Sunday, January 12, 2020

Covenant Commitments - a Remembrance of Baptism

And so the season of Epiphany unfolds with another revelation of who this Jesus really is from the Gospel of Matthew. Like the stars that revealed the birth of the Messiah to the wise ones from the East, the Spirit shows up today in the descending of a dove and a voice from the heavens…

Today in the life of the church we remember that Jesus, God with Us, our Emmanuel, entered into ministry after three decades of life, and he did so with something of a splash.

No pun intended.

Jesus places himself in John’s care for the baptism John offers, and John knows that Jesus is the One.  The One that he has been sent to announce.  The One that will work over the next months and years to teach and heal…and he will teach and heal, dine and hang out not just with the Jews but with a wide range of folks…Jews and Gentiles, saints and sinners, men and women.

There is something really big going on here.  Who Jesus is and what Jesus will do is so much bigger than the imagination of most of those around him. Did John really know? Did he know what a big deal this was?

Here at the Jordan, God claims Jesus as his beloved. Audibly. Visibly. Publicly.

Let’s take some time to unpack our text from Acts today because the snapshot we get is only the end of a longer story – a story of baptism and of the bigness of what Jesus has done and is doing.

Prior to the text we read today, Peter has had a vision about eating unclean food, with God speaking to him, telling him it is not for Peter to decide what or who is clean and unclean.  At exactly the same time, Cornelius, who is a Roman citizen and the commander of a large group of Italian soldiers, but has also been devoted to the one God Yahweh, is visited by an angel – an angel who praises his loyalty to God and sends him to Joppa in search of a man named Peter.

This is important set up to what we’ve heard today.  Because what we’ve heard today is Peter’s address after having Cornelius show up at his house and tell of his vision.  Peter realizes that the Holy Spirit is up to something – that Cornelius, a gentile, has been sent to Peter whose been commanded not to decide what’s unclean.

When Peter puts this all together, he testifies to what is happening, “He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as a judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

In the next few verses, which weren’t read today, the Holy Spirit falls upon all who are listening – the gifts of the Holy Spirit are poured out “even on the Gentiles.” And Peter asks, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 

This is the first Gentile conversion…it is the moment when we – you and me - are grafted into the body of Christ. A moment when baptism became a vital part of how we entered into new life in Christ.

This is the beginning of how we fit into God’s covenant promise as it is summarized by the prophet Jeremiah – I will be their God and they will be my people.

We become part of that covenant relationship.  We.  You and I. 

In this season of Epiphany, we are watching for what God is revealing.

Last week we talked about discernment…about those places where we are using all of our senses and our gut to help us see how God is speaking into our lives individually and collectively.

Today, we are reminded by the very life of Jesus that through baptism we are part of a covenant community.  And so we focus today on covenant.

A covenant is a commitment between two parties. In the Old Testament, the Covenant, in simplest terms is the promise that God makes to the Israelites to be their God…but really, it begins with the relationship in the Garden. 

God creates a beautiful garden and sets a rule.  Adam and Eve accept the rule and then break it. God could destroy them and does not.  And while turning them out into a harsh world, God also clothes them, providing for their survival.

God provides the Law and promise land flowing with milk and honey. The Hebrews struggle, following, doubting, murmuring, turning away. And God keeps faithfully showing up – with water, with manna, sometimes with a cross word.  And sometimes the Hebrews return to God and sometimes they drag their feet a bit. But they do eventually come into the Land.

Throughout the scriptures, time and time again God’s people turn away. And sometimes in the Hebrew scriptures, it seems that God gets angry… but he always returns and gathers God’s people back in.

Then in Jesus, God expresses a new covenant. A promise that we are forgiven and loved…as he pours that love out on God’s own son who is flesh and humanness just like we are.  This is my son, the beloved, in whom I am well-pleased. 

Today, in light of all this, we make space to reflect on our own baptism. And I hope we do more than reflect. My prayer is that we hear our commitments anew and consider how we might draw closer to the God who loves us so.

The hymnal says this about our baptismal covenant – the promises we make to God and to one another while God pours out the Holy Spirit over the water:
“The baptismal covenant is God’s word to us, proclaiming our adoption by grace, and our word to God promising our response of faith and love.  Those within the covenant community constitute the church…”

To be clear, that means that all the baptized constitute the body of Christ.
And to be clear, baptism isn’t something we do as a congregation – we witness what God is doing.  (Just like at communion when we remember this isn’t our table but God’s, baptism isn’t something we the church do – it isn’t something we much control. God’s got this.)

In our baptismal vows, taken for us if we were baptized as small children but confirmed in the act of confirmation when we are old enough to speak for ourselves:

We renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world and repent. 

We accept the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.

We confess Jesus as Savior and Lord and agree to serve as Christ’s representatives in the world.


Are we keeping up our end of the deal?

I suspect that many of us don’t think daily about this commitment we make, the relationship to which we’ve agreed.  I doubt that we think about the promise of God’s loyalty and our promises in return. I suspect that the ins and outs of our daily life – our jobs, traffic, our bills, our travel plans, our schedules, our health, our kids and our parents – keep us in moments from being fully aware of the relationship that we’ve been included in.  The larger family into which we have been adopted.  The loving arms in which we are embraced.

It makes me think a bit of a hug. A hug really takes two people, right?  I know that sometimes as an act of resistance my kids would refuse to participate in a hug… I kind of imagine God hugging our selves that aren’t actively hugging back because we are busy with other things…

I wonder how often we pay attention to our part of that hug with God whose arms surround us each and every day…who longs to whisper – beloved, I am pleased with you.”

And I am mindful then of all the people to whom God reaches with that same love and grace.  Every single person.  No matter what.  Loved. Embraced by this promise to be loved.

God is there keeping up God’s end of the covenant… even when we fail at whatever effort we make to try.

How many places can we say that is true for us in life? That someone is holding on to us with unconditional love?

And we can think about this in a highly individual way – and it becomes more powerful and possibly more difficult when we think about it as the body of Christ?

Where are the places we fail to renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness?  the places we fail to resist evil, injustice or oppression? 

Because that stuff is hard, and would probably interrupt our lives on a regular basis if we were truly focused on it all the time.  We’d have to rethink a lot of how we interact in the world.  Are the clothes we wear made on the backs of children forced into child labor? Is our produce picked by folks paid less than a living wage? Is our choice to drive everywhere impacting the sanctity of God’s creation? Are we preserving our own comfort in our church rather than radically welcoming everyone – because the “everyone” might make us uncomfortable?

Today’s word is covenant.  It’s complicated. And I suspect we never fully live up to our end of the deal. I try. Sometimes.  And honestly, there are times I am too distracted to remember my end of the deal.

My prayer is that we can be grateful for the way we have been fully adopted into God’s loving arms.

And that we will, individually and together, seek ways to reach back out in love on God’s behalf.

May it be so.


Sunday, January 5, 2020

Lift up your eyes! Observing the Feast of the Epiphany, Year A

It is the 12th day of Christmas!! If you listen very closely, maybe you hear the drummers drumming. Yes, it is still Christmas, although almost NOT still Christmas.

Today at Faith we are jumping ahead and celebrating the Feast of the Epiphany, typically January 6 (right after the 12 days) – the place where the Christmas season ends and a new season, the season of Epiphany, begins.

It is one of those in between times, sometimes referred to as liminal space, the space between what was and what is next.  That space – liminal space - can be desolate or it can be rich, it can be defined or it can be mysterious. If we are not careful, sometimes that liminal space can go completely unnoticed by us.  We won’t even know we’ve been there.

We tend to think about Epiphany as a celebration of the arrival of the Magi – or the Kings. But really, it’s about something much broader than that – it’s about the revelation of Jesus as God’s son. In scripture, that happens in dribs and drabs based on which Gospel you are reading. Next week, we’ll talk about what happened at Jesus’ baptism and that was definitely one of those moments of revelation. A few weeks from now, we’ll talk about what happens at the transfiguration as Peter and John witness Jesus right alongside Moses and Elijah.

Epiphany is really about what is revealed to us if we are paying attention. It’s about what happens if we lift up our eyes – if we look beyond ourselves at what God is doing in our midst.

In the Matthew text for today, there is something being revealed as the Kings arrive, a revelation that catches Herod quite off guard.

These “kings,” these “magi,” these learned people (because it turns out there were probably more than THREE and the entourage probably included women) have travelled from afar, and they have navigated by signs in the heavens. But their navigation couldn’t have initially been too exact – because they arrived in country and showed up at the palace in Jerusalem.  Their question, “where is this child who is born king of the Jews?” 

...I suppose if you are looking for a King, you typically begin the search in a royal spot, the palace, the seat of power.

Their inquiry gave Herod pause…as far as Herod is concerned, he’s the king, the man in power, the guy in charge.  What’s all of this about a new king?

So…that’s one nature of this revelation…The traveling visitors announce a new king, but they don’t really know exactly who he is or exactly where he is, and they probably aren’t super-clear on the political environment they’ve stumbled into...because it is not their stomping grounds if you will.

The text says Herod was frightened – and all of Jerusalem with him.
I can only imagine that suggestions of regime change or power struggles were unsettling to a lot of folks, not just the guy in charge.  And so Herod calls together all his experts – and the texts says specifically he called the chief priests and scribes – the religious authorities – the experts in the law and ancient texts.  Because he wants to figure out what these Kings are talking about, what might this mean.

So armed with the knowledge that the prophet Micah had spoken of a ruler who would come from Bethlehem (the City of David), Herod’s spidey sense is that something grave is going on. Something threatening – specifically threatening to him.

Herod meets with those visiting wise people once again, shares what his religious experts have said and sends the wise folk on to Bethlehem with instructions to return and let him know what they find.

Which they don’t. Because they are warned in a dream not to do so.

But when they find the boy born in Bethlehem, they pay homage.  To pay homage is to publicly show respect.  I would imagine that having a bunch of exotic strangers arrive in humble Bethlehem created a bit of a spectacle.

I wonder what the neighbors thought.
I wonder what Mary thought? I wonder what Joseph thought?
I wonder what Jesus thought – because he was likely no longer an infant when this visit took place.

I wonder if those folks, like Herod, had some misgivings or some questions about what was going on?

I wonder if those kings knew that following the star would be risky? Would endanger a generation of children in Bethlehem? Would unnerve Herod so?

These are epiphany questions.  We wonder about the story and we wonder about what it means. We lift up our eyes with wonder.

Epiphany, in the life of the church, isn’t a day.  It’s a season. Much like Christmas, it is more than just a passing moment…we’re invited to steep in something. We are invited to steep in things that the scripture reveals.

This week, our scriptures reveal a story about faithful following.  About wise people who discern a call and follow a path.

In light of that story this week, let’s focus on discernment.

To discern is to perceive or recognize something, or to distinguish (someone or something) with difficulty by sight or with the other senses. To discern is to look beyond ourselves…to lift up our eyes.

Discernment is a word I use a lot when I talk about our work as the church. One of the things that Methodists received from John Wesley is a keen understanding that we are shaped by scripture and tradition, reason and experience.  We have to be paying attention to what is happening around us to discern what God is doing in order to understand how we might be changed God’s action.

Discernment is work.
And it is work for all of us.

In particular, we discern our Call – the way God is calling on us uniquely in the world  And by us – I mean you and I individually, but also us – all of us as the body of Christ.  As people and as a community, God is calling us toward something that brings about the kingdom of God.  A piece of our life’s work is to discern that call, to discern how it changes over time and to discern how best to follow.

I hear some of your inner thoughts right now – call – that is something reserved for people who are going to work for the church.  That is something pastors or specific leaders have. It’s not something I have. Is it?

Nope. We’re all called.

The Kings were called to go pay homage to the new King.  Herod was called to find out more.  The religious experts were called to offer up what they knew.  The kings were then called NOT to listen to Herod’s request that they return to report what they’d found.

There is a whole lot of discerning that goes on in this story. A whole lot of watching for the revelation of something new and vital.

Like the wise people or even Herod,

Sometimes we call in experts.
Sometimes we set out looking for clues.
Sometimes we sit with an idea and wait.

Today, we are in a season of mystery…watching, waiting, showing up for what God is doing in our midst. And we won’t see what is revealed if we are not watching and waiting and looking and then discerning.

Mysteries require us to pay attention, look for clues, watch closely for what is happening, what is meant, what might come next.

Mysteries, require us to discern.
Maybe something about oneself, or the times in which one lives,
or about the direction of a community. 

In our lives, we might be discerning how best to use our gifts, whether to seek a new job, what we are supposed to be growing toward in this season, how we are supposed to handle that tricky relationship. 

We are, as the community of Faith, discerning how we will engage in mission work in the year to come. How we will offer welcome to those seeking to grow in relationship to God. How we will navigate the tricky waters of being in the world and not of the world. 

We are, individually and as a community, faced by a lot of discernment in this season.

Today, we celebrate communion – another liminal space between what was and what will be. The meal that Jesus calls us to while we wait to feast at his heavenly banquet.
During our communion time today, you will have the opportunity to take a star cutout from a basket. That star has a word on it.

That word has found you this year, and I invite you to spend some time pondering – discerning -  what this word might mean.  Is it a star to follow? A star by which to navigate?

For the past several years, a growing number of congregations have been receiving star words as part of their Epiphany celebration. Last year, I got the word “tenderness.” I wanted to crumple it up and make it go away.  I wanted to receive “boldness” or “dependability.”  But I got “tenderness.”  And I needed that throughout the year.  I discerned that tenderness was part of how I had to navigate my family and my church and my disengaging from years of full time work at the seminary.  I needed to carry tenderness with me right alongside bravery and power and wisdom and commitment.  I kept coming back to that star that I didn’t want. Praying with it.  Living into it. Watching for the places it mattered. Discerning why tenderness mattered.

I’ve heard so many stories this past year of the stars folks received LAST year.  There was the member whose word was “learning.” The member whose word was “grace.” The member whose word was “servanthood.”  And they just kept coming to me in wonder.  I’ve prayed over this community since I arrived and I’ve prayed over the issues we face together. I’ve prayed for the ways we will discern a path forward in the year to come and I’ve prayed over these stars you will receive today.

So today, as you feast together, you will also find a word to ponder on your heart.  To pray with. To watch over. To discern with.

The prophet Isaiah says…

Arise, shine for your light has come.
Lift up your eyes and look around.

But your light has come only if you have seen it. Only if you observe it. Only if you are paying attention can that light do what it is intended to do

…that is the work of discerning.

It is work for us today.
May it be so.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Meditations for Christmas Eve - Interludes to Lessons and Carols 2019

John 1: 1 - 5
Isaiah 9: 2, 6 - 7
Luke 1: 26 - 38
Matthew 1: 18 - 25
Luke 2: 1 - 7

What is it about a baby?

There aren’t many experiences common to the whole human race.  But everyone is born into this world.  Nearly everyone, within their abilities, learns to crawl and then to walk, learns to speak, learns the faces of loved ones, learns hot and cold, learns the meaning of the word NO.

It humbles me that a God who could reach out and touch the world in dramatic ways, as he had at times in generations before – in a flood, in plagues, in mighty battles, in toppling buildings, in earthquakes and fires - chose to touch the world more than 2000 years ago with the tiny hands of a baby. 

A vulnerable, wrinkly, crying baby.

Most of us, at one point, have held a newborn in our arms and marveled at their tiny perfection.  I imagine young Mary, weary from the physical demands of childbirth, caressing this baby’s face in awe.  I imagine Joseph, stressed by his travels and scared to death about what had just happened, picking up that squirming, crying, swaddled boy for the very first time…

I’m pretty sure that O Little Town of Bethlehem has it wrong…
“How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given…” 
I’m pretty sure it wasn’t silent.
I’m pretty sure there was crying,
         wailing and weeping,
                  fear and mystery. 

And a tiny baby boy. Flesh and blood. Sweat and tears. Hunger and thirst.

Many times, I can’t fathom God’s power.  I can’t understand how it all works.  But at Christmas, I am reminded that I share one experience with all regardless of race, socioeconomic status, education, parents, geography. I have been a baby. I have held babies.  I have tickled their tiny feet, changed their diapers and been awed by the workings of their tiny minds.

God chose to touch this world as a baby…a human baby.  I can understand a baby. 

God wants us to know him.  He sought to teach us to be human by his own humanity.  We all share this human experience with Jesus, the baby… born in Bethlehem.

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

Luke 2: 8 - 20

What the Shepherds saw….

In the dark of the night…the text says that…In the dark of the night, the glory of the Lord appears and a heavenly host of angels to boot.

Lately, we’ve been accompanying our dogs anytime they need to go out.  That means I am often standing in the yard in the dark of night with my fuzzy slippers and a huge down coat, looking at the sparkling frost on the grass and the moon its current phase set against a starry sky. 

I imagine the shepherds had a pretty amazing view of the night sky.

These shepherds were the night shift. Theirs was the work of keeping animals that were on the hunt at bay so that the sheep or the goats they tended made it to morning light in one piece and alive.

They did not own these flocks. These were the ones on the night shift. The ones who don’t make the family holiday gatherings because they work in the dark, doing the things many of us prefer to pay others to do.

And in the darkness, there appeared an angel, and then a heavenly host. I think that means a bunch of angels, right? What the shepherd’s saw was the glory of the Lord. I am reminded of Moses asking to see God…and getting to see God’s glory – because it is too much to see all of God.

In good company with Moses then are the shepherds.  The night shift.  The hired help.  Not to the priests in the Temple.  Not to the Emperor.  Not to folks in warm homes.  To the night shift.  To the hired help. 

There came good news:
“On Earth, peace among those whom God favors!”

What the shepherds heard was that the good news was for them.  The promise of peace was for them.  That they warranted a visit. 

And like Joseph agreeing to take Mary as his wife in spite of her being with child, like Mary agreeing to bear a son even though she didn’t understand how, the shepherds left their fields because that is what they were told to do.  They went and they were amazed.

This. This is Christ the King whom shepherds guard and angels sing.

Matthew 2: 1 - 11
John 1: 1 - 14
Go light the world!

There is light in the world.

Even when it seems oh so dark.

In the dark stable where Mary and Joseph huddled to watch new life enter the world.
In the dark fields where shepherds watched their flocks.

In places where families are divided by conflict.
In places where cancer patients receive treatment but not always hope.
In places where there is no dry roof or warm floor.
In places where there is no clean water.

But there is light in the world. That is what we are promised. 

Light came into the world.
Light is in the world.
Darkness cannot overcome the light.

Light that shines into our lives.
Light that beckons us to carry it.
…To carry it out into all the places.

So that darkness does not overcome the light.
So that light shines and gathers.

What has come into being in him was life….and that life IS the light of all people.

Radiant beams from thy holy face, with the dawn of redeeming grace.
Jesus, Lord at that birth.

Gloria in excelsis deo!
Thank you, God.
Let’s light the world.