Sunday, December 30, 2018

First Sunday of Christmas (Year C) - Dec. 30, 2018

First Sunday of Christmas
Year C
December 30, 2018
Luke 2:42-52

This morning’s Gospel reading is the only story we get of Jesus between the infancy narratives (only found in Matthew and Luke) and the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus, at least for a boy of his time, is at the cusp of adulthood. In Jesus’ world, age twelve or thirteen marked the end of childhood and the beginning of the transition to adulthood. It marks the shift from the home - a primarily feminine space - to the public world - dominated by men, as a boy of Jesus’ age, for instance, would begin to take up the business or trade of his father. 

As I read today’s Gospel lesson, it struck me that Jesus’ transition from childhood to adulthood is about as complicated as it is for us. We mark that transition a bit later - with graduation from High School and turning 18. Our high school and (for some) our college years then become this time to learn how to “adult” by starting to take up adult responsibilities for ourselves, before we finally get all adult responsibilities for ourselves (which, as I’m still learning, at times, isn’t all it has cracked up to be). These years are a time of transition, where we’re no longer fully children nor fully adults. We begin taking on adult responsibilities. We begin working. We begin dating. We begin to push our boundaries with our parents. We experiment. We do things just because we think we’re old enough to do it (whether or not our parents agree that we’re old enough). When I turned eighteen, I stayed out until midnight just because I finally could legally drive past 11pm - I think I got home at 12:05am (yeah, I was just *that* rebellious). My friends did more of that pushing of boundaries than I did. It is a difficult transition for both children and parents as we have to relearn our relationships as parents and with children and adult children with parents. And, as I think about it, sometimes we continue to relearn it. I’m 26, and I’m still learning how to navigate that adult child/ parent relationship. And my folks are still learning how to navigate that as well. 

It strikes me that it must have been just as hard (if not harder) for Mary and Jesus to navigate this as it is for us. Jesus pushes his boundaries by staying back in Jerusalem, without telling his parents. Perhaps he thought that he was old enough to be there and to travel on his own. Or perhaps, like many a preeteen, he just wasn’t thinking fully through the consequences of his actions. Mary and Joseph go on toward home, travelling for about a day before realizing that Jesus was not part of the group, and turned back. (Before we get too hard on Mary and Joseph for not noticing, when travelling as a group, it wouldn’t be uncommon to not see children for a whole day) They searched for days. I’m not a parent; I can only imagine the panic they were experiencing. Where did he get separated from the group? Was he kidnapped? Was he wondering around, lost, hungry and confused? Was Jesus scared? Or did something worse happen?

When I was seventeen, I went to the Lutheran Youth Gathering in New Orleans. I went with a friend’s church, not having a youth group to go with at my own church. Every day, we went to the Superdome for worship. We gathered with 37,000 of our closest friends. Usually, on the way out, the speakers were outside and we could briefly meet with them. In the chaos of leaving, one day, I got separated from my group. I turned around and realized that I didn’t recognize a single person around me (I barely even knew the group that I was travelling with, and suddenly I knew noone). No one had noticed. At the time, I had a cell phone, so I stayed where I was, trying to remain calm, and, I began calling the youth group leaders. They didn’t hear their phones ring. Eventually, what seemed like an eternity later, I got a hold of one of the leaders - they had made it all the way back to the hotel before anyone had noticed that I wasn’t there. I’m thankful that I had my cell phone, and all was fine. Yet the panic was real. I was in a city I didn’t know. Surrounded by people I didn’t know. 

While roles were reversed, I imagine that Mary and Joseph were having a similar fear, except far worse, with the panic increasing every day that they were separated. Their son was in a large city that he was likely unfamiliar with. Surrounded by the thousands of other pilgrims that had ascended to Jerusalem for that year’s Passover celebration. Finding one person in the mass of people and in the streets of Jerusalem, especially during the festival of Passover, would be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Eventually, Mary and Joseph went to the Temple. I wonder what brought them to the Temple. Did they really expect to find Jesus there - was it one of the expected places to check off the list of places to look? Or did they go there to connect with God in their grief and fear, and happened to stumble upon him there? While the text doesn’t give us the answer, I suspect it was the latter, as they were astonished when they saw him. Even as a preteen, Jesus was showing up in the places where we might least expect. And I have a feeling that Mary’s tone as she spoke to Jesus wasn’t cool, calm, and collected. But rather her voice was an a tone that mixed anger, grief, anxiety, and relief at seeing Jesus, sitting in the temple, in one piece. 

Unlike in typical art depicting this scene, Jesus is not teaching the teachers, but listening and asking questions. In other words, he doesn’t take a place above the teachers present in the temple, but engages them in seemingly mutual conversation, learning from them as much as they learn from him. And he seemed to learn from this experience as well, as the text states that, from here on, Jesus was obedient to his parents. 

Today, Jesus’ parents see him beginning to become the adult that he will be. Beyond, the anxiety that this particular incident caused them, I think Mary and Joseph begin to see what it means to have a Son who will be the Savior of all people. It certainly won’t be an easy journey - it leads to the cross. It is a journey that will be filled with anxiety and uncertainty of what will happen with their beloved son. I can only imagine how they had to relearn their relationships and their boundaries as Jesus grew in wisdom and in years. I can only imagine how difficult it was to navigate their lives and relationships as Jesus began his ministry, began to hang out with the “wrong” people, and eventually marched to Jerusalem and to his death (and resurrection).

As I think about the Christmas season, I wonder, why this story? Why this today - on the first Sunday of Christmas? Beyond that it is the only story that we get between Jesus’ nativity and Jesus’ adulthood. Then I think about what we celebrate at Christmas - Jesus’ incarnation. This is a wonderful story of God’s incarnation in Jesus. While Jesus is wise beyond his years as he engages in dialogue in the Temple, we also see that he’s living life not so far removed from our own preteen years - or the preteen years of our kids. So often, when we think about Jesus, we think primarily about Jesus’ divinity - how Jesus is God. Christmas is a time for us to celebrate that not only Jesus is God, but also God is human in Jesus. And God becomes incarnate and lives among us.

Today, we encounter Jesus in the messiness of his preteen years. We encounter the messiness of his transition from his family life (and seemingly boring or typical childhood - nothing is written about it in the canonical Gospels) to the adult that brings Salvation to all - especially to the lost, the least, and the lonely - and willingly marches to the cross. We encounter the messiness of his relationships with his parents - with the treasures and the anxiety that came with it. We encounter a Jesus who is willing to learn and to ask questions. In Jesus, God doesn’t shy away from being human, but becomes really and truly human. In becoming a child, in becoming an awkward preteen, Jesus enters into our messiness - the messiness of our relationships, the messiness of all our transitions (including but not limited to our transition from childhood to adulthood), and the messiness of following Christ as we do God’s work of salvation with our own hands. And we encounter a Jesus who encourages us to learn and to ask questions of each other, of our faith, of our God. Because Jesus lived that messiness, we are free to live into the messiness of what it means to be human and to live truly and deeply into our humanity - so that we may also live in solidarity with our fellow humanity in the messiness of their lives. 


Monday, December 24, 2018

Christmas Eve (Year C) - Dec. 24, 2018

Christmas Eve
Year C
December 24, 2018
Luke 1:1-14

Merry Christmas!! Christmas has always been one of my favorite times of year. My family, inparticular, my Mom and my Pap, used to go all-out with the decorating. We still have Pap’s beautiful hand-made and huge nativity set, which he made for us a number of years before he died. Every year, we would go to Rocky Ridge, a York County Park, for their “Christmas Magic” festival; we’d walk around the park to see the magnificent light displays and to meet Santa Clause. Gram and Pap would arrive so early on Christmas morning, so that they would be there before my brother and I even woke up; they found so much joy in seeing their grandkids opening their gifts. Beyond the traditions and time spent with family and friends, we always went to Christmas Eve services - both of them. The early service because it was the service in which the Kids choir sang - and I typically was in the Kids choir. And the late service (at 10:30pm) became part of our tradition - I think because at one point Dad played the trombone in the brass quintet - but that late service became one of my favorite services of the year - next to Easter Sunrise.

It is a joy to celebrate the birth of Christ with you on this beautiful night - to be part of the traditions here - and to create new ones. It is wonderful to see families and friends gathered. To see visitors who come to hear the story of Christ - again - or maybe for the first time. I love singing the familiar carols and hearing yet again the stories of Christmas. I’ll admit, it is a bit different (in a good way) celebrating on this side of the pulpit for the first time. But I am thankful to be here with you this evening as we commemorate the birth of our Savior. Tonight is a moment to stop, in the busy-ness of the season (and in all of the social expectations and distractions that come with the season), we stop, to gather together, to sing, and to reflect on what Christ’s birth really means for us, for our communities, and for and the world.

Something hit me as I was working on my sermon for yesterday. We were talking about the Magnificat - Mary’s song of praise in which Mary proclaims the role reversals that come with the arrival of Jesus. Mary knew that the birth of her Son would have lasting effects for individuals like her, for her community, and for the world. The proud are scattered. The powerful are brought down from their thrones, and the lowly are lifted up. The arrival of her son inaugurates the reign of God in this world - one where relationships between God and between neighbor are restored, where poverty and oppression are eradicated, and the world becomes what God always intended it to be. In her song of praise, that we heard yesterday, her vision for the world became united with God’s vision for the world.

In the birth of her son, the incarnation of God in her baby, this evening, that vision starts to become a reality. I hadn’t really thought of it quite this way before: but God puts this role reversal that Mary sings so eloquently about into reality in Godself. In other words, in the birth of Jesus, God participates in this role reversal. God doesn’t expect the world to do what God isn’t willing to do Godself. In love for all of God’s people, God comes down from God’s own throne, and becomes really and truly human. God humbles Godself, not just in becoming human, but even more in becoming a baby in Jesus - vulnerable and totally dependent on everyone around him. God is willing to risk everything that being human m
eans - including risking death - a death that Jesus will face on the cross. If we really think about it… How absurd is that? A God that risks death to show love to God’s creation? Yet tonight, We proclaim a God that risks it all - vulnerability, the dirt and grime, the messiness of human relationships (including calling disciples that will fail him), even death - to show God’s love to ALL people, everywhere.

God does this new and radical thing to turn the world on its head. And to turn our expectations of God on its head. Tonight, we can say, with the baby in the manger, no longer does God remain distant but rather God says yes to our humanity and to everything that comes with this humanity. Divinity and humanity become one and can no longer be separated. And our humanity - the best and the worst of it - can no longer be a barrier to God’s love for us nor a barrier for God’s working in us and through us. In the birth of the Christ Child, God is solidly and firmly with us - working to bring salvation and liberation to us and to all people.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his Advent Devotional, God is in the Manger puts it this way: “God becomes human, really human. While we endeavor to grow out of our humanity, to leave our human nature behind us, God becomes human, and we must recognize that God wants us also to become human—really human. Whereas we distinguish between the godly and the godless, the good and the evil, the noble and the common, God loves real human beings without distinction…. God takes the side of real human beings and the real world against all their accusers…. But it’s not enough to say that God takes care of human beings. This sentence rests on something infinitely deeper and more impenetrable, namely, that in the conception and birth of Jesus Christ, God took on humanity in bodily fashion. God raised his love for human beings above every reproach of falsehood and doubt and uncertainty by himself entering into the life of human beings as a human being, by bodily taking upon himself and bearing the nature, essence, guilt, and suffering of human beings. Out of love for human beings, God becomes a human being. He does not seek out the most perfect human being in order to unite with that person. Rather, he takes on human nature as it is.”

Jesus’ birth is confirmation that God is not willing to abandon God’s beloved creation. Jesus’ birth is confirmation that God is willing to do the unexpected to connect deeply with humanity, to bring humanity to back to Godself - with grace, mercy, and forgiveness, and to do the hard and messy work of restoring this world to what it should be - restoring people - especially those on the margins - to their rightful place in community. In Jesus, God is let loose in the world, turning this world upside down - starting with our expectations of God godself, and continuing to work, til creation is what it was always intended to be.

This is the good news that we celebrate tonight. God doesn’t pick the most upstanding person as the Mother of our Lord. Mary was unwed, poor, from the margins of society. And further, that Good News of God’s arrival as a baby in Jesus - goes first to those that the world considers less-than human - Shepherds - dirty, dishonorable, and thought of as thieves. The angels said to them, “Do not be afraid, for see - I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people. To you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” The Good News of God’s yes to humanity goes first to the margins - to the lowly - to those considered to be outside community - to those who need to hear it most. Their place in the world is no barrier for God’s work. They are loved, they are redeemed, they are promised salvation and a place at the table. Their response to the Good News is to go with haste to see the baby lying in the manger - to see that baby that will turn this world upside down. They want to see for themselves the baby that ushers in God’s new reign in this world.

So tonight, Christ’s birth is a yes to our humanity - and to everything - the joys and the sorrows, the hardships and the celebrations, the life and the death - that humanity brings. We know, that in the incarnation of God in Christ, God has experienced all that humanity brings. In Christ, nothing can any longer separate us from God; tonight, we have the promise that God will show up - in our darkness and in our light - perhaps in the ways or the places we might least expect. This is the good news of Christmas, not just for tonight, but for every night and every day. As we approach the baby in the manger, as we taste the gifts of God’s forgiveness and love in the real presence of Christ in bread and the wine, we call upon God to continue to come into our world, to continue to usher in the world that God promises, to break the bonds that bind us and that keep our neighbor oppressed. We call on this Christ child to equip us to participate in God’s vision for the world. And we call on this Christ child to inspire us to live so deeply into our humanity so that we live in solidarity with the neighbor and the stranger in their humanity. And we call on this Christ child to equip us to be agents of God’s peace, of God’s justice, and of God’s salvation.


Sunday, December 23, 2018

Advent 4 (Year C) - Dec. 23, 2018

Advent 4
Year C
December 23, 2018
Luke 1:39-55

In my mind, as I picture the scene from this morning’s gospel, I have tended to think of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth as a family visit - a baby shower of sorts. In my family, when there is a pregnancy, the women tend to travel to visit with the expectant mother. My brother and I are the youngest of this generations of cousins, so most of my cousins have gotten married, have had children, etc. I was a pre-teen when my most of my cousins began having children, so I started going with my mom to the baby showers. My mom and I would get up early to travel the 3 hours to the area in which my mom grew up, and we’d return home late at night after the festivities. It was a female-only space where friends and family gathered to celebrate the new life that is about to be born. There were games and gifts. And little booties filled with blue or pink M&Ms (always a thrill for the few of us who don’t eat chocolate). And little blue or pink trinkets for us to take with us. There was talk about birth and nursing and babies, as my gram says, with their days and nights mixed up, and the joys and exhaustion of parenthood. And that’s kinda how I envisioned this scene - minus the m&ms, of course.

But, then I wonder, if over the years, as I’ve encountered this story again and again, I’ve tamed this scene a bit too much. I’ve made this story fit into my worldview and into what I have come to expect from our preparations for the birth of children.

Thinking more about it, It is a surprise that we get this piece of the story, at all. As Luke tells us earlier, Elizabeth is in seclusion. She faces solitude because women’s bodies, especially when talking about reproduction and childbirth, were still incredibly taboo. It was “women’s talk” and it was conversation that was to remain private (and yet here we have the stories on paper). Turning to Mary, her pregnancy would have brought shame upon her and her family. Further, she shouldn’t even be travelling to the hills of Judea alone. This is no small trek from Nazareth. It was a trek that required travelling from the region of Galilee, through Samaria, and into the southern region of Judea, likely a journey of several days. And women who travelled alone were, not only at risk of physical harm, but also the accusations of deviant behavior and the social implications that followed it (those assumptions and accusations certainly not helped by being an unwed mother-to-be). While visiting family was a legitimate reason for travel, Mary should not have made that journey, especially alone.

Yes, of course, Mary and Elizabeth are celebrating the new lives that are to come - with the births of John and Jesus. The text tells us that much. Yet it still isn’t exactly the baby shower that I had pictured in my head. Instead of family from far and wide gathering together to celebrate as a community, we get the meeting of two marginalized pregnant women - Elizabeth pushed to the edge of society for a chunk of her adult life because she was barren, too old to conceive - someone who, until now, was unable to fulfil her duty as a woman to bring about children and heirs - and Mary pushed to the edge of society because she was an unwed (and likely poor) mother. Their positions in life put them in an unsettled place.

In that society, these women are two of the least expected to be bearers of the Good News. We get the Good News this morning not from the rich, not from the powerful, not from men, but instead from women from the edges of society - living in seclusion apart from community and apart from family. The seclusion and the marginalization that these women face will not have the last word. Society’s norms and expectations are no barrier for God at work in the lives of these women. In their unlikely meeting, in this unsettled place that they inhabit in their society, they begin to find the new life and the new community that the Savior will bring about - not just for them but for the whole world. In other words, this meeting between two pregnant women is a small scale glimpse into the new life that God promises to bring about in Christ. The hope and the anticipation is palpable as John leaps for joy in Elizabeth’s womb. It is these two women who first proclaim and witness to the joy of the good news of the coming of Jesus. Even more, they are active and willing participants in God’s vision for the world - not just in their acceptance of their pregnancies but also in the new life found in community with each other.

Today, we get to hear Mary’s song of praise (also called the Magnificat) twice. Once, as our psalm, and again, at the end of our Gospel reading. It is a beautiful hymn in which Mary proclaims the good that God is doing for her, and moves outward, proclaiming that this is indeed good news for everyone, for the whole world.

Her song is a proclamation, not just about what God has done for her, but what God is doing in
the Christ Child for the entire world. One of my favorite hymns is the absolutely beautiful Canticle of the Turning, based on the Magnificat. In the refrain, the hymn puts it this way:

  “My heart shall sing of the day you bring.          
   Let the fires of your justice burn.
  Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near,
  and the world is about to turn!”

This morning, Mary is pointing us precisely to that world that is about to turn. The dawn that draws near in Christ in which people are made right with God and with neighbor. And that turning world has effects - on individuals - like Mary and Elizabeth themselves - and also on the whole world.

God is turning the world upside down - the powerful are brought down from their thrones, and the lowly are lifted high; the hungry are filled and the rich are sent away empty. This reversal is highlighted by how God is bringing Godself down by becoming human, and even more, by becoming a baby - vulnerable and totally dependent on those around him. In Jesus, we have a God that is on the side of the lowly and the vulnerable, having been there Godself. God is turning the world on its head, bringing about a world where oppression ceases, where poverty is eradicated, where community is restored, where all that separates us from our neighbor is broken by the strength of God’s arm. It is about the liberating salvation that is coming into this world in the Christ Child. And in Mary’s song, we can definitively say, to answer the question of the popular song, yes, Mary did know. Her hymn unites what she is experiencing with the God’s vision for the world. A vision that she waits to be fully realized in her son. A vision that she herself participated in, as the mother of our Lord.

The distance between us and these two women seems vast. And it makes it easy to romanticize the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth (as I admittedly have done - thinking of this as a baby shower). It makes it easy to just hear Mary’s hymn as a beautiful hymn, but one that doesn’t have much to say to us today. Perhaps we even see Mary’s words as foolish. The powerful still have power. The distance between rich and poor only seems to get wider. Racism and sexism run rampant. Our siblings of different gender identities, sexual orientations, skin colors, religions, are still pushed to the edges of society. The world still seems so unsettled.

As I think about Mary’s song, along with Mary and Elizabeth, we too anticipate God’s vision of the world finally being fully realized here in this world. We too are affected by the ways in which society and society’s expectations pull us apart from our neighbor. The seclusion and the marginalization that us or our neighbors face will not have the last word. Society’s norms and expectations are no barrier for God at work in our world. We are waiting for our unsettled worlds to be turned upside down. Along with Mary and Elizabeth, we too can look at our lives and the world around us and see God at work in Christ - sometimes in the most unlikely places. We can see God at work when relationships are restored as forgiveness and grace are given, when community is found as we embrace all our neighbors, when folks living in poverty find relief, etc. These seemingly smaller things are glimpses into the turned-upside-down world that, in Jesus, God is bringing about. Like Mary and Elizabeth, we too are drawn into God’s vision for the world, to the point that our anticipation for the world that we long for turns to participation in that vision - so that we become active in the acts of forgiveness, of restoration, of lifting up those living under the weight of poverty and oppression. And we call upon Christ to keep coming into this world again and again, to fully bring about God’s vision into this world.

As we make this transition together from Advent hope and expectation to Christmas morn, I leave you with a (slightly edited and expanded) Franciscan Christmas blessing:

May God bless us with joy at the coming of Christ, that our vision for this world may become the vision that God has for this world:

May God bless us with discomfort at half-truths, easy answers, and superficial relationships, so that we will live deeply and from the heart - with the love we find in Jesus.

May God bless us with anger at injustice, oppression, and the exploitation of people, so that we will work for justice, freedom, and peace.

May God bless us with tears to shed with those in pain, so that we will reach out our hands to them and turn their pain into joy.

And may God bless us with just enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in this world that is about to turn, so that our anticipation turns to participation in the turning world, doing those things that others say cannot be done.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Advent 2 (Year C) - Dec. 9, 2018

Advent 2
Year C
December 9, 2018
Luke 3:1-6

There are few things that most pastors look forward to more than baptisms. It is one of the things that we get to do in this profession that typically is pure joy, as we proclaim the promises of God made to the newly baptized and to each one of us. And I’m so thrilled to have had the honor of baptizing Grant this morning, as my first baptism as a called and ordained pastor. It is also such joy and a pleasure to remember Tripp’s baptism together. We rejoice as we proclaim that they are indeed united with Christ so that nothing can any longer separate them from the love of God found in Christ. Today, we welcome them as part of the body of Christ, of which we all are a part, and we as a church celebrate with their family this morning. And today, we welcome them into the reign of God.

It is a happy coincidence that, as we celebrate Grant’s baptism this morning, our Gospel lesson today turns to John the Baptist, as he was in his ministry of baptism in the wilderness region around the Jordan. It was not planned this way, but it works out well. John is called while he is in the wilderness and goes, interestingly, not to the synagogue or to the palace or to the marketplace (where one might expect to find a lot of people), but remains in the wilderness throughout his ministry. The wilderness becomes, then, for John his place of spiritual growth and development. It is here that John proclaimed a “baptism of repentance for t
he release from sins.” It seems an odd choice… In the desert, the land is at least somewhat barren. It is a place of potential danger. People are few and far between. It is a place of isolation. It is a place that can bring about fear. In the Greco-Roman world that valued order and civility, the wilderness represented a place of chaos and disorder. Those who spent too much time in the wilderness were often thought to be engaging in deviant behavior. In many ways, the wilderness is the place we might least expect to prepare the way for God. Wouldn’t it be far more effective and far safer to go preach in the midst of the busy marketplace in town?

Yet the wilderness is an important place, both for John and for the people of Israel. It is an in-between place. It is the place where Moses and the Hebrew people wandered for 40 years between slavery in Egypt and the promised land. It is the place between the Babylonian Exile and the return to Israel and Jerusalem. In other words, the wilderness is the place between captivity and freedom, the placebetween oppression and salvation. It is the in the wilderness that God leads God’s people on the Way (or road) of the Lord that brings wholeness and life back to God’s people. So while for some the wilderness conjures images of desolation, isolation, and fear, for others, it brings about the very hope that God is again acting on behalf of God’s people.

And it is no accident that it is here that John the Baptist has his ministry. John the baptist inhabits this in between place situated between the reign of Rome marked by its emperor Tiberius and the local governor Pontius Pilate and all the other names listed in the Gospel reading and the reign of God, ushered in by Jesus, John’s cousin and the Savior of all people. The wilderness is where John proclaims the coming of God and encourages people to prepare for that coming. It is here that the Word of God is let loose among the people of God. It is here that John proclaims that, Jesus, God is at work, bringing about freedom and releasing people from that which keeps them captive. Salvation is coming. And all flesh will taste the salvation found in Jesus. And it is coming in the very places that we least expect to find it.

Isn’t that what we see throughout the Gospel though? God, in Jesus, shows up where we least expect God to show up. And with Jesus, God shows up to bring release from sins and salvation to all people everywhere. In just a little over two weeks, we celebrate the arrival of God incarnate, not as a super-power or an emperor, but as a baby lying in a manger. The mother of that baby was not a princess or an upstanding wife, but a poor unwed mother. We proclaim a God in Christ that shows up among the people society doesn’t expect - among fishermen, among women, among the sick, among those struggling with demons, among Samaritans (and other foreigners), etc. We proclaim a God in Jesus who shows up in the wildernesses of our world and of our lives. We trust that Jesus shows up in the mundane, the simple, the everyday. We trust that in Jesus, God shows up in our in between places, leading us to wholeness, new life, and salvation.

Today, in particular, we proclaim that Jesus shows up in the everyday element of water. Something so simple that surrounds us. We turn on our faucets and water comes out (at least we hope). We have the York and the James rivers, as well as the Atlantic Ocean. In the ordinary, God promises the extraordinary. The water combined with God’s Word does the extraordinary. In this water, we trust in the presence of the Holy Spirit to bring about the gift of faith in each one of us. In this water, we are joined into Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Through water, God meets us in this in-between place of this world. In this world, we are living between the powers of this world that work to keep us and all people under the bonds of oppression and the powers of God that work to liberate all flesh from that which binds them. This world is an in between place where we are already living in the Kingdom of God, but we’re also waiting and hoping for that Kingdom to be fully realized in this world here and now.

In our baptisms, we trust that we are released from our the power of our sins. We trust that not even our sins can separate ourselves from the God who chooses us. Here, we proclaim a God who meets us in the in-between places and the wilderness of our lives and brings about freedom. We trust that it is our baptism that brings us the salvation and freedom. Because we are free and because the power of our sin can no longer separate us from God, our baptism frees us to live our lives out in service to the neighbor.

Baptisms are joyous. Baptisms are one of the biggest days - theologically speaking it is the biggest day - of our lives. Without my baptism - I wouldn’t be here as your pastor. Ordination into this ministry - which many of you attended - is one way in which people may live out their baptismal calling. The ordination doesn’t happen without the new life found in Christ in baptism. Yet, baptism is kind of this odd thing because especially for those of us baptized as infants, it is a day that we don’t remember. My brother and I were baptized in October of 1992 in Ebenezer Lutheran church in Greensboro, NC. Off the top of my head, I don’t know the exact date; I know I had to find it for my initial application for the candidacy process in order to become a pastor. We were somewhere around 4 months old. I obviously don’t remember anything about that day. I’ve seen a few pictures. I think I’ve seen my baptismal candle; it is likely somewhere in my folks’ attic. I even mix up my Godparents and my brother’s Godparents. My baptism just wasn’t something we talked about. It wasn’t something that was part of our family narratives. So not only do I not remember my baptism for myself, I don’t have the stories surrounding that baptism. I don’t blame my parents for that; it wasn’t part of their family narratives either. Baptism was something we just did because we were supposed to do it. And suddenly, in Seminary, I had to connect my baptism to my faith journey to my calling, not only in my mind, but also in writing - for my candidacy committee and academic advisors to see.

Parents - I hope that the baptism of your children are part of your family narratives. I hope you will talk with your kids about their baptism. Did they sleep through the whole thing? Did they scream at the top of their lungs? Who was there? More importantly, I hope you will tell them tha
t in that water, God claims them as God’s own beloved children. In this water, God promises to love them forever and that nothing can separate them from that love in Christ. I hope you tell them that their baptism ties them into the body of Christ and into work of God in the world. I hope that you will tell them that God meets them in the in between places and in the wildernesses of their lives. I hope that you’ll bring out the candles. I hope that you’ll light them periodically (perhaps on the anniversary of your kids’ baptisms), and I hope that you’ll rejoice together again at the Good News that God claims them.

I hope that each of our baptisms (whether we have remembrances or stories of the event itself or not) become part of our narratives. I hope that we all can tell the world - both in word and in action - what our baptism means for us - that we are claimed children of God. I hope that we can tell the world that we have been given the gift of faith. That, in our baptism, we have entered the new life found in the Kingdom of God.


Sunday, December 2, 2018

Advent 1 (Year C) - Dec. 2, 2018

Advent 1
Year C
Luke 21:25-36

Happy New Year! “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” 

Happy new year? What? This is not exactly the text that I would have expected to start off this new church year and to start off our Advent journey. We don’t get a nice narrative about the events leading up to Jesus’ birth - Elizabeth’s pregnancy with John the Baptist, Mary’s visit with her cousin, Mary’s song of praise as she awaits the birth of Jesus. Nope. None of that. On this Sunday, we get a text from quite late in Jesus’ ministry, marked by confusion and fear of people and the nations, as a text that comes as he moves ever closer to the cross. We get this text that turns our focus, not to the first coming of Christ, the baby born in a manger, but to Christ’s second coming. ‘Come on Jesus. Get on the same page. We want to hear the nice stories that make us feel good; I know I do. I’ve had my Christmas decorations up for a couple weeks; I’ve been playing Christmas music in my car since the day after Thanksgiving. I’m ready for the good news of God becoming incarnate in a baby. But instead, we get an apocalyptic tale of fear, anxiety and confusion. #thanksJesus

I struggled with this sermon. Not just because of the tone of the text (which in and of itself is difficult) but because of the difficulty of translating a Greek text into English. I typically don’t like directly talking about Greek texts in my sermons; it is sometimes a way for pastors to “show off” their knowledge (which irritates me to no end). I don’t want to do that. But for today, it is important, so I hope you’ll bear with me. First of all, Translations are always interpretations. Always. But even more, there are words that just don’t have a one-to-one translation into English, and translators do the best they can to capture the word in our own tongue. We use for worship the New Revised Standard Version translation, which is an excellent translation. I don’t have too many problems with it. But there are some Greek words that are just so difficult to translate into English, that we find ourselves is a tricky spot. I debated replacing a line with my own translation, mulling over the various options with Shirley before she printed the bulletin. But I too was struggling to come up with “better” or “clearer” language. 

The Gospel text today says “people will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.” As the English text stands, it can sound like Jesus is talking about a cataclysmic destruction of this world, meaning this whole earth itself. The extreme consequence of that reading is an apathy toward care for the earth; well, if it is just going to end, if God is going to destroy it, then why should I care about it? The problem is: that’s not quite what it says in Greek. The word used here for “world” doesn’t mean the earth in and of itself, but rather it refers to the structures, in particular the political and social structures, of the world and the world’s inhabitants. The word is even often used as a stand-in for the Roman Empire. It is like when we say “what is coming of this world?” - we aren’t typically referring to the actual planet itself (unless we’re directly talking about the environment), but usually we’re referring to the ways in which the structures of the world are not living up to what they should be. We see the violence, the poverty, etc. around us - and ask what the world is coming to. That’s the sense of the word. I’ve racked my brain trying to find a succinct way of translating it, but came up short. So, the point is: Jesus is not talking about destruction of the earth itself, but the destruction of the political and social structures that have become so harmful and death-dealing to God’s beloved creation. Jesus is talking about the disruption of the Kingdoms of this Earth, so that the Kingdom of God can finally reign supreme in THIS world. It isn’t about the world coming to an end but it is about the world being transformed, because the systems of the world will be ultimately ruled by Christ not by the powers of the earth. And thus, complete restoration of all creation (including of course humanity) is finally brought to reality. Jesus is pointing to that struggle to replace the powers that be with the power of God. - all those things that we talked about last week on Christ the King Sunday. 

And the thing is, depending on our own position and our own point of view, this text can capture either fear or beauty. On one hand, it has the potential to incite fear and anxiety among the nations and the people of the earth. Change and disruption of the norm can be scary. It certainly has the potential to scare me. The powers that be, if I’m brutally honest with myself and you all, work out just fine for me (at least for the most part). I’m someone with a relative amount of power and privilege. That doesn’t mean that I haven’t had struggles; I certainly have. Yet I’m relatively comfortable. I have a roof over my head, food on my plate - three times per day. That alone puts me in the top 25% of the world’s population. Yet on this First Sunday of Advent, I’m faced with the recognition that, although the powers that be are working out just fine for me, this world still falls short of what God intended it to be. I’m faced with the recognition that, although the powers that be are working out just fine for me, those powers that be certainly don’t work just fine for everyone, and those powers are still working to keep the stranger as my stranger and the oppressed under the bonds of their oppression. On this first Sunday of Advent, I’m faced with the recognition that I fall short of God’s intent for me and for my relationships with others, and how my actions and my sin can keep both myself and others from living abundant life. And on this first Sunday of Advent, I am faced with the recognition that my convenience and my actions bring harm to the environment and to God’s beloved creation. And Jesus telling me that the powers that be aren’t the powers of God have the potential to shake me from my relatively comfortable life. As one commentator put it, we wants Jesus to come, just not too quickly. 

But for the people for whom the powers that be are inherently harmful and are death-dealing, this gospel lesson brings with it a sigh of relief and a hope for the future. It has the potential to be a beautiful text. It has the potential to bring relief to those who find themselves under the power of racism, of violence, of homophobia and transphobia, of xenophobia, of misogyny and sexism, of poverty and homelessness, of illness and death, etc. It is a Gospel reading that says that this is not God’s vision for this world or for God’s beloved people, and God’s kingdom will destroy all of the isms and phobias that harm God’s people and keep them from living fully in community and with God. It is a Gospel reading that powerfully states that the Kingdom of God is not the Kingdom of this world. It is a Gospel reading that clearly proclaims that indeed Christ and Christ’s kingdom are drawing near. It is a Gospel that boldly proclaims that the powers of this world will fall to the powers of Christ, and that our redemption, liberation, and wholeness are coming along with it. It is a promise that God’s light will break through the darkness of our lives, our communities, and our world. 

And perhaps for most of us, this gospel reading can bring a bit of both - both fear and comfort. Fear of stepping outside of our comfort zone to see what God might be calling us to do or where God might be calling us to go to do God’s work with our hands, our hearts, and our voices in order to bring about restoration and healing in our homes, in our communities, and in the world. We are challenged to envision the world as God has envisioned it, and with Christ’s help, we are empowered to join in Christ’s effort to bring it about. It is risky and difficult business to reach out to the neighbor and the stranger, in order to break the oppressions that bind them. Yet it also brings comfort in knowing that in Christ, our redemption is drawing near too. The power of sin and death no longer have a hold on us. We are redeemed and we are loved by God, as we are. It brings comfort knowing that the signs of that redemption are already among us, and that the Kingdom of God is already near, and that Kingdom is continually breaking into this world. It brings comfort as we trust that Christ’s promises are for me, as well as for all people everywhere. 

Advent is, at its heart, is not just about awaiting the baby in the manger, but it is also just as much about waiting for Christ to fully bring about God’s kingdom in this world. I have a hunch that this is why this particular passage was chosen for the Revised Common Lectionary for this particular Sunday. We like to focus on the baby in the manger. It is harder and less pleasant to focus on the things that Christ is working to disrupt and/ or destroy in order to bring about Christ’s reign in this world. We wait for the second coming of Christ and the complete restoration of the world as the Kingdom of God draws ever nearer. And this text sets Advent in that waiting for the second coming of Christ. And so, this Advent, we wait in hope, as we trust that God remains true to God’s promises. We pray for peace, and we pray that God, in Christ, will make us into peacekeepers. We share the love of God found in Christ, that love that redeems us all. And we proclaim the joy of the new life found in Christ.