When my friends who are not church people ask me what my professional duties look like outside of Sunday mornings, I usually tell them that I am a "professional meeter." Rarely does a day go by without some sort of meeting. Thursday, my writing day, means that I try to limit myself to one meeting outside of my writing time. Really, I meet a lot.
I have never been a huge fan of meetings--especially unnecessary ones--but I am getting used to them. There's something important that happens in that face-to-face interaction. We plan, we discuss, we look to the future and evaluate the past. Really, there's something holy there: something relational, something incarnational, as our plans take shape.
In my first few months at North Decatur UMC, there have been a lot of these meetings. I have had time to sit down with almost everyone one-on-one. I've learned customs and traditions. We've talked through difficult decisions and hewed a new path. Meetings are a chance to practice our relationships with one another and prepare for the day on which we will meet God face to face (while remembering that each time we meet another human, we are meeting a child of God). These first months have been filled with these meetings, these encounters, this grace.
Now, we're moving into a new season of meeting at the church as we move forward into our life together. And this week, especially, is filled with possibility. Meetings with:
the seminary to discuss a shared project
the local cooperative ministry to talk about how we can work together
the Presbyterian pastor down the street, to talk about how to partner more effectively
a parishioner to hear how life is going, and to dream about the future of the church
a number of United Methodist pastors in the area, to talk about how we can better serve the children of Atlanta
the leader of a denomination-wide advocacy group to talk about the work of justice
the church council, to plan for the year and make decisions about the path forward
There are more, but those seem to be enough holy moments for now. I am reminded of Buechner: "in the final analysis, all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace."
Monday, January 27, 2014
12Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 15“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 16the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” 17From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
18As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
23Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
(This is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.)
There is a book I love by the southern author Daniel Wallace called Big Fish. Tim Burton made it into a really good movie in 2003 and I must confess that it is the only movie I have ever seen that can make me cry. I mean, it just happens every time. I am not a terribly emotional person, but this movie and this book make me cry, because they tell the story of a son and his estranged father, who even on his deathbed keeps telling outlandish stories that could not possibly be true: fantastic stories about his life with the most unbelievable, colorful cast of characters you could possibly imagine.
Do you know anybody like that, somebody who just seems to breathe story? You know, the reason I so love that book and that movie is that I know a whole lot of people like that. They’re almost all fisherman, which tells you something, I think, and I hope I am not giving away too much about the end of Big Fish the movie, but the last thing that happens is that the son tells the father a story just as he is dying, and the story is that the son carries the father down to the river, where he turns into a big fish and swims away. And it sounds weird, but it works, because it is the case that we always, always turn into the stories we tell. We turn into the stories we tell, so we ought to tell good ones.
I bring this up because the business of fishing for people has been abused I think, and it is easy to see how. All you need to do is to read this story without placing it in the proper context of the loving way that Jesus treats others, and it is easy to imagine that Jesus is saying that we ought to hook people, to lure them in with the promise of something shiny and good, like bait, and hook them, reel them in and throw them in the cooler with a little water so they don’t start to stink.
We’ve abused what it means to fish for people, and so I especially appreciated this week when I got an email from Anna Cole, who is a student at the Candler School of Theology who will be interning with us starting in the fall. She sent me a poem about this particular scripture from the pastor and poet Steve Garnaas-Holmes, and one stanza of the poem goes like this:
I'll be your fly, dancing on the water of this day,
willing to be flung and returned,
letting all of life be catch and release,
knowing that whether or not we catch anything,
you have had delight on this fine afternoon.
willing to be flung and returned,
letting all of life be catch and release,
knowing that whether or not we catch anything,
you have had delight on this fine afternoon.
This is what it means to fish for people. Not to pierce their cheeks or trick them into something, as if people really were that gullible. Fishing for people, just like fishing for fish, is about stories, about delight, about sharing life.
When Peter and Andrew left their net, when James and John got out of the boat, they did not go to take what they were doing to the fish and translate it exactly to people. That’s manipulative. It doesn’t do justice to the image of God that we believe is in all people. What they went to do is to share their stories, to gather people together and share the things they had seen and the life transformation they had experienced.
When you throw stories at people without being willing to listen to what they are bringing, well, that’s an obvious hook. It is sharp, and people, being smarter than fish, will stay far away. But if you are willing to open yourself up to hearing the voice of another, the story of somebody else, that’s not a hook at all. That’s a net, and it’s stronger than one line, anyway, because all of our lines are bound up in it.
So share your story. Accept somebody else’s. Use a net, not a hook, and you’ll find yourself more fulfilled, and you’ll cast a wider . . . net. You may just find yourself surrounded by all sorts of interesting folks.
Now, in order to fish, you’ve got to have bait, and so if you plan to be successful, you’ve got to have a story. If I asked you how God has impacted your life, what would you tell me? And—here’s the kicker—would you tell me just because I am the preacher? What is it about our social norms that keep us from being real with one another, that keep us from talking about things that actually matter? I had a professor in seminary who used to say that we have no problem recommending our favorite coffee shop to anybody we pass on the street, but my goodness, we sure do have a problem talking about our faith!
In Big Fish, the book and the movie, the first outlandish story that the father tells his son is of the day of his son’s birth. It turns out, the father says, that he missed his son’s birth because he was being dragged about by a big fish he’d caught by putting his wedding ring on the end of the fishing line. That’s an image I love, because factual or not, it is true, for the kind of story that the ring symbolizes is the thing that draws people in, not in a manipulative way, but in a way that helps me understand just what the church is supposed to be: a place where we gather, and share in one another’s stories, and in the story of God. We fish for people by tying our stories to the end of a string.
You’ve got to have a story, or there’s nothing on the end of your line. I want to take just a few seconds and let you think for a minute. I just want you to think about the ways God has impacted your life: how your faith has made you who you are.
All right. How was that? Was it hard? It can be hard to remember those moments sometimes, but let me say something just a little blunt. I hope that’s ok. If you had trouble thinking about the story of how God has impacted your life, that’s all right, but it means you have work to do.
I mean, I know that you are here for a reason. Maybe you’ve been coming here for so long you’ve forgotten, but there is a reason. Take some time this week to remember just what it is about your life with God that keeps you coming back. If you need a conversation partner, give me a call. There’s nothing I love more than hearing stories about how God has changed your life, for if you are going to fish for people—if you are going to share the good news of Jesus Christ, if you are going to follow Jesus—you have to have a story. I know you have one. You wouldn’t waste your time and money on something that doesn’t pierce your soul. But what is it? What is it?
Let me add something here, if I may, from my perspective as a member of my generation. I hope you spend a lot of time inviting people to church. I hope you tell everybody you know that they should spend Sunday mornings at North Decatur United Methodist Church. But inviting them to church, or telling them they will hear a good sermon, or letting them know we have pretty stained glass isn’t going to do it. I can hear a good sermon on the internet—better than you’ll hear from me in this place, I guarantee. I can see pretty stained glass all over the city of Atlanta.
I hope you invite people to church, but that’s not enough. You’ve got to invite people into a relationship with God, and the way you do that is by letting them know how God has touched YOUR life, how the Holy Spirit has filled THIS place and changed your life for the better, changed the community for the better. And if you don’t have a story that comes to mind right away, think harder, and then get to work! For we become our stories. We might as well tell good ones.
All right, I am almost done, but let me say one more thing. If you are going to fish for people, you have to get out of the boat. It is important to note that when Peter and Andrew and James and John hear the call to fish for people, they didn’t stay put. They left what they knew and who they loved and they got moving. Peter and Andrew left their nets, which was bad enough, but I’m even more impressed with James and John, who didn’t just leave their nets, but they got out of the boat and left their father behind! They knew, of course, that if you are going to fish for people, you have to get out of the boat. The fish aren’t just going to jump in on their own, after all.
And you know what the boat is, right? It’s the church. It is this place, during this hour. Sharing your story is not about putting something pithy on the church sign and waiting for people to wander in. Sharing your story is about finding people in your life—and we all have them—who need to hear a word of hope, who need the good news and the healthy theology God has given us. Fishing for people is much, much bigger than inviting people to church, although I hope that’s part of it, because we’ve got something pretty great going here. But being the church is not only about Sunday morning; I would argue that it is not primarily about Sunday morning. Being the church and fishing for people is about what happens when you leave this place and go out into the water, into the world.
So, I guess I would just say this. When the time comes, and you leave campus, you’re not leaving church. You’re stepping out into the adventure of faith, a fantastic fishing expedition, a chance to share with others the incredible promise of a God who loves us no matter what. That’s the kind of story I could spend my whole life telling. Godspeed. And amen.
Tuesday, January 21, 2014
Note: this sermon involved a good bit of congregational singing. I have put in YouTube videos in the appropriate places, but to get the real flavor of the sermon, you can listen to it at http://ndumc.org/media.php?pageID=22.)
John 1:29-37 (NRSV)
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ 31I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” 35The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” 37The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.
(This is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.)
I’d like to build my remarks today around the theme of “Freedom: Not just a promise, but a prayer.” Not just a promise, but a prayer. For it is important to remember that the struggle for civil rights was a profoundly Christian one, IS a profoundly Christian one, and we can trace its origins back even before the time of Christ. This is a little bit of a musical sermon, so let’s start here--finish this line for me: “When Israel was in Egypt’s land, let my people go. Oppressed so hard they could not stand, let my people go.”
The struggle for freedom is a deeply Biblical one, for it has always, always been the case that the world is full of things that weigh us down, that keep us from reaching our full potential as children of God, that keep us from being in relationship with one another. In the church, we call those burdens “sin,” for they keep us from fully loving one another and fully loving God.
John the Baptist sat by the side of the road and saw Jesus coming, and declared, “Here, here, is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” John was saying, “I am not the guy. This is the guy who will teach us how to love.” And two thousand years later, Martin Luther King came along, like John the Baptist a voice in the wilderness, saying essentially the same thing: I am not the guy. Jesus is the guy. And you can struggle all you want, but the struggle for freedom is properly attached to Jesus, who came to take away the things that keep us from properly loving God and one another. For the struggle is hard, and unless you attach yourself to that which is life-giving, you are going to find yourself spent.
I think it is important to remember that this weekend, we are celebrating the Reverend Martin Luther King Junior. It is noteworthy that the civil rights movement was led by a Christian minister. After all, freedom is not just a promise, but a prayer. King knew—and John the Baptist knew—that Jesus came to take away the sin of the world, that anyone connected to Jesus would find himself or herself refreshed, more ready to love, more ready to serve. This is the kind of love that binds people together. It is the kind of faithfulness that keeps us connected to God. And it is the kind of grounding that keeps us firmly planted in the soil of righteousness.
Martin Luther King spent his life, like John the Baptist, pointing to Jesus, reminding others that following Jesus required action, required grit. And so, considering that legacy, it has always been interesting to me that Martin Luther King’s favorite hymn was “Precious Lord.” I suppose that I would have thought that he would have favored a protest song with some teeth, with some energy behind it, something that would drive the troops forward, but regardless, Precious Lord was his favorite hymn. In fact, on the night he was killed, his last words were to request this hymn be played at an event that was to be held that evening. It is likewise the case that when he died, it was his request that this song be sung by Mahalia Jackson at his funeral, and so it was.
And I will tell you, the more I have thought about this, the more reflected upon this beautiful hymn, the more I realize that in many respects, it is a protest hymn. It is a song that talks about the troubles of life, which all of us face from time to time, but the most counter-cultural words are found in its last verse, reminds us that God holds our hand and leads us on even after we die. Not even death can stop the work of God, of which we are a part.
I’m sure that in the emotion of Dr. King’s funeral, it felt like more than the death of one man. And, yet, as Mahalia Jackson stood to sing, she did not stop with death. She did not sing, “when the day is past and gone, isn’t it nice to be remembered.” She sang, “when the day is past and gone, even then guide my feet. Hold my hand.” That’s a protest against the culture of death, of oppression, for the promise of God is that the worst thing is not the last thing. I may be tired, I may be weak and work, I may even die, but the worst thing is never the last.
Yes, the worst thing is never the last, but this isn’t just about death and Heaven, as if the whole purpose of living is to get to death so we can go be with Jesus or whatever. Heaven is important, but the defeat of death and the lamb of God taking away the sin of the world are not just about the afterlife. I don’t know about you, but I have to believe that God expects more of me than just biding my time until I die. I have to believe that God doesn’t just want me to die and go to Heaven, but to be a partner with God in the work of bringing a little bit of Heaven to earth. Your eternal life doesn’t begin when you die; it’s already begun. It starts when you accept God’s call on your life. And so your responsibility begins there, too, for the Resurrection is not just about what’s ahead, but it’s about what is here, now!
The great anthem “We Shall Overcome” wasn’t always called We Shall Overcome. Some early leaders of the movement took an old hymn that said, “I’ll Overcome someday,” which was about, you know, just waiting to die so you can go to Heaven, and changed it to “We Shall Overcome,” which is about bringing a little Heaven on earth, about recognizing that we have responsibility to work for freedom now, that we have hope now.
It became the anthem of the movement, and its words ring true now, for we’re not in the promised land yet. We haven’t fully trusted that Jesus came to take away the sins of the world, or, at least, let me speak for myself here, I haven’t let him remove all the barriers that keep me from fully loving God and fully God’s children.
In his last sermon, in Memphis, Dr. King quoted this great hymn, and then he ended this way:
“With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. This will be a great day. This will be a marvelous hour. And at that moment—figuratively speaking in biblical words—the morning stars will sing together and the sons of God will shout for joy.”
So where does this leave us? I will be honest, when I look at the state of things, I am sometimes prone to despair. We sing about overcoming, and it is nice, but we’re not there yet. After all, some of the hardest working people I’ve ever met still struggle for food. Some of the most faithful people in the world are marginalized simply because of their religion or ethnic status. Some of the most loving people I’ve ever known don’t have their relationships recognized by their own families, let alone the government--or the church. In 2014--2014!--I still somehow find myself on the receiving end of racist jokes about the President of the United States. And, of course, it remains the case that 11 o clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week. Knowing it is so is one thing. Recognizing the ways in which my own behavior must change is something else entirely.
Maybe this doesn’t seem like such a big deal. I get that. Look, I’m a young, straight white guy. It is easy for me to look at the world and say, eh, things are not so bad! Things aren’t perfect, but I get along ok. But as I have been in relationship with people who find themselves with their backs against the wall, I realized how easy it is for me to assume that freedom is ubiquitous because I experience it, when it is often the case when that is not so. And when my brother is not free, I am not free, because I am not fully myself unless I am in relationship. This is what it means to be Christian. Christ took away the sins of the world so we could love each other, not so that we could ignore the problems of the world.
Forgiving sins is not about giving you a free pass; it is about relieving the burden that so weighs you down that even dreaming of a just world seems like folly. It’s about relieving the kind of burden that keeps us so weighed down that we stay cynical, so weighs us that talk about this kind of world seems like some liberal fantasy, as if any sermon addressing this stuff is some kind of communist manifesto. But you know what? This stuff isn't conservative or liberal. It's not capitalist or communist. What it is, is "Christian." For this is what Jesus calls us to; it is why the lamb of God came to remove the sin of the world. Taking away sins is not simply a promise, but a prayer, for the removal of sin means the removal of barriers, and that means we’ve got work to do. Freedom isn’t just a promise, but a prayer, for it is always, always being challenged by those who profit from others’ pain. Loving others isn’t just a promise, but a prayer, for if the church excludes others simply because of the gender of those they love, well, the church knows no love at all. Studying war no more isn’t just a promise, but a prayer, for if we will just lay down our burdens and do the work of love, the business of following Jesus, the business of living together as the family of God is not a fantasy, but rather a great dream, and that’s something else entirely. And thanks be to God.
Sunday, January 12, 2014
13Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
The story of the world begins this way in the book of Genesis: In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light;” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
And God said, Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters. So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.
From the very beginning of the Bible, from the very start of the story of creation, there was water. Before there was light, before there was land, there was water, all together, collected as in a footprint in the mud, filling everything. And as the earth was formed and the land drifted, as pangea separated to form continents and as civilizations have risen and fallen, it has always been the case that though it has separated the continents one from another, the water that was present at creation is the same water that fills our oceans now. That same water makes up a significant portion of our bodies. It connects us, mystically and viscerally, to one another, for you can’t go anywhere, anywhere without water.
It is in this water that Jesus was baptized, as a wind from God swept over the face of the waters, and the savior emerged from the same river each of us emerges from in baptism, only to find that the dome that separated the waters had been broken to bits, and the spirit of God appeared, descending like a dove, and a voice from Heaven said, “This is my beloved.”
It is appropriate, I think that Jesus begins his ministry with a baptism, for it marks a beginning. It is an initiation into the Christian life, it is an acknowledgement that the love of God is present in each of us.
It is likewise appropriate that we begin our year of following Jesus at North Decatur United Methodist Church by remembering that we are baptized, by recalling that we are each called to ministry, whether we have the robe and stole or whether we’re a baby freshly baptized, for as the writer Frederick Buechner says, “When it comes to the forgiving and transforming love of God, one wonders if the six-week-old screecher knows all that much less than the archbishop of Canterbury about what's going on.”
It is appropriate to begin this way, but it is also appropriate to acknowledge that it is a strange thing we do when we initiate someone into the family of God. Whether it is a baby, or a child, or a full-grown adult, we sprinkle some water on their heads, or dunk them under--as our Baptist brothers and sisters say, the wetter the better. It is an unusual initiation ritual. When you join the Christian faith, you don’t sign a piece of paper, or get your hand stamped or anything. We pour water on you, which eventually dries off, and you go back to looking like everybody else, such that I could line up five people right here in the front--one Christian and four other folks--and if they stood still, you’d have no idea which one was which.
It takes movement, action, to tell who is a Christian, at least it should. I should be able to look at you, look at your life, the way you talk, the ways you serve the poor, the ways you spend your money, and say, yes, that person has been baptized. The water has dried off, but not really. Not really.
The problem is not that the water dries off. The problem is that we understand baptism as being the action which washes us of our sin, which doesn’t seem to make sense in light of today’s scripture lesson.
Picture this scene. John, who is Jesus’s cousin, is in the wilderness baptizing people, and Jesus, the son of God, light from light and all of that, shows up and asks to be baptized.
Now, if baptism is about forgiveness of sin, well, that just doesn’t work, now does it? Why would Jesus, who is God, need forgiveness of sin?
It is the same with babies. We baptize babies in the United Methodist Church. You don’t have to be a baby, but when my own child was baptized, she was three months old, and her only sins were excessive cuteness and not sleeping through the night.
Baptism, as we understand it in our tradition, is about something something deeper than just forgiving us of our sins., It is more about God than it is about me. It is about being a member of the family. It is about being claimed as a beloved child of God. If you have not yet been baptized, I hope you’ll find time to come talk to me about it. We don’t believe that being baptized makes you any better than anybody else, but we do believe it is the entrance into the Christian life. We do believe God acts through baptism.
And--this is important--in our tradition, a person is only baptized once. There are not many things that I can lose my credentials over, but performing a re-baptism is one of them, because we believe that since baptism is less about me than it is about God, that the notion that God’s grace didn’t take--that God’s claiming wasn’t good enough the first time--well, it doesn’t jive with how we understand God to be wholly loving, wholly good, powerful enough to claim each of us as children.
Only, for whatever reason, I keep screwing up. Even though my own baptism was strong enough, it does not keep me from finding my hands resting idly while my neighbor suffers, or my thoughts drifting into neighborhoods in which they ought not go, or my mouth plugged over and over with my own foot.
It happened again this week. I had more than one conversation in which I realized at the end of the conversation that I’d said something stupid in the interest of sounding much cooler than I really am. I have this disease, you understand, which has symptoms that present as me wanting people to like me--I don’t know if you’ve ever known somebody like that--but it is the case that I sometimes find myself wanting to be cooler than I actually am and I say things that later make me scratch my head and wonder just why it is I can’t seem to just be happy with who I am. I tell you, it is a good thing that we only baptize people once. I mess up so much that if I had to go through baptism each time my disease of inadequacy flared up, I’d never get out of the tub.
Of course I’m not the only one with that particular disease. Everybody has it. It’s called being human, and nobody, but nobody, is immune from wanting to be loved.
It is that search for love that makes people do crazy things. If I asked you what you have done for love, I would probably get a number stories, some of which I could share in polite company. And history is just peppered with this stuff. There was King Edward the Eighth who abdicated the British throne to marry Wallis Simpson. There was the Russian man I read about this week who staged his own death in a car accident in order to prove to his girlfriend that she really did love him, and when she was relieved to see him alive, he had the nerve to propose to her! I understand that she actually said yes! And I think of my own grandfather who received payments from the Army for the rest of his life after World War Two because of an injury to his hand, and who, he told me before he died, was actually getting paid because of a fistfight he got into with a German over a woman.
We do crazy things for love, and of course we do, because there is no greater sound than someone saying of you, “this is my beloved.” I’ve known people who have spent their whole lives craving those words, who have bounced from partner to partner, place to place looking only for a way to emerge from the river and have someone say, “This. This is my beloved.”
That kind of belovedness, that kind of love, that’s the kind of thing you’d go to the ends of the earth to find. And, oh, such silliness happens in this search for love. To find it, some people turn to sex, as if that will somehow fill us beyond a flashing moment. Others turn to money, as if belovedness can be bought, as if the price is anything less than everything you have. Others turn to power, as if they can force people to love them, and maybe it seems that way for a season, but it’s not love if it’s forced.
We long to be loved, and so we gather at the church, so that we may hear, together, of our belovedness: so that we may all emerge from the same river and hear the same God say the same thing: This is my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.
It can be easy to forget, in the midst of church nonsense and life and the business that fills our days. But it remains the case that even in the midst of all of this, even when it feels like we’ve done something so dumb or so wrong that not even God could redeem it, God still comes to us, still claims us, still calls us beloved and reminds us that God is counting on us to partner with the work of God in the world.
If you have not been baptized, I would invite you to come talk to me. I’d love to walk with you through this giving of grace. And whether you can actually remember your baptism, or whether it was so early in your life that even the pictures look foreign, I hope you will join me in remembering that you are baptized, remembering that you have been claimed by God, that nothing you could ever do could change the love God has for you.
Before you leave today, I would invite you to stop by the baptismal font--it is in the back of the church by the back doors--dip your hand in the water and remember that God has ordained you for service, that God has chosen you to love. In the font, in addition to the water, is some sea glass, tumbled by the waves--just like you and me--and smoothed out under the stress of the current. Take a piece of that sea glass with you as you dip your hands in that water, set it in a prominent place, somewhere where you will look at it, especially in those moments in which you feel hard to love, and be reminded that you are a child of God, loved and respected, and that God is counting on you.
And as we close, I would invite you to look at your bulletin and see the responsive reading printed there, and join me in affirming that though some days we don’t feel like it, God loves us beyond measure. Let us read together:
You are God's child, deserving of love and respect, and God will use you to change the world.
I am God's child, deserving of love and respect, and God will use me to change the world.
How wonderful to be loved. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Monday, January 6, 2014
(Click here to listen to this sermon)
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” 7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Whatever they were, and we aren’t exactly sure, the wise men who came bearing gifts sure have sparked our imaginations. We sing of the three kings, have even given them names: Caspar, Balthazar, Melchior, and yet we do not know how many of them there were—the Bible does not say—and we certainly don’t know their names. We don’t know if they were kings; and we’re pretty sure they showed up once Jesus was a kid in his house, rather than a baby in a manger.
For all we don’t know—and it is a considerable sum--the biggest mystery of the magi is this: why? Why would they drop everything to follow a star? Why would they leave the comforts of home for such a journey? Whatever they were, they had money; one does not have gold, frankincense, and myrrh lying around the house unless one has means. And like most of us, I’m sure they felt like they deserved what they had. They’d earned it.
And yet, they dropped it all. Left it behind, followed the star straight to the savior, and then went home by another road.
For all we don’t know, the biggest mystery is why—why go at all, and once you have gone, what is next? For it is the case that once you have seen the savior, you cannot unsee him. Once you have experienced God, there are only two options: either pretend it didn’t happen and go about your business, or no longer be at ease in the old dispensation, go home by another road and discover that what you left just doesn’t compare to what you’ve found. This is what happens when you see something so amazing, when you are transported beyond yourself.
And yet even if you go the route of pretending, even if you stuff the memory of such a gift down as far as it will go—I believe the technical term is “becoming an adult”--it will peek out from time to time, saying hello when the old ways just don’t seem to work anymore, or when you find yourself suddenly doused in wonder.
I was sixteen when it happened to me, first with my driver’s license, and that’s wonder enough, the freedom to move about, the gift of open road. But it was not the freedom itself, so much as the freedom to look, and so I set out late one night with my friend, David, to find it, to find wonder.
We lived in the suburbs, and at night, the artificial light of the streetlamps seemed to fill every nook and crack in the pavement with the same electric beige, crowding out any dark corner wonder might scurry into. The sky was not much better, and you could make out the North Star, of course, and the Big Dipper if you squinted and tossed up a little imagination, but the streetlights crowded the sky, as well, and so David and I quickly realized that if we were going to find it, if we were going to find wonder, we were going to need to leave the ‘burbs, get on the interstate and find a patch of land where the only artificial light would be our flashlights, and so we did, we hopped in his Buick and left the house, looking for wonder.
We drove, talking for a spell and then sitting in silence, until David pulled over and said, “this is it.” I couldn’t tell you where, I hadn’t been paying attention, but it didn’t matter, because it turned out that our flashlights scared away any wonder that might have been living there, in the holes in the ground, under a log, inside it. It was late, and the night mist turned our flashlight beams into pillars of light, and when we finally turned them off, we realized that we didn’t need them at all, for the stars were light enough, so bright that you could save your imagination for tasting the sweetwater in the big dipper or wondering just what it was Orion the hunter was trying to shoot with his bow, and how tired his arm must be after all these millennia of holding the string.
And it was almost enough. It was almost enough, that light, the still, expansive light, but for the fact that we were still near enough to the road that an occasional car would drive by and pull us back into the present in the way only a catalytic converter can do.
So David and I looked at each other, took one last look at the sky, and without a word or much thought walked away from the road, toward a hill not so far in the distance. You know, you don’t think about the practical aspects of such an adventure at sixteen, which is good, because the search for wonder is not about the practical aspects anyhow. There’s nothing practical about the search for wonder, any more than the idea that somehow following Jesus is about anything other than following for the sake of following, as wise men would follow a star. There’s nothing practical about it; this business of following Jesus won’t make you rich, ought not make you famous, and while the side effects of love, and compassion, and service, and justice are good things, they are not worth chasing for their own sake, for as the poet TS Eliot writes in “The Journey of the Magi,” the birth you find is just as much a death. He ends the poem this way:
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
The birth you find is just as much a death to the idea that the old dispensation will do, for once you have experienced God and the incredible gift of a new way to live, nothing else will suffice, and so if you are hoping for a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, a giant check to reward you for your hard work, you’re going to be disappointed.
The journey of following God is less about practicality and more about the wonder of discovery, and for as much energy as we’ve put into trying to meld Christianity and financial success, Christianity and happiness, I must warn you that Jesus never promised these things. Neither did he promise misery, but that’s the point—the promise is not about you, anyhow. It is a promise about God: about love and wonder. About a new way.
It is a good thing the journey is not practical, because David and I took nothing but our flashlights and a cooler, just in case we found something, and we started up the hill, hoping to discover something in the silence we had not found by the road. And we climbed, on a slow grade at first, picking up in fits and starts, which incidentally is how life seems to work, and it was not long before we were holding onto branches, pulling one another up steep cliffs and leaping, fifteen, twenty feet sometimes it seemed, slipping occasionally but continuing to climb, until, just before dawn, we made it to the top.
You can’t hear anything but the sound of your own breath in that stillness, can’t see anything but the stars, and it is enough to distract you from the crick in your neck from staring straight up. There is nothing to do in that moment but to be, to be in the presence, and really, that is enough.
It was not long before daybreak was splitting the sky, beginning to drown starlight, and I knew that if I were going to do it, this was my last chance, so I stood on my toes and reached up to grab a souvenir of our trip, a star to put in the cooler we’d brought with us, as if I could keep wonder locked up, and look at it when it was convenient for me, like was a relic.
I stopped just before I grabbed it. I don’t know if that kind of thing burns, after all, and if I’d taken it, that would be one less star for others to follow, one less journey of wonder for those who are yet to come. So I left it there, just hanging above our heads, and we turned to go home, noting with a smile that the journey had been worth it, even if we left the souvenir behind for somebody else to find.
That’s when I heard it. I can’t tell you how I heard it, and I can’t promise you that my memory of that morning has not been superimposed with something beyond that day, but then, God is not bound by time or memory, anyhow. In the still morning air, as the sun spilled into the sky, pooling around the stars and drowning their light, it was as if I heard them speak. It was as if they were whispering just to the two of us words that one finds only in a journey of this kind: I am no longer my own, but thine. Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt. I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal. Thou art mine, and I am thine. May the covenant which I have made on earth be ratified in Heaven. Amen.