Thursday, January 31, 2013

Grandma

My grandmother, Dorothy Mudge, died yesterday evening, with her children at her side, with words of love paving and smoothing her way. Everything in our beings tries to keep us going, and it isn’t easy, letting go of life. My grandmother was a strong woman, and it took some long days, this letting go.

For the first ten years of my life, we lived around the corner from my grandparents, in Westernville, NY, pretty much a two-street town. They lived on one street, and we lived on the other. We were at their house almost every day. We ate dinner there almost every night, where we always sat in the same places, and my spot was right next to Grandma. I spent every Friday night at their house for years, along with my big brother Jim. Jim would hang out with my Uncle John, in his very cool bedroom that I hardly ever got sight of, and I would spend my time with Grandma and Grandpa. We’d watch Dallas and Falcon Crest. We’d watch country western music concerts, and baseball games. (I still associate baseball with boredom, since I always fell asleep on the couch once baseball came on.) Grandma would tuck me in on the couch with the “magic blanket.” It was a blanket that was so worn and torn that my grandmother had sewn a new cover for it, but she used this white almost illusion-like silky material, that felt so fancy and dream-like to me and my cousins that we all loved to be covered up with it. 

When Grandma would tuck me in at night in the little bedroom next to hers and Grandpa’s, she would tuck the blankets in around me so tightly that there was no chance I would even be able to roll over, much less fall out of bed. Popcorn and homemade chocolate shakes were a Friday night mainstay (even if I always got very small portions compared to Jim…), and she always had my favorite Little Debbie Nutty Bars, and those single size cereal boxes (of which I always ate the cocoa pebble first, impatiently, and was left with frosted flakes at the end) in the cupboard.

Grandma taught me and many of my cousins how to bake. She always made the communion bread for our little country church, and for years I couldn’t dissociate the two. Communion bread = Grandma’s homemade yeast bread. She’d always make us our own little loafs to keep (which once caused Todd to exclaim as he ate his loaf in the backseat of our car, “I’ve got the bones of Jesus back here!”) and eventually helped with the bread too. I remember kneading the bread taking what seemed like an hour to be ready enough. Every year we made dozens of “bunny cakes” for Easter, and delivered them all around town. As a child, I was responsible for coloring in bunny years, and placing the jelly beans for eyes and nose, and in the coconut-grass the bunny sat in. It took me years to graduate to more advanced roles!

Grandma lived her whole life in such a small region of Central New York – Marcy, Verona, Westernville, Rome. She worked for a few years outside the home – that’s how she met Grandpa, working at Rome Cable – but mostly she was a homemaker, raising my mom and her siblings and taking in foster children and planting beautiful flower gardens and going to church and being in the UMW, and so on. Her family was her life. But she loved to get little tastes of the adventures her children and grandchildren were having. We’d print her out itineraries when we went on trips, and she’d follow along, day by day, thinking about each place we visited. At Thanksgiving, she thought it was very wild that she’d be willing to try the Tofurkey (“just a bite”) that the vegetarians were having for dinner. She’d attend a play of Todd’s. She ventured to Ohio and New Jersey for my graduations – big deal trips for her – and to Georgia when Aunt Bet lived there – her children being the only things that would get her on an airplane. She emanated joy when Uncle Bill was installed as a District Superintendent, and took visible pleasure, just last week, in hearing that the Bishop had called Bill to see how she was doing. She was content with where she was and who she was, and thrilled to see her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren go places and do things she’d never dreamed of doing.

One of my favorite things about Grandma was hearing her talk about Grandpa. My grandpa, Millard Mudge, died 15 years ago. They celebrated their fiftieth anniversary just months before he died, and Grandma would always say that she “had a fifty year love affair.” My Uncle Bill would say that Grandma was Grandpa’s one weak spot, the person he hardly ever said no to. When my grandmother talked about Grandpa, her whole face lit up, always. She looked radiant whenever she was talking about him. I realize that one of the things I mourn in Grandma’s passing is that one of the last living links to Grandpa in his younger years is gone. My grandpa was nine years older than my grandma, and he and his siblings have all died. Grandma was the only one who could tell stories about Grandpa as a young man, about their courtship, about those earlier years. Of course, the rest of us have our own memories of Grandpa, but Grandma takes a precious piece of those memories with her, and I wish I had written down every story. Of course, we never do. And we’d never enjoy the living if we were too busy recording, I know. I just want both.

A dozen or so years ago, Grandma was diagnosed with uterine cancer, fairly advanced. She was from a generation of women who generally went to the doctor only when absolutely necessary, and after months of experiencing symptoms, the diagnosis indicated a pretty serious cancer, the same cancer that claimed her own mother’s life. Grandma went in for a hysterectomy, and during the surgery, the surgeon nicked her bowel. Grandma developed necrotizing fasciitis, more colloquially known as “flesh eating disease.” She spent months in an induced coma, and more than once, nurses called family to the hospital, expecting her to die. She lost most of the muscle in her stomach forever. And she was ready to die. She was ok with it. Except, it just wasn’t happening fast enough. My grandmother was a determined woman. She knew what she wanted, and usually could make it happen! And so when she wasn’t dying fast enough for her plans, I think she just decided to be done with that whole cancer thing. She started to get stronger, to heal. She started telling people she didn’t have cancer anymore. We told her that wasn’t right. But we were wrong. The cancer was gone, and stayed in remission until sometime last year. She had a dozen more years than we believed possible.

I think we were in denial, for a long time, that Grandma’s health was failing for just that reason: she was so tough, so determined, that it was hard to believe she would ever die. I know that sounds silly. But if you knew my grandmother, you know what I mean. She had a strength of spirit that was hard to match. That strength of spirit meant things weren’t always conflict-free in my family. She had an opinion about most of the life choices of her family members, and she usually let you know it.

But one of the gifts I experienced in these last weeks was a letting-go of all of that conflict. I watched Grandma’s face light up, even when I thought she wasn’t aware enough for it to be possible, as each person came to visit her, and that radiant smile was there again, free of worry or stress or anything but taking joy in her loved ones. Another gift was watching my Uncle John, her caretaker, blossom with his skill and strength as he took care of her every need. I can’t tell you how many hours John spent by Grandma’s side, how many of his own plans he put aside for the time in order to make sure she was ok. She was able to stay at home, despite the high level of care she needed, because of him, which was her deepest desire. Another gift was watching my mother demonstrate unconditional love in ways that are so deeply moving I can’t really even convey it.

Another gift is the strange joy that comes in the midst of sorrow of having my wonderfully large and close family be together. We’re not good at doing things in small and subtle ways in my family. If many families might be sensible enough to have only one or two people at a hospital, for example, when someone is ill, we’ve never been able to function like that. We all turn out. We all go. We all watch and wait together. Even today, meeting with the funeral director, there were seven of us there, all squeezed around a tiny table that clearly usually only had two or three at it. This is a part of our family identity that I treasure so much. I love that I’ve grown up with cousins who see each other regularly, with aunts and uncles that I depend on, with a “Gigi” – great-grandmother – that my nephew Sam will have known well – even if it means that at five, he has more knowledge of mourning then I had as a teenager. One of my biggest fears is that we’ll lose touch with each other, drift apart. I’m always surprised when I hear about families that don’t stay in contact with each other. I would hate that. We work best together, and one of the reasons I’ve gotten so interested in genealogy is because I’m bound and determined that we’ll stay together.

I still can’t believe that Grandma isn’t at her house right now, sitting on her couch, watching her birds, or squirting the squirrels with her water gun, so they wouldn’t eat up all the birdseed.

I love you, Gram, and miss you already.
  





Monday, January 28, 2013

Lectionary Notes for Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Year C


Readings for 4th Sunday after Epiphany, 2/3/13: 
Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 71:1-6, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, Luke 4:21-30

Jeremiah 1:4-10
  • Similar to Psalm 139:13 - "For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother's womb."
  • "I am only a boy" - Does Jeremiah mean that he is actually chronologically young? Perhaps, perhaps not, but that detail doesn't actually hit the point. Jeremiah is saying that he feels unequipped, not nearly mature enough to be 'appointed ... a prophet to the nations.' This is a feeling we can all relate to - inadequacy in God's eyes and our own. When will we remember how often God chooses the ones that seem unprepared, and that they succeed in God's plans with God's aid.
  • "Now I have put my words in your mouth." I love this imagery - it's another reminder to Jeremiah and to us that we don't have to make up our message on our own - when God calls us, God also provides us with the message to spread - we don't have to make up the Good News - god has already given it to us.
  • "To pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant." - Here I feel my frequent discomfort with these images of God appointing someone to teal down and destroy other nations. On the other hand, if you think about the famous "there is a season" passage from Ecclesiastes 3, there is some similar language going on here. If Jeremiah as prophet needs to lead people back to the right paths of living, perhaps we need to be torn down before we can be rebuilt.

Psalm 71:1-6:
  • "Help me God!" That seems to be the main message of this psalm - a sense of urgency, of real danger, the enemies closing in. This is often the situation we find ourselves in when we finally remember to turn to God for help.
  • Rock/Refuge/Strength/Strong Fortress - Images of God as strong and solid, providing comfort and stability when everything else seems shaky and uncertain.
  • Hope - as desperate as this psalmist feels, the hope is still placed in God. That takes great faith. When nothing is left, to keep hoping.
  • "from my youth" "from my birth" "from my mother's womb". These phrases make it sounds as though our psalmist had a long journey of faith walking with God. This psalmist knows, from experience, from growth in faith maturity over time, where to turn in crisis.

1 Corinthians 13:
  • Child/Adult - The child/adult imagery at the end of this chapter remind us quickly that when it comes to understanding God, understanding this kind of godly love, we are indeed still very much children! We are all God's children, after all.
  • Love - weddings. This passage is of course one of the most famous passages and most frequently read at weddings. It sounds pretty and it's about love, making it a great candidate - but it's more than pretty - it's challenging. It's actually a picture of what marital love can strive after, but rarely starts out with.
  • Unconditional Love - can we ever love unconditionally? God can - that the blessing. We are not so good at it. I suspect the closest humans are able to come to unconditional love is in the love of a parent for a child, though obviously even this is not always the case. There is always some atrocity that can be committed that can break even our deepest bonds of love. Knowing that, isn't it so much more amazing that there is nothing that can change God's love of us?

Luke 4:21-30:
  • "All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth." This is a confusing sentence to me - what words of Jesus amazed them? He was reading the scriptures, with which they would be familiar. He said that they were fulfilled in their hearing. Obviously, this would be the amazing part to them, but you would not think that this would cause them to speak well of his 'gracious' words. My only though, based on his response to them, is that they interpreted themselves only as the recipients of this good news that Jesus shared with them (in last week's passage).
  • Jesus sets them straight - he tells them stories of Elijah and Elisha where even though others of God's chosen people were available, the ones chosen by these prophets to receive God's message/grace were Gentiles. God's good news, the release, God's favor, the recovery, all of that is for those who don't normally have a shot at it, Jesus says.
  • How quickly they change their attitude, trying to throw him from the cliff. They don't want to hear about grace, relief from oppression, recovery, and God's favor if it is not for them first. Do we? Who is God's good news for? Certainly we are included, but those of us that already have many privileges and blessings must understand that God comes first to the last, the empty handed, the hungry, and the poor. These are indeed God's chosen special ones in their own right. Can we get excited about that? God calls us to!

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Lectionary Notes for Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C


Readings for 3rd Sunday after Epiphany, 1/27/13: 
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a, Luke 4:14-21

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10:
  • "So they read the book . . . with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading." How have traditions of faith developed that try to take everything in the scriptures as literal truth? Here we have a community of faith gathering to hear the word read, and interpreted, to convey the meaning of sometimes confusing laws and scriptures. To be sure, different interpretations would arise, but it that more threatening than the kind of control that results when we try to contain and box in the living word of God?
  • "For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law." Nehemiah finds a people returning from exile, returning to a land that for them was completely tied up with their understanding of and relationship with God. It's hard for us to even comprehend crying in joy because we're finally able to hear the words of Scripture again - what would it mean if these words of God simply brought us joy and life? The Living Word of God? How can we read the scriptures with fresh eyes, and listen with open ears, as if we've been away for SO long from God's word?
Psalm 19:
  • "The heavens are telling the glory of God." These famous words from the Psalm are often set to music. Everything in creation announces God's handiwork. 
  • This imagery of the sun "like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy", this personification of the sun draws to my mind Greek/Roman mythology, and no doubt made contemporaries of the psalmist think of similar images of sun-gods in other religions. The difference? Here the sun is put into place by God, not a god in itself.
  • God is more than gold, sweeter than honey. A simple message - but reminds us of things we put too often before God in our lives.
  • "Let the words of my mouth and the meditations..." This verse is often used by pastors before they begin preaching. I like it, but if there's a way to use a Bible verse too much to the point of over doing, this one makes it on my personal list!
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a:
  • This passage, and the preceding week's passage from Corinthians, are great passages for congregations. No matter how many times we say that everyone has a ministry, a call to follow from God, it seems our congregants don't really believe that God means them. We will be using these two weeks to do a spiritual gifts inventory in our congregation, or at least spring off from these two weeks of texts. How can we get people to believe that God has blessed, gifted, and called them?
  • This passage is similar in content to the first part of this chapter, but it is much more visually stimulating. One can just picture a big body that was all nose or all feet, very cartoonish. It's easy to see the ridiculousness of such a proposal. That's how ridiculous it is, Paul teaches, to think that we can get along without one another, or that one's role is more or less important than another's role. Great opportunities for fun children's messages here as well.
  • This is also a great Sunday to celebrate Holy Communion if possible. The sense of body and being the body of Christ is made very real, and makes sense in the communion liturgy of Christ's body for us.
  • The hymn "Many Gifts, One Spirit" is perfect for this occasion, and will bring the message home. It is in the United Methodist Hymnal. Some lyrics: "In our difference is blessing, from diversity we praise One Giver, One Lord, One Spirit, One Word, known in many ways, hallowing our days. For the giver, for the gifts, praise, praise, praise!"
Luke 4:14-21:
  • This event is lifted out as special and unique, but it is important to note that verse 16b tells us that Jesus visiting the synagogue on the Sabbath was his custom, his regular practice. This is probably not the first time he had read scripture, either. What makes it important is that after reading these words from Isaiah, Jesus says, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." That means Jesus is telling them that he is the one appointed to proclaim release, recovery, and the year of the Lord's favor. How would the people have reacted?
  • I love this passage from Isaiah, particularly read by Jesus, because to me it sums up his purpose. His goal was not to decide which people should go to heaven or hell, or to figure out who was 'saved' or not, or who believed that he was God's only Son, and the only Way. He was sent to proclaim justice and freedom for the oppressed! He was sent to proclaim God's favor! That is GOOD NEWS indeed, not hell-fire and brimstone we try to make into good news.
  • In terms of timeline, note that this event takes place just after Jesus' temptation in the desert, which takes place just after his baptism. He has been prepared - recognized as beloved and chosen by God, has stood up to temptation, and now he is declaring himself, presenting himself in the faith community and saying, "Here I am - this is my task and I'm going to get to it now."

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Lectionary Notes for Second Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C


Readings for Second Sunday after Epiphany, 1/20/13:
Isaiah 62:1-5, Psalm 36:5-10, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, John 2:1-11

Isaiah 62:1-5:
  • Again, this passage speaks in hopefulness of the joy that will come when the people are freed from captivity and return to home from Babylon. How do we retain hope after such a long time when nothing is changing?
  • "You shall no longer be termed Forsaken." These words strike me as particularly comforting to one who has decided to turn to God after a time of struggle, or in the midst of struggle. God does not forsake us!
  • The imagery of marriage in the scriptures, such as in verses 4-5 here, is a struggle today because the way marriage is portrayed is usually so male-centered and patriarchally slanted. God is portrayed as the ultimate man, ready to take us as the lovely bride, made special by being chosen by the groom. We have to be careful to extract the meaning of the passage without walking away with the baggage of these marriage stereotypes too.
Psalm 36:5-10:
  • The first part of this Psalm, which is not part of the lectionary passage, talks about evil doers, how they reject good, and reject God.
  • The second part, this Sunday's passage, is very pretty. The focus is on God, and God's attributes related to faithfulness: steadfast love, faithfulness, righteousness, judgments.
  • This psalm has some intriguing imagery. v. 6b says, "you save human and animals alike, O Lord." What does that mean, exactly? I'm really not sure, but my vegetarian soul has hope!
  • "All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings." Emphasis mine. Comfort! Do we believe that? Live that?
  • V. 9 - "For with you is the fountain of life". Not the fountain of youth, but the fountain of life from which we draw is in itself enough to call for our thanks to God.
1 Corinthians 12:1-11:
  • This passage, and the following week's passage from Corinthians, are great passages for congregations. No matter how many times we say that everyone has a ministry, a call to follow from God, it seems our congregants don't really believe that God means them. We will be using these two weeks to do a spiritual gifts inventory in our congregation, or at least spring off from these two weeks of texts. How can we get people to believe that God has blessed, gifted, and called them?
  • The hymn "Many Gifts, One Spirit" is perfect for this occasion, and will bring the message home. Some lyrics: "In our difference is blessing, from diversity we praise One Giver, One Lord, One Spirit, One Word, known in many ways, hallowing our days. For the giver, for the gifts, praise, praise, praise!"
  • Speaking in tongues, interpreting tongues. I can't help but feel that most modern-day incarnations of speaking in tongues miss the mark somewhat. After all, the beauty of the speaking in tongues recorded in Acts 2 was that everyone could understand the good news in their own language, not that no one could understand anything at all...
John 2:1-11:
  • This passage is usually considered Jesus' first miracle. Interestingly, opponents of same-sex union also call Jesus' attendance at a wedding his endorsement of marriage as between a man and a woman. I don't find that a very strong argument, personally.
  • "And they filled them up to the brim." I still vividly remember a sermon a heard from a pastor in Delaware, OH, where i attended undergrad, on this passage. She spoke about the manifestation of gifts in our lives. That we were filled, by God, with gifts and blessing, to the very brim. Perhaps today we can picture the ads they play for fast food or movie theatre drinks, where they show the fizzing soda just barely stopping in time to not go over the edge of the glass. This is how full God makes our lives!
  • V. 10 - "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." Many focus on the miracle itself as the point of this passage, but I am caught up in this verse here. Isn't this how God intervenes in our lives? Isn't this how God acts in history? Blessing upon blessing - we don't use up God's love and blessings in childhood - God walks with us for our whole journey, often saving some of the best fo last. God doesn't want to cheat us out of any of the goodness of life, but let us experience it all fully, all of our days.

Sermon for Baptism of the Lord Sunday, "Clean Slate: Refresh," Luke 3:15-17, 21-22


Sermon 1/13/13, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Clean Slate: Refresh


You often hear people comment on how quickly children grow up. Blink, and you’ve missed it, and your baby is a teenager, or suddenly an adult. I feel a little that way when reading the accounts of Jesus’s life: just last week, we were talking about the Christ-child, maybe a toddler when the Magi visited him. And suddenly, we’re meeting the adult Jesus. The Bible only gives one account of Jesus between birth and adulthood: Jesus at age twelve, in the Temple, in one brief scene. It is left to our imaginations to picture Jesus at 7, or 16, or 25. Today, though, we find ourselves turning back to another character we haven’t seen since his birth, as our scene opens on John the Baptist. People are gathering before John, 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, which apparently did not offend them enough to make them leave, but instead prompted them to ask John what they should be doing, and so he instructed them in ways of living that would prepare them to be good fruit. He baptizes them as a sign of their repentance. 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 . . .” Again, it seems like we’ve missed something while we blinked. 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.” 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? What is this scene all about?
In our United Methodist traditions, we practice infant baptism. In fact, we will celebrate today the baptism of an infant, James Ethan McGuire. As long as churches have existed, though, those within the church have disagreed on whether or not infants and children should be baptized, or whether individuals should wait until they are old enough to be baptized at their own request before receiving the sacrament. Our United Methodist understanding 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. We call that prevenient grace, something you’ll be hearing more about next month. 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? Obviously, he doesn’t need to repent in the same way we do, but “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. Before he calls disciples, before he reads from the scroll in the temple, before the crowds start following him, he comes to be baptized. Now he shifts 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. 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.
Today’s theme word in our Clean Slate Series is refresh. Fresh means literally “having its original qualities unimpaired.” In other words, “still in original condition.” So, to refresh is to return something to original, unimpaired condition. Maybe, there are a lot of things about our lives that we can never “return to original condition.” Maybe I won’t ever make it back into the dress I wore for my senior pictures in high-school. Maybe you will never come close to the record you set for the track team when you were a teenager. Maybe your reflexes aren’t as good, and maybe your vision will never be 20/20 again. But baptism – baptism is God’s promise that God’s love for us is still in original condition! Always! That’s why instead of “re-baptizing,” we simply renew our baptismal covenants, remind ourselves of the promises of baptism. Because God’s promise to us of unconditional love is still in mint condition – no do-over required. You are already God’s beloved, a child of God, made in God’s image. And with you, God is well-pleased.  
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.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Lectionary Notes for Baptism of the Lord, Year C


Readings for Baptism of the Lord Sunday, 1/13/13:
Isaiah 43:1-7, Psalm 29, Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Isaiah 43:1-7:
  • "Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine." This is my mother's favorite Bible verse, and I can see why she likes it: we are called by name by God. Why were you named what you are named? What's the story behind it? I was named for Beth in Little Women, and after the middle names of two of my aunts. We are God's creations, and named by God, we belong to God. There is strength and comfort in that.
  • Later on in these verses, I feel less comfortable with the imagery, though I understand the point the author is trying to communicate. There is such comfort in knowing that God is with us in all situations, that God created us, walks with us through the waters, protects us from fire, etc. But does it always have to be at the expense of those we name as our enemies? What about the people and nations that God gives in this text in return for our lives? Don't they get this same protection from God too?

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 Canaanite 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? I am currently leading a Bible-study, Companions in Christin my church. This week's lesson is on using 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 8:14-17:
  • A mini-Pentecost sort of text. Also a strong passage for Trinitarian creeds, calling not only on Christ's name for those accepting God's word, but also needing this Holy Spirit to be filled. Hence, in our UMC liturgies, we baptize "in water and spirit", in the name of all three persons of the Trinity.
  • The word in Greek for 'spirit' is pneuma, meaning literally wind or breath, but metaphorically spirit or ghost. Also, usually when "holy spirit" occurs in the New Testament it is 'a' holy spirit not 'the' holy spirit as we usually say - there is no definite article attached.
  • "They received the Holy Spirit" - the word 'received' from the Greek elambanon, can mean receive, but also, and I find more interestingly, come upon, overtake, seize, and possess.
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22:
  • This week's reading picks up pieces from our gospel lesson in Advent 3. In that text, John the Baptist was preaching/teaching the crowds about how to repent in preparation for "the wrath to come." Here we pick up the verses that then emphasized John's role as the forebear, the messenger preparing the way for Jesus.
  • Again, some of these images of the threshing floor, the granary, etc., lose their meaning for us if we don’t understand these processes ourselves. A winnowing fork, for example, was used to toss wheat into the air, where the wind would separate the wheat grain from the light chaff. See this article for more details.
  • This is the event that marks the beginning of Jesus' ministry, and is significantly recorded in all four gospels. 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, "Clean Slate: Reflect"


Sermon 1/6/13
Matthew 2:1-12

Clean Slate: Reflect


Today is Epiphany Sunday! Perhaps your decorations are already long-put away. Surely, you’ve noticed that the stores have already moved on to Valentine’s Day, with sad little bins in the corner of slightly worn Christmas merchandise on clearance. But in reality, yesterday, Saturday, was the last day of Christmas – the twelfth day of Christmas. You may not realize it, but that song that you can never get out of your head, with the partridge in a pear tree? Those twelve days of Christmas start on December 25th, when Christmas begins, and end on January 5th, and are then followed Epiphany day, January 6th. We’re blessed, this year, because Epiphany day only occasionally falls on a Sunday, and you have to celebrate it when we’re just “close enough.” But today, we celebrate Epiphany on Epiphany. Aren’t you excited? It might help if you were reminded just exactly what Epiphany is. It is the day when we celebrate the Magi coming to see Jesus and bringing him gifts, which is significant because it represents that Jesus is light to the whole world, celebrated even by these foreign strangers, not just the people of Israel, not just a chosen few. Jesus is the light of and for the whole world. But of course, even though it is not a church holy day, today is also special because it is the first Sunday in a new year – 2013. We even survived the Mayan apocalypse. It’s hard to believe, isn’t it? Another year is here. A new beginning. 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 Clean Slate, as we think about new and old in our church and in our lives. We are at the start of a new calendar year, of course. It is 2013! We have a new baby in our midst – the Christ Child. 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. 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? We talk about doing new things in a new way all the time, especially in the life of the church, when we find that doing things how we’ve always done them just isn’t working anymore. You have probably participated in any number of conversations in any number of settings brainstorming how we will do a new thing – we even have a group that’s been gathering to do just that thing at Liverpool First. Pastor Aaron, as you know, also works for the Annual Conference, and his whole job is about helping congregations revitalize – that means to “re-life” them! But, I suspect, sometimes you’ve 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, somehow, 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? Or better yet, figure out how you are benefitting from things staying just as they are.
Do we want all things new, a fresh start, a clean slate? 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 clean slates? We really know 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. 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?
An epiphany is a light bulb moment. The A-ha moment. The wise men had an epiphany – God-with-us is not God, out of reach, in a palace, far above and beyond us. God-with-us is the child Jesus. The world had an epiphany – this God-with-us is God with all of us, not just some – it can’t be any other way. I pray that this Epiphany, you find your “light bulb moment,” when even though there is no palace, no gold crown, no throne, the gift of Jesus becomes remarkably clear to you, and you are overwhelmed by joy, as you, a disciple, reflect the light of Christ to the world. I pray that together, we can commit to following wherever Christ leads us, right into the unknown new life God offers. It’s a clean slate. Amen.