Sunday, January 13, 2019

I am baptized!

Scripture  Luke 3:15-17, 21-22  NRSV
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”


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If this seems like we just heard this story, you are right.  We did hear parts of this same passage during Advent, but in the Message version, and without Jesus’s baptism included.   We used the same artwork too, because it is a representation of Jesus’ baptism.   And because it is simply a beautiful piece of art.  

John said, “I baptize you with water; but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” John’s Baptism.  The Baptism of the Holy Spirit.   They both use water.  They are both about repentance.  What is the difference?  And what is the big deal about baptism anyway?   

John’s baptism was simply of repentance.  It is acknowledgement of and atonement for sins committed.  The baptism of the Holy Spirit kills sin - it washes you clean like a newborn.  In the baptism of the Holy Spirit, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”   All that is good in each person he embraces, while all that is  is discarded, burned.  

Martin Luther suffered bouts of anxiety throughout his lifetime, and when it was at its worst he would center himself, re-assure himself by saying “I am baptized!”   In a writing first published in 1519, Luther said,  “We must hold boldly and fearlessly to our baptism, and hold it up against all sins and terrors of conscience, and humbly say “I know full well that I have not a single work which is pure, but I am baptized, and through my baptism God, who cannot lie, has bound himself in a covenant with me, not to count my sin against me, but to slay it and blot it out.”  


I need to point out here that Martin Luther was baptized as an infant, and indeed, Lutherans and many other Christian traditions still practice infant baptism today.   What Martin Luther was saying in his quote about baptism is this.  That in our baptism we have our sins removed.  And when we sin after we have been baptized, as we will because we are human, we must return to our baptism, return to the faith of a child, reaffirming our desire to belong to God. 

For  Sin is not drowned at once, or its consequences escaped in a moment. . . . baptism but begins the constant struggle against sin that ends only with the close of life. For unless baptism be the beginning of a new life, it is without meaning.”   (“Works of Martin Luther:  Holy Sacrament of Baptism.” (http://www.godrules.net/library/luther/NEW1luther_a9.htm))



Baptism is what allows us to call ourselves Christian.  And baptism has divided Christians more than perhaps any other issue.   

In 1525 a movement called Anabaptist began.  These were people who believed that infant baptism was not Biblical, and therefore not valid.  They believed that only believer’s baptism was valid and ordained by Christ.  And indeed, as far as we can tell from Scripture, only adults who proclaimed that they believed that Jesus is the Christ were baptized, although there are those who say that if someone’s entire household is baptized, as in the case of Cornelius, that must include infants and even persons who may or may not believe but who had to do as their master told them to do, like slaves.    Be that as it may . . .  The Anabaptists were despised and hated by Catholic and Protestant alike.  As early as 1527, just 2 years after the start of the movement, in some nations it was a capital crime to participate in believer’s baptism - Catholics burned Anabaptists at the stake!  Lutherans and other Protestants usually had them beheaded.  Or drowned, which was really making the punishment fit the “crime.”  Giving food or drink to an Anabaptist was also a crime.  The Anabaptist movement gave birth to Mennonites, Amish, Quakers, and Baptists.  And, yes, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).    

The question of whether infant baptism or believer’s baptism is the “right” way can still divide us even today.  I was at a New Church meeting in another region when a young minister who was starting a joint Disciples/United Church of Christ congregation was asked about how he baptized his folks.  When he said that in his church both infant and believers baptisms would be performed, some of the older ministers on the committee nearly had strokes.  They informed him that in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) only the baptism of believers was acceptable, and his new church needed to fall in line.  Well, that’s not entirely true.   Disciples do only baptize persons who are old enough to understand the commitment they are making, and not infants.  And anyway, that young minister’s church was a DOC/UCC church, and the UCC are infant baptizers.  But these days we in the Disciples churches do accept all baptism as valid.  So if you have come here, having been baptized as an infant in another Christian tradition, that’s ok.   You do not need to be baptized again.  I was taught that we do not ever re-baptize, but I have come to recognize that for some people the re-affirmation that comes about in being baptized as adults, even though they have already been baptized as infants, is an important new beginning.    But however and whenever you were baptized, whether you were an infant or 12 or 72,  you are Christian.

Alexander Campbell, one of the founders of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) said:  “But who is a Christian? I answer, Every one that believes in his heart that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the Son of God; repents of his sins, and obeys him in all things according to his measure of knowledge of his will.”

Jesus was baptized by John.  And because most of us have been taught that Jesus was without sin, we might wonder why he needed to be baptized in the  first place.  Nadia Bolz-Weber says it is so that God could proclaim his identity.  You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  And from that place of affirmation and confirmation, Jesus could go forward with his ministry, knowing that he has God’s approval.  Because we cannot forget that Jesus is fully human.  He was just another guy standing in the crowd, as far as the rest of the folks waiting to be baptized knew.   But once he was recognized, once that voice from heaven proclaimed his identity, all that would change.  People would begin to see him differently.  He would go from that place that day, out into the wilderness to prepare himself for his mission, his ministry.  He would be tested by Satan, and he would pass that test.  And then, he would begin teaching, healing, and doing many other wonders.  And the result of all of this, the job that Jesus was sent by God to do, is the salvation of the world, the healing of the nations, the death of sin in the hearts of all humankind.  His work continues in us, for we are also, through our baptism, the beloved children of God.   And that’s hard for us to remember.  We are just not always really good at believing that.   Rachel Held Evans wrote,The great struggle of the Christian life is to take God’s name for us, to believe we are beloved and to believe that is enough.  We’re really not good at that whole “enough” thing.  We are always looking for ways to improve ourselves, or we compare ourselves to others and think that we fall short.  But God only compares us to ourselves, and loves us as we are at any given moment, on any given day.

“I am baptized!”, said Martin Luther.  Whenever he felt he was not good enough, not deserving, not worthy . . .  whenever he felt the full weight of his sinful human nature, he would remember his baptism and he would proclaim, “I am baptized!”  He would proclaim his baptism to remind himself that he is a beloved child of God, that he could begin afresh right then, knowing that the remission of sin in baptism is not a once and done thing, but a continual daily effort.  For unless baptism is the beginning of a new life, it means nothing. 

Whenever I call on you to look back and remember your baptism, I am not saying “remember that day and that event.”   If you are like Martin Luther, or me, baptized at about one month old, you aren’t going to remember that day.  But I can remember that Jesus was baptized, and was recognized by God as the Son, the Beloved, in whom God was well pleased.  And I can remember that I am baptized, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  And I can remember that this act made me one of God’s beloved children, and even if I wander off, as I did for many years, God still loves me.  

I am baptized!  And I can begin again.  All of us can begin again, and start a new life in Christ again, every day, anytime that we find ourselves straying from God’s will.   Because the Good News, my sisters and brothers, is that we are all God’s beloved children.  We are all given the mission and ministry of Christ, to go out into the world spreading the Gospel, and making  disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  

Please stand with me now, and sing of that day when Jesus was baptized, Down by the Jordan.





Sunday, January 6, 2019

Who were those wise guys?


Scripture Matthew 2:1-12  NRSV   


In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
    who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
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Today is Epiphany - the very last day of Christmas.  After today we can take down our Christmas decorations and put away our Christmas music CDs for another year.   The re-runs of the Grinch and Charlie Brown’s Christmas and Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life are gone for another year.  Because we didn’t have a Christmas Pageant this year, we found a great video of a Christmas pageant to share with you all.  Please feel free to sing along if you know the tune.  

(YouTube video  Bethlehemian Rhapsody  -  5 minutes)

Christmas Pageants are great, aren’t they?  And unforgettable.  When Alex Torres started college a few years ago, people at Delhaven Christian Church were still talking about how great he was as one of the Three Kings when he was in Kindergarten.   But were they kings?  Or were they wise men, as the translation we are using today says.  Or were they magi?   I lean toward thinking of these three visitors as scholars and astrologers.  I can see why “kings” was used for the song because “we three scholars and astrologers of Orient are” just doesn’t flow as nicely, you know?   And you know, it’s pretty much a given that they weren’t there at the same time as the shepherds and angels, no matter what our Christmas pageants tell us.  It was a long trip, made longer by having to stop here and there to ask if they were heading the right way - like at Herod’s palace.  By the time they got to Bethlehem, Jesus would have been maybe 8 months old?  But the details are not as important as the larger truth in the story.

Today I am really happy that I am not a scholar who has to worry about getting all these details right.  Because I have been following an online discussion between several New Testament scholars about who these three persons were.   It’s a fairly drawn out conversation, even if you skip over the parts where they seem to be saying, “My original source is more nearly accurate than your original source.” I mean, today’s scholars can’t even agree on whether these three were all men, because the masculine plural is used even when only one person in a group is male so it is conceivable that one or more could have been female.  Although it does seem that the closest to consensus on who they were is closer to wise men than kings, and very possibly astrologers, perhaps from as near as Persia.  These discussions, while always fascinating, don’t really have a lot of bearing on what happened then, or what we celebrate now, however.  

Epiphany is what we think of as an “aha moment.”   In church, it is the day we celebrate that the child born of Mary is recognized as the Messiah, the one who was foretold, by an authority.   And that is what happens in this passage.  Three visitors, wise men, come from the East seeking the fulfillment of a prophecy - the birth of a king who would lead the people of Israel.  When they do find him the gifts they bring symbolize who he is  - gold for the king, incense for the God, myrrh to anoint him at his death.  That these three come, not from among the people of Israel, but from an entirely different place and different religion, tells us that this child has come for all the world, not just for Israel.  These three, who are quite possibly priests of another religion entirely, fall on their knees before a tiny baby who is no where near a palace where one might expect to find a king, and give him the respect and honor one gives a king, or a god.  And Jesus, of course, is both.  

From this point forward in the church year ahead, we will follow Jesus in his ministry.  We will see him be baptized, and perform miracles, heal the sick and raise the dead.  We will see him mocked as King of the Jews.  We will see him forgive the thief on the cross next to him, and then die on his own cross.  And we will see the women bring fragrant oils - myrrh - to anoint  him in his tomb only to discover that this king does not need such things, for he has defeated death.   In our church year, we see the beginning and the end of his earthly life, but in our own lives we recognize that there is no real end to his life, for he is our living savior, our risen King.

Whoever these three wise guys were - and regardless of what the scholars think - they made it clear to us and to the world that this, this is Christ the King.  This is not simply some fanciful tale of long ago, but the true story of God’s love for all people.  This child, born in such low estate, worshipped by shepherds, angels, and even scholars and kings, will through his death and resurrection heal the world of sin and darkness.  This child, the son of God, will live and reign in our world, and in our hearts, from the day of his birth until the end of time.  This is how God’s love shows.

Join me now in singing the story of these wise men, these three kings, and their encounter with Jesus, son of God, Christ and King and sacrifice.  



Monday, December 24, 2018

Come all you - curious


The shepherds came, saying “Let’s go see this thing that has taken place.”  
And the magi came, following a star, to see what was under it.  
And, knowing people, folks from the neighborhood would also have come,  drawn to the place where something unusual seemed to be happening.

They came because they were curious.  The shepherds were curious to see what the angels were going on about.  The magi were curious to learn if the star really was the sign of an ancient prophecy being fulfilled.  And the neighbors, well, you know neighbors.  They were just curious.

It’s different now.  Now we know what the angels were going on about.  We know that the ancient prophecy was fulfilled in the birth of that child.  We know that the neighbors would have seen what seemed to be a perfectly ordinary father and mother and infant, who were, in fact, quite extra-ordinary.  So we sing, “O Come all you faithful,” because tonight and tomorrow all the faithful will come to churches all over the world to celebrate the birth of that extraordinary Child.  We come together to fill the air with songs of praise and adoration, just as the angels did on that darkly beautiful night so long ago.   We come because we are the faithful.

Or, perhaps you are here with your families because it’s Christmas Eve and that’s what your family does on Christmas Eve.  Or maybe you are here because you know the music is going to be amazing.  Or maybe you are here because you are curious.  

You know, the early Christians used to go out and care for the neighbors, even the ones who weren’t believers.  They brought food to the hungry and helped the sick.  They comforted the grieving.  They brought clothing to the naked.  And the people of the neighborhood became curious.  They asked themselves, “What makes these Jesus followers so different?  Why are they so caring and compassionate, even to strangers?”  And because they were curious, they came, and when they heard the Good News of God’s love and forgiveness, they stayed.  And the Good News was spread from  house to house and from person to person.  

I would hope, if you are here because you are curious, it’s because someone from a church told you that church is ok, and non-threatening.  That’s what I needed to hear in the days when I was becoming curious.   And then I met someone who told me that church is simply a collection of like minded people who come together to worship God.  And that got me more curious.  And because I was curious, I found a church, and I went to see what it was like, and I kept going back.   

Maybe you are curious because this is an absolutely beautiful building and you want to know what goes on in here.  Or maybe you have met someone who told you how much they love this congregation and invited you to come sometime.  Maybe you have been served by our folks at a food pantry or Christian Cafe dinner and you want to know if we are all so giving and caring.  Or maybe you have heard that in this place we say that all are welcome, and all means ALL - everyone.  No matter who you are.   We welcome everyone just as Jesus welcomes us.  The shepherds and the Magi and the neighbors.  The faithful, and the curious.

On this Christmas Eve, on this night when we celebrate the coming of the Christ Child into the world, we lift up our hearts and our voices in lavish praise of our Lord.  And when we leave this place, when we walk back out into the darkness, may we carry the light of his love in our hearts.  And may that love, poured out from us upon others, light a spark in someone’s life, and make them curious.   Amen.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Share the Love


Scripture Luke 1:39-55 The Message


39-45 Mary didn’t waste a minute. She got up and traveled to a town in Judah in the hill country, straight to Zachariah’s house, and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby in her womb leaped. She was filled with the Holy Spirit, and sang out exuberantly,
You’re so blessed among women,
    and the babe in your womb, also blessed!
And why am I so blessed that
    the mother of my Lord visits me?
The moment the sound of your
    greeting entered my ears,
The babe in my womb
    skipped like a lamb for sheer joy.
Blessed woman, who believed what God said,
    believed every word would come true!

46-55 And Mary said,
I’m bursting with God-news;
    I’m dancing the song of my Savior God.
God took one good look at me, and look what happened—
    I’m the most fortunate woman on earth!
What God has done for me will never be forgotten,
    the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others.
His mercy flows in wave after wave
    on those who are in awe before him.
He bared his arm and showed his strength,
    scattered the bluffing braggarts.
He knocked tyrants off their high horses,
    pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet;
    the callous rich were left out in the cold.
He embraced his chosen child, Israel;
    he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high.
It’s exactly what he promised,
    beginning with Abraham and right up to now.

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This is more like it!   You know, the last couple of weeks the scripture reading and the designation for that particular Sunday in Advent haven’t even come close to matching.   Peace and Joy are really not words we associate with John the Baptist.  But this passage, Mary and Elizabeth responding to the gift of God’s love for the people, made manifest in the birth of Mary’s child, this is all about love!    

The Bible doesn’t name a lot of women.   Men have names, but more often than not, women are simply called the wife of this one or the daughter of that one, or given some other descriptor, like the woman at the well.  When they are named, you know there is something important about them. Chances are good that they will do something that changes the course of history for their people.   Rahab let the Hebrews into Jericho.  Deborah led Israel’s armies into war.  Jael saved Israel by killing the great general Sisera.   Esther saved her people from genocide.  These were women of substance.  And then there were the women bore sons when it was thought impossible for them to do so.  Samson’s mother was barren until a messenger of the Lord came and told her she would have a son.  Sarah, wife of Abraham, became pregnant with Isaac at a very advanced age, thus becoming the foremother of all the tribes of Israel.  Hannah, barren but greatly loved by her husband, had her womb opened by God and bore Samuel, who would name both Saul and David to be kings of Israel.    

So - Mary and Elizabeth.   Elizabeth was old, way too old to have a child.  She and her husband Zechariah had been childless all their lives.  And then God’s messenger, the Angel Gabriel came and told Zechariah that his wife would have a son, whom they must name John.  There was the usual disbelief, which in this case resulted in Zechariah losing the ability to speak until the child was born.   When Elizabeth was six months pregnant, the angel Gabriel went to Mary and told her that she would bear a child, a holy child, who would be called God’s Son.   Her disbelief was easily dispelled, and she accepted the charge laid upon her.  Then she went to see her cousin, Elizabeth, who was quite probably the only person who would believe what had happened to her.

Mary was a different case from all the other women in scripture who bore special sons.  She didn’t fit the profile.  She was neither barren nor old.  She was young and unmarried. She was betrothed to Joseph, which means her father and his father had agreed on a marriage contract and exchanged money and goods.  So the couple was considered as good as married, but the wedding hadn’t happened yet.  And she was young, according to historians probably around 14.  Now, some people have a problem with that.  Last year I read a pretty good blog post about Mary. I liked the perspective the author brought to Mary’s story.  Until I got to the end, when the writer said something like, “But she wasn’t 14.  God is not a paedafile.”   Thing is, Mary’s was a different world entirely from the one we live in.    We think of a 14 year old female as a child, but that’s a relatively new development in the history of the world.  Especially when you consider that for most women for most of history, their entire purpose in the life was to bear children, as many as possible.  Once a girl was old enough to get pregnant, she was marriageable.   

So Mary goes to Elizabeth, who greets Mary with great joy.  You’re so blessed among women! The moment the sound of your greeting entered my ears, the babe in my womb skipped like a lamb for sheer joy.  Mary’s response, known as the Magnificat, has been immortalized in music by such composers as Bach and Mozart.  And I am so not used to seeing or hearing it any way but that traditional way.  But we used the Message again today, so when I read the passage I saw it  in a new way.    

That’s what happens, you know, when you do something in a different way instead of “the way we’ve always done it.”  Like adding a new spice to an old recipe, or singing new words to an old tune, or putting pineapple on pizza, that thing we’ve always done becomes new.  There’s enough of the familiar there to be comfortable, but there’s that new flavor that adds something quite unexpected.    When I read the words this time,  I read beyond the celebration of what God had done for Mary, and beyond the way she spoke in the past tense about things that God did for God’s people.  I looked beyond her words about what God had done to what God is doing and what God will do.  She said, “It’s exactly what he promised,  beginning with Abraham and right up to now.  Suddenly, the “right up till now” part resonated in a way it hadn’t before. I stopped reading this as Mary’s celebration of God’s past actions and started reading it as prophecy.   

According to Merriam-Webster the Word of the Year for 2018 is “Justice,” the dictionary publisher said the word was looked up on its website 74 percent more this year than last year.  Among the other definitions of Justice I found when I looked it up - in the Merriam-Webster dictionary were these:  the quality of being just, impartial, or fair  the principle or ideal of just dealing or right actionconformity to this principle or ideal righteousness.”  (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/justice)   And what Mary describes in her song of celebration is God doing justice, righting wrongs.  
He scattered the bluffing braggarts.
He knocked tyrants off their high horses,
    pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet;
    the callous rich were left out in the cold
.” 
Our world is very different from Mary’s world.  And yet, somehow the same.  We see the poor getting poorer, and the rich getting richer.  There are wars and rumors of wars, acts genocide, people starving,  people dying of treatable illnesses, and even slavery in the world.  There are some 6.3 million refugees in the world, people fleeing from war and danger in their home countries.  We see people oppressed, even here in our country because of their race or religion or gender identity.  According to the FBI, hate crimes are up for the third year in a row.   On any given night 554,000 people, 17% of the US population, are unhoused.   The numbers of homeless persons is increasing across the country, but the highest rate of homelessness is here, in California.   
There are those who, looking at all of this are asking “Where is God? Why does God allow these things?”   There are others who say God doesn’t interfere or take a direct hand in human affairs today. That the days for miracles and seeing God work are past.   I disagree.  
I believe God is working in our world.   You see, what God has always done is send a prophet, a person, who speaks God’s Words to the people, who changes hearts and minds.  And today God has sent, not just one prophet, but many.  People who speak out for the oppressed, the hungry, the homeless, people who work tirelessly toward change.  We see righteous people working toward justice for all persons.   Disciples minister Sandhya Jha, Director of the Oakland Peace Center, teaching anti-racism, working toward a world where all persons are truly considered equal in value.  Disciples Minister Dr. William Barber has taken up the leadership of the Poor People’s Campaign begun by Dr. Martin Luther King, and has made a National Cal for Moral Revival.  These are just two, but there are many others, some in this congregation even, who are working tirelessly  toward justice - God’s version of justice - for all persons.  Because God’s  "mercy flows in wave after wave on those who are in awe before him. . .  he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high.”   
God’s love calls us to love him, to celebrate the Good News God News, to dance the song of our savior.  God calls us to share the love, to let mercy flow out upon those who suffer, who hunger, who are cold and tired.  Just as God chose Mary to bear the Christ, so God choses us,  to do this work in the world, to follow the path our Lord Jesus has set before us, to be God’s hands and feet.  Because what God has done for us can never be forgotten.  The God whose very name is holy, gave Mary a child, and that child is our Christ, our Lord, our Savior.  That child, that Christ Child, calls upon us daily to share the love with one another, and with all the people in the world. 
So go from this place today, to celebrate our God, and to share the Love.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Find Joy


Scripture Luke 3:7-20 The Message (MSG) 

7-9 When crowds of people came out for baptism because it was the popular thing to do, John exploded: “Brood of snakes! What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to deflect God’s judgment? It’s your life that must change, not your skin. And don’t think you can pull rank by claiming Abraham as ‘father.’ Being a child of Abraham is neither here nor there—children of Abraham are a dime a dozen. God can make children from stones if he wants. What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the fire.”

10 The crowd asked him, “Then what are we supposed to do?”
11 “If you have two coats, give one away,” he said. “Do the same with your food.”
12 Tax men also came to be baptized and said, “Teacher, what should we do?”
13 He told them, “No more extortion—collect only what is required by law.”
14 Soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He told them, “No shakedowns, no blackmail—and be content with your rations.”
15 The interest of the people by now was building. They were all beginning to wonder, “Could this John be the Messiah?”

16-17 But John intervened: “I’m baptizing you here in the river. The main character in this drama, to whom I’m a mere stagehand, will ignite the kingdom life, a fire, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out. He’s going to clean house—make a clean sweep of your lives. He’ll place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he’ll put out with the trash to be burned.”

18-20 There was a lot more of this—words that gave strength to the people, words that put heart in them. The Message!  But Herod, the ruler, stung by John’s rebuke in the matter of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, capped his long string of evil deeds with this outrage: He put John in jail.

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It’s the 3rd Sunday of Advent - Joy Sunday.  But this passage is anything but joyful.  John calls people snakes!  He tells them that they can be replaced. He thunders in the desert!   And it ends with Herod being about as evil as it gets!  One might be hard put to find the joy in this passage!

At this time of year it is often difficult to find joy.   It is the darkest time of the year… days are shorter, nights are longer, every one is overly busy and stressed.    Trying to get everything done before Christmas, before the end of the semester, before the end of the calendar year.   And the church calendar says “Be Joyful!”   Seriously?

On top of that, this passage doesn’t tell the story the way we are used to hearing it.  We are used to John saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”  But what we hear in this version - the Message version - is really different: “The main character in this drama, to whom I’m a mere stagehand, will ignite the kingdom life, a fire, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out.  We’re not entirely certain whether he is talking about Jesus or George Clooney.    

But, you know, sometimes we need to look at very familiar things from a different perspective, from someone else’s point of view.   We might need a different viewpoint in order to get a fuller picture of an event - like the police asking for statements from many witnesses at the scene of an accident or a crime.  Or we might need to shake up our complacency.  Look at what John says to the crowd.  “. . .don’t think you can pull rank by claiming Abraham as ‘father.’”  The Jewish people know themselves to be God’s Chosen People, the people he chose to be his own.  This is a cause for a bit of arrogance.  “We’re better than you are because our God picked us!  We are the descendants of Abraham, whom he claimed for his own.  No matter what, God will always come to our rescue.  Just look at our history!”  But John reminds them that they are not the only children of Abraham. “Being a child of Abraham is neither here nor there—children of Abraham are a dime a dozen. God can make children from stones if he wants.”   And he has a significant point, because the Judeans were only one of the tribes descended from Abraham - the others had been scattered and not rescued.  And then there were the children of Hagar and Abraham - there were at least as many of those, because God promised Hagar to make a great nation of Ishmael's children.  And so the people, having been made to look at themselves from a new perspective say, What shall we do?  John said, “Change your lives.

John told all of the people in that crowd just what they needed to do to be real children of God - be generous with what you have.  Be honest in your dealings with others.   Treat everyone justly.

We don’t usually look at this part of this passage, because we tend to focus on John’s announcement of Jesus’ imminent arrival on the scene.  Yet John is saying much the same thing that Jesus will say later . . . Don’t be restricted by what the Law says.  John, like Jesus, and like the prophets before him, wanted the people to understand that the body of the Law was only a guide to how people should live with each other.   Being too focused on doing exactly what the Law said, no more and no less, wasn’t what God had intended.  If people were so focused on what was lawful and what was not that it kept them from obeying the love commandment, then they were’t getting the point.   

 Yes, John told them, I know that you only are required to tithe 10%, but do more than that. If you have two coats, give one to someone in need.  Tax collectors, even though Rome allows you to take as much as you can squeeze from anyone, don’t do it.  Only take what is owed from each person.  Soldiers, don’t oppress the innocent.  Only arrest true wrongdoers, and don’t supplement your income with bribes and blackmail.   Change.  Change your lives.   


If we bring this passage forward to now, to us, perhaps we hear John saying, “Just being a Christian is neither here nor there - Christians are a dime a dozen. . . What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the fire.  I’m pretty sure each of us can think of someone we know who says they’re Christian, but whose understanding of being Christian doesn’t line up very well with ours.   For example, in 2016 79% of Americans claimed religious affiliation, but only 55% went to church.   Some of us may believe that if you don’t go to church you cannot claim to be Christian.  Others feel strongly that if you do not understand scripture the way they do and follow the same rules they do, you cannot be Christian.  In some peoples’ minds, the fact that this church has a woman pastor means this whole congregation isn’t Christian.   But I think that none of these things are what John was talking about.  His concern was not in how well the people obeyed the 613 Laws of Moses, or the laws of Rome, or the laws of King Herod, but in how well the people cared for each other.  How well they loved one another.  How justly they treated one another.   

Yesterday there was a news story about Pastor John Grey, an associate pastor at Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church, who bought his wife a $200,000 Lamborghini for their 8th wedding anniversary.   He defended his purchase saying it wasn’t a pastor buying the car, but a husband.  And that he wasn’t using money from the church, but from his book sale profits.   And I wonder how much of his book profits he has used to help the hungry and homeless . . . because “If you have two coats, give one away.”  

"What counts is your life.  John said.  Is it green and blossoming?   

 John told the people that the one who was coming “will ignite the kingdom life, a fire, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out. He’s going to clean house—make a clean sweep of your lives. He’ll place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he’ll put out with the trash to be burned.    And the people were encouraged and strengthened by his words.    Someone was coming,  to bring change, to liberate them.  And John was there to help them prepare, to help them understand how their lives needed to change in order to live in God’s kingdom.   

And there was joy.  There was joy in the hearts of the people, knowing that God had not forgotten them.  There was joy as people walked into the Jordan to be baptized, so that they might start their lives afresh and be ready when the Messiah appeared.   They may have still had the wrong idea about what the Messiah was coming to do, but knowing he was coming brought joy and hope.  Knowing that the Messiah was coming, and coming soon, strengthened them to continue with their lives, to become better people.  To throw away the dead wood in their hearts and souls, and open their hearts to hear Jesus’ message when he came.

And so it is with us.  At this time of year, when we prepare for the birth of the Christ Child, and look ahead to the return of the Son of God, joy fills our hearts at the knowledge that God loves us.  God loves us so much he sent his son to heal the entire world.   God loves us so much that no matter what we are going through in our lives, we can be assured he is with us.  Especially in the dark times, in the times when we are tempted to feel alone and abandoned, God is with us.  John and the other prophets before him made it clear, that we would be liberated from our sins and pain would be wiped away by the coming Messiah.  That we would be granted freedom, and release from the oppression of the spirit. 

When we go forth from this place today, let us spread joy to all we encounter,  for the God of Israel has set us free.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Speak of Peace


Scripture   Luke 3:1-6  The Message

3 1-6 In the fifteenth year of the rule of Caesar Tiberius—it was while Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea; Herod, ruler of Galilee; his brother Philip, ruler of Iturea and Trachonitis; Lysanias, ruler of Abilene; during the Chief-Priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas—John, Zachariah’s son, out in the desert at the time, received a message from God. He went all through the country around the Jordan River preaching a baptism of life-change leading to forgiveness of sins, as described in the words of Isaiah the prophet:
Thunder in the desert!
“Prepare God’s arrival!
Make the road smooth and straight!
Every ditch will be filled in,
Every bump smoothed out,
The detours straightened out,
All the ruts paved over.
Everyone will be there to see
The parade of God’s salvation.”

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You know, on Peace Sunday, the images typically used to illustrate the message are pretty angels or doves or peace signs, or even a peace sign on a Christmas Tree with a dove on top  . . . not a thunderstorm in the desert. I mean, that’s a pretty radical image for Peace Sunday.  Typically, of course, I select a more conventional translation of the scripture.  But this Advent I am using The Message, and the imagery it brings to mind has nothing to do with peace signs or doves or angels.  Nothing peaceful at all, in fact. 

“Thunder in the desert!”   That line, that image, fascinated me, because the usual translations are along the lines of “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness”  as if Isaiah is speaking sort of generally.  “There will be a voice, a person, who speaks about the coming Messiah and prepares the world for his arrival.”  It’s not really specific or anything.  But this, “Thunder in the desert!  Prepare God’s arrival!”   It is as if Isaiah is speaking directly to John, as if these are not simply a prophesy of something that will happen, but a direct order.   “Thunder in the desert.”  And John did.  He thundered.   He preached “a baptism of life-change leading to forgiveness of sins.”  Not, be baptized and your sins will be forgiven.  But change your life, repent what you have done wrong against God and against your neighbor, and you will be forgiven.  He spoke out against the immorality of the leaders of his time.   He seriously thundered!  

It was the fifteenth year of the rule of Caesar Tiberius  . . . that would be around the year 29 AD, making John (and Jesus) around 33.   There was a lot going on.  It was far from a peaceful time in the province the Romans called  Palestine, the country that had been a united Israel under King David.   It wasn’t one country anymore, and hadn’t been for a long time, but three - Galilee, Samaria, and Judea.   Herod was the king of Galilee, serving at the pleasure of the Emperor.  Pilate was governor of Judea, which included Samaria.  No one liked the Romans.  No one liked Herod, king of the Jews but only nominally Jewish.  There was constant unrest.  Bandits making travel unsafe.  Zealots trying to foment armed rebellion against Rome.   A heavy burden of taxes on the poor.  Soldiers doing whatever they wanted to the people of the land - dragging them out of their fields and workplaces to carry burdens, raping the women and casting them aside, taking whatever they wanted from whomever they wanted.  It was a bad time, a hard time - unless you happened to be rich or powerful.    It was not a peaceful time. Oh, there was the Pax Romana - Roman Peace.  But that was “peace” imposed by the might of the Roman Legions.  That was order imposed by occupying forces on an oppressed population, not actual peace.  

So, what is peace? 

 Jane Addams is known as the Mother of Social Work, and recognized as the founder of the social work profession in the United States.   In 1889 she opened Hull House, the first settlement house - like a community center in a poor neighborhood where volunteers lived, and where opportunities for education, exposure to the arts, and so on were made available to the local residents who wouldn’t otherwise have access to these things.  Agencies like All Peoples Community Center in LA and the Oakland Peace Center are pretty much direct descendents of Hull House.  She fought for justice for all people - for women’s right to vote, for poor people’s rights to an education, for access to health care, and the needs of children.  She helped found the American Civil Liberties Union in the 1920s, and in 1931 was the first American woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  She was a force of nature.  And she said “True Peace is not the absence of war, it is the presence of justice.”  

Many other people have made similar statements.  A Google search for the phrase “peace is not the absence of war” yields 50,300,000 results with quotes attributed to everyone from Pope John Paul II to Albert Schweitzer to Harrison Ford.   The original source was probably the 17th century philosopher Spinoza.  But Jane Addams spent her entire life working for justice, for an end to oppression, and for equity.  Her goad at Hull House was “to practice social democracy, that is, egalitarian social relations across class lines.”   Justice is everyone being treated fairly - equally - under the law.  Money and social standing should not make a difference in having access to education, health care, and legal representation.   

Yesterday I was blessed with the opportunity to spend the morning registering families for the Reality Tour at Selma High School.  It is a drug prevention event  for youth and their parents that is really quite “in your face.”   I was working alongside Selma School district teachers and administrators and listening to their stories about kids and parents and equity.  Because, you see, registration for this event was online.  And a lot of the kids these teachers and administrators were talking about don’t have access to computers.  They don’t have smart phones.  They don’t have email.  These are the kids who don’t get breakfast at home, and don’t have coats when it’s cold.   It’s easy for an event organizer to say, “If we do it on line we won’t miss anyone.  Everyone has access.”  Except everyone doesn’t.  One of the teachers said, “it’s an equity issue.”  And the conversation turned to “How do we make the playing field level?  How do we give those kids access to events like this?”   No one would suggest that every kid be given an iPhone, but making computer access available at the schools is doable (said the folks I was listening to) - and equitable.  

Issues of equity are justice issues.  Issues of equity are loving the neighbor issues.  Because if I love my neighbor, I want her to have the same opportunities I have, regardless of class or race or religion or whatever.  There is a difference between equality and equity.   It’s illustrated in a cartoon where there are three kids of different heights standing at a fence, and on the other side of the fence is a baseball game.  None of them can see over, so they each get an identical box to stand on.  That’s equality.  But two of the kids still can’t see over the fence.  So each kid is given a box that makes them the right height to see over.  That’s equity.  That’s what Jane Addams fought for.  That’s what Jesus preached.  That’s what John was preparing the way for.

You know, I could take the rest of that Isaiah quote and make it about equality. “Every bump smoothed out, the detours straightened out, all the ruts paved over.”   Except I think that’s a bit simplistic.  Because neither John nor Jesus nor anyone else preached that life was going to be a smooth ride all the way from beginning to end.  There will be dips and bumps, and detours and ruts.     Justice is making sure everyone can get past the dips and bumps.  Justice is making sure there are signs clearly indicating where to go for that detour.  Justice is working together to fill in the ruts in the road, so that everyone can travel along it.   Working toward a just world means working toward a world where all those kids’ families can get on the internet to register for events that could make a real difference in their lives.  Working toward a just world means working toward a world where everyone has access to healthy food.  Some people will still get steak and lobster while others get chicken or beans and rice. But everyone gets fed.  Everyone gets to eat.  

Peace is the presence of Justice.  Peace is not the absence of war, but it might be the absence of oppression.  So go from here, my sisters and brothers, to do as John did.  Thunder in the desert of oppression.  Continue to work and speak for justice for all God’s people.  Comfort God’s people, as John did, with the Good News, that Jesus is coming, and has come, and will come again, to heal our world, to pour justice out upon it, and bring peace to every heart.  

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Do Not Despair


Scripture  Luke 21:25-36  The Message   

25-26 “It will seem like all hell has broken loose—sun, moon, stars, earth, sea, in an uproar and everyone all over the world in a panic, the wind knocked out of them by the threat of doom, the powers-that-be quaking.

27-28 “And then—then!—they’ll see the Son of Man welcomed in grand style—a glorious welcome! When all this starts to happen, up on your feet. Stand tall with your heads high. Help is on the way!”

29-33 He told them a story. “Look at a fig tree. Any tree for that matter. When the leaves begin to show, one look tells you that summer is right around the corner. The same here—when you see these things happen, you know God’s kingdom is about here. Don’t brush this off: I’m not just saying this for some future generation, but for this one, too—these things will happen. Sky and earth will wear out; my words won’t wear out.

34-36 “But be on your guard. Don’t let the sharp edge of your expectation get dulled by parties and drinking and shopping. Otherwise, that Day is going to take you by complete surprise, spring on you suddenly like a trap, for it’s going to come on everyone, everywhere, at once. So, whatever you do, don’t go to sleep at the switch. Pray constantly that you will have the strength and wits to make it through everything that’s coming and end up on your feet before the Son of Man.”

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I saw a diagram on Facebook the other day showing the difference between Bible translations.   

John 20:17  
From the Greek:    He said to her, Jesus, “not me you touch or cling to.”
New Revised Standard Version:   Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me.” 
Dynamic Interpretation:   Jesus said to her, “You can’t touch this.”

Ok, that’s kind of a joke, but not entirely.   Most of you know that I prefer Bible translations that are more like the second one, scholarly and as accurately translated into English as possible.   But sometimes looking at things a little differently helps us understand them better.   So this year, for the whole of Advent, we will be using The Message for our scripture readings.  

In today’s passage, Jesus warns of the dangers of distraction, of hard times to come, of the very real possibility that we will lose our strength and faith when the world around seems to be falling apart.  It is so easy to all into depression, to think there is nothing we can do to change things, that all of the anger and evil that surrounds us is all there is.  That the end, in fact, is near.  Or, alternatively, that we will be so distracted by our daily lives that we won’t see what’s right in front of us.  

But look at a fig tree - or any tree for that matter.

How do I know there’s a God?  I asked.  Who knew (at age 13) that this was not a good question to ask in my Wednesday night religious education class?   The nun in charge went immediately to get the priest, who chastised me severely and made it very clear that there was to be no questioning of such things. I must simply believe.

You may not know this, but I’m really not good at being told what I must do, or think, or say, or believe.   I wanted to quit going, but I knew Mother would never allow it.    So when I went home I told my father what had happened.  My father, being a very wise man, shook his head, grumbled about bad teachers, and took me outside.  To look at a tree.  We looked at the leaves, with all the veins running through so the sap can bring nutrients.  And we looked at how the bark protects the inside of the trunk and branches from bugs and cold and all sorts of damage.  And we looked at the root system, how it reaches down into the earth searching for every last drop of water the tree needs to grow.  Then he asked me if I thought that these things could all simply happen randomly, or if someone had to have created this tree.   And if someone greater than a human had to have created the tree, the what about all of the other amazing and intricately detailed life forms?   Including humans.   And then he told me that only God could do these things.  And that I would have been much better off being taught by Jesuits, who understood the importance of asking questions.   

When I was in seminary, the apartment downstairs from mine was reserved for students from foreign countries.  During my four years there I had neighbors from Brazil and South Africa and Kenya.  My Kenyan neighbor didn’t understand winter at all.   Well, none of them did.  But with most of them, we just talked about the need to wear hats in extremely cold weather, and the dangers of ice on the sidewalks and road that lurks under snow, and whatever you do, do not turn off the heat when you go away for Christmas break!  (Frozen pipes are bad!)   But my Kenyan neighbor and I had a theological conversation about winter.   We were walking to class one morning and he asked why the seminary didn’t cut down the dead trees on campus.  Where he lived, he said, all of those trees would be firewood by now.   I realized that he was looking at all the trees that had lost their leaves in the Fall and were now dormant until Spring, so we talked about the nature of deciduous trees, the way they only seem to be dead but that in the spring they would be resurrected.   It’s what I grew up with, of course, but coming from Kenya, this was a foreign concept.  Not the resurrection, of course.  He was a Christian.  He believes in the resurrection. But that trees can also reflect the life of Christ, and be used to teach theology - this was new.   To him.

Because using a tree to teach theology was not a new thing.  My father taught me how to do it, but he learned it from Jesus.   And Jesus’ message was this, just as the fig tree gives clear signs of the changing season, so the things happening in the world around us will make it clear that it is almost time for the Son of Man to return.   The disciples believed it would happen in their life times.  It didn’t.  Since that time, the end of days has been predicted over and over again.  People would look at omens, like those we read in today’s scripture, and say “This is it!  All of these things are happening now!  Repent!  For the end is near!  Jesus is coming back next week!”    Specific Dates were set for the Last Day.  Expectations ran high among those who believed the prophets of doom.  People even sold all they owned and wandered off to pray on a mountaintop or something.  Then that day would come, and go, and nothing of any great note would happen.   *sigh*   And the people who had believed would come back from their mountaintop and wonder what to do now.  

Jesus said, “Be on your guard.  Don’t let the sharp edge of your expectation be dulled by parties and drinking and shopping. Otherwise, that Day is going to take you by complete surprise, spring on you suddenly like a trap, for it’s going to come on everyone, everywhere, at once. So, whatever you do, don’t go to sleep at the switch. Pray constantly that you will have the strength and wits to make it through everything that’s coming and end up on your feet before the Son of Man.”   

This particular piece seems highly appropriate for December, when people start celebrating and running around shopping and worrying about what to give all of their friends and neighbors and family members.  Pretty much the last thing on most minds is that this might really be the End of Days.  But that’s what Advent is - it’s the time when we wait for the return of the King.  Yes, we will celebrate the birth of the Child four weeks from now, but Advent is when we wait with bated breath for the return of the Christ to earth - the end of days.  This year, with fires and floods and famines and wars and refugees all over the earth - it even kind of feels like the end times to me, and I am not much of a “repent, for the end is near” kind of person.  I’m more of a “Try to live every day as if it was your last day on earth” kind of person.  

And I believe that is what Jesus is saying in this passage.   Not so much “get busy preparing for the end of time because it’s coming next week.”  But “stay vigilant in every season.  Whether you are in a season of celebration or a season of despair, know that I am near.  Know that I will be there, no matter what is going on.  And that all you have to do is keep the faith, and you will make it through.”

My article in The Caller this month was about a package I had ordered and how it seemed like it was never going to arrive.  It left Oregon November 6, went to LA, then San Francisco, where it languished for a week, then to Chicago! Then Elk Grove Village, IL for a few days, and then to San Jose.   I had emailed the company and a woman named Jill kept encouraging me to be patient, that surely the package would arrive.  (It did, by the way.  On Thursday.)    I had to think how appropriate her words are to this time of year, when we are waiting both for the birth of the Child and the return of the King.   How appropriate to this time in history, when it “ … seem[s] like all hell has broken loose—sun, moon, stars, earth, sea, in an uproar and everyone all over the world in a panic, the wind knocked out of them by the threat of doom, the powers-that-be quaking.”  It would be so easy to give in to despair, to decide that the world is going to hell in a hand basket and there is nothing we can do about it.   

But Jesus says, “Help is on the way.  And I say, help is already here.  Because even if it is not the end of days, Jesus is with us.  Isaiah 9:6 tells us that “authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”   And because he is all those things to us, he is always here with us.  His words are in front of us every day.  His teachings are in our hearts every day.  His example on how to live through every situation is right here - in this book, and also in our minds and hearts.  Because we know the stories.  And we know that he was fully divine but also fully human - that he laughed and ate and drank, and suffered and bled and cried, just as we do.  And therefore we can get through any situation, as he did.  Because even when he could have given in to despair, even when he knew that the end of his time on earth was near, he had faith that God, his father, would be with him no matter what happened.  So he kept doing the things he knew needed to be done - feeding the hungry, casting out evil spirits, healing the sick, comforting the comfortless - for as long as he could.  And then he passed the baton to his disciples, to us.   And so we go on doing the work he left us, pouring Christ’s love out on our neighbors, walking forward in hope, working to make our world a better place, a more loving place, a place where Jesus lives.  

Have faith, for he is coming.   Do not despair, for he is with us.  Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God, is Emmanuel - God with us.