Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Salt and Light

Many people when they reach a certain age start to feel like nothing can change. There isn't any point in setting any new goals, there isn't any reason to dream for anything different. Some people reach a state of despair or a state of indifference such that nothing really matters anymore. And really, this can happen at any age, however, it has become largely noticeable in the seventy and over age group these days. Despair can hit anyone who has struggled for a long time and feels like they are not attaining anything different or important. Working with people who have reached rock bottom can be hard to do. However, we all need a little encouragement some of the time. Our good friend, C. S. Lewis once said, “You are never to old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.”

Encouragement. Most people at some point in their lives find themselves an encouragement story or quote that they hang on to when the going gets rough. I remember the halls and walls of my middle school being covered in encouragement posters, saying things like, "If Plan A doesn't work, the alphabet still has 25 more letters." Or Frank Sinatra's, "the best revenge is massive success." In high school, I adopted my own personal encouragement statement, "smile, defy gravity." Not only was I trying to remember to smile, but I was also sticking it to Isaac Newton and his infallible physics laws. Two points for me.

Encouragement is the name of the game today because that is one of the plays that Jesus is trying to make in the gospel passage for today. This passage comes directly after last week's passage, commonly known as the Beatitudes, a series of blessings for the people following Jesus. He switches from blessing the crowds to encouraging them to share what they have with others. He tells them that they are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Jesus tells the crowds that they are following him through the laws and beyond. What he does not tell him, but what is implicit in what he does say, is that they are worth it. That they are able to make a difference. You are the salt of the earth. You can make a difference. You are the light of the world. Let your light shine. You can make a difference. That sounds like encouragement to me.

Maybe you aren't buying it. Why would being the salt of the earth be a good thing? Salt was a very precious commodity in the ancient world. Salt had to be gathered and purified. Salt was used to preserve food so that it didn't have to be eaten immediately. Salt also has healing and cleaning properties. In Jewish tradition, and later Christian tradition, salt was blessed and used in exorcisms and baptisms and blessing places.  Salt really doesn't have too much of its own flavor. Garlic, pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, all of these spices definitely have their own flavor. Salt, though is really only used to enhance the flavor of something else. Its kind of like a magnifying glass. It makes what is already present harder, better, faster, stronger.

The funny thing about salt is that it is like honey. Left by themselves, honey and salt never go bad. Salt is a stable chemical compound. Unless it gets wet, it will stay salt and salty for a very very very long time. 

The analogy then is that when we act like salt of the earth, we do not call attention to ourselves. Instead, we enhance what is already present. We bring out the good flavor of what is already going on. We make things better. Salt's mission in this world is not to promote salt, but to make everything else better. We are not called to promote ourselves, but God.

So after Jesus blesses the crowds with the beatitudes, he encourages them by telling them that they are the salt of the earth. They are imminently good. And necessary. The crowds that Jesus was talking to were the lowly country people. They were not the high and mighty, not the celebrities. And yet, Jesus tells them they are the ones giving flavor to this world. They are the ones that can make life better for other people.

In the same manner, Jesus tells the crowd that they are the light of the world. Human beings need light to be able to see. We are created that way. And in order for other people to see God, they have to have the right kind of light. The people who are in darkness can't see God, because there isn't any light. Light does also normally follow Newtonian physics. Which means that unless something stops it, it will shine everywhere it can reach. Jesus tells his followers that they are the light, that unless they stop themselves for some reason, they can shine the light of God everywhere. Being light can be a burden, a responsibility, but it is also an honor. We are the light. Only we can show others what it is to see God in this world.

We follow in the footsteps of those in the crowds that day. We are the salt of the earth. We give flavor to this world. We are the light of the world. We can shine light on what it means to see God in this world.

So, I encourage you. Be salt and be light. I encourage you to try something new out this week. Try something you've always dreamed of doing or set a new goal this week. I encourage you to write down all the ways in which God has worked through you to help someone else. I encourage you to shine, to sparkle, to add flavor to another person's life. I encourage you to love, love deeply, love widely, love even in the midst of the hard moments and difficult emotions. I encourage you to be salt and light. I encourage you to trust God and follow Jesus. Amen.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017


Epiphany 4A
In the late 1960’s, when the United States was trying to come to terms with the civil rights movement, one man in Georgia saw the confusion and hostility and hopelessness experienced by his neighbors. Instead of marching or demonstrating, he decided to open a communal farm based off the stories in the Acts of the Apostles where all possessions were held in common and all members were considered equal. Clarence Jordan and Koinonia Farm, based off the Greek word for community, were well known at the time and seen as a threat to many in the South who believed in segregation. As part of his work, Jordan also wrote a new version of the gospel stories of Matthew and John, translating scripture from the Greek into the southern Georgia context. The Cotton Patch Gospels are well known for their folk style and their sense of humor. In the story of Jesus’ temptation, after Jesus stands up to the Devil and the Devil takes his leave, the angels come to take care of Jesus… “bearing a sack of chili cheese dogs for him.” However, the point was to make the gospel stories new and open them up for new understanding, in the hopes that the tension of the time would change.
I want to share with you the Beatitudes from Matthew, Cotton Patch Style.
“When Jesus saw the large crowd, he went up the hill and sat down. His students gathered around him, and he began teaching them. This is what he said:
“The spiritually humble are God’s people,
for they are citizens of his new order.
“They who are deeply concerned are God’s people,
for they will see their ideas become reality.
“They who are gentle are his people,
for they will be his partners across the land.
“They who have an unsatisfied appetite for the right are God’s people,
for they will be given plenty to chew on.
“The generous are God’s people,
for they will be treated generously.
“Those whose motives are pure are God’s people,
for they will have spiritual insight.
“Men of peace and good will are God’s people,
for they will be known throughout the land as his children.
“Those who have endured much for what’s right are God’s people;
they are citizens of his new order.
“Y’all are God’s people when others call you names, and harass you and tell all kinds of false tales on you just because you follow me. Be cheerful and good-humored, because your spiritual advantage is great. For that’s the way they treated men of conscience in the past.”
Any way we read the Beatitudes, we already know what they are about, right? They are a moral teaching from Jesus to his followers, which begins the famous Sermon on the Mount.
But is that really all that is involved in this passage? No.
There are two layers going on in the Beatitudes. What Matthew is trying to tell us and what Jesus is trying to tell us. Matthew is trying to show us who Jesus really is, impart to us Jesus' teaching, and comfort his community in their hard times. And then there is what Jesus is trying to tell us.
But let's start with Matthew. In Matthew's portrayal of Jesus, we see three views of Jesus. First, Jesus is in the line of Jewish tradition, as the new Moses. Jesus is shown on a mountain giving the people reformed rules to follow. Symbolically, Jesus is taking the role of Moses in delivering God’s rules to the people from the mountain. Second, Jesus is a part of those who are peacemakers, meek, merciful, hungry, persecuted, mourners, and poor in spirit. He is a revelation that God stands with humanity. Third, Jesus is compassionate for his people, recognizing their brokenness, and blessing them. Matthew really wants to show his hearers that Jesus is in line with the Jewish tradition, that Jesus is talking about regular people, including himself, and how much compassion Jesus has for his oppressed people.
Then we have what Jesus is saying. When I read through this passage, these are all the things I hear Jesus saying.
Jesus is highlighting some priorities for his followers, the well-known moral teaching aspect of the passage.
Jesus is teaching about the kingdom of heaven, which he has already preached has come near.
Jesus is making a promise and predicting the future, staying firmly in the prophetic tradition.
Jesus is challenging people to see others as God sees them.
Jesus is giving his people a blessing and building hope in his followers.
Perhaps this is why we read the same passages over and over again! We can get so much out of twelve verses! All of this is pertinent to us as Christians today. However, what I want to emphasize is the building up of hope that Jesus is doing.
Jesus' people were marked by hopelessness. They were under Roman occupation and oppression. We are marked in this Northwestern Pennsylvanian region by hopelessness as well. Not because of occupation and oppression, but because of a faltering economy and a sense that things cannot be better than they already are. Could the Israelites do anything about the Romans? Can we do anything about our situation? The Israelites were waiting for the Messiah for exactly this reason! We have been looking for a modern day savior in many the same way. But a human leader was not going to solve all of the Israelite's problems and a human leader is not going to solve all of our problems either. Instead Jesus is the savior that we need, and he teaches us to hope in an entirely different way.
Hope - however abstract - is very important for society. We define hope as a feeling most of the time, but hope functions much more deeply than that. In university research by professors of social work and sociology, hope is much more than a feeling. Hope is a way of thinking. Hope is a process of setting goals, finding different pathways to achieve those goals, especially when difficulties present themselves, and believing in the ability to complete the goal. Hope is a way of thinking for individuals as well as communities. Hopeful individuals are able to see change in their lives and the world around them, even if it is very small. Hopeful individuals do not believe that their successes or failures determine who they are. Jesus gives us all three in this passage from Matthew.
Jesus gives us hope in a way that goes far beyond feelings. Jesus teaches us that the goal is the kingdom of heaven. The pathways to that goal lie in being merciful, meek, deeply concerned, peacemakers, standing up for our beliefs, in having pure motivations. We can do these things and Jesus reinforces this message by sharing his encouragement as a blessing in this work. The blessings that Jesus gives are both in the present and in the future tenses. Some of these blessings are already present realities. Some of them are still to come. With Jesus' blessing, we are given the agency, the ability to go forth differently, with hope. Because Jesus is all of these things and we are following in his way, we can be all of these things. Not because we will be rewarded with riches, but because then we will have strengthened our relationship with God and we will experience the kingdom of heaven.
The Christian tradition has tried to pass along these ideas, but hasn't always done a good job. One way it is easy to see them is in the Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer. There is a whole section titled "The Christian Hope". The first question asks, "What is the Christian hope?" And gives this answer, "The Christian hope is to live with confidence in newness and fullness of life, and to await the coming of Christ in glory, and the completion of God's purpose for the world." In that answer, there is a goal and there is an expectation. We are to live with confidence in newness and fullness of life. We are to wait for Christ and God's purpose. Living in confidence of newness and fullness of life in Christ is something that we can do. Living in confidence of newness and fullness of life in Christ is what we do together.

Our hope is to make the goal – to see the kingdom of heaven. This is not easy, it takes endurance. We may realize our hope and achieve our goal in this life, we may even realize it today! We may also take a long time to realize this goal. But may we never give up on it! Let us hope in the fullness of life in the community of God!


Epiphany 3A
Matthew 4:12-23

We tend to think of being arrested as a bad thing. In many cases, this is the truth. However, for a number of people throughout the world, being arrested was the necessary catalyst for changing the world. 
Every movement has a catalyst. A precipitating event that causes the rest of the story to happen. We know this well. For Martin Luther King Jr., the precipitating event that turned him into a national civil rights leader was the Montgomery Bus Boycott, sparked by Ms. Rosa Parks, an African American woman, being arrested for not giving up her seat on a bus for a white person. 

In Jesus' case, according to the gospel of Matthew, the catalyst was his cousin's John's arrest. John's arrest proved to be a little bit of a wake up call and a time of acknowledgement of the risks of what he was doing. Jesus probably knew that his ministry was not going to be easy. Spending forty days in the desert to prepare yourself for the task is one clue that he knew this was not going to be a walk in the park. After his baptism, Jesus goes out into the wilderness then he goes home to Nazareth, to his family. However, John being arrested put a new perspective on the timing of his ministry. Now was the time. He could not wait any longer. When John is arrested, he decides it is time for something new to happen. So he moves away from his family. I imagine this was one way that he tried to give himself room to focus on what God was calling him to do. So we see the real, on the ground, start of his ministry. In this passage, Matthew shows us that Jesus' ministry is in three parts. Jesus' ministry is about being present, proclaiming the good news, and healing his people. 

Jesus was present. We talk about Jesus being the incarnation. The dwelling of God in humanity, that in Jesus, God was present with humanity. Jesus comes to us as God made manifest, as God made obvious. Matthew wants us to acknowledge the fullness of what God is trying to do by also making sure we are aware that Jesus had a home in Capernaum. We tend to think of Jesus as an iterant preacher. Always wandering around without any home. And I've never heard any tradition about Jesus' home in Capernaum, and it is not on any tour in the Holy Land. But the point isn't whether or not Jesus had a house in the town of Capernaum. The point is that God was really truly living among his people. Jesus had a home and it was with us, his people. He was not just talking to them and curing them... and then retreating to a quiet safe space... no. God in Jesus was living right among them. He had an address and everything. He did not turn anyone away, the poor, the middle class, the rich. He dealt with his neighbors, with the store keepers, with the tradesmen, everybody. Jesus was present.

Jesus also proclaimed. Matthew wants us to believe the authenticity of Jesus being a prophet of God, being called from God with a word to speak, part of the tradition of the scripture. Matthew gives us Jesus' ministerial catch phrase as it starts out. "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." Prophets were known by what they spoke and the messages that they repeated. Matthew also wants to make sure we know that Jesus is following the tradition of John and the other prophets from scripture. Jesus isn't coming from out of left field, Matthew wants his listeners to know that Jesus is the one whom they have been waiting for for a long time. Jesus' proclamation was what people had been waiting to hear. Good news! You may be wondering how "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near" would be good news. But we hear this proclamation with different ears than it would have been heard twenty centuries ago. Repent has connotations to us that push out some of the other meanings of the word. "Turn around, for the kingdom of heaven has come near" sounds a little bit different to our ears. Its almost as if Jesus is pointing something out to us, that maybe is behind us where we cannot see. If only we turned around, we would be able to see that the kingdom of heaven is near! Sadly, over and over again, we fail to see how near the kingdom of heaven is. Luckily, that didn't stop Jesus from proclaiming. 

And Jesus healed. The third part of Jesus' ministry that Matthew highlights in this gospel passage is the healing of diseases, casting out demons, and generally making his people whole. Jesus has come into the world to save God's people and part of saving them means returning them to wholeness. We become broken in so many ways. We are broken by each other's sins. We are broken by diseases that mess with our minds and bodies and souls. We are broken by demons of anger and malice and hatred. We are broken and lacking the peace that comes from being whole. God sees us in our brokenness and sends Jesus to forgive our sins, to cure our diseases, to bind up the demons that torture us, to give us the peace that goes beyond all the brokenness in our world. Jesus walks among the people of Galilee and he walks among us. Healing as he goes. Being the light in the darkness that clouds our sight. Giving us hope for the future of life eternal with God. Jesus healed.

This is what Matthew wants us to know. That Jesus came, was fully present, proclaimed the good news, and healed the people of Galilee. Because when Matthew continues the story with the calling of the disciples, there is an implication about the ministry that Jesus is doing for the disciples. Jesus tells Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John, to follow him. To follow him on his walk. To follow him in his ministry. When we agree in our baptismal vows to follow in the apostle's teaching and fellowship, we are agreeing to be a part of the work of the first disciples in following Jesus. In following Jesus in his walk and in his ministry. Following Jesus in his ministry of presence, proclamation, and healing looks different for each of us because each of us have different gifts. However, these three are the underlying foundation for all of our ministry. We are called to be among the people of this world, not hiding away our faith, but sharing it through word and action. We are not called to be secret Christians, only following him for an hour or so one day a week. We are called to live as followers of Jesus everyday in every place. We are called to proclaim the good news, to share Jesus as we know him. We are called to bring healing to others, through our own gifts, through all the gifts of teaching, listening, studying, welcoming, organizing, praying, serving, speaking the truth, and all the other gifts the Holy Spirit gives us.

As Jesus called his disciples to follow him, Jesus is calling us to follow him. He knows the great darkness into which we may walk in this journey. He knows the great fears that may hold us back. He knows the occasional awkwardness of being present, the uncertainty of belief in the proclamation, the brokenness of the healing, and yet, he still calls us to follow him. To be the catalyst for someone else, to be light sharing God's love.

Let us go forth following Jesus!

The Baptism of Our Lord

The First Sunday After Epiphany
The Matthean account of the Baptism of Jesus

Every year it happens. The name report. My mom is an elementary school music teacher. And every year there comes a point when she comes home fed up with trying to remember six hundred children’s names and the usual and sometimes very unusual ways that they are spelled. Sometimes it is the boys names, too many Brandons and Brendans and Brennans and Braydens and Bransons to be able to keep straight. Sometimes it is the girls names, how many different spelling variations are there of Kaitlyn or Catherine and which want to be known as Cate or Cat or Kathy or Katie? However, we all know what power there is in remembering someone else’s name. In society, being on a first name basis with someone else used to mean that you knew them very well. With the rise of the informal culture, this understanding has disappeared and knowing someone’s first name is not as powerful as it used to be. However, knowing someone else’s name still is very important for having a relationship with that person.

Because of the way the holidays fell this year, we missed the celebration of Holy Name Day on the eighth day of Christmas. Jewish tradition has children being named on the eighth day, when they are presented at the temple. In both the gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus is given the name Jesus very specifically. Jesus comes from a long tradition of Hebrew names which means “God saves.” With Jesus, God is doing something very particular in the world, and he wants everyone to know it.

This is part of what happens in the Gospel passage for today. God names Jesus when he comes up out of the Jordan River during his baptism. God names Jesus as his son. This is my son, he says. God is calling out their relationship, their closeness. This isn’t some random man being baptized today, oh no! It is God’s son. God is naming Jesus for everyone to see and hear and know. This is someone very important, because he is my son, my beloved. Through this naming, God tells us who Jesus is.

This is really helpful, because in the days of the gospel writers, there was still some confusion about who Jesus was. Was Jesus God’s son? Was Jesus part of God? Was Jesus a man possessed by God? Was Jesus fully human? Or fully divine? These were the questions that started the debates that led to the creation of the creeds.  However, we know where Matthew stands. Matthew thinks it is very important that we know that Jesus is God’s son and that Jesus does a very human thing like being washed to fulfill the law. As we can see in the story, John has a different perspective. John thinks that Jesus should be baptizing him. However, Jesus says it is proper for him to be baptized by John. In a way, as the full perfect sinless Son of God, Jesus doesn’t need baptism. On the other hand though, as a human being who is giving himself up to God’s will and not his own, baptism make a lot of sense. Baptism was a washing or purifying act in which the person being baptized was realigning themselves with what God wants and not themselves. For the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry, this makes a lot of good sense as a first step. Jesus is publically acknowledging that it is not his own will that he will be following, but God’s.

The larger picture here is the overarching goal of Epiphany. We read this gospel passage today during the season of Epiphany because it gives a look into who this Jesus person really is. Epiphany is the church season where we focus on seeing who God is through Jesus. An epiphany is an aha! moment, and the hope is that at some point throughout the season, maybe even more than once, you’ll have an aha! moment about who God is, especially in light of this Jesus character. In Christmas we celebrate the birth of a miraculous baby born to us… and now we want to take some time to figure out who he really is. The gospel readings for the season of Epiphany take us on this journey… first we see who God says Jesus is, as we have heard today at Jesus’ baptism. Then throughout the season, we hear who other people think that Jesus is and who Jesus himself says he is… and at the end of the season, we return to how God names Jesus in the transfiguration, where God again names Jesus as his Son, the beloved.

So what does his name and baptism teach us about Jesus?

We see Jesus in many different lights throughout the gospel stories. He is named in so many different ways. We know him as the Son of God, as the Good Shepherd, as the suffering servant, as the Word made flesh, as the new Adam, as the Christ, the Messiah, as a part of the Trinity of God, as Jesus of Nazareth, the adopted son of a carpenter. But what we see today is a man who cares about relationship, who is in solidarity with humanity, and who is on a mission to save his people. Jesus is known to us primarily through his relationship with God. God comes first and everything else is in alignment with that relationship. Jesus choses solidarity with humanity through being baptized in the simple act of washing. Though this washing, Jesus shows that he understands what it means to be a human being and what it means to be in relationship with God. Jesus, by being named by God as his Son, shares his mission objective with us. Jesus wants to save his people, the people given to him by God. He wants to do this by sharing God’s love for the people.

So what’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet!

If Jesus wasn’t named Jesus, would he still be God’s Son?

Well, I don’t have an answer to that, but I do know that names have power. There are many Johns in this world, but we all know which John we are speaking of when we say John the Baptist. His name calls up images of a very hairy man in the wilderness or by the Jordan River, crying out about repentance. Mr. John Washer as he would have been known if he was English. For that is all that baptism means, washing. We have taken the normal ancient Greek verb for washing and turned it into a religious term. We don’t baptize our vegetables before we cook them! Yet, in ancient Greece, even vegetables were baptized. Names have power and the naming of Jesus in baptism is extremely powerful for us, because in our naming in baptism, we become part of Christ’s body and part of the kingdom of God. We are baptized in God’s name, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. We are named with Christ as beloved children of God, but only because first Jesus was named so. I hope that you may find this Epiphany season a new understanding of who God is through Jesus and who you are because of Jesus. Amen.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Christmas Day

2016 has been quite the year. It has been up – with the Summer Olympics, huge breakthroughs in medicine which has allowed more people with ALS, cancer, Alzheimer’s, and heart disease to live healthier and longer lives, with more equal rights for people all over the world being recognized. It has been down – with the many police and terrorist shootings, with the deaths of some major celebrity figures, with confusing political movements happening all over the world. The social and global media agencies are using their powers to create intensity and stress about certain problems and to cover up other problems. With all of this going on in the world, some people may be wondering how Christmas is even relevant anymore. Yet, exactly because of our crazy world, Christmas is more important than ever. Christmas is important because it is about a beginning. Not an end or a middle, but about a new beginning. Christmas is important because it is about vulnerability. Not hiding or shaming, but about accepting and sharing. Christmas is important because it is about love. Not niceness or being kind, but about deep abiding love.
Christmas is about a new beginning.
If I said, “Once upon a time…,” you’d know I was about to start a fairy tale story. If I said, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…,” you’d know I would be starting a Star Wars story. If I said, “In the beginning…,” hopefully you’d all know that I was starting a book from the Bible. (Since there are two that start this way in the Bible, I’ll give you benefit of the doubt on whether it was Genesis or the gospel of John…) These lines are the telltale signs of a story to come. Setting up a story is very important business. A good story needs a good beginning to grab our attention and get us hooked. It needs to be able to tell us the setting, so we know where and when and what the context is. These are all clues we look for, and we understand so we know something of what is to come. The beginnings of all the books of the gospels are very interesting and relate strongly to the main emphases of the books themselves. The gospel according to John, which we heard this morning, paraphrases the beginning of Genesis, the beginning of everything. Because Jesus was in the beginning of everything, and John wants to highlight the eternal and essential and spiritual nature of what is happening throughout the story of Jesus.
But we do celebrate the birth of Jesus as a human being every year, because Christmas is the setup of a very interesting story to come. A story of a man who was also God, who came here to live with us, to teach us, to share with us, to save us from our sins. But we tend to forget that it is just the beginning of the story. We tend to make it an end in of itself. We have Christmas! Dun dun dun dah! And then the show is over and it’s time to go home.
However, the story of God’s work in the world simply doesn’t end with Jesus being born. No. God continues the work through what Jesus does throughout his life on this planet. The story of birth continues. Because this birth was just the first of many. Jesus’ birth was the birth of God on earth, but it was also the birth of a new way of living in relationship with God, and that new way is born in all of us when we are baptized as Christians. Christmas is about the beginning of the story in which we all become children of God and are saved from our sins. Like any good story, it doesn’t happen all at once, the process, the transformation, the story continues on, stretching far into the future. We celebrate with the beginning, so that we can remember again and again what has been started in us.
Christmas is about vulnerability, about being open.
Christmas is a celebration of a little baby being born in a stable in a backwater part of the world to some questionable parents. If that doesn’t sound a bit vulnerable to you, you might want to look up the definition of the word again. Jesus, the Savior of the universe was born as a baby, one of the most vulnerable creations on earth. Babies are unable to do pretty anything for themselves. They rely on other people for all aspects of their lives. They have no control over anything that they do. We have all grown up into adults, or are in the process of growing up into adults, where we are expected to be somewhat independent, to have some control in our own lives. We all know that many times this independence is simply skin deep. I am able to feed myself by going to the grocery store, but that doesn’t make me completely independent from others in terms of my nutrition. No, I depend on farmers and grocers, and truckers and teenagers who transport the food and stock the store shelves. We have a great ability to hide or ignore this reality in our perspectives though, not always acknowledging that we depend on those minimum wage workers for things like shelter, food, and sanitation. Vulnerability is about accepting these truths. It’s also about accepting and sharing our realities around our own emotions and how we act upon those emotions. It is about opening up all the stories of our lives, the hard ones and the easy ones to share. Usually the strongest connections we have with other people is when we allow ourselves to be fully seen in the hardest stories to share, those stories of pain, sorrow, and embarrassment. It is in those places where God is most at work and in those places where we are able to bring the deepest healing to ourselves and others.
Jesus came into this world as a human being and experienced the full range of human emotions and situations. We have a hard time grasping this concept of incarnation. Of the divine becoming human. Of the combination of the two together. That Jesus had to grow and learn as a human being, that he had to learn to relate to other human beings. That he had to learn to walk and eat on his own, that he didn't pop out of the womb as a little adult, unlike Renaissance paintings would have us believe, already wise beyond his years. We don't know how his wisdom and divinity was revealed to him throughout his years, but I imagine that process was one of self-discovery like all the rest of us. Like the rest of us, Jesus’ process of becoming an adult included learning how and when to be vulnerable, and he shares that with his disciples throughout his ministry in healing for all the people who come to him. We celebrate Jesus’ vulnerability, in the midst of a harsh world, so that we can share that same vulnerability in order to connect people with God.
Christmas is about love, deep abiding love.
I’ve heard this saying plenty of times in my life, “Christians are supposed to be nice.” I have to disagree. First, I disagree because I’m a lover of words and I know that originally, nice meant silly or ignorant. Christians are definitely not supposed to be silly or ignorant. Second, I disagree because Christians are not called to be nice to other people; Christians are called to love, to love God, and to love others.
Love is known as a lot of different things in our society. It is known as an emotion, a feeling we experience. It is known as a promise, a vow certain people make to each other. It is known as an act, exhibiting certain behavior or committing certain actions with other people. However, what is translated as love in the bible is much much deeper than that. Love is a steadfast loving loyalty that never, ever gives up. In the children’s bible, The Jesus Storybook Bible, by Sally Lloyd-Jones, she describes God’s love for creation, God’s love for us, as “never stopping, never giving up, unbreaking, always and forever love.” Woo! That is some powerful stuff.
Love is the reason God becomes a human being in the form of Jesus. 1 John goes as far as to say that “God is love.” The story of Christmas is really a scandalous story. God, the creator of the universe, almighty and all powerful, loves a bunch of dirty, confusing, doubting, messed up, self-destructive, human beings who are stuck in time and don’t really even last that long. But God, the creator of the universe, almighty and all powerful, loves all us dirty, confusing, doubting, messed up, self-destructive, finite humans so much that God offers them love, offers them himself. We celebrate today to remember this overwhelming story of love so that we will go out into the world to share the story and the love.

Christmas is about a new beginning. Christmas is about vulnerability. Christmas is about deep abiding love. We celebrate this day of Christmas because it brings such promise. It reminds us of the new beginning we have in God. It reminds us to be vulnerable and open to God and to other people. It reminds us of the “never stopping, never giving up, unbreaking, always and forever love” of God. Rejoice my friends! Jesus has come for us! Amen. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Letting go of Expectations

The Third Sunday of Advent

One of the many museums I have been to in my life is the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston, Texas. Before I started my last job in Houston, I spent a week setting up my apartment and trying to get to know the city a little bit. I had plenty of expectations about what moving to Texas was going to be like, but part of that first week, I was trying to figure out if those expectations were correct or not. The Museum district in Houston has plenty of museums to choose from and I wandered in and out of a number of them. In the Contemporary Arts Museum though is where I started to realize that many of my expectations were going to be broken, had to be let go of. In its halls were a dizzying array of abstract art compilations, pieces made out of trash, graffiti type works, and a number of things that I stared at, simply wondering what I was looking at. I’m still not sure I understand all of what I saw that day.

We all move through our lives with plenty of expectations. We all have different expectations when it comes to the Christmas Holiday season. We have expectations about what we want our decorations to look like, what we want to have for our special meals, what we expect to receive and how much and so on. We are really good at creating expectations out of what has happened in the past and what we wish would happen. Any time we walk into a room, we bring with ourselves expectations. Its interesting that expectation setting is a natural default. We anticipate something coming in the future and we imagine what is going to happen or how it will look or who will be involved. And yet, our expectations do not always line up with reality. A huge part of what it means to cope with our lives means letting go of expectations - usually around how other people are going to behave. We cannot control anyone else's behavior, no matter how hard we try. Any parent who has had a toddler knows this well. Toddlers look adorable but they can be hell in tottering new shoes. Letting go of expectations can be really hard. We get emotionally attached to our imagination of how things will go. Openness to the  new and unexpected is scary. Sometimes quite literally hard pounding, pulse racing, scary.

The Israelites had been waiting for a Messiah for hundreds of years. They had been waiting so long they were starting to forget what they were truly waiting for in a Messiah, at least by the way the New Testament writers describe the crowds. There were so many layers of expectations and so many different perspectives and hopes and dreams, that to fulfill everybody's wishes would be contradictory and quite impossible. Luckily, Jesus didn't set out to fulfill all the expectations of the people of Israel throughout the centuries. Jesus had a very different mission in Palestine in the first century.

We can see this tension in the gospel passage from Matthew this morning. John the Baptist, who has known that Jesus was the Messiah since before he was born, starts to question and have doubts about what is going on. There are expectations that are not being met, whether they were cultural expectations or personal expectations for John, he obviously has a moment in which he seeks clarity. But since John is in prison at this point in his life, he has to send his disciples in order to find out any answers. Jesus, almost naturally, doesn't give any clear straightforward answers. That is not how Jesus works.

John receives an unexpected message from Jesus through his disciples. I can imagine them going back to John, "John, we talked to Jesus. He didn't say yes or no. He said we had to report what we heard and saw. The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. Oh, and blessed are those who take no offense at him. That's what he said. What does that mean?" And John, scratching his head, "Hmmm... well..." and we don't know how he felt about this answer, we don't know whether his doubts and his questions were assuaged at that moment. We don't know whether or not that is what he was expecting the Messiah to do. Jesus and John were obviously on the same page about some things, but naturally as leaders and different men, they had some differences of opinion. Jesus sends John's disciples back to him with out a positive or negative answer. Again, against expectations. Jesus points to those things are the fruits of his labor. The actions that point to his real mission and his intention. The actions that show exactly who he is. Jesus never tries to force anyone into anything. He allows people to make their own decisions about himself. Jesus tells John's disciples to tell John what they see and hear. Jesus knows that whatever he says could be misconstrued. The Pharisees and the other religious leaders are looking for reasons to imprison him.

Jesus questions the crowds about their expectations as well. About John specifically, but also in a way about himself. Many of the people in the crowd that is with him at the time had gone to see John. What were all those normal regular people's expectations of what was going on? What were they looking for? We have to ask ourselves the same things. What are we looking for in our leaders, in our sages, in our heroes? If we are looking for rich celebrities in pricey garments, certainly the world has found them for us! If we are looking for those who seek and speak the truth, well, then, we need to look somewhere else! John was sent as a messenger, to speak the truth, to show the way, to prepare the people for what was to come next. John wasn't sent to do miracles, to overturn the political system, or to overthrow the religious authorities. And neither was Jesus.

Jesus’ way of answering John’s question is very important. For John to truly accept Jesus as the Messiah, John needs to make that decision on his own. He has to let go of his expectations of what the Messiah is going to do and allow the Messiah to work his wisdom in the world. In this way John is also a role model for us. We too are going to have to accept Jesus for who he is, without all of our expectations. If we are truly going to be able to welcome and accept Jesus, into our hearts, into our lives, into our world, this year and every year, we are going to have to let go of our expectations of what he is supposed to do.

Some of us are better at letting go of our expectations. As we age, we naturally have to start letting go of some of the things we used to be able to do all the time. Our expectations about what our bodies are able to do and handle change, sometimes through our own mental changes, and sometimes the harsh reality of what we are able to do changes our minds for us. There is great wisdom in listening and paying attention to what our bodies are telling us they can and cannot handle. There is great wisdom in learning how to let go of our expectations, especially around control, in our lives.

This week, as we move ever more closer to the birth of Jesus in our lives, look at your expectations of what Christmas will bring for you. God does not always come into our lives in expected ways. What do we expect of Jesus? How are we open to the coming of Jesus and his mission in our lives? Have you, like John, been putting expectations on the work of the Messiah? Examine your hearts and minds and let go of those expectations. Open up space for Jesus to come and work wonders beyond all expectations. God can do more than we could ever possibly imagine and for that we give great thanks. Amen.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven has come near!

Second Sunday of Advent
Year A

Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven has come near!

What a promise! What a call! What a loaded statement. Thank you, John the Baptist.

Last week in the sermon, I talked about Jesus’ reminder to keep awake. Keeping awake and paying attention to every moment of our lives can be a very hard thing to do. However, the riches to be gained from such a practice are plentiful. By keeping awake, by paying attention to the moments of our lives, we see things we may have never seen before. We see God at work in our lives in new ways, in places we never thought God would venture. We see connections we may have missed before, between other people and ourselves. We see how we imitate our parents, probably way too much, not only in their sayings and gestures, but in the way we handle our emotions. We notice how our own bodies react and respond to what is going on around us and how that affects our daily lives. Our bodies are great at taking overloaded stress from one area of our lives and trying to off load it in another.

When we start to notice all these things, we probably start to notice a bunch of things we are doing that we don’t necessarily want to be doing. We want to be open, to other people, to love, to the Holy Spirit, but instead, we notice how we find ways to shut others out or to close ourselves off from the Spirit. Like the passage in Romans in which Paul complains that he does what he does not want to do and cannot do that which he wants to do, sometimes keeping awake in watching our own lives simply leads us to realize we are not doing what we thought we were or want to be doing.

There is a system in this. We cannot be open to others or God in our lives without cleaning up all that clogs our systems. If you go to clean your shower, but can’t because there is standing water in it, you have to first address the clogged drain. It makes no sense to clean things out of order... then you just make other things dirty. If all your dish cloths are dirty, you can't get a clean dish. You have to start with the laundry, clean the dish cloth, then clean the dishes, then of course do more laundry... the process continues. In order to be open, we have to make sure our hearts and minds are open.

Cleaning up our hearts and minds is exactly what John the Baptist is calling us to today. Repentance is a process of cleaning up, cleaning out, making sure things are open and working. Repentance is the process of cleaning out our interpersonal, relationship, and spiritual systems. Nowadays, we typically use the word reconciliation to talk about repentance. The Catholics still have Confession, but in the Protestant churches, we talk about reconciliation. Have you ever felt that gut feeling of unease when you are in a guilt trip with yourself? Or the tension in a relationship where you know things are not right between you? Or that buildup of frustration in prayer that comes from feeling hurt, let down, or confused about what is going on? Yes? Those are all reasons we need repentance, reconciliation.

Repent, in the Hebrew, literally means to turn around. Repent and return are pretty much the same verb, at least in the Hebrew. We are not great anymore at focusing on one thing at a time. We learn early how to be multitaskers. Like a panoramic or fish eye photo, we want to see and do everything all at the same time. But paying attention requires focusing on one thing at a time. Taking time to focus on repentance leads to cleaner, happier, more fruitful relational and spiritual lives. Repentance is the contrition and act of confessing our sins. We follow through with our repentance in reconciliation when we reconnect with the people and things we have hurt. How can we be excited and prepared for God's coming if we are in tension with God? It's like preparing your house for the coming of an unwanted or disliked relative or guest. It's not joyful, it's frustrating, it's annoying! God's coming should not be like that!

Many times we want to forget the unpleasant things that have happened in the past. We want to move on, move forward, start over. But sometimes we have to return to what is behind us in order to move forward, especially if it is pulling us back or clogging our systems. What John is calling for isn't easy. In the Anglican tradition, this is the reason we say the general confession every week. Because we know that we are always messing up, always making mistakes, always trying to run from things we do not want to face. So every week we come here together, to worship, to pray, to praise God, and yes, to confess, to repent, to turn away from our sinful decisions and to return to walking the path of God. We may question, do we really need to do this? Lest, you forgot, we already promised we would. We have a baptismal vow about repentance. In our baptisms, we and those who spoke on our behalf were asked, "Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?" And they answered, "I will with God's help." It is not a vow we can accomplish on our own. We have to have the stirrings of God within in us to be able to resist and persevere and repent and return.

In the gospel passage, we see the Pharisees and Sadducees who come to John the Baptist being told off for trying to run away from their past. They feel that they can move forward without dealing with what they have done, but John calls them out on it. They try to justify themselves, but there is no justification. We cannot justify ourselves in our relationships with God. John tells them that they cannot think that God will look past everything that they have done unless they repent. He foretells of some culling to come. He talks about trees being cut down and wheat being processed. They are both metaphors and we are used to certain interpretations of them. But before we jump to the conclusion that some people are going to burn in unquenchable fire, and that this means someone else is going to burn in unquenchable fire, lets think about what chaff actually is. Chaff is a normal part of a wheat plant. Every wheat plant has chaff. Chaff is the part of the wheat stalk that protects the vulnerable inner important fruit. Chaff is a dry protective wall around the fruit of the plant. Like the rind on an orange or watermelon or the husk of an ear of corn. In this metaphor, chaff is effectively the protective walls around each and every one of us that keeps us closed up and away from God. Chaff is those walls we build up around ourselves that clog up our relationship systems. We all need to be processed, stripped of our chaff, pruned of the parts of us that do not bear good fruit, so that what is good inside of us can be seen. We all have chaff that needs to be burned with unquenchable fire so that we can be open and ready for God. Repentance is this process of tearing down, cleaning out, burning the part of us that stands in our way. We have to keep awake in this process, keep vigilance on how what we are saying and doing. Once we acknowledge, confess, repent, we can move forward being open and bearing good fruit. We are called into the future of what is coming. However, we cannot do so until we have opened ourselves to what may come. 

Advent reminds us of that process year after year, calling us to admit our failures of another year, calling us to repent and return to the Lord, calling us to walk into the wilderness of unknowing, waiting, through the difficult times of change. Advent the season of preparation, and part of preparation for something is always cleaning. John calls us to clean out our relationship and spiritual systems. Repent! He says. Prepare! He says. Get Ready! He says, because the completion, the promise of the gift of the Kingdom of Heaven, is near! Is here!

Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven has come near!