatened by the possibility of what this child could be, that he would willingly take the lives of so many innocents just to protect himself. In that time, Herod’s position and power was all the mattered to him, and he certainly wasn’t interested in any plans God had for the baby Jesus except to make sure they didn’t impact Herod. There’s Joseph. Joseph had so many opportunities to run from Mary and this child he surely couldn’t understand. But his dreams and visions led him to believe that God was using Mary, that this child was something special, and that God even had a plan, a purpose, for Joseph himself. And so Joseph trusted in God’s plans, and did what was right, but difficult. And then there is Mary. We forget how young she was – probably just a young teen. And yet she responded so quickly, so immediately, to the news that she would bear a child, with faith, trust, and joy at how God was working in her life. Here, on this night of nights when she gives birth, we read that “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” Surely Mary shows a special wisdom. That’s our cast of characters in Jesus’ birth – those who were near to the child that was born to be God-with-us, Emmanuel.

But Luke describes to us those days, that time, when Christ was born. Today it is this time. We celebrate Christmas every year, not just as a remembrance of a past event, but as a celebration of something that is true and new to us over and over. Jesus is called Emmanuel, which means, “God with us” – and that is always a present-tense description. Not God was with us. Not God used to be with us, or God was with them. But God with us. Now. You and me. God is with us now, and always. Today. Not only in those days, but now, in these days, today, Christmas 2009. The question becomes then, what are we doing now, in these days, in this time, because of the birth of the holy child, the presence of God-with-us in our lives? How will you respond to God’s presence? As we hear the Christmas story, where are we? Who do we resonate with? Whose behavior best describes how we will react when God again tries to break into our lives with love and grace?

I fear that sometimes we are like the innkeeper, or the hotel guests. God is doing something wonderful right in our presence but we’re too busy with our everyday lives and routines and plans to notice what’s happening. As we’ve been thinking about time, I’ve been all to aware of how easily days and weeks, then months and ever years can slip by us. Have we really been paying attention? Have we really been noticing our world? Our neighbors? The people in our lives as the days go by? Have we really been seeing what’s happening all around us? If God took up residence next door to us, would we notice?

I hope that we can skip over emulating King Herod. We certainly know he’s the villain of the story. But before we write him off as someone we know we’re not like, we’d better double check. Probably we don’t have the same murderous intents as Herod did, but sometimes I do think we have a hard time letting go of our own power. We all have power, in one arena of our lives or another. Herod wasn’t able to let go of his in order to let God’s vision for all people flourish. When do we need to give up some of our power, our positions, our status, our places, in order to make room for others? In order to make room for God?

Perhaps, instead, we can be like the Wise Men. They travelled a long way to find the Christ-child, and laid at his feet things that they deemed most precious. How much energy are you willing to put into seeking purpose? Out of so many blessings, what are you ready to offer before the Christ-child? So many of our songs of the season talk about bringing our gifts to Jesus. This time, this Christmas, will you offer to serve God not with half-efforts and feeble attempts, but with your best?

Maybe this time, this Christmas, we can find some shepherds in our midst. They were the ones on the fringes, but God drew them right into the center of the story. Who is on the fringes in our society this Christmas? Who isn’t inside these walls tonight? Who won’t be a part of celebrations tomorrow? Who does God see that we overlook? This time, let us start seeing with God’s eyes.

Maybe we have some Josephs here. Maybe you see a path of following God that is hard and challenging, even risky and scary. And maybe you know you could make things easier on yourself and choose a different way. Joseph chose the harder way, a way of faith, and a way that brought him abundant life. This time, this Christmas, will you be challenged? Will you take risks? Will you follow God even when you don’t understand why or how God will act?

And maybe we have some Marys here too. Mary treasured and pondered. She took it all in. She was soaking up every bit of the experience. From the instant Gabriel visited her, through her meeting with her cousin Elizabeth, through the birth of her son, Mary treasured and pondered what God was doing. This time, this Christmas, I hope you treasure every precious moment. Soak up every bit of God’s love moving in your life. Ponder God-with-us, and the new life, the hope, the possibilities, present in this tiny newborn babe.

We tell the story over and over again – we know how they reacted, how they responded, in that time, in those days. What will you do in this time?

Amen.