Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Kindness Habit

“Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander,          together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted,                                  forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”
Ephesians 4:31-32, The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version

Whenever I am feeling blue about the state of our world in general or the state of my life in particular, I watch a commercial for life insurance from Thailand.  I know that seems random and a bit strange, but let me explain.  Also known by the title, “The Unsung Hero,” this commercial is centered on a young man going about his daily life.  He walks down a sidewalk, perhaps on his way to work or school, when water from a rain gutter above him splashes on his head.  Instead of getting mad (which would have been my initial response), he sees a neglected plant on the sidewalk and moves it underneath the rainspout.  As he continues on his way, he notices a street vendor, an older woman, struggling to push her heavy cart over the curb.  He rushes over to help her.  While he is eating his lunch, a stray dog watches him with hungry eyes.  The young man shares his meal.  In the next scene he stops in front of a woman and her little girl sitting on pieces of cardboard asking for money.  A homemade sign reads, “For education.”  He stops, looks at the bills in his wallet, and gives them all to the mother and daughter.  In another shot the young man gives up his seat on the bus to a woman who is forced to stand.  Every day he ties a bunch of bananas on the doorknob of an elderly neighbor.  The various people who witness his tenderhearted actions shake their heads at his supposed foolishness.  Yet these small acts of kindness effect change.  In the end … well, I won’t spoil it.  But I highly recommend that if you are able, you Google the commercial and view it for yourselves.  It is well worth the watching.

To be honest, I do not quite understand the connection between the young man’s kind acts and life insurance.  However, I don’t believe I need to.  What moves me about the commercial is that this young man’s actions reflect a compassionate, tender heart.  He goes out of his way to be kind.  He makes kindness a habit.  Although the word habit is not used in these two verses from the letter to the Ephesians, I wonder if that is not what is being implied.  How often am I more inclined to wrangle, rather than put aside bitterness and malice toward another person?  Has jaded contention, rather than kindness, become my habit?

        There is a buzz about habits and habit formation at this time of year.  The new hasn’t worn off of our New Year’s resolutions, and many of us have resolved to replace bad habits with good ones.  The philosopher Aristotle wrote, “We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.”

         If I want good health, then making wholesome lifestyle choices – from choosing healthy food to getting enough sleep – must become habitual.  If I want to write a book or learn a new language, then I have to make discipline, not procrastination, a habit.  Whatever actions I need to take to accomplish my goals, I must perform those actions repeatedly; until they become second-nature, until they become my habit.  If this is true for healthy eating, then it must be true for kindness as well.  If we take the admonitions to be kind to one another, tenderhearted with one another, seriously, then we must make kind choices and commit tenderhearted acts.  Repeatedly.  Kindness, tenderheartedness, forgiveness – all must be our habit.  Who knows, perhaps small acts of kindness, done habitually, will result in large and wonderful love for others and for us.  Yet even if we never see the full results of our tenderheartedness toward other people, isn’t kindness a good habit to have?


Mark 1:14-20
January 25, 2015

Rosa Parks was an African American woman living in Montgomery, Alabama.  She worked as a seamstress in a local department store.  One afternoon, tired from work, she got on a Montgomery bus to go home.  The bus was full, and a white passenger needed a seat.  The bus driver ordered her to obey the Jim Crow laws of segregation and move to the back of the bus.  She refused.  It was December 1, 1955.

I would guess that most of us know this basic story about Rosa Parks, whether we lived at that time or not.  With her act of civil disobedience, Parks – also known as the first lady of civil rights,” and “mother of the freedom movement” – struck the proverbial chord of unrest that became the Civil Rights Movement throughout the south and across the country.

Although I’ve often heard her story told as if that were the first and only time that she made a spontaneous, immediate decision to disobey unjust laws; in reality she had been preparing and training for that moment.  She was involved with the local chapter of the NAACP.  She had attended the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, which was a training center for activism and activists.  Her actions on that bus were not planned.  I don’t believe she started off that day with civil disobedience on the top of her to-do list.  But when the moment came, when the opportunity presented itself, she was ready.  She was trained.  She was aware.  And most importantly, she was weary of the laws which were vehicles of oppression.

When the time was right and ripe, Rosa Parks was ready.

Perhaps the disciples were ready as well.  There is much speculation in scholarship about what it was that made the Simon and Andrew, James and John drop their nets, forego their livelihoods, and leave their families to follow Jesus.   Not only did they make the decision to follow Jesus, they did so immediately.  There’s that key word in Mark’s gospel again.  Immediately.  These four fishermen left what and who they knew to follow Jesus.  Immediately.

What was so irresistible and compelling about this man and the call he issued that they were willing to leave behind home and hearth to follow him?  Did his divinity shine through his human form?  Did they recognize the Messiah in him at that moment?  I’m somewhat skeptical about these possibilities.  Mark does not minimize Jesus’ divinity to be sure, but it is his emphasis on Jesus’ humanity that is most striking. Perhaps these four fishermen had heard the growing buzz about Jesus.  Perhaps like Rosa Parks, they had been building up to that moment for a long time.  Maybe they were as weary of the oppressive laws that kept them under the Romans' thumb, as Parks was of the segregation laws that did the same.  Maybe they heard Jesus’ words, “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near,” and they realized that their time, their moment had come as well.  All we can do is speculate, because there is nothing in the text that gives us a hint about what they knew of Jesus and what they didn’t.

It’s also true that Mark also makes no attempt to soften the fact that while they answered Jesus’ call to discipleship immediately, from that point on they did not get it.  They did not understand him.  They did not grasp what he had come to do.  Eventually they will disappoint him, betray him, misunderstand him, and abandon him.  But in this moment, in this particular defining moment, the disciples recognized something in Jesus.  They found his call irresistible.  Maybe it was not a moment of perfect clarity for them about Jesus’ true identity, but at least for those 60 seconds, something about Jesus got through to them.  They answered his call -- immediately.

Two brothers, Simon called Peter and Andrew, were doing their daily work.  They were casting their nets into the Sea of Galilee, when Jesus walked by and said, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”  Simon Peter and Andrew answered his call.  They dropped their nets and followed him.  
With the two of them in step behind him, they came upon the brothers James and John -- also fishermen, also doing their daily work.  They were in their boat with their father, Zebedee, mending nets when Jesus issued his call, and like Simon and Andrew before them, they dropped everything, said goodbye to their father, and followed.  Immediately.

Jesus issued this irresistible call to follow, and that’s what they did.  They followed him immediately.  As I said earlier there’s nothing in the text that gives us a clue as to why they followed.  What made his call so compelling?  We know nothing about why they would leave everything to follow a stranger, who tells them they will be fishers of people?  This translation of Jesus’ words is slightly off kilter.  When we hear that they will be “fishers of people,” it sounds more like that’s what they will do.  But the more literal translation is that they will become fishers of people.  It’s a subtle difference, I know, but in becoming fishers of people, it also becomes an issue of identity. Following Jesus, choosing the course of discipleship, is not only about action, it is also about identity.  It is about becoming.  In choosing to answer this call their identities were changed, defined, made full.  Immediately.

I love this story.  I love the call narratives in general, and Mark’s in particular.  The way these four men answered Jesus’ call so decisively is both inspiring and intimidating.  I once believed that I was incapable of answering a call to discipleship like that.  I couldn’t just drop everything, leave my work, my home, my family and follow.  I’d need some assurances that I would be okay, that my family would not starve.  But when I think about it, I have answered Jesus’ call in that way.  I think we all have.  If we were to really think back, we could probably all identify a moment when heard Jesus’ call and felt compelled to follow.  We may not have understood why we felt that way, why we sensed the urgency of the moment and responded.  But we did.

The problem for me is not that I answered the call to discipleship that way once.  It’s that I continue to be called.  The call to follow isn’t a one-time only deal.  I have learned that it comes again and again and again.  Just when I think  I’ve got this whole discipleship thing down, when I believe that no new calls will come, Jesus walks by me, hold out his hand and says, “follow me.”  But do I respond immediately?  Do I take seriously the urgency of that call?  Or do I hesitate?  Unlike those first four disciples, I know the rest of the story.  I know where Jesus is heading.  I know that the path they have chosen leads to the cross.  Maybe the path of discipleship doesn’t lead to a literal cross, but it can lead to sacrifice.  The call to discipleship can and does ask us to do hard things.  It asks us to put our trust completely in God through Jesus, and rely not on ourselves but on the One who calls.  This is what makes answering the call to follow so hard and so frightening.  It takes courage.  It takes trust.  Especially when we need to answer immediately.

When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on that bus, the civil rights movement which had been simmering burst into flame.  The immediate response was the Montgomery Bus 
Boycott.  Parks' resistance inspired the African American community to respond immediately by not taking the busses.  They would walk.  And one of  them who chose to walk was an elderly woman. She was frail and the walking must have been hard on her.  The boycott organizers went to her and said that she didn’t have to walk with them. They knew she had difficulty.  She could ride the busses, and no one would think less of her.  But when they told her this, she merely smiled and replied.  “My feet may be weary, but my soul is rested.”

Maybe that’s what gives us the courage to answer Jesus’ call again and again.  We know it will be hard.  We know it will challenge us.  We know that we won’t follow perfectly.  But we also know that we are not alone.  That's the good news.  We don't answer this call, we don't walk this walk, we don't follow Jesus alone.  Jesus doesn’t call us, then abandon us.  Jesus leads us.  Jesus walks with us.  Yes, we know the rest of the story, but we also know that we are not called to be alone.  We do not follow alone.  And maybe knowing that, we also know, like that woman in Montgomery, that while our feet will grow weary, our souls will be rested, because we do not walk alone.  Jesus calls.  Over and over and over again.  Jesus calls.  May we answer with courage.  May we answer with trust.  May we answer immediately.  Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!”  Amen.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Take a Look

John 1:35-51
January 18, 2015

            When I was a parent-to-be, people gave me advice whether I wanted it or not.  When someone would ask me about if I was ready to care for a baby, I would smile smugly and reply,   
“I have been babysitting since I was 11.”
“I am good with babies.  In fact, I am great with babies.”
“I have taken care of other people’s babies.  I’ve helped take care of my niece and nephews.  I got this baby thing down!” 
I heard repeatedly that I would be tired.  I’d respond by telling this person that I was well aware of how tired I would be because my sister had my first nephew in Nashville instead of Athens.  That meant that Benjamin came home to our house and lived with us for the first month.  I heard him crying at night.  I understood.  Even after they went back to Greece, whenever she would come home for a visit they would stay at least a month.  Again, I heard him crying.  Sometimes I’d even get up with her.  I knew it was going to be tiring.
People would also tell me that having a baby would change my life forever.  Our world was going to be turned upside down.  Nothing would ever be the same again.  I would nod and smile, again rather smugly. 
“I have it all planned out.”  Then it was the other person’s turn to nod and smile.  I never heard anyone say, “Let me know how your plan works out,” but I know now that they were thinking it. 
Hearing someone else’s baby cry at night, even a baby that I loved and adored, is not the same as being up with your baby all night.  Being good with babies and excelling at babysitting does not prepare you for what it means to not only take care of, but be completely responsible for this little person you’ve brought into the world.  I might have been a good babysitter, but I lost count of the times I felt clueless when it came Io caring for my own babies.  Once, in tears,  I called my mother because the baby books said that I was doing this parenting thing all wrong.  My mom reassuringly told me, “Amy, the baby books are fine, but the babies never read the same books.” 
No matter how many babies I’d held and loved and cooed over in the past, nothing prepared me for what it would feel like to hold my own babies in my arms.  Nothing prepared me for that rush of overwhelming love and joy and protectiveness.  There are some things you have to see to believe and some moments you have to feel and experience to understand. 
“Come and see,” seems to be the main thrust of the passage before us in John’s gospel.  This first chapter in John marks one of the ways that this gospel is distinctly different from the three synoptic gospels.  Matthew, Mark and Luke record Jesus being baptized by John in the Jordan River.  However John’s gospel does not give an account of Jesus’ physical baptism.  Instead we read John the Baptists’ testimony to Jesus and to his identity.
            If we were to read this chapter in full, we’d see that it takes place over a few days.  Our glimpse into this passage begins on the third day.  The day before John saw Jesus coming toward him and declared “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!  This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’” 
This declaration follows a conversation from the day before.  John was questioned by religious leaders who wanted to know who he, John, was.  They wanted to know the full scope of John’s identity.  But John tells them about another One.  John tells them that he is not the Messiah, but there is one who is the Messiah they’ve been waiting for. 
            We move to the third day, our day.  On this day John was standing with two of his disciples when Jesus walked past them.  As Jesus passed, John proclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”  When John’s two disciples heard this, they left John and followed Jesus.  This is another interesting point of departure from Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  It is not Jesus who makes the initial call to the disciples.  John testified to Jesus’ identity and the disciples chose to follow. 
            Now we come to the crux, the heart of this passage.  Jesus saw them following him, and he asked them, “What are you looking for?”  They called him “Rabbi” which the gospel writer makes the point of translating as “teacher.”  The question they asked him seems unexpected and unusual for this particular moment and meeting – at least to our way of thinking.  These new followers asked, “Where are you staying?” Jesus responded not by giving them directions or details about a geographical location.  He just said, “Come and see.”  And he led them from that point on. 
It bears repeating that every question in John’s gospel means more than what it seems.  When John’s disciples asked Jesus “where are you staying?” they were not merely asking him about his place of residence.  They were not looking for a house tour or a place to hang out for a few days.  They were not inquiring as to whether he checked into a bed and breakfast or the Jerusalem Hampton Inn.  They wanted to know about his relationship with God.  Perhaps another way their question can be heard is, “Look our teacher, John, has proclaimed you to be the Lamb of God, so we want to know for ourselves.  If you are indeed the Lamb of God, the Rabbi, the teacher we’ve been looking for, then what is your relationship to God?  Are you in intimate relationship with him?  Are you staying with God?  Teacher, where are you staying?”
            Consider the call narratives found in the first three gospels, one of which we will hear next week.  Jesus called his disciples away from their work, their families, their homes, their lives – everything and everyone they ever knew.  And in these other call accounts, Jesus gave them a hint about what discipleship would mean.  Yet in John’s gospel, these first disciples heard the Baptizer’s testimony and followed.  When Jesus asked them about this, their response was to ask a question about his relationship to God.  Jesus did not give them definitive answers.  He just invited them to come and see.
            Discipleship is something that you will have to experience for yourself.  You will have to follow me to witness and know my relationship with the Father.  You will have to follow me to experience who I am and what I have come to do.  If you want to be a disciple, you’re going to have to take a look for yourselves.  You must come and see.
            So that’s what these new disciples did.  John’s witness did what it was meant to do.  It pointed them in the new direction God was taking.  They left John and followed Jesus.  They took a leap and they took a look.  Other disciples followed suit.   Andrew told his brother Simon, “We have found the Messiah.”  Simon then went to Jesus and Jesus gave him a new name.  “You are to be called Cephas.”  Peter.  The rock. 
            The next day, Philip and Nathanael joined the growing queue behind Jesus.  Like Andrew, when Philip heard Jesus’ call he shared his discovery with Nathanael.  I believe that this is the only time we hear about Nathanael.  But his small part does not diminish the importance of his response.  When Philip told him that the one that was foretold by Moses and all the prophets had been found, Nathanael was skeptical. 
            “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  Philip said to Nathanael what Jesus said to Andrew.  “Come and see.” 
All of these disciples decided to take a look, to go and see Jesus, to experience him, to be in relationship with him.  They followed him so that they could witness and experience for themselves the truth of this man – this Lamb of God, this Son of God, this Rabbi, this Messiah.  Nathanael pronounced him both Son of God and King of Israel.  Once he took a look, his skepticism was replaced with belief. 
Take a look.  Come and see.  Jesus beckons us to follow and see for ourselves what discipleship and being in a relationship with him is and what it means.  Take a look, come and see.    
It’s interesting that in this first chapter alone, Jesus was called by at least eight different names or titles.  In one chapter!  Jesus acknowledged them all.  We know that none of these names fully revealed or defined the fullness of who Jesus was, who Jesus is.  They cannot convey the glory of Jesus and what he came to do.  But each of these disciples saw Jesus and recognized Jesus in the way they most needed.  John saw him as the Lamb of God, the one who takes away the sins of the world.  These first disciples, wanted to learn about him; they wanted to understand him as both Rabbi and Messiah.  Nathanael, who was startled by Jesus’s knowledge   of him, made a great profession of faith.  Jesus was the Son of God, the King of Israel.  They named him in the way they understood him.  They understood him, they recognized him, they experienced relationship with him because they went and took a look.    
            Take a look.  Come and see.  It’s such a simple invitation.  But when the disciples accepted that invitation, when they looked for themselves, their lives were irrevocably changed.  The invitation remains.  We are invited, over and over again, to come and see; to look for ourselves.  We are invited to follow, and in following to be in relationship with the Lamb of God.  When have you heard that invitation?  What happened when you took that look?  Here’s the good news – the really, really good news – the invitation doesn’t stop with us.  In fact, it isn’t meant to be issued by Jesus alone.  We are invited to come and see, to be in relationship; but more importantly when we accept the call to follow, we are also called to invite.  Andrew invited Simon Peter.  Philip invited Nathanael.  When we get right down to it, this is what evangelism is.  Our call is not to force belief on others, or make them think a certain way.  Our call is to invite, to open the door for them to see, just as that door was opened for us. 
Take a look for yourself.  Come and see the love I’ve experienced.  Come and see the hope I’ve found.  Come and see the relationship I have with the God of relationship.  Come and see what I see, and maybe just maybe, you’ll see it too.  Let all God’s children say, “Alleluia!”  Amen.

Monday, January 12, 2015

A Small Splash -- The Baptism of the Lord

Mark 1:4-11
January 11, 2015

            I consider today to be a hard-to-preach Sunday.  I don’t say that because of the texts before us, but because this is a feast day.  On any feast day, whether it is Christmas, Easter, the Transfiguration or the Baptism of the Lord, it’s hard not to wonder what I can say that could possibly be any different than what I said last year.  Or the year before that.  Or the year before that.  Or the year before … well, you get the picture. 
            The Biblical scholars that I refer to on a regular basis say that when it comes to feast days, such as this one, a wise preacher preaches the text, not the feast.  That is sage advice.  Except the text we have before us in Mark’s gospel is about Jesus being baptized.  So it would seem that preaching the text is remarkably similar to preaching the feast.  What to do? 
            When I’m struggling to write a sermon, I take my questions to friends and family.  Perhaps talking through the text will give me a spark of inspiration.  This time I asked a good friend about his baptism.  He’d told me once before that he was baptized in the last several years, rather than as a youth.  He grew up in a denomination, as I did, that emphasized believer’s baptism.  Although he expressed an interest in baptism when he was young, he didn’t pursue it.  As I understand it, he didn’t put it off because of theological reasons or lack of belief.  It’s just that the older he got the idea of getting in front of people and being baptized was a bit unnerving.  He finally reached the point when it seemed strange not to be baptized so he approached his preacher and asked about taking this step.  As he told me, the denomination he was involved with believed that baptism was a necessity for salvation.  So the sooner he was baptized the better.  But it was not necessary for him to be baptized in a worship service.  His baptism happened on an afternoon.
            That was the only aspect of his particular story that I questioned.  In our tradition, whether we are baptized as infants or believers, we strongly believe that we are baptized into a congregation, into a community of faith.  Baptism outside of a worship service is a strange concept to me.  If I were to do this, I would definitely be breaking some denominational “rules.”  When I expressed my concern about this to him, he said, “Well, Amy, do you think God cares?”  My immediate and honest response was, “No.  I don’t think God cares.” 
            My friend’s question and my answer led me back to our text from Mark’s gospel.  What does Mark actually say about the baptism of Jesus?  Is Mark outlining a doctrine or describing a significant event in the life of Jesus? 
            Mark’s gospel, from his first word to his last, is urgent.  A fact that I’ve pointed out before is that the Greek word translated as “immediately,” is used at least 42 times throughout the gospel.  Again, this conveys a sense of urgency.  There is no time to waste.  Jesus is here.  The Son of God is in our midst.  The kingdom of God is upon us.  That’s what Jesus preached and taught.  The kingdom of God is upon us.  Now.  Immediately.  This immediacy means that not only does Mark not give us a birth story for Jesus; he also does not give us a backstory about John the Baptizer.  With that familiar urgency, John the Baptizer appeared in the wilderness.  Does this mean he was traveling from someplace else and stopped in the wilderness?  Was he born there?  Did he grow up in the wilderness?  Was he orphaned and raised by the animals there?  We don’t know, and it doesn’t matter.  What does matter is that he appeared and was preaching and practicing a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  His message must have struck a nerve with people, because folks were flocking to him in droves from across the countryside of Judea and from all of Jerusalem.  However John was not baptizing them and being done with it.  As he baptized he preached. 
“I’m baptizing you with water, but there is someone coming who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  As one preacher put it, John may get them wet, but the One who is coming will light a fire under them. 
            In the midst of this Jesus came to be baptized.  Mark’s account has some significant differences from Matthew and Luke.  John and Jesus do not converse.  John does not protest Jesus being baptized by him.  As in the other gospels, when Jesus rose out of the water, the heavens were opened.  A dove descended.  A voice was heard.  But in Mark’s telling, only Jesus witnessed these things.  He saw the sky split open.  He saw the Holy Spirit like a dove descending.  He heard God’s voice.  You are my son, my beloved.  With you I am well pleased.” 
            Another interesting aspect about Mark’s version is that the sky did not just open, it was torn apart.  The Greek word used here is schizo.  You might have already guessed that we get words such as schism and schizophrenia from this word.  Mark uses it only one other time.  When Jesus hung from the cross and took his final breath, the curtain of the temple – that barrier that separated God from the people – is schizo.  It was torn apart.  Two preachers commenting on this made the same point.  What is opened can be closed again.  But what is torn apart is not so easily put back together. 
            God does not merely open the heavens when Jesus is baptized.  The sky is torn apart.  God breaks in and there is no return.  The barriers that once separated God from us are gone.  When Jesus was baptized, God rushed in.
            Mark’s telling of Jesus’ baptism is not merely about a sweet moment.  It is wild.  It is dramatic. It is vivid.  Seeing it in this light makes me wonder if I’ve been asking the wrong question on this particular feast day.  It makes me wonder if I’ve been asking the wrong question about baptism all along. 
            Usually the question I ask of baptism – of Jesus’s baptism and of our own – is what does it mean?  What does it mean to be baptized?  Recounting the symbolism of baptism is easy.  Jesus was baptized as an example for his followers, for us.  When we are baptized, especially through immersion, we die and rise with Christ.  In infant baptism, we emphasize that God’s grace is working in our lives whether we know it or not.  We make promises at our baptisms, or they are made for us.  We affirm our faith at our baptisms, or it is affirmed on our behalf.  All of this is good.  I believe that all of this is true.  But I still think that another question needs to be asked.  Perhaps the question is not so much about what our baptism means as it is what are we baptized to do? 
            Jesus’ baptism was not an end in itself.  It was a beginning.  In the next moment after God praised him and confirmed his identity as his Son, Jesus was driven into the wilderness.  The moment he left the wilderness, his public ministry began.  The skies were torn apart at his baptism, and so was his life. He was baptized not just to be God’s Son, but he was baptized to do God’s work.  He was baptized to fulfill the prophets’ words, to show the hands of God in the world, to proclaim that the kingdom of heaven was and is here.  He was baptized to do.
            What are we baptized to do?  Whether we are baptized as infants or as older believers, whether we are immersed in a pool or sprinkled at a font, our baptism does not only symbolize our adoption as God’s children and our faith that God is working in our lives; it is a call to action.  It is a call to a new way of living.  It is a call to do as much as it is a call to be.  It may seem that our baptisms are just a small splash of water – on our heads, on our bodies – but it seems to me that with our baptisms the heavens are torn apart once again.  There is no going back, no easy mending of what has been torn.  To be baptized is to be changed.  Even if we don’t know it, remember it, or understand it.  To be baptized is to be changed, and it is to be called to do.  What are we baptized to do?  Are we baptized to preach, to proclaim, to heal, to serve, to teach, to sing, to pray?  What are we baptized to do? 
            That is my question.  I ask it of myself, and I ask it of you.  When you think of your baptism, yes even those who were baptized as infants can still think of their baptism, what do you believe it has called you to do?  It was just a small splash of water, but that small splash changed everything. 
            What has your baptism called you to do?
            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia.”  Amen.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

What's Your Sign -- The Feast of Epiphany

Matthew 2:1-12
January 4, 2015

            I wasn’t old enough to date in the 1970’s, with the exception of the fall of 1979 which was my first semester in high school, and I went to the Homecoming Dance with a young man named Doug.  But outside of that, dating was not a part of my world.  As I wasn’t old enough to date, I certainly was not old enough to frequent social gathering spots where men and women would consume fermented beverages, hoping to meet someone who might be date worthy.  Singles bars.  But I did watch far too many episodes of The Love Boat, so I feel as if I know what dating might have been like in the 1970’s.  Or maybe not.
            But I do know that at least a stereotype of dating in that decade was the singles bar scene; men in polyester leisure suits with gold chains around their necks, and women in French designer jeans or disco dresses, all trying to meet each other and using the opening line, “What’s your sign?”  Perhaps this is more urban legend than reality, but the idea behind this question is that knowing someone’s astrological sign gives one insight into the other person’s personality.  If that question was actually asked back in the day, maybe the asker wanted to know if the askee would be a good match.  So, what’s your sign? 
            Whatever your feelings and opinions may be about astrology, it does have a part in the story we have before us today.  Our reading from Matthew is the story of the wise men, the magi, the three kings of orient are, who travel afar, following a star – or so the hymn goes.  Legend surrounds these wise men.  There are names given to them.  There’s a story about a fourth magi, who somehow missed the trip.  It wasn’t until I was an adult and became a Presbyterian, that I fully realized that the story of the magi and the story of the shepherds are not all one story.  But that’s what we do in our nativity scenes and in our Christmas pageants.  We conflate them into one great big story.  On the night that Jesus was born, the shepherds arrive at the stable first, followed shortly thereafter by these exotic wise men, bearing their exotic gifts. 
            That word – exotic – raises another issue.  Matthew’s gospel is hardly exotic.  Matthew lifts up teaching and theology.  But in his narration of the birth story, mysticism and the exotic are emphasized.  The magi, the wise men were exotic.  Scholarship tells us that they were most likely from Persia.  There is no way that coming from Persia, they could have gotten to Jerusalem on the same night that Jesus was actually born.  Although we don’t read about Herod’s massacre of the innocents in this part of the story, his response to their announcement of a new king of the Jews is to have baby boys two-years-old and younger killed.  That gives us a time frame for how old Jesus might actually have been when they arrived. 
            What I have found most striking in my growing understanding of the magi is that they know that a king has been born because they have “observed his star at its rising.”  That is astrological language.  Yet that doesn’t mean that they were astrologers or that they practiced astrology as we understand it in our context.  But that does suggest that they “read” the heavens.  This star that they saw was a sign that a king had been born.  It wasn’t just any king.  It was a new King of the Jews.  In the many ways that their story is told in our popular culture, the star is portrayed as much larger than every other star in the sky.  Its light is brighter than any other.  Like a beacon, it leads them literally to Jesus. 
            That star does lead them, it’s true.  It is a heavenly, cosmic sign of the birth of this new king.  Whether it was larger and brighter than any other star is anyone’s guess; perhaps it was a star whose significance only they could recognize.  However after their stop in Jerusalem, they see the star shining over the place where Jesus was to be found.  This star, whatever its size or fixed point in the heavens, illumined their way to Jesus.  It was a sign. 
            What’s your sign?  I’m not asking whether you are a Sagittarius or a Scorpio.  I’m asking what sign led you here.  What sign led you to Jesus?  What sign illumined your way to God?  That’s what Epiphany means.  It is the ecclesial feast that we observe this morning.  But to have an epiphany is to see something or understand something, an idea or meaning, clearly; more clearly than ever before.  It is an illumination.  That is the essence of what happened with these wise men from the East.  They saw clearly that a child was born a king.  They saw clearly that this child was one to whom they should pay homage.  The star, his star, was so clear of a sign to them, that they traveled possibly two years to see him, to kneel before him and his mother, and to bring him gifts from their stores of treasure.  It was their epiphany.  It was their sign. 
            What is yours?  Maybe you’re thinking, “What sign?”  For many of us, faith and fellowship in a church community is something we were born into.  Yet think about it.  Has there ever been a moment in your life when you recognized God clearly and distinctly?  Has there ever been a moment in your life when the presence of God was illumined more brightly and surely than ever before?  What was your sign?
            Whatever your sign or my sign may be, it seems to me that the arrival of the magi – these exotic foreigners – to pay homage to a little one born a king is a sign that there is no one correct sign.  Traditionally, the significance of the Epiphany is that this is the beginning of Gentiles being welcomed into God’s covenant with Israel.  However I wonder if it isn’t also a sign to us that people come to God, come to Christ, in many ways.  The power of the Epiphany is that it reminds us that the sign that illumines God to someone can be as unique and distinctive as the person who experiences that illumination. 
            What is your sign? 
            Periodically I listen to a podcast of a radio show called The Moth.  The Moth is a show of stories.  The people who tell these stories are ordinary people who tell their own unique story, whatever that story may be.  Recently I listened to their holiday special.  One story was from a man who lived in Vermont.  The story he told was about when he and his family first relocated to Vermont.  He works for an agency that helps homeless teenagers.  His move to Vermont from Yonkers, New York was to head that agency’s office in his new location.  Shortly after he and his family moved into their new house, they were welcomed by a neighbor.  She was a friendly woman, and in the course of the conversation, she asked where they went to church.  He had never been asked anything like that before.  That just wasn’t done in Yonkers.  He told her that they were Catholic, so they would be attending the Catholic Church in town.  She accepted that but extended an invitation to her church – if they were ever so inclined.  As he met other neighbors, he asked them about this woman and her invitation.  The descriptions he heard about her church convinced him that it was not a house of worship he wanted to visit.  He called it a “Hollywood” church, with over-the-top entertainment as worship, and theology that didn’t fit his faith.  His faith was inspired and driven by social justice and those who led the fight for it – Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, Rosa Parks, etc.  He wanted nothing to do with this Hollywood church.
            But one day he received an email at work about this church.  They had contacted his agency because their Sunday school kids had collected supplies they wanted to donate.  They asked if someone from the agency would come and talk to the children and accept the donations.  So he went, reluctantly and with an admitted bias, but he went.  He arrived at the church and met with about 20 young children.  Their donations were toiletries, some clothes, hats, mittens, and so on.  But one little girl had a special donation for him.  The little girl told him that her older brother had recently died, and they wanted to donate some of his things.  She had a duffle bag with her brother’s items.  Many of the things in that duffle bag were what the other kids had collected.  But it also had his Bible.  And in the Bible there was a picture of him, this bright, clean-cut, handsome young man.  The storyteller asked the teacher about the little girl’s brother.  What happened to him?  He died of a heroin overdose.  His family wanted his things to help another teenager who might be teetering on the edge of making a full life for himself, or becoming trapped in a terrible place like their son.  The storyteller was so moved by this that he realized something about himself and about God.  Maybe this church wasn’t what inspired his faith, but it was a place that gave comfort and hope to families who were in deep pain.  It was where they met God, where they found faith in Jesus.  It was where they saw their sign that God was with them, that Jesus was born, that hope and light and love was not overwhelmed by the darkness.  Who was he to judge that church or the people within it?  It was their sign.
            What is your sign?  What illumines God for you?  What lights your way to finding the Light of the world?  What is your sign?  On this day may we all give thanks for our epiphanies, for the signs we see, for the many and wonderful ways God’s light is revealed.  What is your sign?  Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!”  Amen.