Monday, January 23, 2012

Lectionary Notes for 4th Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B

Readings for 4th Sunday after the Epiphany, 1/29/12:
Deuteronomy 18:15-20, Psalm 111, 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, Mark 1:21-28


Deuteronomy 18:15-20:
  • Moses declares to the people that God will raise up a prophet after his death - ostensibly he speaks of his successor, Joshua. He does this because the people feel that God speaking to them more directly, as at Horeb when God spoke out of the fire, is too frightening, too much to handle. Can you imagine thinking that God speaking directly too you is too much to handle? It might be intimidating, but most of us seem to wish God would speak to us more directly. (Maybe we'd change our minds after experiencing it!)
  • So this new prophet, like Moses, will act as a go-between between the people and God. Has anyone ever served in this role for you? A pastor/priest can fill in this role, but if you are a clergy person, do you ever wish someone would stand between you and God? What experiences have you had?
  • There is a condition, though, to the arrangement: The people must actually heed the words of the prophet. They can't make this arrangement and then decide they don't like the prophet - as they often threatened to do with Moses. When is it right to question authority, leadership? When is it not right?

  • Psalm 111
    :
  • The psalmist is praising God for faithfulness, for being a provider and covenant-keeper, for following through and being with the people. This psalm is all about praising and thanking God for all God has done.
  • "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." Do you fear God? We're instructed over and over again in the scriptures not to be afraid. What does it mean, then, to fear God or to be God-fearing? I interpret it to mean we're to have an awe of God that is an awe we give only to God. Should/do we fear God anymore, or have we gotten too cozy? It's great to feel close to God, but have we lost our reverence in the process, the believe that God is actually above and beyond us in many respects? Where is a good line between fear/love/respect? 

  • 1 Corinthians 8:1-13:
  • This is a great passage from Paul, regarding a common obstacle in the communities of the early church: the debate over whether or not Christians should eat meat that had been sacrificed in pagan temples to pagan gods.
  • Paul says, "Look - knowledge is all good and well. But what you need with God is love. If you love God, God knows you, and that's what's most important." He says, eloquently, "knowledge puffs up, but love builds up." Knowledge, like everything, is a gift from God. We can oppress others by withholding knowledge from them (women and people of color, for instance, have been denied education) but we can also give knowledge too much power when we treat it as the most important thing.
  • Paul argues that "smarty-pants" Christians might know that eating sacrificed pagan meat is no big deal. He doesn't disagree with the reasoning - if the gods the meat was meant for aren't real, who cares about eating the meat? But Paul says there is a much higher concern: Christians who don't "get it" can be led astray by those who do - so what's the point of weakening the faith of another just to indulge in some meat?
  • Paul concludes - why insist on doing something that will only cause another's faith to wobble, if that thing is not necessary. Personally, I think of drinking in this way. I don't think consuming alcohol is morally wrong. But it is a stumbling block for many. So, I choose to abstain, for the good of the whole. 

  • Mark 1:21-28
    :
  • "as one having authority, not like the scribes" - Chris Haslam writes in his comments that the scribes would be knowledgeable, quoting scripture, but not have their own authority. Jesus, on the other hand, draws on scriptures, sure, but speaks for himself - his authority is from within.
  • Haslam also says that healers/magicians of the day would have done rituals/magic to cleanse the man of the demon. Since Jesus can do this with only spoken words, the people see that indeed he does have a different kind of authority.
  • Because of this deed, Jesus' "fame" begins to spread. Do you think this is what Jesus most wanted people to know about him? His casting out demons? Or would he have rather been famous for his teaching and message of love and grace for the least? I think Jesus was savvy - he got people talking and drew them so he could teach and touch them.
  • Report of the Pastor, Mark 1:14-20


    Report of the Pastor
    Mark 1:14-20
    1/22/12

    Five Hundred Twenty-Five Thousand Six Hundred Minutes. Five Hundred Twenty-Five Thousand Moments so dear. Five Hundred Twenty-Five Thousand Six Hundred Minutes. How Do You Measure - Measure A Year? In Daylights - In Sunsets, In Midnights - In Cups of Coffee, In Inches - In Miles, In Laughter - In Strife, In - Five Hundred Twenty-Five Thousand Six Hundred Minutes. How Do You Measure a Year In The Life? How About Love? How About Love? How About Love? Measure In Love. Seasons of Love.
    You might recognize these lyrics from the song Seasons of Love from the musical Rent. The words ask us how we can assess the value of a year in our life. Is it just seconds and minutes, or more than that? Is it expressions of love? I have been wondering the same thing about our year here at First United. How do we measure it? Like the song suggests, I hope what all of our actions add up to are expressions of love for God and one another. You may remember my January newsletter article for the Contact, where I talked about the concept of a Year in Review. At the end of 2011, you could find a lot of Best of 2011 lists – the top 10 movies or books or albums. A review of important people and events. And I wondered what that would look like for our church. How would we characterize the life of our church in 2011? What was our year together like? And where do we see ourselves going in 2012?
    One of the many blessings we have here is that Cee Cee Andrew and some occasional helpers provide us with beautiful photographs of church events. You can find these on our church facebook page, or on the digital picture frame after services, or in the scrapbook Connie McEvers put together, or on the monitor before worship begins. I spent some time this month looking through the pictures to remind me of all the places we've been this year.
    Here is just a snippet: Our youth completed a challenge course, something they will do again soon, and played laser tag with youth from Fayetteville and Manlius. From our church alone we are seeing 15-20 youth at some of these events, with youth inviting other youth. They also threw Valentine, Halloween, and Christmas parties for our children. We celebrated Camp Sunday, and sent our young people to camps, retreats, and events. We were serious about mission and connecting to people we serve. We followed up on a commitment to the people of Haiti – we had a special breakfast, donated money, collected items, and became participants in Dress Our People – sewing clothing for the children of Haiti. We are seeing our physical church space transformed bit by bit, under the leadership of self-proclaimed non-leader Cee Cee Andrew. We've seen our nursery go from dull to bursting with color, classrooms redecorated, walls painted, bathroom cleaned and refreshed, curtains hung, kitchen drawers cleaned and repaired, office supplies and coffee hour supplies and kitchen supplies restocked through gifts and hours of service. We welcomed new members and celebrated baptisms, just as we entrusted some of our family into God's care. We added new bricks to our beautiful Memorial Garden. We put on a Mother's Day breakfast. We CROP walked. We put on a fantastic carnival for the second year in a row, when I really thought we couldn’t outdo our first attempt, and found our yard filled with so many happy smiling faces of children. We celebrated Laity Sunday. Our children read the scriptures throughout Advent. We gave out more food baskets than usual because we had received so much. We collected more shoeboxes than usual for Operation Christmas child. We actually ended the year, through a number of surprising happenings, with a small surplus. We filled up our giving tree with items to help us in our ministry. We had an exceptionally successful cookie walk. We touched people who really needed it while Christmas Caroling. We had mission moments from community agencies with whom we partner, and during Lent we heard from folks here who service in mission beyond the local church. We have about twenty people stepping into new roles this year, serving in new ways, in new areas. We had too many volunteers show up at once for the Rescue Mission, so they barely knew what to do with us. That is a year in our life, and it is just, as I said, a small piece of our life together.
    This year we had four goals for our life together: increasing our emphasis in hands-on mission and justice experience, working to invite people to First United and better welcome visitors, understanding how our stewardship relates to our relationship with God, and experiencing enriching worship. All of these are meant to help us consider and explore ways to deepen the role and relevancy of the church and faith in their lives. Now, there are some ways we can numerically measure some of these items. I can tell you how many visitors we had and how many new members we have, and how many folks increased their pledges, and how many people participated in mission for how many hours, and how many people attended worship services or studies or our Lenten or Advent groups. But what I have found most compelling are the stories behind some of the numbers. For example, this year when we were serving at the Rescue Mission, the head cook complimented Nikole Metz as a really hard worker. And the head cook is not known to hand out compliments very easily. But Nikole, and her brothers, and the rest of the volunteers put their all into serving with a smile. That is just one story, but to me, they are the heart of the second and minutes and hours of our year together.  
    This week at Parish Council, we had a lot of issues to deal with, a lot of conversation that we will continue at our annual meeting after worship. I was talking about making sure that we know how to answer the question: Why do we want to continue to be here as a church? Why does it matter to us that we, First United, are here? And Paul Spero, in response, mentioned Jesus calling the disciples to fish for people. What Paul probably didn’t realize is that that passage is today's gospel lesson – when things like that happen, I consider that God at work.
    Today, our gospel lesson is full of a sense of immediacy and urgency. Our lesson opens still in the first chapter of Mark. John the Baptist has just been arrested – aside from his unwelcome words to the religious leaders about repentance and them being a brood of vipers, John had also managed to upset King Herod by calling him out publicly on his immoral actions. So John wound up in prison. The time was ripe for Jesus to step in and continue and expand the work John had begun. He arrives in Galilee and beings to proclaim the good news. As he is passing by the Sea of Galilee, he sees Simon and Andrew, fishermen, casting their nets. Jesus greets them with provocative words: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” And, we read, “immediately” they left their nets and followed Jesus. Farther down the shore, Jesus sees James and John, the sons of Zebedee. And “immediately” he calls them, and they leave their father and the other workers, and follow him.
    So what’s all the rush about? What’s the significance of the repeated “immediately” in these texts? I think our answer has two parts. An immediate message and an immediate response. Remember, our passage begins with Jesus talking about the good news. And what is the good news? We read that Jesus began teaching and preaching right after John’s arrest, and here was his message, which Mark calls the good news of God: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Jesus’ message of good news is that God is immediately present in our lives. Instead of coming at a later time, instead of something we have to wait for, the time is already fulfilled – God is here, God is present – God’s reign, God’s will, is right here and right now. An immediate message.
    Likewise, because of Jesus’ immediate message, there is a need for an immediate response. “Repent, and believe the news,” Jesus insists. Repent – change the direction of your life. And when? Now. Right now. And so when Jesus calls the disciples, he doesn’t tell them to think it over. He doesn’t ask them to meet him later. He doesn’t ask for applications which he’ll review. He doesn’t negotiate terms with them, or revise his message to something they’re more willing to support. He says, “follow me.” And they do – immediately. An immediate message and an immediate response.
    A few weeks ago, I shared with you an excerpt from Richard Rohr's book, Falling Upward. He wrote, ʺMerely to survive and preserve our life is a low-level instinct that we share with [animals], but it is not heroism in any classic sense. We were meant to thrive and not just survive. We are glad when someone survives, and that surely took some courage and effort. But what are you going to do with your now resurrected life? That is the heroic question.ʺ It is so tempting to focus on our survival. Our world is changing, and people place being part of a faith community in a different place than they once did. And in the midst of uncertainty about our role, it is tempting to bunker down and do everything we can to hold on to our little piece. But the good news of Jesus Christ isn’t about a life where we are just surviving. Jesus said he came to bring us abundant life. And God offers us that life right now. We may have to make changes, significant ones, to do the ministry that Jesus calls us to. We may have to think anew about what it means to do ministry, to serve, to be in mission, to worship, to be a church. But some things don’t change: God calls us and offers us life, and is waiting for us to respond.  
    Over the next several weeks, I will share more with you about where and how I think God is calling us. And I want to hear from you – what would it mean for this community not to survive, but to thrive? What does that look like? What does that look like in your life? Or for us, here? Immediately Jesus called them, and immediately they left their nets and followed him. What will we do? Amen.

    Monday, January 16, 2012

    Lectionary Notes for Third Sunday after Epiphany, Year B

    Readings for 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany, 1/22/12: Jonah 3:1-5, 10, Psalm 62:5-12, 1 Corinthians 7:29-31, Mark 1:14-20


    Jonah 3:1-5, 10:
  • This is the only week Jonah appears in the lectionary, so consider reading other sections, or expanding your focus, so that people get the full story.
  • The interesting thing about this story, not included in today's text, is that Jonah wasn't happy that God was sparing the people. In fact, Jonah knew that God was likely to be merciful and spare the people, and this is what most upsets Jonah. Are you ever upset at the liberal way God shares grace with others? Why do you think this is? Sometimes I think we act as if God's grace will run out for us if God gives too much to others!
  • How would you feel as a resident of Nineveh? Are you open to others telling you that you are not following God? Generally, we don't like people telling us what to do, or telling us what we're doing wrong. But the residents of Ninevah get their acts together, and repent. And God shows mercy. (I think God can show us mercy, obviously, even when we are undeserving. But wouldn't it be nice to do our part for once?)

  • Psalm 
    62:5-12:
  • "For God alone my soul waits in silence" - silence is such a rare thing these days. As I type, there is the whirr of my laptop, and my TV in the background. This is typical. Silence is rare. Will you find silent time for God?
  • "My hope is from [God.]" What's your hope? Where is it from?
  • The psalmist urges us to put our trust in God - rank in the world is "but a breath" or "a delusion" - only God has real power.

  • 1 Corinthians 7:29-31:
  • Paul clearly is anticipating a swift return of Jesus Christ to earth. But even though things didn't happen the way Paul was expecting, I think his words are still meaningful.
  • We're to live, in a sense, in the moment. I don't think this means to be irresponsible, or to not make plans, or to not take care of others, of obligations. But to live with an understanding that we have a different main purpose - to live as God calls us - and so to not let what is not important tie us down.

  • Mark 1:14-20
    :
  • What's the good news? Sometimes, I think we believe the good news is that "Jesus Christ died for our sins." But according to Mark, Jesus himself was a proclaimer of the good news, and it was this: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe . . . "
  • "Follow me and I will make you fish for people." Are you fishing for people? What do you think Jesus meant by this? Evangelism? How? What kind?
  • Important: Don't forget that before you fish for other people, you should first be following Jesus. Any other way we try it is following only our own agenda.
  • Immediately! This is one of my favorite words in scriptures. We like things to happen in our lives in a convenient and fast way when it is for our own benefit - but how often do we respond to God immediately?
  • Sermon for Second Sunday after Epiphany, All Things New: Samuel, 1 Samuel 3:1-10


    Sermon 1/15/12
    1 Samuel 3:1-10, Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18


    All Things New: Samuel


    You might remember me mentioning during Advent that Mary's song in the gospel of Luke, the Magnificat, is extremely similar to Hannah's song in the Old Testament, when she gives thanks to God for the life of her child, after years where she was not able to give birth. Hannah is so thankful, and had prayed so fervently for a child that she promised God she would dedicate that child to God's service – and so she did. She gave Samuel to service in the temple, and that is just where we find him today – in the temple, serving under the guidance of the priest Eli. Our passage opens with the narrator noting that “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” This kind of comment is not unusual in the Old Testament. When we read about leaders and judges and kings, we often hear a quick description of whether they followed God or did what was evil in God's sight. So, here we read that when Samuel was a boy, people seemed to be far from God, not attending to God's words or experiencing visions of what God had planned.
                Eli is laying down at night, and Samuel was resting in the presence of the ark, which carried the law of God. God calls Samuel: “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.
                But the weird twist to this story is in what God first says to Samuel. What God first tells Samuel is that Samuel has to tell Eli about the end of his household. You see, Eli's two sons, also serving in the temple, were corrupt and abusing their positions. Eli had already been told by God that his own family line would not continue. And yet, Eli still has this role to play, acting as an interpreter of sorts to Samuel, helping him understand who is calling, and how to respond to God. When Samuel finally tells Eli what God revealed to Samuel, Eli says: It is the Lord; let [God] do what seems good to God. Even though Eli faces pain and suffering, he keeps Samuel on the right path. Eli and Samuel's stories are bound together, and Eli plays a critical role in Samuel becoming who God is calling him to be.
    As you have heard me mention a few times now, this Friday is our ecumenical dinner, an opportunity to be together with our brothers and sisters in Christ in the community. The timing of the meal is not accidental – we celebrate now because from the 18th to the 25th, we celebrate the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, actually in its 100th Anniversary this year. The emphasis on Christian Unity is meant to remind us that our common life in Christ, our identification as members of the body of Christ, is much more important than the things that separate or differentiate us. And this isn’t meant to be some fluffy notion – it isn’t just about holding hands and being together and ignoring differences for a week of the year. No, it is about recognizing that we have a common purpose, meaning, and calling – we are in it together, and we are meant to help each other work life out together.
    It is also no accident that the Week of Prayer falls so close to Martin Luther King Day. Dr. King wrote frequently about his disappointment with white churches during the Civil Rights Movement. White church leaders kept urging him to take things slowly and not push for so much radical change, even if they thought it was right. King couldn’t understand how those who were united with him in Christ could fail to act for the cause of truth and justice. In 1965, King gave the commencement address at Oberlin College, a speech called, "Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution."  King spoke about his travels in India where he went to learn about nonviolent resistance to oppression. Reflecting on the extreme hunger and poverty he witnessed there he wrote, “As I noticed these conditions, something within me cried out, "Can we in America stand idly by and not be concerned?" And an answer came, "Oh no! because the destiny of the United States is tied up with the destiny of India and every other nation." I started thinking about the fact that we spend millions of dollars a day in our country to store surplus food, and I said to myself, "I know where we can store food free of charge - in the wrinkled stomachs of the millions of God's children in Asia and Africa, in South America, and in our own nation who go to bed hungry at night."
    All I'm saying is simply this: that all [humankind] is tied together; all life is interrelated, and we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be - this is the interrelated structure of reality. John Donne caught it years ago and placed it in graphic terms: No [one] is an Island, entire of itself; every [one] is a piece of the continent, a part of the main... And then [Donne] goes on toward the end to say: any [one]'s death diminishes me, because I am involved in [humankind]; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. And by believing this, by living out this fact, we will be able to remain awake through a great revolution.
    “For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.” To me, that is what Christian unity is about, indeed, what our human journey together is about – I can’t be what I should be unless I am involved in your being what you ought to be. That means if you are suffering, it doesn’t just matter to me, it impacts me. If you are sick, it impacts me. If you are doing what is wrong, it impacts me. If you are full of joy, it impacts me. Within this congregation, we can only fulfill our purpose in God as far as we are also part of making sure each person here is finding their purpose. We can only be what we are meant to be if we are involved in wholeness and justice for all people because injustice for some means our life is not as full as God means it to be.
    “For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.” Last week, I shared with you from one of my texts for the DMin class I completed this last week, where the author said that we are too often trying to define ourselves externally – I shop, therefore I am – remember? Another of our texts, a collection of writings by South African Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu, speaks about the African concept of ubuntu, essentially – “I am because we are.” Or “a person is a person through other people.” I am because we are. Tutu says this is “how my humanity is caught up and bound up inextricably with yours (21-22).” For Jesus, this meant love of neighbor was always tied to love of self and to love of God. You have heard me say this before: my least favorite phrase is “that’s between me and God.” No! What is between us and God is our neighbor. We cannot truly grow closer to God unless we grow closer to one another. Because I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. As long as we are convinced that we can be complete and be holy and connected with God while leaving others behind for any reason, we will never be what we can be, who we ought to be, who we are called to be.
    As you think of people of faith who inspire you, who have shaped the world, I think you will find people whose lives were formed by the helping hands of others, and who, in turn, focused their life work on serving others. We love God by loving one another. I am because we are. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. So, as we celebrate the work of Dr. King, and as we celebrate our Christian unity, let us commit to following God together. Speak to us God, for your servants are listening. Amen.
               




    Monday, January 09, 2012

    Lectionary Notes for Second Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B


    Readings for 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany, 1/15/12:
    1 Samuel 3:1-10, (11-20), Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18, 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, John 1:43-51


    1 Samuel 3:1-10, (11-20):
    • This is a great story of call, and along with today's texts from Psalms and John, makes a great day for preaching about knowing who we are and what we're meant to be doing. Combine that with the fact that this is Human Relations Day, celebrating, among other things, Martin Luther King Jr., in the UMC, and you've got the makings for a great day to inspire people to respond to God's call.
    • Samuel is confused about who is calling him. He keeps thinking Eli is calling him. But his confusion doesn't keep Samuel from being willing, again and again, to respond to the call. How have you been called? Have you shared your call story with your congregation?
    • Eli plays such an important role in this text, helping Samuel understand what is happening to him. It is an essential role in ministry to have people who are willing to support, endorse, and guide people who are trying to discern a call from God.
    • "the Lord . . . let none of his words fall to the ground." What a neat phrase - God keeping your words from being useless. All pastors should pray for such a gift!
    Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18:
    • Not only did God knit us together in our mother's womb, but this whole passage reads like we are in God's womb - hemmed in by God behind and before. Our life is in God's womb - that is a very peaceful and comforting thought.
    • It is both comforting to know that we can't go where God is not, but it is also a challenge, in a way. We're reminded that God, in a sense, chases us. We are "hem[med] in" behind and before. God is strategically cornering us. An aggressive God, who insists, perhaps, on having a relationship with us.
    • How weighty to us are God's thoughts! Indeed!
    • "I am fearfully and wonderfully made." This psalm affirms God and God's power, but also affirms our human worth and goodness - a rare scriptural combination. You are fearfully and wonderfully made. How well do you know that? How many in this society know that and are taught to know that?
    1 Corinthians 6:12-20:
    • This is a great passage. Paul argues that though something may be technically ok, lawful for one to do, it is still not necessarily beneficial. We worry a lot about rules and whether what we are doing is right or wrong, but sometimes we're worried only about "what we can get away with" instead of what is God's best hope for us.
    • "your body is a temple" Here, in a rare moment, is some of Paul's best non-dualistic thinking. Our body is meant for God, and we're meant to glorify God in our body. How do you go about doing that? I love watching dancers, because they are such a beautiful example of body as temple. But as a society, we're really bad, dangerously bad at glorifying God with our body.
    John 1:43-51:
    • This is the second time in this chapter that Jesus tells someone to "Come and See" - he has just told this to Andrew, when John the Baptist 'introduced' him to Jesus, and Andrew asked Jesus where he was staying.  Now, he tells this to Nathanael, when Nathanael asks Jesus a scriptural, "can anything good come out of Nazareth?" It is almost like Jesus gives him a dare, a challenge. "Want to know the answer? I dare you to come and see for yourself."
    • "Do you believe because of [this]?" I get the feeling Jesus doesn't want Nathanael to believe in him because of 'magic tricks' but because of something deeper. Jesus promises Nathanael that that something deeper will come. Why do you believe in Jesus?
    • "Follow me." Jesus doesn't give many details for them to base a decision on, does he? What is the most daring thing you've ever done? Who have you trusted based on such little information?

    Sermon for Baptism of the Lord, All Things New: Baptism, Mark 1:4-11


    Sermon 1/8/12
    Mark 1:4:-11
    All Things New: Baptism


    Last month my friend Heather was expressing her frustration with the process of trying to get her sixteen year old daughter a learning permit to drive. Somewhere along the way, they had misplaced her Social Security card, which they needed to get her permit. Well, in order to get a new Social Security card, you need your birth certificate, which proves your citizenship, but you also need proof of identity – like a driver's license – which obviously she didn’t have. Of course, it turns out that you can also use a photo student ID card or a photo credit card or something like that, but proving your identity isn’t so easy.
    Not too long ago I also read an article about people who had accidentally been declared dead in paperwork even though they were quite alive. Somehow names and information got mixed up, and these folks had ended up with bank accounts frozen, unable to get loans or credit, had stopped receiving things like social security checks, and had real financial difficulties as a result of the mix-up. And, as crazy as it sounds, some people have had an extremely difficult time proving their identity, proving that they were really alive and who they claimed to be, once this mistake had been made.
    How would you prove your identity? This week ahead I have another week of Doctor of Ministry classes – this time I am studying spirituality and change. In one of the texts for the class, the author John Reader, talks about how we keep trying to form our identity in different ways in contemporary culture. Sometimes we try self as commodity – we are sort of a product that can be branded and molded in a certain way. Sometimes we try self as consumer – “I shop therefore I am.” We try to take what we have, what we possess, and make it into who we are. Sometimes we try self as project, he says, constantly trying to put together a good enough self by making sure we have the right trainings and qualifications and skills to be what we want and what is expected of us. Identity formation is an important process. We all go through a time or times in our life when we need to ask ourselves critically: Who am I? What do I believe? What is my life all about? But whenever we start building our identities from all these external sources, we are probably heading in a bad direction, never knowing our true selves.
    So who are you, really? What is your identity? Today, in our gospel lesson from Mark, we find Jesus at his baptism. Hopefully this text sounds a bit familiar – we just read most of it during Advent, the first section about John the Baptist. Mark is very brief in all things in his gospel, and so the actual baptism gets only three verses. John the Baptist, cousin of Jesus, is in the wilderness, preaching baptizing people, a symbol of repentance and forgiveness of sins. He speaks about one who is coming who is more powerful than he, who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. And then, indeed, Jesus arrives, and is baptized by John. The other gospels have a bit of dialogue between Jesus and John where John wonders why Jesus needs to be baptized by John, but that is of no importance to Mark. He only says that Jesus comes to be baptized, and that when he was, as he was coming up out of the water, the heavens were torn apart and the Spirit seemed to descend on him like a dove, and a voice spoke, saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Other gospels have these words from God directed to the crowd – This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased. But in Mark, this message is right from God to Jesus – You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.
    This event marks the beginning of Jesus' ministry – from here he goes into the wilderness himself for a period, where he is tested and tried, and then he begins showing up in synagogues, preaching, teaching, and healing. But it begins, in a way, with this baptism. Why does Jesus need to be baptized? I think hearing God's voice so clearly at the start of what would be an intense three years of his life, to say the least, gave strength and encouragement to Jesus. He knew, from the start, who he was and what he was about.
    I think sometimes we need to be reminded of who we are. John Reader was right: if we look in the wrong places, we can find a million voices that will gladly tell us who we are and who we should be. But these voices don’t know us. God, who created us, knows us. Our identity is being shaped from the day we are born and before and onward. We might, the day we are born, have had our feet dipped in ink to make prints that would identify us. We have names that we were given that set us apart. But even our names aren’t who we are. When we celebrate a baptism in the church, we are celebrating the fact that we all know someone's identity. We are celebrating that the person is a child of God, made in God's image, and part of the body of Christ. That is our identity, our true self. It is something we all share in, but something that is made manifest in each one of us in a completely unique way.
    Sometimes people get worried about baptisms when they have newborns. A lot of traditions and practices built up over time are hard to erase, and I still find it hard, sometimes, to get people to believe that nothing bad happens to you if you aren’t baptized on a certain timetable. Baptism is a sacrament – and outward sign of an inward grace. And the inward grace is from God – God's unconditional love for us. Baptism, then, is a sign, a reminder to us of God's love. It is the thing we do to celebrate what is true no matter what. God made us. We are made in God's image. God loves us. Baptism is the reminder, the party, the celebration of that amazing fact.
    Isn't it nice to be reminded of who we are? Figuring out our identities in this world of competing voices can be exhausting. We can get off track. Lost. Mixed-up. Isn't it good to remember? Who are you? What is the true self buried under all those expectations placed upon you? What is your true self, when you strip away all those layers you’ve built up to fit in, to get ahead, to be good enough? Who are you?
    As I said last week, this month is all about all things new. And so, we have an opportunity to renew our baptismal vows, to remember the celebration that marked our true identity, so that we, too, might have strength for the journey that lies ahead. Do you need a reminder of who you are? Are you a disciple? Are you a follower of Jesus? Come, let God remind you. In whose image are you created? Who calls you by name? Come, let God remind you. You are loved without condition, part of God's own family. Come, beloved, let God remind you. Amen.

    Wednesday, January 04, 2012

    Lectionary Notes for Baptism of the Lord, Year B

    Readings for Baptism of the Lord Sunday, 1/8/12:
    Genesis 1:1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11


    Genesis 1:1-5:
  • "In the beginning," so starts the word of God. What a great beginning. I believe that science and faith can go hand in hand. I believe that evolution doesn't have to contradict our believe in God as creator. This said, I can't ask for a better description of creation than the poetic opening of Genesis.
  • Also compare Genesis 1 with John1 - John clearly tries to align himself with this style of writing, showing Christ's presence even at creation.
  • "wind from God swept over the face of the waters" - how would you draw this - visually represent it?
  • Note that here on the first day, and throughout creation, God declares things as "good." Creation is good.

  • Psalm 29
    :
  • "The Voice of the Lord" - I guess I've never noticed this psalm before, which speaks primarily of God's voice.
  • It is also visualizing God creating or in relation to a strong and powerful thunderstorm, which may be based on a psalm to the Caananite god, Baal (see Chris Haslam's comments on this) God over the waters, God's glory thundering, breaking the cedars, flashes forth flames of fire, "the voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness." What can we do with these images? Can we use our imagination to read the scriptures? Certainly this psalmist used imagination to create this imagery, to make God's voice come alive.
  • What imagery would you use to describe/envision God's voice in your life? I like the process theology metaphor of God's lure, God slowly luring me with God's voice until slowly, step by step, I followed.

  • Acts 19:1-7:
  • This passage represents a fulfilling of John the Baptist's words in our text from Mark today. John the Baptist says that he baptizes with water, but the coming baptism will be of the Holy Spirit. Paul happens upon folks who have been baptized by John, and he urges them to take this "Holy Spirit" baptism.
  • Paul and Mark both indicate that John's baptism is a baptism of repentance/confession/forgiveness. So how would you characterize the baptism of the Holy Spirit? As a baptism of grace? Do you think today that different denominations characterize the meaning of baptism differently like this? Some viewing it as a baptism of repentance, others as a baptism of grace? What do you think?
  • "spoke in tongues and prophesied" - what did they say? I always want more details, more information, more specifics.

  • Mark 1:4-11
    :
  • John sees himself as facilitating Jesus' ministry - preparing people for it. His role is so important, isn't it? Do you know of people who play this kind of supporting role in ministry today?
  • Make sure you compare Mark's recording of this scene (remember Mark is the earliest gospel written) with the accounts in the other gospels. In Mark, God speaks directly to Jesus: You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased. Other accounts have God saying This is my Son. I prefer Mark's recording - God speaking directly to God's child.
  • We might all wish for the heavens to part and for a dove to descend and for God to declare in front of all that we are pleasing and beloved in God's sight, but it doesn't usually work quite that way for us. How does it work for us? How can we know God loves us? What are the markers and milestones in our lives and ministries? How can we play John to someone, preparing them, providing a space for them to begin their calling?
  • Sermon for Epiphany Sunday: All Things New - Square One


    Sermon 1/1/12
    Matthew 2:1-12, Isaiah 60:1-6


    All Things New: Square One
    We have many directions we could possibly go in today. We are still in the season of Christmas – today can be called the First Sunday after Christmas Day on the liturgical calendar, the church-year calendar. There are a set of lectionary readings that we don’t often get to hear, where Jesus is presented in the temple, according to Jewish tradition, and Mary and Joseph and the child Jesus meet Anna and Simeon. If you don’t know the story, I encourage you to read the rest of Luke 2, the part that happens after the nativity story. That could have been our focus today. But today we will hear the scriptures for Epiphany. Epiphany technically takes place on January 6th, after the twelve days of Christmas. It is the day when we celebrate the Magi coming to see Jesus and bringing him gifts, significant because it represents that Jesus is light to the whole world, not just a chosen few. But since we usually don’t have special Epiphany Day services on the 6th, we usually celebrate Epiphany on the Sunday closest to the 6th without going past the 6th. That would be today. But of course, even though it is not a church holy day, we can’t deny that at the forefront of most of our minds is the fact that today is New Year's Day. January 1st, 2012. It is hard to believe, isn’t it? Another year is here. Today begins a new year. And we have so many feelings, worries, and hopes wrapped up in the potential of a new year that it would be hard for us to ignore.
                So, appropriately, this month we will be focusing on the theme All Things New, based on the verse in Revelation where God proclaims, as a new heaven and earth are unfurled in John's vision: Behold, I make all things new. We are at the start of a new calendar year, of course. It is 2012! We have a new baby in our midst – the Christ Child – today is just the 8th day of the 12 day of Christmas, after all. We are about to start a new year in our church-cycle – our annual meeting is just a few weeks away. Next Sunday, we celebrate Baptism of the Lord, and with it, a chance to renew our own baptismal vows and renew our covenant with God. And when we have our annual meeting, I will give my report during worship, and set out the goals I have and would like you to share for the coming year. New starts seem all around us, just as God promises.
                In Christ we are new creations. That’s what God promises. The trouble is this, though: Do we want all things to be new? In November, at our District Day, I had the opportunity to preach to my clergy colleagues as part of an Advent Preaching Day. Here is a little of what I said to them:
    When it comes to changing directions, we are pretty good, clergy, at offering up alternate routes, or at least commentary that we are going the wrong way to get where we want to be going. As a church, as local churches, as an Annual Conference, as a denomination and beyond, we are pretty desperate to find a new vision, a new hope. You have probably participated in any number of conversations in any number of settings brainstorming how we will do a new thing. And, I suspect, you’ve probably felt cynical, or jaded, or at least politely skeptical that anything will change as a result of these conversations. And then, true enough, things seem to stay the same, don’t they? Why is that exactly? If everybody agrees that things need to change, and we all plan ways to do a new thing together, and things still stay the same, what's happening? I can only conclude that we all must be benefitting from things staying exactly as they are. Do you want to see change in the church? In the world? Tell me how you have changed. How have you repented, and changed the direction of your mind, your life? … How do we benefit from things staying just as they are?
    Do we want all things new? We are a people of contradictions. Yes and no. Yes, we want better lives. No, we are not ready to let go of what we have in order to get there. Nothing is worse than the unknown, is it? And God is always seeming to offer us this new life, but asking us to go into uncharted territory to get there. We want change, sure, but unless we know what God is changing us into, we aren’t really ready to commit.
    So, about these poor Magi – about Epiphany – can they have some mention here? Where do they come into all things new? We really know very very little about these wise men. They appear only in this passage from Matthew. He describes them as men from the East, which may have meant they were astrologers from Persia, interpreters of stars and dreams. The idea that they were kings comes from a verse of a Psalm that talks about kings bringing gifts to the Messiah. The number three was just layered onto tradition over time, perhaps because three gifts are named, along with traditional names for each of three wise men. But again, these ideas are not mentioned in the Bible. What we do know from the Bible is that these wise men came to the palace of King Herod looking for a newborn king, since they had seen a star that was significant to them. Why did they come to the palace? Well, where else would you look for a king? But when Herod gave them information about where to find the child Jesus, they changed course, and visited the home of Mary and Joseph. When they found Jesus, Matthew says they were overwhelmed with joy. They paid him homage, and gave him the gifts they had prepared, and satisfied with their journey, they returned home.
    I am struck that the Magi started a long journey with an expectation of what they would see – a king in a palace. They brought costly gifts. And nothing went like they planned. Jesus wasn’t at the palace. And when they did find him, he was in a normal home, in a small town, the child of a carpenter and his wife, totally normal by every visible clue. They could have decided they had gotten it all wrong and taken their gifts and gone back home. But Matthew says they were overwhelmed with joy. Nothing went as planned, but they simply changed their course as a new plan was laid out for them. They went where they were led. They were thrilled with where they were led. They didn’t judge Mary and Joseph and Jesus by their outer wrappings. They recognized the Holy in the child they saw. Could we be so ready to have our plans upset? Ready to follow wherever God was leading us? Could we be so joyful even when what God brings us isn’t in anyway what we are expecting? Can we lay all our gifts at the feet of Jesus, who is to be found always in the low places, and not in palaces of gold?
    I have another set of Doctor of Ministry classes coming up next week. One of the texts for class is called Falling Upward by Richard Rohr. In his first chapter he writes, ʺMerely to survive and preserve our life is a low-level instinct that we share with [animals], but it is not heroism in any classic sense. We were meant to thrive and not just survive. We are glad when someone survives, and that surely took some courage and effort. But what are you going to do with your now resurrected life? That is the heroic question.ʺ (21)
    This idea – do we survive or thrive – is one I plan to return to later this month. But for today, I want us to focus on Rohr’s question – what do we do with our resurrected lives? God offers us new life, again and again – Jesus is born to us, God-with-us, as we are reminded each year, and each year we celebrate the gift of life that conquers death forever. New life is ours. We say we accept it. What will you do with your resurrected life?
    An epiphany is a light bulb moment. The A-ha moment. I pray that this Epiphany, this New Year's Day, is the your light bulb moment, when even though there is no palace, no gold crown, no throne, you see can still see the gift that is Jesus, and be overwhelmed by joy. I pray that together we can commit to following wherever Christ leads us, right into the unknown new life God offers. Happy New Year! Amen.