Monday, January 23, 2017

Stop, drop, & march

1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Matthew 4:12-23

What makes a disciple? If the breakdown of the makeup of a disciple of Jesus could be jotted down on a recipe card, maybe it would start with a splash of baptismal waters, a heaping spoonful of grace, a cup of invitation, mix-in healing, welcome and feeding, and mix it all together by the Holy Spirit.  Whatever ingredients are needed, they are all given to us in these weeks during the season of Epiphany as Jesus gets into the controversial, subversive mission of breaking open the kingdom of God. Last week the featured ingredient was invitation.  The invitation from Rabbi to a searching group that simply said, “Come and see.”  This week is a similar type of story with Jesus on the move, fulfilling the prophetic word with his travel and hanging out by the sea.  
One day, while on a walk by the Sea of Galilee Jesus spotted a couple of brothers working as fishermen and invited them too to come and be a part of sharing the good news of God’s love for the world.  There was no new-member class, no memorizing of commandments or writing a faith statement, -- these guys, these stinky fishermen of no regard were invited by Jesus.  He didn’t even check to see if they were aligned with the right political party or if their socio-economic status would make them upright and proper church leaders! None of that mattered of course, all that mattered was their nonverbal response, they released and dropped their fishing nets and without question followed Jesus.  They left their boats, their family, any ideas of their own identity and instead wandered off to work in a controversial, subversive movement of breaking open the kingdom of God.  
Fast forward a couple of decades and we are hearing the apostle Paul giving counsel to a newly formed faith community in Corinth.  He doesn’t exactly invite the community to drop their nets, or quit their jobs and leave their families, yet there is a similar call to lay down their allegiances.  The community had bonded together because of their faith in the resurrected Jesus, but division had festered in the community, cliches formed, and allegiances to community leaders formed sects within the church.  The church to which Paul writes more likely numbered in the dozens than in the hundreds. But small as they may be, leadership styles are just one of the ways they have found to divide themselves: worship practices, sexual ethics, social and economic class, spiritual gifts, and education level all appear in the letter as instances of division too. Some say they belong to Apollos, some say they belong to Paul and Paul, with his typical brash corrective tone says, “Can Christ be divided? Thank God I didn’t baptize more of you because that would mean more division!” This letter that Paul wrote to the church in Corinth is a letter on community building, on being unified by the one, eternal power of our world -- the love of God known in Jesus.
Jesus invited the disciples to drop their nets and work for the kingdom.
Paul teaches the church to drop their allegiances and work for the kingdom.

Yesterday with somewhere around 90,000 of my neighbors I stood on the lawn of the state capital.  To be honest, I was hesitant to share this experience with you for fear that assumptions would be made about my political leanings, my social agendas or my beliefs as a woman in this world. I did not march in total agreement with every sign I saw or every organization represented, and before I made the choice to go I wanted to get clear in my own head and
heart what I was about and what I believed to be the core of my identity in such a time and place as this.  I still have a lot of questions about how we, as Christian sisters and brothers are to live in this world, but one thing I felt clearly was that I was called, not to be against something, but to be for someone.  In all the madness of our world, the purpose and call upon me actually felt clear -- I was called to be a neighbor.  Being a neighbor implies some close proximity to another and also some knowledge of that other.  How can I be a humble, supportive neighbor in my neighborhood or city if I do not know my neighbor? So I marched yesterday so that I could listen to minority voices, to learn more about being a neighbor and I held a sign that said “Do justice, love mercy and walk (or march) humbly with your God” this word comes from the prophet Micah.
And putting one foot in front of the other, one smile passed along to a stranger, one hug passed along to a new friend, felt a little bit like dropping my net, dropping all prior allegiances and answering the call to love God and love neighbor before self.
For identity markers, we still look to things like race, age, economic circumstances, education, and geographical region to create meaningful boundaries and to identify our tribes. It was true of the earliest church and the habit of division is a hard one to kick. If our congregations manage to build community -- to have, in Paul’s words, “the same mind and purpose” -- across the standard identity markers, they are “practicing diversity.” We think of them as a remarkable social experiment. Paul, however, would regard such a community, gathered by the Spirit in the name of Christ, to be simply a church. (
For Paul, the death and resurrection of Christ signals the beginning of an age in which all the ways the Corinthians have divided themselves into groups just aren’t any longer interesting, important or defining. To be baptized is to be joined with all the other baptized to the risen life of Christ and to be, as Christ is, numbered among God’s children. In our baptism, we have all the identity and purpose we need.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Jesus is, what?

Christmas Eve 2016

This is the night Love was born.  This is the night we sing some of the most familiar melodies of all time and hear a story that many of us could give a pretty accurate re-telling of, even if you haven’t picked up a Bible in years. This is the night that God Almighty, all-powerful and all-knowing chose to be confined to a human state.  This is the night God revealed that Divine nature would be humble and fragile, and that Divine entrance would be announced by shepherds and angels.  God on high living among the lowly, eternal presence becoming mortal, maker of all things being carried in the womb of a teenager -- all these confounding characteristics are what we call the incarnation.

Incarnation is a pivotal cornerstone of the Christian faith, the understanding of God’s place in our lives and world is born out of the incarnational promise that God is not watching us from a distance as crooner Bette Midler would have us believe, but our Lord and Maker is instead intimately working and redeeming us as we struggle with our own lowly, mortal lives. Martin Luther said it this way,
“This is the kingdom of faith in which the cross of Christ rules, throwing down the divinity we desired and recovering our humanity and despised weakness of the flesh we abandoned.”
The incarnation of God in the form of the Christ child was God being God and though we are rebellious and proud, in this birthing moment we are freed and made into the people of God.
This loving act of incarnation is the foundation of the Christian faith, yet we don’t hear so much about this at Christmas time. Incarnation doesn’t exactly fit into the catchy Christmas tunes or read so well on a necklace.  During the Christmas season which begins sometime in mid-October we hear of “cheer” and “wonder” which look so great on Christmas cards and “hope” and “joy” fit onto the ornaments. Now, cheer and hope are beautiful things to be lifting up and sending out into our communities, but I dare say that they do not even begin to capture the fullness of the incarnational gift of the Christ child. But who can fit “incarnational gift of the Christ child” on the Christmas card?
Is it possible, that over the years, have we become desensitized to the miracle of Emmanuel?
Are we too familiar with the story to gasp at the promise born as a baby?
Does the incarnational gift of the Christ child have a place in our lives?

Or, to put it more succinctly -- Jesus is, what?

Let’s tell the truth for a moment, many of us are more than ready to turn the calendar to a new year.  The year of 2016 has been full of trials and tribulations -- national, community, person trials.  I stumbled upon an article that was laying out the most significant events of 2016 and as I read my way through the list there was a clear theme of division and hatred, prejudice and the pervasive sin of indifference.

Our national election, international hacking, the Syrian humanitarian crisis and continued civil war, increases of shootings on people of color and hate crimes.  Water crises in Michigan and North Dakota and the unknowing the fate of so many refugees, families, and children.

Does that incarnational gift of the Christ child really have anything to do with our bound, violent, reality?

Tonight we confess our faith and by the power of the holy spirit we say “Yes”.  Yes, our Savior’s birth must speak to our lives and to the lives of the lowly in our world. People of God, we are the people of God because of this Christ child.  We are washed in waters of forgiveness, we are told to go to the manager and see the Messiah, the promised One fulfilling the promises of God and liberating all those who are in captive to sin and self. We are invited to work in God’s kingdom which, as Luther said, is ruled over with the cross of mercy and favors the lowly, the hurting, the marginalized, the sinner. We are promised that God Almighty has made us into a new creation, a creature of redemption and hope and life eternal.  People of God, that is how the incarnation touches us, transforms us.

And if that all sounds like churchy-high-holy speak, and sometimes, it does to me too...then we need to pause even longer at the manger until we can see the miracle of Emmanuel, until the familiar story of Christmas becomes the story we live, until we can see the incarnational gift of the Christ child pushing us to serve our neighbors because they are hurting and holy too.

A few nights ago I was having dinner with some college friends and ended up sitting across from my dear friend who is also a pastor.  She began telling us a story about a woman from another culture and country who is now working in the US as a surgeon.  This woman was thriving professionally but suffering emotionally and spiritually.

During her wandering in a foreign land this woman somehow wandered into my friend’s church just a few weeks ago as the Advent season was beginning.  She was greeting with a smile, she was offered a seat in the sanctuary, she was welcomed to share her beautiful singing voice with the choir.  And after two weekends of this kind treatment she told my friend, the pastor, that she had never experienced this God before. Being welcomed and accepted by church ushers and choir directors this woman felt as though she did not dare leave the parking lot for fear that she might fall from grace and this love she had experienced would go away.  You see, the narrative for her whole life was comprised of messages of not-belonging, not being worthy enough or clean enough or loved enough to enter into a holy space like a church.  With reverence and awe my friend told this woman about Jesus, born in the most unworthy, unclean way who came with love for every single person on this earth. My friend told me this story with tears in her eyes, she felt the miracle of the Christmas birth she had heard so many times before because she was seeing it come to life for the first time in the heart of a stranger. The power of grace covered both the wandering woman and the pastor as they encountered each other.

Tonight we worship God because Jesus has been born and hearing of redemption in another’s story gives us the the response to that “So, what?” question.

The implications of this “incarnational gift of the Christ child” are astounding! Through God’s embrace of our lot and our lives, we not only learn about God – that God is love, that God will not give up on us -- we also learn something about ourselves and, indeed, the whole creation. That we have worth. That we and the whole creation is of precious value to God. God came to dwell in ordinary human flesh and in this way hallowed it and all creation and so set the pattern for us to similarly honor each other and the whole created order.
God does see the suffering of our world and out of love brings the incarnational gift of the Christ child to all those who live in when you light your candle tonight, I encourage you to sing and pray not just for yourself, but also for the homeless, the refugee, the young parents, the wars in our world, the injustice we live in.  Because this story about a homeless refugee born to an unwed teenage mom in an occupied land has something to say to us. And may that grace be born in us, brilliantly and fervently lighting this world.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight

Come, Lord Jesus.  Amen.