Monday, January 9, 2017

Revealed

Matthew 3:13-17

One of the first things you find out when you sit down to systematically study the stories of Jesus’ life is that everybody’s got an angle. In other words, each gospel writer tells the same story a little differently. It’s like reading a news story told by People magazine, Business Week, and Scientific American: every publication has a different audience and a different agenda about what’s important in that event.

All four gospel writers, for example, tell us about a meeting between John the Baptist and his cousin Jesus of Nazareth at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Only three of them tell us that John baptized Jesus, and only one of them – the one we heard this morning – tells us that John objected.

Matthew is worried about what people will think of Jesus going through this repentance ritual: The Son of God isn’t sinful and in need of cleansing, is he? Or is he a lesser prophet than John – I mean, he went to John for baptism…?

Matthew doesn’t want us to believe any of that for even a minute, so he shows us this little vignette, where “John would have prevented [Jesus], saying ‘I need to be baptized by you…’” and Jesus has to persuade John into upsetting the heavenly hierarchy.
Then John baptizes Jesus, pushing him down into the flowing Jordan River, all the way under, and pulling him back up, in a single ritual that combines metaphors for washing with crossing from death to life, and from slavery to freedom in the fulfillment of God’s promises.
And as Jesus rises from the water, God’s Spirit rests on him, and God’s voice announces, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

This ritual of baptism doesn’t “cleanse” Jesus, it reveals him.
Reveals him as God’s own the way the star does at his birth, and reveals him anew as God’s Beloved, as one in whom God delights. It sets that belovedness free in the world, propelling Jesus into the public ministry that yielded so much miracle and wonder.

Years ago, at some stage deep in the thickets of the ordination process, I got yet another set of questions about academic and spiritual preparation to answer and return to the Commission on Ministry. I dutifully filled them out, until I got to the bottom of the page: In a short paragraph, what will your ordination mean to the church?

I was stumped.
I mean, I knew what it would mean to me to complete this long and arduous process and become a priest, but what could one person’s ordination mean to the Whole Church? Globally, universally??

I phoned my friends (this was before Facebook). I struggled. I wrote terrible drafts. I felt sort of arrogant even asking if my ordination would impact the whole church.

But struggling with that question finally brought me around to the realization that sacraments – like ordination, like marriage, baptism, eucharist – are not meant only, or primarily, to benefit us with privilege, nourishment, blessing. They do, of course, but primarily, these sacraments are meant to set God’s gifts free within us for the sake of God’s whole beloved world.

When I talk to families who bring infants or children to the church for baptism, very few of them (none, to date) suggest that they’ve come to send forth their children as ambassadors for God, to preach and serve and change the world, as vessels of God’s Holy Spirit.
But that’s exactly what we promise and pray for in baptism. It’s what we all promise when we – all of us together – renew our own baptismal covenant at every baptism in the Episcopal church.

Baptism most certainly brings a new person – infant, child or adult – into a new life among the family of God, embraces the person in God’s protection, and promises welcome and forgiveness that we depend on throughout our lives.
But more than that, baptism is meant to set us free; to unleash and enhance our gifts of love and service for the sake of the world, to reveal and release God’s gifts within us,
to reveal and release our most holy selves: our selves as God’s beloved.

Think about that for a moment.
Do you think of yourself primarily as God’s beloved?
Is that how you introduce yourself?
What you think of when someone asks you to describe yourself, wonders who you are?

Because you are.
Proclaimed and revealed to the world at your baptism as God’s delight, God’s deeply, dearly loved child.

What does it mean, in your heart, to be so utterly beloved?   For that to be the first thing you know about yourself?

What limits might be released in you, if you trust in that true and real love, no matter what?
What fear might hold you less tightly, or even let you go?
Most of us experience – in small ways or great – some fear of embarrassment, failure, shame, regret, loss. Can those fears stand up to being so deeply, wholly beloved?

Consider your doubts – reasonable, real doubts about yourself, or theology, or your fellow humans – and remember that God – knowing those doubts – trusts you beyond all doubt and reason.

Are there hidden griefs, old pains, regrets and offenses that you can’t love in yourself? What does it mean to be – in the midst of that – thoroughly loved by God?

What might this belovedness set free, in you?

The church has a few ideas about what God might set free in us, through our baptism; about what God might reveal in us, as God’s beloved. And the church reminds us of that, asking us to renew our baptismal covenant - proclaiming our call to serve and preach and change the world - as we remember Jesus’ baptism today; as we join with Maris and Jackson who come for baptism today.

The church reminds us, God reminds us, through the stories of the gospel, through the objections of John, through the words of our prayers, that like Jesus’ baptism, our own baptism is not a simple act of repentance – not even as simple as inclusion, or blessing, though it is all of that – but an act of revelation, meant to wash us free of the fears and doubts and burdens and limits that guide us into the things we come to regret,
free us to be our most holy selves,
revealed to the world as God’s beloved.

My brothers and sisters, children of God, beloved of God,
what do you suppose God is ready, today, to release, and reveal in you?


Sunday, December 25, 2016

No Room

Luke 2:1-20

Anybody feeling a little crowded this Christmas?
Maybe your calendar is packed with holiday events and year end tasks and lists to buy and do and send and people to see. Maybe your home has been crammed with people, or you have joined the crowd in someone else’s home. Or…perhaps…you had to do some shopping this week?

Crowding – of our personal space, calendars, thoughts and feelings, you name it – is a part of the Christmas festivities, for good or ill, for many of us these days. And it’s a tradition – of sorts – that goes right back to the original Christmas story.

It’s crowded in Bethlehem, isn’t it? All these people, required by the government to travel to their ancestral home: clogging up the roads, trying to find a place to stay, taking up someone else’s space. There’s just no room.
It says so right in the Bible:
And Mary gave birth to her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

It’s so crowded that God-made-flesh is exiled to a stable to be born, lonely among the outsiders and the animals.
Or, at least, that’s the way I’ve gotten used to hearing the story.

But there are trends in biblical interpretation just like there are in home design, and this year I kept running into a lot of commentators’ insistence that Jesus was, in fact, born in a house.
Some of these commentaries came with little floor plans of the ancient Palestinian family home, the better to help us imagine how it must have been:
One main room, not that big, but where everything happens: eating, entertainment, work, play, and some sleeping. A manger in a wall or floor of that space because it connects to the animal shelter. And there’s a separate “guest room” – at the back or on the roofand that’s where there is no room for Mary and Joseph and the baby. 

What happens to the familiar story when you imagine God’s miraculous birth not in a barn separated from it all, but in the middle of a crowded living room/kitchen?
In a house full to bursting with third cousins and multiple times removed relatives all in town for the census, where Jesus is put to sleep in the feed box because there’s simply no other space to lay him down?

This manger story, one commentator said, is all about hospitality, not exile. It’s about the principle that “there’s always room for one more,” even when it’s clear the limits of the space for welcome have been met and even exceeded.

Hm... that’s not the Christmas story I’m used to.
And yet it is.

Because it’s the story told by our secular Christmas celebrations, when we crowd around a table, or on the sofas and side chairs and floor – and still manage to find room for one more, and maybe one more after that.

It’s the story told without words by our pageant earlier this evening, when about thirty busy, excited, active children and youth piled up in that space between the choir that on other Sundays feels crowded when two or three people stand there. Jesus and the Holy Family, shepherds and angels and kings, joyfully on top of one another with not an inch of elbow room to be found.

It’s the story told even in our shopping malls and grocery stores this week, as first choices get scarce and personal space gets scarcer, but the bells ring and the music plays and impetuous generosity and enthusiasm for “one more” takes over from common sense.

That’s a Christmas story where the oddness of the “manger bed” is about taking “always room for one more” to its furthest stretch and beyond.

And while it makes true and perfect sense that Jesus is cradled in an animal’s feed box as a symbol of God’s presence with the poor and downtrodden and the folks who just don’t fit in, it also makes true and perfect sense that God’s birth among us would be all about taking hospitality to its extremes and beyond. After all, for God to make a home among humans at all both demands and expresses the most abundant hospitality we could possibly imagine.

This manger scene is a promise that God comes to us not only when we are alone or make ourselves quiet, but in the most crammed, busy and bursting parts of our lives; that God shows up among us when we have no time, and no space, and no quiet, and demands to be part of it all.

I’ve had an odd experience around here in the last couple of weeks. Moving in December means I’ve had less ability to manage my holiday schedule and tasks than I’m used to. I don’t know the back ways or the short cuts yet, and I’ve gotten stuck in traffic a lot.
And to my great surprise, I have been unusually and surprisingly at peace with these traffic jams. Even when it’s making me late or messing up my plans. 
And more than once – much more than once – I’ve been waved into a lane or through a turn as if the crowding didn’t matter and there was plenty of room for one more.

Now it might just be that I’m new in the area, and this is normal here.
But it might be God.

It might be God being born in the midst of the madness,
God with us who knows what we need when we have no time, no room, to know it ourselves.

After all, being crowded isn’t always joyful. Sometimes it’s miserable. Sometimes it’s excruciatingly lonely.  There are times when hospitality hurts, and you can be exiled right in the middle of it all.
Christmas isn’t only glory; it also encompasses pain and struggle.
And I suspect that that’s another reason God might choose to come in the thick of the crowd, insisting on being present when you’re being overwhelmed.
I suspect that God is born into the rush because we may need healing and grace – may need salvation – in the thick of things more even than when we have space and privacy for our grief or pain.

So, yes, God is at the mall. At the overflowing table. There with both the joyous and the miserable.
And God is just as truly – maybe even more – in overcrowded prisons and homeless shelters. In the jammed refugee buses, shuttling out of Aleppo this month. In a bustling German market suddenly filled with fear. In hearts crowded with pain, and heads crowded with work.

God makes room for Godself out of no room in the midst of grief and evil and strain just as truly as in the delight and familiarity of the contentedly busy kitchen or peacefully packed candlelit church.

And that is a miracle we may need more than we know or guess. Because when we are crowded or cramped; full, busy or overloaded with happiness or pain, we need that miracle of God with us: making holy space where there is no space, sacred time when you have no time, hospitality in a world packed with fear and greed; making room for grace in hearts and souls and calendars too full of anything else to even look for God.

This baby in the manger in a crowded and overflowing house where there is no room, is a promise and a sign for the overflowing challenges of our world and private lives: that where there is most truly no more room, there is space for God, and God will come. That our most cramped and crazy places are where God is made flesh among us, whether we are ready or not, and all you have to do to welcome God is to trust that where there is truly no room, there will be room enough, and let your heart overflow.

-->

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Make It Your Own

Matthew 1:18-25

Joseph is thinking hard.
Pacing, maybe; rubbing his chin, or his forehead… because he’s been confronted with a dilemma. His wife – for all intents and purposes; even though they haven’t moved in yet – is pregnant. And the child isn’t his.
He didn’t make this wrong, but now he has to make this right.

He’s a righteous man, Matthew tells us. That means he loves God’s ways, he keeps the law – apparently both in letter and in spirit – because while he’s got to divorce Mary, to keep the community moral and upright, he’s trying to choose the gentlest way, because stoning her to death at the city gate – as the law suggests – would be extreme if it’s not her fault, either.

We don’t know if he’s in love with Mary – at least in the romantic, heart-throbbing way that many of us usually think about love. But he cares. So he resolves to do it as quietly and gently as possible, and – decision made – he goes to sleep.

And then we see his dream.
A vivid dream, full of presence and power.
A messenger of God appears and says:
Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. Name him Jesus. He will save his people.

Don’t be afraid.
I didn’t know he was afraid in all that thinking, but it makes sense.
Joseph’s plans have all been upended. This woman he was going to spend his life with, have kids with (just not this one!), grow old with… She’s got someone else’s kid, and some story about it not having a father, or being from God.

Is his wife crazy? Has she betrayed him, somehow. What’s going to go wrong next? How is he going to rebuild his life? Will he be able to? And what will people be saying about him, when Mary’s story gets around?
Worse – what if it that story is real?

He’s swimming in uncertainty, small and great – about his family, about God, about himself – and that’s frightening, even if you’re one of those people who loves surprises.

But he has this dream, and then he’s not afraid.
Or he acts like he’s not.
He does – without comment or question – exactly what the angel says.
He marries Mary.
He adopts the child. By naming him, he makes him a permanent part of Joseph’s family and heritage. He accepts the general assumption that this poorly-timed child is his, accepts God’s instructions that this impossible child is his, and makes it real.

The child isn’t his, but now the child is his,
and Joseph is bound for life to God’s promise that this child will save his people.
In naming his son, Joseph makes God’s promise his own.

Can you imagine making that promise – that you’ll take on that promise of bringing God’s salvation in your lifetime, through your work?
Who does that?

I read a lot of commentary on this story this week, and most of the scholars and bloggers I ran across seemed convinced that the point of this story is that Joseph is a perfectly ordinary man, so Jesus was born into a perfectly ordinary family – messy, full of failures and misunderstandings and mistakes – normal.
And that’s true.
But there are hints, here and there, of the opposite.

If you had your Bible open right now to the first chapter of Matthew, and you looked just two verses back from where our story started today, at the end of the long and informative genealogical path connecting Jesus to Abraham, you’d see that Joseph is the son of Jacob.
And you’d remember, naturally, that there’s another Joseph, son of Jacob, in the Bible.
And that that Joseph was a dreamer - a dreamer whose dreams made his family uncomfortable, who gets betrayed into exile in Egypt, but by dreaming and interpreting others’ dreams – by making dreams real and dreaming reality –  that Joseph saves a nation, saves his family: saves God’s people, the tribe God blessed to bless the whole wide world.

So perhaps it should not surprise us that this Joseph, son of Jacob, betrothed to Mary, hears God in his dreams, or that this Joseph takes on his role in the work of salvation without comment or question.

Even so, I suspect it wasn’t easy.
I suspect that he was afraid, more than once, when his plans went awry, and he found himself swimming in uncertainty, as he was sent here and there around the earth by dreams; 
as he was raising this child, who undoubtedly did every one of the things children do that makes parents question themselves and their choices - and then some, with the whole child-of-God thing going on.

I suspect he was afraid, and uncertain, in big ways, and in those little ways where you don’t realize until later that your discomfort or anger or indecision was fear, over and over and over again, and that he had to learn to remember his dreams, and to be not afraid.
Or at least to act like he wasn’t afraid:
to act as though he could – by adopting God’s choices as his own – make God’s salvation real, here and now, as he was making this child his own.

And that’s love.
Not just the sweeping, heart-throbbing feeling, but most of all the work of acting, over and over and over and over again, every day, as if you are not afraid in the midst of uncertainty, and discomfort, and unwelcome change.
Acting as if you feel that heart-melting sweetness, when all you can feel is tired, or hurt, or bored.
Acting as if someone else’s plan is your very own, beloved and welcomed, until your love and dreams make it real.

Somewhere, somehow, your plan for your life will go awry, or it already has.
Someday, somehow, each of us will find ourselves challenged to make right something you didn’t make wrong – in our families, work, or world.
When it happens, you might find yourself swimming in uncertainty, or you might know the gloriously generous thing to do, but be justifiably afraid of what it’s going to cost.

And in one or more of those moments and places, whether you dream it or not, God is whispering, saying, or shouting in your ear,
Do not be afraid.
The new and uninvited life before you is of the Holy Spirit.
Make it your own,
and be part of saving my people.

When that happens, you don’t have to say Yes, you just have to do it. Just have to love the uninvited guest or the uninvited life that God has put before you, to act as if you are not afraid, act as if God’s choice is your very own, over and over and over and over again, in daily actions, great and small.

And someday in the future, when the time comes to tell your part in God’s salvation story, the commentators and the preachers will point out that you’re a perfectly ordinary person, normal, like us, a perfect example of how we can do this too.
But the story will also be full of hints about how you’re actually extraordinary, how you’ve been chosen by God for exactly this,
because you have.

So as God’s chosen, my friends, like Joseph,

what will you do?