Tag: John the Baptist

To Gather Up All Things

Ephesians 1:3-14 glitter
Mark 6:14-29

Sometimes our lectionary hands us readings that are very difficult to understand and fathom. I feel like this Sunday’s have given us two hard to delve into texts. One is an introductory  letter to the Ephesians; and the other is a long aside about John the Baptizer in the gospel of Mark. Supposedly, they’re related! Whoever worked on the lectionary outline believes so.

Therefore, let’s take a close look at Ephesians and see what the author is claiming, and then let’s use that like a lens, something to help us focus, on Mark’s story.

The letter to Ephesians is broke up in English into sentences, but in Greek, it is one big long sentence listing blessing after blessing that is showed upon us from God.

1. The first blessings is that before the world was built, God chose us for adoption. To be children of God, although we have mortal parents, and although most of us aren’t biological descendants of Abraham – God’s chosen. So – why did God do this? Because God is good. God chose this for God’s own good pleasure and will. Not because of anything we’ve done. God just decided God wants to create us, and create us to be loved.

2. The second blessing is God freely chose to give us God’s Beloved. Not only were we chosen to be children, but given God’s beloved child Jesus. When God created us, we were created for praise. So just living praises Jesus.

3. Our third blessings is that in Jesus, we have redemption, forgiveness of our trespasseses or sins, and this is due to the rich grace of God and again – not because of anything we have done.

4. Fourth – we know the mystery of God’s will, because God wants us to know it out of God’s love for us. We know God’s will because we know Jesus. This will is to love God and love one another!

5. Fifth, in the fullness of time, in the right moment, God will gather up everything on heaven and earth and bring us all together as one. Love unites us.

6. Sixth, in Christ we’ve been given an inheritance — a gift– from God. This is the Holy Spirit within us. It, again, is a free gift from God.

7. Seventh blessing – That Spirit works in us to accomplish everything God has planned. So when you don’t know how to love God or love another, you can pause, pray, think, reflect, and listen for the Spirit to guide you.

8. An eighth blessing – As we work for God, we live in praise and glory of God. We’re not asked to live counter to our nature or to God. We’re asked to live our lives, and in living, love. That love is a constant prayer of praise for God.

9. Nine blessings! All who have the seal of the Holy Spirit, all who have the Spirit within them, have gotten a down payment towards the full redemptive work of God. It’s a foretaste, a little snack, of the big meal to come when we’re all one in love and unity in God.

10. And ten! Ten blessings! And all of this is because God is gracious and glorious. Not because of any deed any human has done.

So what does all that mean?

It means Christianity is a weed.

You might try to get rid of it, but it comes back because God generously spreads love’s seeds everywhere. You may ignore God, but God won’t ignore you. You may curse God, but God is going to keep showering love and blessings on you because THAT IS WHO GOD IS.

Who is God? We have seen God in Jesus. What did Jesus do? Live generously; preach courageously; advocate spiritual, physical, and mental health; and confront all forces that harm others. All this he did humbly, and did not return violence for violence.

Like a weed, this movement won’t die. It just keeps resurrecting. Because the love of God is life itself. All of creation was made and is made in love. Although death is a part of reality, it isn’t the final word. Life is the final word. Resurrection. Life after death. Life continuing to beat the odds and find a way because God wants it to.

It means Christianity is a weed, or glitter (as in the kids’ chat), or fire – and spreads and spreads because it is God’s will to spread love all around!

Mark tells us of how Jesus sent out his disciples spreading the movement of God’s love. They came back with good news of the success of healing people, inviting people into God’s new age, and forgiving sins. That’s when our story begins today when Herod realizes this love won’t die.

King Herod Antipas hears of this success of Jesus’ movement too. He hears some people commenting, “Jesus is John, come back from the dead!”
Others say, “Oh no. Jesus is Elijah, come back from heaven!”
And others say, “He is a brand new prophet, but is as powerful as our ancient prophets.”

Herod, however, has no doubts. He is quivering in his sandals. Jesus is surely John resurrected. And who killed John?

Herod.

Perhaps Herod is thinking of the prophets who have wrote God says ‘Vengeance is mine, sayth the Lord.’ Perhaps Herod is terrified because he ordered the death of God’s holy man. This Jesus fellow can heal the sick, raise the dead, and has a direct line of communication with God. What is God going to do to the man who killed God’s prophet?

Herod is scared.

Mark takes a moment then to explain how Herod got in this position. Some years ago, Herod took his sister-in-law as his wife. John appeared from the desert saying, “Hey! That’s not right! You can’t take another’s wife just because you’re the king!” This is much the same situation that got King David in trouble, when he stole Bathsheba from her husband.

Now, Bathsheba hated David for doing this and killing her husband Uriah. She worked against David.

Herodias, however, doesn’t want her brother-in-law-husband to dump her. She likes being the queen. So she works against John.

The issue is… she can’t do anything without Herod’s permission… so she has to scheme a way to kill John and make it look like an accident… or convince her husband some way to kill John.

As Herodias schemes to kill John, Jesus begins to learn from John. This is the beginning of Mark’s gospel. Jesus is John’s disciple until John is arrested by King Herod just a few verses into the story. You see, Herod can keep a close eye on John in the dungeon. It is protective custody. It is saving Herod from Herod’s wife Herodias who has people out in the cities seeking to kill John.

Herod listens to John, and knows John is a holy man. John speaks and it perplexes Herod, but Herod likes it.

The first banquet of Mark is thrown for Herod’s birthday. Lots of people and guests and leaders attend. There, Herod and Herodias’ little girl dances. Her doting father is so pleased, he makes the same foolish offer as the king in Esther’s story: name anything you want, up to half of the kingdom, and it is your’s!

The little girl goes to her mother and asks, “What should I ask for?”

Her mother doesn’t waste a moment. “The head of John the baptizer.”

Picture this little girl, the word means she’s under the age of 12, dancing back out to her daddy before all the heads of state and saying, “I want the head of John the baptizer… on a platter!”

Leave it to a child to embellish their requests with ‘on a platter.’ I wonder if she did it to try to gain her mother’s pleasure. I’m certain Herodias was tickled pink.

We’re told Herod is deeply grieved. But everyone is watching. Will he renege on his oath? If he will, what other oaths will he violate? He won’t even keep an oath to his little girl… imagine the lies he’s telling the other heads of state.

So Herod sends for a guard to behead John. The head is put on a platter and given to the child. She leaves and gives it to her mother. A sneaky, sly mother and a foolish, weak father led to the death of God’s prophet.

John’s disciples hear of the gruesome capital punishment, and come and get John’s body and bury him.

Why does Mark take all this space to tell us this story? Mark – who wastes no words and who’s favorite word is ‘immediately?’

Because it is foreshadowing John’s disciple, Jesus.

Jesus will host the next banquet in the story and invite all the outcasts from the state. He will preach against the state when its leaders are immoral. Jesus will be arrested and brought before the leader Pilate. Pilate will listen to Jesus, and be perplexed, and admire him. Pilate will find Jesus to be a holy man, and not want Jesus killed. But for the sake of keeping face, and staying in power, Pilate will order Jesus’ gruesome death during a time that should be a celebration. Jesus’ disciples will take Jesus’ body and bury it.

Will that be the end of the story?

Was it the end of the story for John?

No. God kept on acting. Bringing out new voices out of the woodwork, raising up new songs from the very stones every time people were silenced.

Like a weed, the movement won’t stop appearing.

Like a mustard seed, it just keeps growing and spreading.

As told to us in the letter of Ephesians, from the beginning of time God’s been working on teaching us humans generosity, love, care for God’s garden, care for each other, and morality.

From the beginning of time, God’s been sending us prophets, messages, dreams and visions and voices to guide us.

From the beginning of time, God’s been creating and recreating our world and we, in it.

From the beginning of time, God has willed, mysteriously, goodness upon all things.

Greed and fear can’t crush this goodness. It might kill it. It might spray Round-Up on it. Greed might steal the last miter of the widow; gobble up the single-parent houses; or make orphans of refugees. But God won’t let greed win.

Fear might drive the people to mob mentalities where they cry out to crucify their very savior; abuse their fellow neighbor; and attempt to exploit the strangers who are angels in disguise. But God won’t let fear win.

Blessing upon blessing continuously and ponderously tip the scales of the world towards goodness. Generosity upon generosity, forgiveness upon forgiveness, grace upon grace continue to counter whatever evil springs forth from our hearts, moves our hands, poisons our minds, and promotes a hell on Earth in the name of security, national pride, or the economy.

God does this not because we’re good. Not because we’ve got it all together. But because God is good. And God wants good for us. God wants good for God’s creation.

Our job is to be messengers of this goodness and help spread it along. We’re the rainbow of hope in our uncertain world. We’re the chosen community working to live into God’s reign, now. We’re the children of God who have chosen to give up our citizenship to the United States of America, or Great Britain, or Canada, or Mexico, or planet Earth and take on the citizenship of the Kindom of God.

So we’re ambassadors. Bringing messages like those very first disciples of repentance, forgiveness, healing, and love to village after village. We’re a rebellion. Preaching peace in war; forgiveness to wrongs; and God’s love for all. We’re God’s children.

Greed and fear will always be attacking us, locking us up, silencing us… but we’re mustard seeds. A light on a hill. A contagious laughter filled with the Holy Spirit that is resurrected again and again again until all things are gathered into one.

Amen.

Advertisements

Teeched in the Head – Pentecost

John 15:26-27:16:4b-15 Farmer.png
Acts 2:1-21

Jesus promises his disciples the Advocate, someone to argue in our favor and speak council to us. It will be a Spirit of Truth that comes from God and will testify, speak, words on Jesus’ behalf. This Spirit will guide us into Truth.

But when the Advocate came, after Jesus was gone, it sure didn’t look like Truth. The Holy Spirit took over the early Christians and they began to testify in many languages, babbling like at Babel, but instead of meaningless confusion, they speak meaningful stories of miracles and forgiveness and new life.

Some of the crowd sneers, “They’re drunk!” Drunk, and speaking nonsense.

As we heard, Peter counters, “They’re not drunk! Rather, ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.”

But did you know, prophecy and senselessness come from the same Greek root meaning. Mantis is a seer, a prophet who foretells the future in ancient Greek; and mania is senselessness, madness.

In the ancient world, great oracles tended to have a temple where they put their head over a volcanic crack in the ground, or drank chemically tainted spring water, or consumed oleander, or one way or another got high. And then, in their drugged state, they spoke of the visions they saw.

In the Bible, John the Baptist is either a maniac or a mantis. He is in the desert, eating honey and bugs, dressed in camel hair. He is also foretelling the future, speaking of God’s coming, and calling people to return to their faith.

Unorthodox. Not normal. Offensive. Crazy. Insightful. Humanizing. Challenging. Touched by God.

Teeched, is what we said back home. Someone is teeched in the head by God. Touched in the head by God. And we meant they were not normal. Mentally ill, mentally different, or somehow unorthodox.

It was a bit derogatory, just like the people in the crowd speaking about the apostles “they’re filled on new wine.” “She’s teeched in the head.” Dismissive. Those people don’t matter. They’re insane. They need counselors and medication and maybe an asylum.

I carried that negative attitude about mental health and abilities with me out of my home village.

And when I became depressed, I refused to get help. I’m not teeched. I don’t need medication or counseloring. What good does it do anyway? It’s just talking. I can talk. Besides, nothing is wrong with me anyways.

I poured myself into my job. And my classes. The harder I worked the less time I had to think about my own worries and sadness and anger.

The more anxious I got, the more it felt like I was choking when I went to eat. So I stopped eating.

Soon I was working full time, going to school full time, getting straight A’s, and losing weight and looking great. What could be wrong?

The thing about depression is it shows up in many different ways. Sometimes, it is sadness and sleepiness and weight gain. Other times, it is hyper activity and sleeplessness and weight loss.

I kept saying I was fine.

My employer knew better. A faithful Christian, and motherly, she took me aside and told me she knew how much was going on in my life, and she’d witnessed me working more and more hours, eating less and less, and my grades doing great… “And I think you need someone to talk to.”

NO! No! I’m not teeched! I’m perfectly normal and orthodox and ignore me!

So she rephrased it, “Until you talk with someone, I don’t want you working because you’re using it to avoid thinking about your troubles.”

So I went to go talk with someone. And sure enough – she said I was depressed; and needed medication, and meeting and talking. I was angry. I was … ashamed.

Ashamed. Embarrassed.

There’s such a stigma around mental health! Whether we are born with mental health concerns, like those we took an offering for at Hope Homes today, or whether we acquire them over time, like I had, either way… our society dismisses and disapproves of psychologists, counselors, and anyone who has mental health concerns.

If someone takes a “mental health day” we consider them weak.

If someone needs counseloring or medication, we consider them unfit for some jobs, and to own some items.

The stigma has us trying to hide such people away from society… and when there is no money to do so, we kick them onto the streets for short, hard lives.

Most homeless people have mental health concerns. And, poor, unable to get the medication to help them, they self medicate with street drugs and alcohol.

But it’s not just homeless people.

It’s also farmers.

Out of all professions, farmers have the highest suicide rates. We work long hours. Often lonely. And the margin between profit and loss is so slim… that every little movement made in Washington DC, every rain storm and frost and sunny day, every deportation and disruption of migrant workers’ lives, changes if it is a win year or a lose year. A 12 year low for crops is predicted for this year due to international sanctions and bans; the crazy weather; and changes in the Farm Bill. One of these changes is revising or removing crop insurance.

And farmers are killing themselves. Dairy farmers. Crop farmers. Small time farms that struggle against factory business farms are getting so deeply in debt that death looks like the only way out.

And in rural areas, there are few social workers, few counselors, few psychologists, and a great stigma against being ‘teeched in the head.’

… I know. I didn’t want help. I would have rather worked myself to death… and if a certain day the pressure was just too much… just find a way to relieve it. And end my life.

Religion was the bastion, the home, of original mental health help before there were counselors or psychologists. And many counselors and psychologists are deeply spiritual, but keep it from their practicing life unless the client invites such to not offend the person visiting them.

And almost every pastor sees a counselor or psychologist.

Our physical health is important. If we break an arm, we go and get it set.

If we are spiritually hurting, we reach out to a pastor or fellow Christian and ask for prayer.

Why do we deny ourselves mental help for when our minds, our emotions, need assistance?

Just stigma. Just not wanting to be seen as drunk on new wine or teeched in the head.

Well, it’s a bit too late. Just as your body and your soul needs tending, so does your mind. And we’ve all got the Holy Spirit within us. We’re all teeched. All Touched by God.

We’re all already the drunk ones, already the ones the world thinks are not normal, already dancing to the beat of a different drum.

Whether we call that mantis, and prophesy, or mania, and senselessness, is a matter of perspective.

A matter of whether we will embrace our mental abilities, and care for our mental health… or whether we will ignore it, deride those who seek help, and separate ourselves further into isolation.

This is a stigma the world places on us. Not the Bible. In the Bible, it is a very good thing to be touched by God and teeched in the head.

Amen.

Dancing in the Spirit

Genesis 1:1-5water
Mark 1:4-11

Water throughout the Bible –

In the beginning – our translation today says a wind from God sweeps over the face of the waters. But this could also be translated as the spirit of God hovered, the breath of God danced, the soul of God fluttered.

Much like a dove’s flight.

A dove’s flight tells Noah when the waters are receding.

The Spirit, like a descending dove, alight upon Jesus at his baptism in waters bringing God’s personal words of love.

Water in the Bible is the source of life. Out of water, God brings forth peoples and animals, plants and insects, birds and fish. Out of water, to this day, we are born from our mothers. Water is life.

Water is cleansing! Water is used as a holy bath before approaching the temple of God. Water is used to cleanse hands before prayer, and feet upon entering houses, and, of course, our baptisms.

Yet, water is also death. The Red Sea parts for escaping Moses, but it comes back together to kill the Egyptians. Noah and his family survive the flood, but that flood kills all other humans and animals and life.

Hand in hand, life and death, water is given to us.

Baptisms are the same water. The water God first made, and the water that Jesus walked upon… but also the water that makes up blood, spilled on battle field after battle field, city after city, and upon the cross.

Water changes, is renewed, but remains the very same water, same molecules, through all time. Through rain and snow, through rivers and underground creeks, through oceans and through the organs of animals and leaves of plants. I’m sure you’ve heard the joke that we’re drinking dinosaur pee. We are. But we’re also drinking the water that Abraham gave to visiting strangers – angels! – and the water God gave to Hagar and the water that anointed Jesus.

Water is death and life. Water is full of billions of previous creature’s lives and it enables the current life of billions of creatures.

The spirit of God dances throughout it.

When we are baptized, we are baptized not just in the name of God, Christ, and Spirit… but we are baptized into the DEATH of Jesus.

Symbolically, we drown. We go down. We die. We return to water, or rather, return the waters God gifted us.

Symbolically, we cease.

Spiritually, the old us DOES die.

And in the baptism, with coming up, with drying off the water, we are baptized into the LIFE of Jesus. A new life. Reborn. Reborn of not just water, but also the Spirit of God.

Symbolically, we have over come death.

Symbolically, we have emerged back into the world anew.

Spiritually, we are a new creation.

In baptism, we die and conquered death. We follow Christ to the grave and beyond. We see and affirm that nothing can separate us from the Love of God. We see and affirm the Spirit that dances all through creation also dances within us. We see and affirm the way of Christ is one of life and death, joys and sorrows, mixed blessings, muddy waters that are hard to discern and crystal clear waters that refresh us again and again. We see and affirm we are followers of Christ.

We see and affirm we are the children of God, loved, beloved, and with whom God is well pleased.

Rejoice in your baptisms! Remembered or not. Rejoice in other’s baptisms! Seen, or not. Rejoice in the baptisms that have happened, are happening, and will happen – for the Spirit unites us all as one in holy rites such as these.

Amen.

Testify to the Light

Isaiah 61:1-4; 8-11
John 1:6-8, 19-28
egg-3
Rachael Djaba and Ben grin and show off a couple of the family’s hens. (by Heifer International)

Isaiah sounds as if he is writing a song of joy… saying things like “Good news to the oppressed!” and “I will greatly rejoice!” but Isaiah is actually writing a lament. A song of sorrow.

You see, returning is not restoration.

The exiles from Babylon have returned to Jerusalem and found the holy temple of God destroyed. The city and its surrounding cities destroyed. Ruins. And at first, they were so happy to leap into action. The returning Jewish population told the local population who were not exiled just what was what. The returning population were those priests and scribes and educated folk. The population who stayed were average people, and poor people. Over time, strife grew among them.

“Let’s build back the temple of God!” said those returning.

So the locals did… but the new temple was not as marvelous as Solomon’s. And the returned Jews grumbled, ‘You just can’t get good help! This thing looks awful!’

And the remaining Jews grumbled, ‘This is the best we could do. Who are these soft people to tell US what to do? WE who had to stay and try to survive in ruin?”

And the two groups bicker.

Isaiah brings the Good News to both: the oppressed locals and the brokenhearted returned exiles. He says God will gift them joy, garland, instead of sorrow and ashes. They, together, are a planting of the Lord and will be great trees to display God’s glory. Together they will rebuild cities and the devastations of many generations.

Indeed – returning is not restoration.

Going back to a place is not the same as restoring a place.

Being in a place is not the same as flourishing in a place.

Consider the families in California, Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico (among many other places). When they return home from evacuating from fires and hurricanes, they don’t find a HOME. They find a place, where once their home was. Houses are gone. Familiar trees and landmarks reduced to rubble. There is a long process of rebuilding the houses.

And even when the rebuilding is done, over months, there is still not restoration. Some people never come back and choose to live where they evacuated. Your neighbor of twenty years now lives 2000 miles away. Some buildings are not rebuilt. If, God forbid, we were to lose this church we’re in… you cannot build a new church and have it be 175 year old lovingly restored brick and slate. It is a new building, with a new history.

And our lives- their lives- are forever changed. All that time without work, all that money invested into rebuilding, all that effort.

The American Civil War was 152 years ago and yet STILL you can see its effects in our politics, in our buildings, in our church denominations even and so forth.

Returning to a place, or even liberating a people, does not mean there is restoration.

Restoration is a hard job that takes more than just being present.

Each Sunday I have been speaking about an alternative gift idea for your loved ones for Christmas. On the first Sunday of Advent, I spoke about reusing, regifting, and also passing on your photos and stories as ways to live into hope and future-thinking.

Last Sunday, I spoke about ANERA, the American Near-East Refugee Aid, as a way to gift peace monetarily into the Middle East. I also spoke about working locally living peace by learning about and welcoming the stranger.

Today, I speak about Heifer International – who are bringing joy around the world and not just being in an area, but restoring an area. Today I ask you to consider giving a flock of chickens, or a pair of goats, to a family somewhere in the world in the name of a loved one for Christmas. Just as our Baltimore – Millersport kids gifted sheep with our Barn Yard Round Up VBS.

Now, if you don’t know the story yet, let me tell you a bit about the non-profit.

“Dan West, a farmer and youth leader, was a relief worker during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. While passing out powdered milk to children on both sides of the conflict, he grieved when the supply of milk ran out with children still waiting in line. He reasoned that these people needed “not a cup, but a cow.” He challenged his farmer friends at home to send heifers. Because he believed that everyone who receives should also experience the dignity of giving, West came up with the idea of Passing on the Gift. Every family who receives a Heifer animal, he insisted, should pass on one of their animal’s offspring to someone else in need.”

Heifer only enter communities upon invitation. They train project participants extensively on a host of topics that range from animal husbandry to gender equity. Even down to what kinds of grass produce the best milk. But the education and generosity doesn’t end there.

Each family who is given all this know-how AND the flock of chickens, milking cows, goats, or llamas or sheep are asked to pass this same knowledge and animals to another family when their own animals have offspring. This turns people who received, into givers, and empowers everyone. Also, “the impact of the original gift is doubled, at minimum, proving that small actions lead to big results” – lasting, transformative change occurs not just for one family, but for the whole community.

For instance, hear the story of Rachael Djaba, of Ghana, She and her husband and seven biological kids, live in “a rural area, populated mostly by subsistence farmers and fiishermen. For many of them, their income rarely stretches to cover much more than banku and fufu, traditional fare made of plantains, cassava or corn. These foods offer plenty of carbohydrates, but little else.” Many people in this area are stunted, anemic, and very ill. One day the family found a week old baby abandoned by his mentally ill mother. So they took him in as their eight child because, as Rachel says, “Even though we think we are poor, there are people more poor than us.”

This little baby, named Ben, seven months later, qualified the family to participate in a research project on nutrition with a university teamed up with Heifer international. The requirement was a family who had a child under the age of 1. And, because the Djaba’s chose to help out others even in their poverty, they, blessedly, now would be the recipients of aid.

All the families “who joined the project received 40 chickens and training on how to raise, care for and sell any excess eggs and poultry that were left after providing children in the family with at least one egg a day. Families also got seeds for home gardens. Because vegetables had been considered a rare luxury before, project participants had to learn how to cook with them and incorporate them regularly into their diets. By introducing eggs and leafy greens to the families’ diets and helping them set up businesses that produce a regular stream of income, Heifer and their partners hoped to curb malnutrition and give children a better start.”

In the Djaba’s case, baby Ben is THRIVING! And so are the 40 birds. They have turned into 170 birds on the little farm with another 80 birds already given or sold away. 20 crates of eggs are sold locally now. At one time, Rachel had to take out loans to buy medication for her constantly ill kids and they rarely went to school. Now, they haven’t been ill in two years and are in regular schooling.

And it’s because of generosity. People generously give to Heifer International, the Djaba family were generous to the little week old baby, and now everyone in their rural area has access to eggs and vegetables and are much healthier.

This is what restoration is. This is what the kin-dom of God looks like. This is fortunes reversed, the earth springing forth new life, and liberty from debt, release from poverty, comfort to mourners, and joy.

The joy of God.

The joy that loves justice and builds up others.

Going back to a place is not the same as restoring a place.

Being in a place is not the same as flourishing in a place.

John comes baptizing and calling people back to God. As you know, believers and doubters and the plain curious go out to meet him in the desert. They go out to the place. Most he calls vipers and snakes. Some realize the truth he is preaching and return to God.

To all, John says you’re here – at the PLACE – returning back to God, but that’s not the same as restored. “I baptize with water; but there is one who is coming after me, and I am not worthy to untie his shoes.” As you know, other Gospels continue, “He will baptize you with fire, and the Holy Spirit.”

John says, I give you a cup of milk — but the cow is coming.

I give you a band aid, but the great physician is on his way.

I am not the light – but I testify to the light.

WE are called to do the same. WE are called to live into this light, to testify to it, and to ‘make straight the way of the Lord.’

We are called to restore each other and lead one another to the ever-restoring waters of Christ. We are called to not just go to a place – not just go to church – but be the church that is restored, and restoring, others.

We are not the light, but we testify to the light.

And for this light, for this invitation to not just return, but to be RESTORED – we can rejoice!

The Lord has anointed you with water, and fire, and the Holy Spirit to bring good news, and proclaim the favor of the lord. Go and do so!

Amen.

 

All quoted text that isn’t Biblical is from Heifer International’s website, December, 2017, and their children’s Christian education flyer

Called By Name

Isaiah 43:1-7
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Do I have any Inside Out fans? Anyone who’s seen the movie? That’s a movie about more than emotions. That’s a movie on identity.

And what happens when your identity begins to crumble.

The main human girl, Riley, moves with her mom and dad from Minnesota to San Francisco. This change in location changes her core-memories, the core of her personality. The emotion-people in her head try to keep her the Riley they knew in Minnesota, but the worlds inside of Riley keep collapsing as her external world keeps NOT being Minnesota.

In other words, she has an identity crisis.

Who is Riley that lives in San Francisco?

She isn’t the Riley who lives in Minnesota and plays hockey on the pond.

Who is Riley?

Have you ever been like Riley and not known who you are? It usually happens when we’re teenagers — when we feel stuck between being a kid and being an adult… That moment when you realize hanging out with the kids is boring because they’re too concerned with make believe, and hanging out with the adults is boring because they’re too concerned with the real world… and you don’t fit well in either place. Who are you? Where do you belong?

I felt this way when I realized I was now engaged and going to marry my husband. Up to that moment, my identity was ‘seeking.’ Watching for someone to date, watching for a match, giggling with friends about what ifs… and suddenly, all of that was over. Somehow, I had slipped from my cohort of single girls seeking guys into the category of girl with a guy… And not only I felt it, my friends did too. How were they to relate to me?

I have seen a man or a woman lose their love one before, after a long and blessed marriage, and that widow or widower is so… lost. For decades, their identity was ‘I am a wife/husband.’ For decades, they knew who to turn to, to share stories, ask questions, and center their lives around. But now… it is as if their life is hollow. The core of their life is gone. When we lose someone so dear to us, it feels like a piece of us has died… perhaps it really has died… for we are no longer the same. But who are we then?

Divorces. Kids. Parents who no longer can care for us but who now need us to care for them. Loss of job. Change of job. A new illness. A disability. Aging…

… Am I still the world’s best cook when I can’t get the energy to cook anymore?

I wonder what the people coming to John the Baptist were struggling with. I can think of many things… They had been told for a long, long time… for generations… that they were God’s chosen people. Called by name. That nations would be paid – sacrificed – to rescue them. Told again and again God loved them, was with them, favored them as God’s own children…

… and yet, here they were: occupied. Paying their food and money to their occupiers. They no longer had the Davidic line ruling; instead, they had puppet kings of Rome.

Their own religion was threatened. Caesar sent out gospels, good news alerts, of how he’d taken this town or that town — occupied new regions– and the people should pray to him because through Caesar alone salvation came. Caesar gave roads, gave food, gave unity, gave peace: but you had to submit and worship Caesar as the son of the gods.

… The people of Israel witnessed loved ones beginning to believe the propaganda. Watched loved ones say, ‘I could be a Jew and a second-class citizen, or a slave, all my life… or I could just convert, praise Caesar, and become a Roman Citizen.’

The people coming to John had people who were in identity crises. Who am I? What does it mean to be a Jew? What does it mean to wait for the Messiah? What does it mean to be a child of God? Can I serve two masters at one time – Caesar and God? Can I be Roman during the week and Jewish on the holidays and Sabbath? Who am I?

And they also asked John, Who are you? Are you the Messiah? Are you the one who is going to provide answers? Are you the one we’re waiting for? Can we stop waiting?

You heard in our reading, John tells the people he is not the Messiah. He predicts God will come and sort the people into the pure and the impure. God will give rest to the pure, and purify the impure. “I baptize you with water… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

A spirit of holiness, the Spirit of God, and flames, fire to add to the river’s water.

I hear in John’s words an echo of the Prophet Isaiah.

Isaiah once prophesized that God said, “When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and through the rivers,
they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire
you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.”

Through water and fire, through rivers and flames, through good times and bad times, through life and death, God will be with us. Whatever we wade through, whatever trials by fire we face, and even death itself – none of these will be the last of us. Our promise and assurance is that God has the final word.

As John’s baptism gave people the opportunity to commit themselves to the coming Christ; gave them the opportunity to say ‘I stand with God and not with Caesar;’ gave them the opportunity to claim their identity as a Child of God… so too, did Isaiah give us an identity.

Isaiah tells us the words of God. The words that proclaim God made us. God redeemed us. God tells us not the fear for, “I have called you by name. You are mine… I am… your God.” All that I do, I do “because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you. Do not fear for I am with you.”

Who am I? Who is my core?

Each time we recall our baptisms, we can recall just who is at our core. Who our solid center is. This world is always changing, always making new identities for us, but we can cling fast to our identity as children of God: formed, redeemed, called, and loved.

Rev. Kathryn Matthews of the UCC writes, “Today, in churches around the world, people are still being baptized, still being washed in the living waters, still thirsting for God’s grace and a word of forgiveness and life, still waiting to be included, to find their place in the story of healing and salvation, still longing for the chance to start their life over. Just like those crowds coming out to the wilderness so long ago, with Jesus right there in their midst. The voice from heaven says, “You are my Child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” These words may come from heaven but they do not come out of the blue: they echo God’s words from Isaiah long before: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine…you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you”

God remembers us, Isaiah says; in fact, God reassures us, “I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands” (49:16). God’s love didn’t start yesterday, or even in the New Testament. It is ancient, before time, it is from of old, and it is focused on each and every one of us, by name. We belong to God, and God loves us. It’s as if God is trying to say to each one of us, “No matter what happens and no matter how low and discouraged you feel, no matter what is happening around you and in your life, don’t you ever let anyone tell you that you are anything but a precious and beloved child of God.””

Who are you?

A precious and beloved child of God.

Amen.

Light of the World

Isaiah 9:2-7
John 1:1-14

Darkness… nothingness… emptiness… silence…

There is a void, no form, and the spirit, the wind, the voice of God hovers over the face of the deep darkness.

And then suddenly, God SPEAKS. “Let there be light!”

And there is light – stars, burning blazing suns, glistening comets, churning atoms and vibrant energy — and God sees this light, and it is called good.

God speaks more, and more — land and water, birds and bees, trees and fish, bugs and animals, you and me — God speaks us into existence. God’s word is life.

In the beginning, the word of God, the voice of God, the intention of God always exists with God — and is God — and God creates all things into being by speaking. God’s speech and action are one and the same. When God speaks, life happens.

And this word, which is the truth of God, and which all things gain their breath of life, and which deeds and intentions, actions and word are one and the same — this incredible word became flesh and lived among us.

The word of God, God’s voice, became the man we call Jesus.

This light, the very light of God, was gifted to all who are the children of God.

The Gospel of John takes us to the Nativity Scene in such a cosmic route. He reminds us of Genesis, and how the speech and deed of God started everything, and the speech and deed of God continues everything. The speech and deed of God, writes John, is present in Jesus.

When Jesus speaks, his words change reality. When Jesus does something, his deeds speak loudly of who God is.

This concept of speech and deed being one and the same isn’t as heady as you might imagine. Think about this: when is a person ‘married?’ Maybe from the moment they said “I Do?” Those words change reality. These performance utterances CHANGE the world just with the speech.

“I name you John.”
“You are under arrest.”
“I apologize.”
“I dedicate this example to St. Michael’s.”
“Court is now in session.”

Reality before and after these words is different. The words change things.

Some of the most powerful words God ever spoke were through the mouth of Jesus.

Jesus said, “Go. You are forgiven.” and in doing so, forgave sins against God.

“This is the blood of the new covenant, shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.” In speaking such, he made it so.

In speaking forgiveness, forgiveness happened. In speaking a new covenant, a new promise was made.

John writes to us that this power to change reality we, too, possess. We can use our words, our deeds and intentions, to say “I forgive you of your debts against me,” and make it true. We can forgive as we are forgiven. We can love as we are loved. We can be a light to the world because the light of the world has come.

John goes to such lengths to explain how Jesus truly is the incarnate word of God – truly is God’s breath, Word, wisdom, truth put into a human body.

This is a very, very important concept in our religion. It is a huge point of difference between ourselves and our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters.

We preach, and believe, that God God’s self was in Jesus.

That is why we say Jesus is Emmanuel – God With Us. That is why we say God chose to share our common lot. God became human. It is why we say God truly understands what it is to be human… because, in Jesus, God was human.

God experienced being born.

Teething.

God experienced the frustration and joy of siblings, cousins, relatives.

Those awkward teenage years.

God knows what it is to hunger and thirst, to be in pain, to be lonely. God knows what it is to be joyful, to be surprised, to be loved.

God knows what it is like to be you and me.

The incarnation of the Word of God is also why we say God came to us… rather than we went to God.

None of us can choose to be divine.

But God chose to come to us.

We are now already chosen. Already loved. Already forgiven. Already a child of God. It’s nothing we can choose, but a gift given to us. A precious, precious gift.

And all we can do is decide how to respond to this gift.

Joy? Hope? Love? Peace?

Awe? Stunned silence? Tears?

Perhaps something beyond words.

When we share communion today, listen to the words that are used. Listen to how words shape our reality, shape our response to God’s gift. Listen and say the words yourself.

Our Lord is God’s Word. And God’s word is a lamp unto our feet. A guide. A way to respond to the gift of God’s abiding, God-with-us, love. Amen.

Where is the joy?

Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:7-18

Joy to the world!
Joyful joyful we adore thee!
How great our joy!
O tidings of comfort and joy!
Joyful all ye nations rise!
Bringing joy to every boy and girl!

… Do you ever get tired of being told this is the season of joy?

What if I don’t feel jolly at all?

I spent some time this week sitting and waiting in Walmart waiting on my car battery to be replaced. Across from me was a thirty-foot-long display of “Christmas Joy.” Trinkets imported from China, sharp cinnamon candles, glittery baubles for decorating a tree, and everywhere smiling snowmen and reindeer. The people who walked past this, perused it, and picked things up looked like zombies. Their eyes were glazed over, they looked like this was a chore they felt obligated to do, but it sure wasn’t enjoyable.

I like to make up dialogue for people whenever I’m people watching. So I heard one woman think, “Another season. Another day I’m supposed to smile and be happy and rejoice to see my mother.”

Her mother, walking with her, was thinking, “It’s Christmas already? I seems like it was just Easter. I’m not ready. Well, I mean, I still have the lights up from last year – I never got to taking them down – will last year’s candy do for the grandkids too?”

I saw a man standing in traditional zombie stance with his mouth hanging open and his eyes unfocused as he stood before the “Ready for Wrapping!” makeup case. I pictured him having no thoughts — so overwhelmed — maybe a bit of miserable sorrow since whatever he picked wouldn’t be the right kind of make up… yet the real makeup aisle is ever more overwhelming… Why did his teen daughter have to ask for makeup?

Maybe cash. I think he thinks as he walks away empty handed. Cash is easier. Is it too… crass? He stops at the end of the aisle, grabs the first pre-wrapped makeup case his hand falls on, and hurries away. This makeup is cheaper than cash.

When I went to pay for my battery, there was a line of unhappy people frowning at one another and upset that it was taking ten or more minutes for the line to move. The unhappy workers were upset with the crowds, and yet everyone is here… stuck.

The crowds don’t want to be here, and yet they are forced to by social pressure. But this is the season of joy, so shut up and be happy, smile and spend!

The workers don’t want to be here, and yet they are forced to to pay the bills. But this is the season of joy! So wear red to work and smile to the angry customers!

Maybe some of those workers would be in the crowd later, unhappily spending their money to purchase things their relatives don’t really want or need… but they don’t want to give their relatives nothing for the holiday. Who wants to be a scrooge? Who wants to say bah-humbug?

Can you be Christian and not feel the feeling of Christmas?

Can you be Christian and think this isn’t the season of joy?

Can you be Christian and just want Christmas to come and be over with already?

“Christmas joy.”

Maybe that’s the feeling you get when you finally have the Christmas decorations put away.

It’s kinda weird, but the first Christmas wasn’t all joyful either.

Some people say Mary gave birth as miraculously as she conceived – a sparkle of light and surprise! There’s a baby. Most people say no, she had a labor. I mean, she was riding a donkey for a reason – it hurts to walk when you’re in labor. There’s a lot of pain in giving birth. Joy, too, but also pain. Fear. Worry. Anxiety.

The shepherds didn’t have joy until after they saw the babe. Until then, they were scared, curious.

Herold sure didn’t greet the news of a new king with joy.

Just like life, the first Christmas was a mixed bag of emotions. Sometimes joyful, sometimes sorrowful.

The Bible, and its stories, lead more insight into our true meaning of the season than the aisle of “JOY!” at Wal-mart too.

You see, the crowds who came to John in the wilderness were far more unhappy and joyless than the folks waiting in line. But these ancient crowds, too, were stuck. You see, as Rev. Kathryn Matthews of the Amistad UCC Chaple writes, “in [John’s] day, the powers-that-be had arranged a world based on empire, with those at the top grabbing – through force and greed – the lion’s share of power and material wealth for themselves. It wasn’t just the Roman Empire and their puppets that experienced John’s anger and sharp words, but also the religious institutions as well felt the sting of John’s rebuke…

John’s message about the forgiveness of sins and being baptized in a river made the Temple and its elaborate systems run by powerful priests sound rather unnecessary. The priests, including the ones listed when John first appears, couldn’t have greeted his preaching with enthusiasm, because the people on top, whether religious or political leaders, ‘abused their position to increase the debt load on the people of the land. Rather than forgiving debt, they were increasing debt’ (William Herzog, New Proclamation Year C 2006). The abuse of position and power for profit is nothing that we have invented ourselves.”

And the crowds are desperate. Things are near a breaking point. People have had enough and can’t stand anymore. None of their leaders seem trustworthy. None of their religious institutions — their very priests!– seem trustworthy. Even the old, old story of the Exodus, and God’s promised covenant to be with the people no longer seems trustworthy since everything is going so, so wrong. The people want a Messiah. They want revolt. They need things to change.

So why did people come to John? He wasn’t winning any Public Relations contests. He was dressed in nasty camel’s hair, looked and spoke like a wild man, and he welcomed people by yelling at them, “YOU BROOD OF VIPERS! WHO WARNED YOU OF THE COMING WRATH?!”

Maybe some came in desperation. Maybe others in curiosity. Maybe some liked that he was fiery. Others liked he wasn’t going along with Rome and the temple. Maybe, for some, he was stirring that dim, jaded, barely remembered childhood wonder and hope hidden in the people’s hearts.

That hope and wonder we remember as kids looking up at the ceiling at the glittering Christmas lights reflected off the white paint.

That excitement, and joy, we remember ourselves having as we crawled into our cold sheets Christmas Eve dreaming of tomorrow’s Christmas Day gifts.

Maybe, John awoke the message of the Exodus, of God’s promise to abide with us, in a way that spoke to hearts heavily weighed by taxes, bills, occupation, corruption, and being stuck in a system where you’re unhappy but nothing changes.

You see, John came preaching the advent, the coming, of the kindom of God. He told us to prepare the way for the Lord. This sounds like a humongous, gigantic task. As gigantic and as seemingly impossible as achieving world joy or world peace.

But John breaks down the work into things we can actually tackle: little deeds, little actions, we can actually accomplish…. but which make a huge impact.

“He doesn’t tell the people to get back to church, to overthrow the [government], to transform the world in some sudden, drastic revolution. No, he tells them the same things that [their and our parents have always told us:] ‘Share with one another. Be kind to one another. Don’t fight. Be fair. Don’t hoard, or lord it over one another.’

I don’t mean to reduce John’s message in any way, but at the heart of it, it seems to me John” is teaching that basic justice and goodness “will knock the supports out from under every out-of-whack, awry, misaligned, upside-down, oppressive structure and system that we’ve built.” (Rev. Kathryn Matthews) He’s saying God’s way is a way built of daily deeds of justice and goodness, and these daily deeds “take the air, the power, out of every process and habit that we humans have practiced and perfected and with which we have hurt one another, and one another’s children.” (Rev. Kathryn Matthews)

The people coming to John were desperate. The people I saw in Wal-Mart were getting desperate. The crowds ask, “What should we do?” What should we do if Christmas comes and we feel no joy? What should we do if the world is large and scary and we are tiny and scared? What should we do if everything seems out of control and we are powerless even to change a tiny bit? What should we do when it seems we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t?

John’s message is this: be generous. Be just. Be repentant. These prepare the way for the Lord.

The beginning of joy to the world is the beginning of simply offering hospitality to someone who needs a place to stay.

It is welcoming a baby into the world.

It is repenting — saying you are sorry to others and to God when you mess up.

The beginning of the Christmas spirit, Christmas joy, is a Christian life.

A Christian life is one that produces good fruits.

Good fruits… like joy, love, peace, and hope.

Good fruits, like forgiveness, patience, kindness, and generosity.

John’s examples of good fruits is so simple: don’t use your power to hurt others. If you own more than you need, give it to someone who is needy. Don’t sell it to them. Give it.

If you collect money on a bill, take what is fair. Don’t jack the price up. Don’t overcharge. Don’t cheat people.

If you are a soldier, protect people. Don’t intimidate and threaten. Don’t be a bully.

In today’s children’s chat, we read about many ways to prepare the way for the lord. Little deeds, random acts of kindness, are like rain drops. This rain like grace becomes rivers of life-giving water. Rivers for redemption, for repentance, for making people whole.

Not feeling the Christmas joy? It’s okay. Christmas is full of many emotions. You don’t HAVE TO do Christmas. You don’t HAVE TO purchase presents, visit people, and fake a smile. These are heavy burdens, and we can repent and lay them down. Instead of carrying these HAVE TOs, we can carry divine love. Divine love might feel joyful, or it might be peaceful and still. Divine love might be sorrowful, or lonely. Divine love is our gift at Christmas and just like the stories of old, divine love comes in many forms and many expressions.

Sometimes we “rejoice in the Lord” with celebrations and loud music. And sometimes we rejoice in the Lord by being grateful God is with us when we’re feeling alone, and sad.

Our God is with us. Emmanuel. Amen.

Given to Saint Michael’s UCC, Baltimore Ohio, 12-13-15