Tuesday, January 16, 2018

In the Beginning

Genesis 1:1 - 2:4
John 1:1-5
Mark 1:4-11

            According to the gospel of John, what is “the Word”?  It’s Jesus, actually.  Not scripture.  The Word of God is Jesus.  And we are told that, in the beginning, this third person of the trinity already existed.
            “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word was with God in the beginning. Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being. What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people…The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.  He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. … The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
            The Word was already in the world, it was there since the beginning.  Jesus, as the Word, was there from the beginning.  And yet Jesus was born and Jesus was baptized as one of us.  What does that mean? 
            As I’ve said before, Epiphany actually has three parts, or three events.  Epiphany is the revelation or revealing of who Jesus was.  The first part of the epiphany is the visit of the Magi, their recognition of who Jesus was, through the star, through their study and wisdom and their declaration of who Jesus was by their commitment to travel, to bring him gifts, to honor him.  The second part is what we read today, the revelation of Jesus by the Spirit descending on him like a dove, with the voice that came from heaven saying: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”  The final piece of the epiphany is Jesus’ first miracle or his turning the water into wine.  The Magi represented the revelation to the Gentiles of who Jesus was.  The Baptism was God’s own naming of who Jesus was.  And his first miracle was done for his own community, for those attending the wedding, or other Jews. 
            But baptism, the piece of epiphany on which we focus today also has other meanings for us.  And the fact that Jesus was baptized shows the extent to which God, the Word, joined us in this human journey, including this, the baptism or the second revelation of God’s coming to be with us.  It was, for Jesus, as it is for us, a renewing.  It is a commitment to living in the way of Christ, in the way God calls us to be.  Mostly, it is a commitment and an acceptance of our being God’s children.  We accept God’s claiming us as God’s own and we honor and celebrate that claiming.
A seminary professor was vacationing with his wife in Gatlinburg, Tennessee . One morning, they were eating breakfast at a little restaurant, hoping to enjoy a quiet, family meal. While they were waiting for their food, they noticed a distinguished looking, white-haired man moving from table to table, visiting with the guests. The professor leaned over and whispered to his wife, “I hope he doesn't come over here.” But sure enough, the man did come over to their table. “Where are you folks from?” he asked in a friendly voice. “ Oklahoma ,” they answered.  “Great to have you here in Tennessee ,” the stranger said... “What do you do for a living?” “I teach at a seminary,” he replied. “Oh, so you teach preachers how to preach, do you? Well, I've got a really great story for you. ” And with that, the gentleman pulled up a chair and sat down at the table with the couple.  The professor groaned inside and thought, “Great.. Just what we need.... Another preacher story!”  The man started, “See that mountain over there?" he said, pointing out the restaurant window. “Not far from the base of that mountain, there was a boy born to an unwed mother. He had a hard time growing up, because every place he went, he was always asked the same question, 'Hey boy, who's your daddy?' "Whether he was at school, in the grocery store or drug store, people would ask the same question, 'Who's your daddy?' He would hide at recess and lunch time from other students. He would avoid going in to stores because that question hurt him so badly. When he was about 12 years old, a new preacher came to his church. The boy would always go in late and slip out early to avoid hearing the question, 'Who's your daddy?’  But one day, the new preacher said the benediction so fast that he got caught and had to walk out with the crowd. Just about the time he got to the back door, the new preacher, not knowing anything about him, put his hand on his shoulder and asked him, 'Son, who's your daddy?' The whole church got deathly quiet. He could feel every eye in the church was looking at him. Everyone wanted to know the answer to that question and finally, they thought they would get it because surely this kid would not lie to the preacher!  This new preacher, though, sensed the situation around him and using discernment that only the Holy Spirit could give, said the following to that scared little boy. 'Wait a minute! I know who you are! I see the family resemblance now. You are a child of God.' With that he patted the boy on his shoulder and said, 'Boy, you've got a great inheritance. Go and claim it.' The boy smiled for the first time in a long time and walked out the door a changed person. He was never the same again. Whenever anybody asked him, 'Who's your Daddy?' he'd just tell them, 'I'm a Child of God.''' 
The distinguished gentleman got up from the table and said, “Isn't that a great story?” The professor responded that it really was a great story! As the man turned to leave, he said, “You know, if that new preacher hadn't told me that I was one of God's children, I probably never would have amounted to anything!” And he walked away. The seminary professor and his wife were stunned. He called the waitress over and asked her, "Do you know who that man was who just left that was sitting at our table?” The waitress grinned and said, “Of course. Everybody here knows him. That's Ben Hooper. He's governor of Tennessee!”
In doing some background checking, some parts of that story are factual (for example, Ben Hooper, the governor of Tennessee, really was born to an unwed mother) and some parts aren’t (he did know who his father was and eventually he ended up living with his father), but regardless of the historicity of the story, it is a story that I find to be true.  If we can really claim our identity as children of God, if we can be aware of the awesomeness of our baptisms, of God’s claiming us as our own, we should be changed by that awareness, made new and humbled by the greatness of that claim. 
On this, baptism of the Lord Sunday, we remember our baptism in which God comes and claims us as God’s own.  The Spirit revealed Jesus as God’s son for all of us.  And when we are baptized, we are called to celebrate our revealing as well – God’s children, God’s chosen, called, loved into being.  Baptism of the Lord Sunday is the day when we celebrate that God calls us first, claims us first, even before we are able to ask for it, even before we are able to recognize it, even before we are able to respond.    
But what does that mean to be God’s child?  As I worked on this sermon, I was reminded of a Star Trek Next Generation episode called “The Defector” in which a Romulan (an enemy) appeared to be defecting and asking for asylum from the federation (those are the “good guys” for those not familiar with the series).  He said that he had defected in order to prevent war.  He believed his own people were taking an action that would lead to a terrible war and he wanted to prevent that by giving information to the Federation so they might stop the war from beginning in the first place.  When pushed, he kept saying, “I’m not a traitor! I love my people. I’m here to prevent a war!” As the story unraveled, it became clear that this was a man who was deeply grieving.  He did not want to leave his home, he did not want to leave his family.  “What I did had to be done. But to never again see the Firefalls of Gath Gal'thong, and the spires of my home as they rise above the Apnex Sea at dawn. It's a bitter thing to be exiled from your home.”  When it was pointed out that his people would believe him to be a villain, that they would see him as a traitor, and that because of that he would never, ever be allowed to see his children again, let alone return anywhere near home because of his actions, his response was simple, “There comes a time in a man's life…when he looks down at the first smile of his baby girl and realizes he must change the world for her.  For all children.  It is for her that I am here.  Not to destroy the Romulan Empire, but to save it. For months, I tried desperately to persuade the High Command that another war would destroy the Empire. They got tired of my arguments. Finally I was censured, sent off to command some distant sector. This was my only recourse. I will never see my child smile again. She will grow up believing that her father is a traitor. But she will grow up.”  
That kind of love, the kind of love that cares so much for the other that it is willing not only to die but to suffer humiliation, rejection, exile – that is the kind of love God had for us in coming to be with us in another human person.  That is the kind of love God has for us when God claims us as God’s children.  When we accept our baptisms, when we remember Jesus baptism, we are both accepting the love of this kind of God, AND we are promising to try to love with that same self-less depth.

Today, on this second Sunday of Epiphany, we are called to reflect on the amazing gift of baptism that God has given to first Jesus, and then us.  It is a gift of remembering that God calls us into relationship with God.  It is a gift of remembering that God initiates care for us, call to us, purpose and meaning for our lives, before we are even old enough to choose to respond. It is a gift that says, “because I first chose you, because I first brought new life to you, because I begin your life by giving to you every day again and again; now you are called to return that gift to all God’s people which are all people, to all creation, caring back, giving second chances to others, choosing to love and live and care for others in the way that I have cared for you.”  It is a gift, like the star of last week, that shows us the light and invites us to use it to see just how much and how deeply we are loved by God.

Friday, January 12, 2018

What did you ask for, for Christmas?

What did you want for Christmas this year?  I’ll admit I had a pretty extensive list of wishes for things that I can’t really afford, don’t need, and am just fine without.  But as I moved  through Advent I found in reading so many scriptures that tell us that the coming of Christ looks like nothing other than a turning of the world on its head, and which challenge us to love neighbor truly and fully as self, that my true wish list, my deep wish list, was not for objects or material possessions, but for more important things.  For my neighbors I wish for relationships that are honest, real, whole, healthy, positive, and life-giving.  For the people of our community I wish for healing from physical, emotional or spiritual distress.  For the world I wish for peace, compassion, generosity, understanding, grace, wisdom, courage, justice and discernment.  And then I found that I was wishing for these things for myself, too.  I wish for the relationships in my life to be honest, real, whole, healthy, positive, and life-giving.  I wish for healing for myself, my family, the church, the community from distress.  I wish for clarity in decision making, and the strength to make necessary decisions and necessary changes.  I wish for the serenity to accept the things I could not change, the strength to change the things I could and the wisdom to know the difference.  I wish for courage, justice, grace, compassion, and forgiveness both towards others and towards myself. These gifts – the real gifts that we yearn for, wish for beyond all else, these gifts come from God. 
And so this Advent and Christmas I was more intentional about praying for the things I believe we are called to pray for, for our neighbors, for the world and for myself.  And when I did, when I sat in silence, asking God for God’s guidance and reign of love to come for all people, and then listened, I found guidance.  I am not always given the strength right away to act on that guidance, but God’s timing is better than my own.  When I continue to pray, when I continue to ask, when I continue to listen, when I continue in relationship with God, the directions that I am given that I sometimes feel I lack the strength to follow, eventually become…well, not easy, but doable, necessary, inevitable.  I find myself doing the very thing that days before I knew was impossible for me to do.  I find myself stepping towards wholeness when I was certain it could not be found.  I have a little more patience with the people in my family who need my attention and care.  I have a deeper appreciation and respect for those who are trying, as I am, to live their faith to the fullest.  I see needs I never saw before, and more, I see ways to respond to those needs.  And finally I find I am able to step away from hurtful or destructive things that I cannot change, trusting God to take care of them, to heal them, to transform them into new life. 

This Advent we again offered Monday evening Taize services as a time for intentional prayer and meditation.  I am so grateful for those times of prayer and meditation and to those who joined me.  I am even more grateful to God, who also shows up every time I pray to listen, to communicate, to be present, to be in relationship with us.  Our relationships with God are the beginning of the answer to all of the desires on my real Christmas wish list.  And for that I am eternally grateful.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

A new season

1.  I've been worrying about the changes in church demographics... worried that I would have trouble supporting my family in the difficult career I have chosen.  I've also been missing AFDA - the Academy for Dramatic Arts program that was my dream and vision and that we began in Ohio.  I'd found myself thinking that I wanted to start something like that here, and that if I did, maybe on church campus, things might change either for the church or for myself.  But I didn't know any drama people, any directors, that I could really work with to put something like that together.  And then last week, a director called me, out of the blue, to ask about how he might start a similar program in this area...
2.  I've had a dream about a co-housing situation in which people might all live in houses in a compound: each would have their own individual places, but we'd also have common places and common times.  We could share some meals, create community, be there for one another in a more concrete, less individual way.  This has become more real as I've found myself talking with six different individuals who are in challenging housing situations and could really benefit from something like that, from cheaper housing supplemented by a large community center, and I found myself thinking about tiny houses and a big/main house.  What if I had a house on a plot of land that was big enough to add tiny houses as we needed them for folk who need a place to stay, either for a while or permanently?  I shared this with a friend and found that they were really excited about the idea as well.  I'm putting it out there to the Universe to see what we might do, but I see possibilities in this.
3.  I had put work on my book down for awhile: too hard, too intense to face all of our story again.  Yesterday, despite the fear, I picked it up and began editing.  I need a real editor, so if someone is interested, let me know.  It's a book about justice, and it's our story as well.  Not easy. But the work has started again.
4.  Today we had new people come to our adult ed at church.  We've had other new people showing up at church and at other events as well.
5.  And now, just a few minutes ago, I found a set of keys I had lost over the summer.  As odd as it sounds, it felt like a sign: the tide is turning, things are changing for the better, new life is on the way. We've all been going through a tough time.  Even when each step seems a little better, there have also been backwards steps and pain and frustration, but it feels like the season is changing.  And I am seeing glimpses of the spring.

On that note, dear friends, keep calendars cleared for the week after Christmas next year... more info to follow.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Epiphany and Gifts

Matthew 2:1-12

When you hear the story of the Magi, what thoughts or questions come to mind for you?  I want to review a quiz that I gave you the first year I was here and see what you remember:
               First of all, in what book or books of the Bible do we find the story of the three kings?
               None.  There are no kings mentioned and there is no number mentioned.  Instead we are told “some wise-men” or magi from the east came to Jerusalem searching for the king of the Jews. 
               What, then, are magi?  Are they kings?  No.  Astrologers.
               About how old was Jesus when they came to see him?  Between 41 days and 2 years.  While some say it would have taken only slightly over a month of travel (one direction), others estimate that it was a year or more out of their lives that this entailed. So, then, did they come to the stable?  No, of course not.  The story says “to the house”.  They would no longer have been at the stable since we are talking between 41 days and 2 years.

               Why did they bring gold, frankincense, and myrrh?  What were these things and why were they important in this recounting?  Frankincense is often used as incense or in an anointing oil that was often used in the temple for religious reasons.  Myrrh is similar and can also be used as an oil or incense, but mostly was used to embalm the dead.  These things were incredibly valuable, monetarily, but they were also symbols of what was to come.  Symbols of a recognition of Jesus’ holiness, but also, his death.  Both are purifiers, and readiers for death, for sacraments, for religious tasks, all of which would be Jesus’ life.   The magi travelled far, took time away from families, occupation, home: significant time.  They gave most precious gifts, gifts that required all of who they were – their resources, their time, their commitments, all to come and see this baby and to bring this baby their gifts.
               What are we this committed to?  What do we care about enough that we would leave home, leave FAMILY, sell all we have to spend on a gift for someone whom we’ve never met before and may never see again? 
               I think about the pilgrims and what they gave up to start a new life here in the United States.  Many of them gave their lives, dying in the travel, with the hopes for something better.  Many gave up family, leaving them behind or knowing that they risked some not making the journey successfully.  The same remains true of many of our immigrants today.  Many of those who come here as refugees or as people escaping their countries of origin are truly risking everything they have and everything they are to try to find a better life, usually for their kids.  They make this commitment, this journey, all to begin again, to start something new.  I think about this, how they gave these most precious gifts of starting in a new place, travelling, their resources, to create a new life, new possibilities, for their children, their children’s children, their family.  But these magi, they gave these most precious gifts for the hope of a new tomorrow for Israel.  They gave these most precious gifts for strangers in a strange country, in a strange world.  For a future they would never see.  For a time they would not and could not be a part of. 
               Can you imagine that?
               God loves us in this way, giving up everything to give us the most precious gifts, of life, of Jesus, of salvation.  As Bonhoeffer said it, "God does not love some ideal person, but rather human beings just as we are, not some ideal world, but rather the real world."
God also calls us to love in return in the same way.  Of course we aren’t always going to succeed in doing that.  And sometimes it won’t look like giving up everything to follow God.  But the willingness and faith to give all we have to further God’s reign, God’s place, God’s LOVE here on earth, that is our call. 
Michael Piazza told this story: Harriet Richie, a writer from Anderson, South Carolina, wrote a story that her family had been to a Christmas Eve service that ended at midnight. After worship, her husband announced that he was hungry and wanted breakfast. Of course, it was almost 1 a.m. on Christmas morning, so none of the usual places they might have gone were open. They made their way to the interstate where an all-night truck stop was still open. A few big diesels rumbled outside. Inside a few truckers sat at the counter. A jukebox played country music. On the front window was a string of colored blinking lights. The place smelled like bacon grease and stale coffee. A one-armed man behind the counter nodded the family toward a booth. Soon a waitress named Rita sauntered over, handed them their menus and asked what they wanted to drink. Harriet looked around. She felt a little bit like a snob and out of place. Her family had just come from a beautiful Christmas Eve service. And soon they would be heading to their lovely home for the night. She thought one day they would look back with a laugh and say to each other, "Remember that Christmas we ate breakfast at that truck stop? That awful music and those tacky lights?" She was staring out the window when an old Volkswagen van drove up. A young man with a beard and baggy jeans got out, walked around and opened the door for a young woman who was holding a baby. They hurried inside and took a booth near the back. After Rita, the waitress, took their order, the baby began to cry, and neither of the young parents could quiet him. Finally, Rita set down her coffee pot and held out her arms for the baby. "Hon, just sit there and drink your coffee. Let me see what I can do." Soon it was evident that Rita had done this before. She began walking around the place showing the baby to first one of the truckers and then another. One began whistling a Christmas tune and make silly faces. Quickly the baby stopped crying and began cooing. Rita showed the baby the blinking lights on the jukebox. She brought the baby over to Harriet's table. "Just look at this little darlin'," she said. "Mine are so big and grown they don't need me no more." The one-armed fellow behind the counter brought a fresh pot of coffee, and, as he refilled their mugs, Harriet felt tears in her eyes. Her husband wanted to know what was wrong. "Nothing," she said, "just Christmas." Reaching in her purse for a Kleenex and a quarter, she said to her own kids, "Go see if you can find a Christmas song on the jukebox." When they were gone, Harriet quietly said almost to herself, "He would have come here, wouldn't he?" "Who?" her husband asked. "Jesus. If Jesus were born here tonight and the choices were our neighborhood, the church or this truck stop, it would be right here, wouldn't it?" Her husband didn't answer right away, but looked around the place, at the people there. Finally he said, "I suppose either here or a homeless shelter." "That's what bothers me," Harriet said. "When we first got here I felt sorry for these people because they probably aren't going home to nice neighborhoods where the houses have candles in the windows and wreaths on the doors. And listening to that awful music, I thought, I'll bet nobody here has even heard of Handel. Now I think that more than any place I know, this is where Christmas is. But I'm not sure I belong."
As Harriett walked with her family to the car, her husband leaned over and said, "You know I heard something earlier at church. They said what the angels sang that first Christmas was, 'Behold I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people.' Maybe they meant us, too." –

What God values – we see throughout scripture – is not what we are told is important.  God does  not value wealth, does not rank people based on what they have, what they have achieved, or how much others like them or know them. Jesus was born in poverty, to an illiterate, unwed, teenage mother.  The shepherds to whom this story was proclaimed were not wealthy, high standing members of society.  These were poor people, rejected people, people who were not valued.  And that is where God chose to come, chose to announce God’s presence. 
The magi, on the other hand, did seem to have resources.  And the value in this story is that all are welcomed.  All are invited.  All are called to be willing to give all of what they have to be part of the kingdom that is coming, part of celebrating what God has done, part of bringing in what God would do.
         Of all the gifts we have to give, our time, our attention, our faith, commitment and love are by far the most important.
               Our most moving Christmas stories are all about giving.  The Littlest Angel who gives his dirty childhood box.  The little drummer boy who gives the gift of his music.  In Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol, Tiny Tim gives his faith and love: and later, Scrooge, when he gets it together turns around and gives his time, his love, and his resources.  In It’s a Wonderful Life it’s George Bailey who gives all of who he is to serve the people of his town and in the end, it’s their returned friendship that saves him.  The most moving Christmas stories are all about what we have to give and how we choose to give it. 
               We aren’t the magi.  We aren’t paid by kings to deliver gifts of gold, frankincense and Myrrh, or our current equivalent of gold, stocks and investment properties.  Some of us have resources, lots of them: others don’t.  What is important is not the amount that you give, but that you give from your heart the best that you have to give.  That you follow the stars to seek out God and to give to God the best that you have.
I’m reminded of a wonderful Calvin and Hobbes cartoon. 

               As we’ve done for the past two years, today we pass out stars.  Each of these has a word on it with the name of a gift or “virtue”.  These are gifts for you to reflect on for the next year, to focus your thoughts, prayers and attention for the year.  Next year on Epiphany Sunday I will ask you to share stories about how those words or stars might have touched you this last year.  They are upside down in the baskets and I ask you to pick one without looking at it first.  These aren’t “magical”, but I do think that there can be a gift in focusing on one of the many blessings God has given to each of us for a set amount of time.  I look forward to hearing how your lights will show and touch the world this year, how you will have been touched by God’s light this year.  Amen.