Sunday, January 21, 2018

Follow the Leader

Mark 1:14-20     (NRSV)

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
Our annual Congregational Meeting is today.  We’ll be electing leaders for the next year or two or three.  Let me tell you what the process is like.  A  group of people gathers around a dining room table. We have a list of the positions we need to fill, and job descriptions for each of those positions. Some of the people at that table have been around here a long time, some just a couple of years.  But we all know what the work of the church is. We all know how important it is to find people who care about the church, and about each other, and about caring for God’s people.  We want to get as many people as possible involved, but we also know that we have to be careful in our selections, so that the people we name will find a blessing in the work they are called to.  So we start with prayer.  We start with carefully, prayerfully considering each job, and each member of the congregation.  Is this a person who will suit this job?  Is this a job that will bring joy to this person?  And then - each of the people around that table takes some of the names on our lists and asks those people, “Are you willing to serve Christ by doing this work for the church?  Are you willing to accept this calling?”   

And if they didn’t ask you that way, I’m sorry.

Because don’t be mistaken - this is a calling. Serving a congregation in any way at all is a calling.   There is not one single position on this list that is unimportant.  There is not one single person who was asked to serve who is just a body to fill a slot.  The fact that you have accepted this calling is a big deal. It is important to the congregation, and it is important to God.  And if you were asked but declined - that’s important too.  It’s important to be true to your own needs, and if you need not to do this work right now, it’s good that you declined.  Another time, perhaps, when you are ready.    And if you have accepted a call, and now are feeling a little nervous, a little as if you don’t know what you’ve gotten yourself into, don’t worry.   There are others here who have done this job before you, and they will be happy to help you as you move into this new thing.

Jesus called these fishermen to do things they had no idea about.  He said - come with me, and I will make you fishers of men.  Come, follow me.  And they did.  They followed him.  They didn’t even get a job description.  They hadn’t been sitting here watching other people do the same thing.  There wasn’t anyone around who had done this thing before.  They just up and left everything they knew how to do and followed this stranger, this preacher man - and they followed him.  They went where they were called.   

Now, because I have been dealing with humans for my whole life, I suspect there was a bit more conversation between Jesus and the people he called to go with him than the gospel writers reported.  I somehow can’t imagine anyone saying, “Oh yeah.  I’ll just walk away from my home and family, leave my father here to do all this work by himself, desert my wife and mother-in-law, and go who knows where with this dude I never saw before.”  I mean, Jesus needed people who cared about other people, and who were responsible adults.  Just dropping everything to follow a random stranger isn’t really responsible or caring.  I mean, Jesus probably knew them, knew their hearts, but they didn’t know anything about him.  I think, probably, there was just a bit more contact before Simon and Andrew dropped their nets and the sons of Zebedee left their father there mending nets alone.  I mean, Jesus wasn’t just going to the marketplace to pick up some olives and bread for dinner.  He was going to wander around the countryside, preaching and teaching and healing the sick.  Don’t get me wrong - I am a firm believer in miracles and things happening that we really can’t explain.  But I also know that the gospel writers could only tell so much of any story.  They could only report what they knew about the events in Jesus’ life.  So maybe Andrew said to someone, “Yeah. When Jesus asked me and Simon Peter to join him on the road, we dropped everything and went.”  And later that story became part of the narrative.  It was true.  But maybe not the whole entire story.    

You may or may not be aware that I select a theme and scripture readings for each month well in advance, so that DeeAnne has the information for the Caller and the music staff has it for their own planning, for help in selecting choir music among other things.  This month is about Discipleship and membership, and the title “Follow the Leader” just made sense for this particular story, especially as it fell on the day of our congregational meeting.  And when I looked for images for “Follow the Leader” I fell in love with this group of sculptures by Stanley Proctor showing children playing Follow the Leader.  In the children’s game, everyone does whatever the leader does.  Anyone who can’t do whatever has to drop out.  The game continues until only one person is left, and that person becomes the next leader.  Sometimes the leader will do things no one has any trouble with.  Sometimes the leader would do something that very few others could do as well, and anyone who failed had to drop out of line.   Sometimes, the leader might do something dangerous or potentially harmful, and people will copy her so they don’t have to drop out.  This may be where that famous parent line, “If you friends all jumped off a cliff, would you?” came from.   

And because I am who I am, and I have all sorts of strange things wandering around my head, I spend most of this week humming Eric VonZipper’s theme song, “Follow your leader.”   Who was Eric Von Zipper, you ask?  Eric Von Zipper was the leader of the comical biker gang in the 1960s Beach Party movies starring Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon.  In all seven Beach Party movies, Von Zipper led his hapless followers from one hysterically disastrous plan after another to defeat the surfers!   He was pretty much dumb as a box of rocks, but convinced of his own superior intellect and leadership ability.   As the song says, “He is his ideal.”   His followers may have been smarter than they looked, because they usually managed to pick up the pieces when his plans inevitably blew up in his face.   But they kept following him in all seven movies, so I don’t know.  Anyway . . .

It is critical to be careful about who you are following.  Because this is neither a children’s game, where the last one standing becomes the next leader, nor a 1960s comedy where everything turns out perfectly in the end no matter what.  This is real life.  I promise you that the nominating committee has done their best to select responsible, caring leaders for the church, who will always listen to your suggestions and concerns.  

If you are a person in a position of leadership, it is important to make sure your desires and plans line up with what is best for the people you lead.  If they don’t match, choose to go with what is best for the most people instead of doing what you please.  That’s not easy for anyone to do.  We all have our own ideas of what we think would be best, for our family, for our friends, for our place of employment, and for our congregation.   And that is why here we work in teams.  No group or individual - not even the pastor (or maybe especially not the pastor) - gets to run over everyone else and have their own way.  We work together to serve the church, to build up our faith, to build God’s kingdom on earth.  We may not always agree with each other about how those things should happen, but we work together, in unity, for the good of all of God’s children, especially as they are represented here, in this church, in this city, in this time.

Jesus was going to lead his followers into danger, because he was going to lead them in opposing the ways of the world.  He was going to preach against the status quo, and remind people what it is that God requires of God’s people.  This is not conducive to an easy life.  In today’s passage he chose people to follow him who had proven their willingness to face difficulties and to make hard choices.  Fishermen,  accustomed to facing violent weather, changing tides, seasons of plenty and seasons of want, times when prices were good and times when prices were terrible.  He chose followers who were good people, responsible people, courageous people - and he led them to places they couldn’t imagine.   

May we also follow Jesus as closely as his first called disciples did, going out into the world to do only good, to do God’s will and work, to change the world through an outpouring of the love that God has showered upon us.   

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Decisions, decisions

Scripture John 1:43-51  NRSV 

43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49 Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51 And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

Nathaniel had to make a decision - follow Jesus or not.  Go with this person from Nazareth, of all places, or keep on doing whatever it was he was doing . Studying Torah, no doubt, in the very traditional ways. Certainly not roaming all over the countryside with an itinerant preacher.  But here is a man who knows him - someone he is quite certain he has never met and who can’t know anything about him, yet somehow knows that he is a scholar (because the whole “saw you under the fig tree” comment is a first century Jewish idiom that referred to someone who was a serious student the way we talk about some academics as living in an ivory tower)  His choice entailed making a sacrifice that I can’t even imagine making.  I like living in a house and having bed and comfy covers and books right at hand ready to read whenever I want.  But he made that decision.  And he became one of the Twelve -  the first followers of Jesus and, after the resurrection, one of the Twelve Apostles who formed what is now the Christian Church.  

We don’t know much about Nathaniel.  He’s only mentioned twice in the Gospels, and not at all in Acts.   There’s this, his introduction and in Chapter 21 of John’s Gospel Nathaniel is mentioned as one of the four disciples present when Jesus appeared at the Sea of Galilee after the resurrection.  Because he was known to be a friend of Philip, he may also have been associated with John the Baptist, but that’s not certain.   Some scholars believe he is known as Bartholomew in some of the other Gospels, but can’t produce any evidence for that opinion except that the name Nathaniel only appears in John’s Gospel and Bartholomew doesn’t.   As most of you know, I love researching stuff, especially historical details, so I went digging and I found a site that had so much information about Nathaniel that I was totally blown away.  I mean, this site had his exact age and his father’s name and how many siblings he had, and his occupation, and even went on at some length about his relationship with the other disciples, who all loved and respected him for his honesty, his sense of humor and his knowledge of scripture and the Law - except for Judas Iscariot, of course, because Nathaniel could see right through him.   Then I looked for their sources for all this awesome information and discovered that it all came from a book that the founders of this organization had received from aliens.  *sigh*   OK, fine.  So, we don’t know much about Nathaniel.  He was from Bethsaida, he was well educated, and he was a friend of Philip.   That’s about it.  AND we know that he made a decision that would change his life, the lives of the people close to him and, eventually, the entire world.   

It probably didn’t seem like such a big decision at the time. I mean, it was big in terms of giving up the life he knew for something unknown.  But it wasn’t all that uncommon for people to decide to follow one of the many roaming teachers or healers.  We know, for example, that John the Baptist had a number of disciples, and he was only one of many holy men roaming the countryside.  But Nathaniel and the rest of those first disciples had no way of knowing where that decision was going to lead them.    

That’s the thing about decisions.  Even the smallest decision can have a huge impact on our lives.  We all have stories about “small” decisions.  Like deciding to answer the phone even though it meant leaving the house late and then passing a terrible accident that might have involved us had we left on time.  Or deciding to go on a mission trip and meeting our future spouse.  Some decisions are easy, others are more difficult - and some day I will figure out why it is so hard for two or more people to decide where to go for dinner!  I mean, seriously, that should not be so hard.  

So, this month we are talking about discipleship and membership.  We are talking about following Jesus and belonging to him, and to his family.  This is the decision that Nathaniel made on that day in Bethsaida, to follow Jesus and become part of the family that surrounded him - the men and women who chose to be part of his daily life and his ministry, to learn from him and to serve him.    That’s what it means to be a member of a church, of a particular congregation.

A number of the folks here today grew up in this congregation.  They sit in the same pew where their mothers and grandmothers sat, and have children and grandchildren of their own.  Some came as young married couples, and have been coming long enough to raise their own children and grandchildren here.   Others are newer, having moved to Selma from somewhere else, or changed church membership when they were no longer comfortable in the churches they had been attending.  Some of you came here because a friend asked you to come to Youth Group, and you decided that you wanted to make this church your home.  Or because a friend you know from work or bowling or volunteering at the Animal Shelter invited you.   Some of you are pretty new to the whole church thing, and some have been church folks since before you were born. (And if you don’t know that’s possible, just ask anyone whose mom was a member here while she was pregnant.)   Some of you are still looking.

So - How do you decide which church is right for you?

Leah found some excellent pictures for today - a megachurch, a small country church, and a downtown big steeple church.  All we really know about these three things is what they look like from the outside.  Well, ok.  We know a lot more about the Crystal Cathedral than just how it looks, and we all know this place pretty well - some of you are even intimately familiar with what it looks like up inside the ceiling!  But generally speaking, when we are looking for a congregation to join, we might have in our mind what kind of place we are looking for.   Each of these has its attractions.  You might want to be part of a megachurch because you can hide in the crowd, or because they excel in entertaining worship services.  You might prefer a smaller church so that you can get to know everyone really well and really be part of what is going on there.   You might be looking for a place just like the church you grew up in, or the exact opposite of the church you grew up in.  You might be looking for an established congregation where you can just slide in to an established tradition, or a new church start, so you can be part of deciding what those traditions will be.  The thing that you are for sure looking for, though, is a place where you fit.  A  place where you can come on Sundays - or any other day of the week, actually - and know that you are welcome.  And a place where you can hear the stories of Jesus and Paul and folks from the Hebrew Bible, and learn more about God and about faith.    A place where you can be who you are, and you don’t have to pretend to be someone you are not.  

Joining a congregation is not a decision to be made lightly or quickly.  You may have heard the old saying “Marry in haste, repent at leisure”?    While church membership isn’t exactly marriage, it kind of is.  Although it’s more like becoming a new in-law in an existing family.  And what person, having fallen in love with their soul mate, doesn’t look at their family - the prospective in-laws - to try to get an idea what the future might bring for them.  In-laws, any family, really, tend to be kind of a mixed bag.  There are the ones we love and get along with, and then there’s the uncle or aunt who you just can’t get along with.  You just can’t agree with anything they say because everything they believe to be true is pretty much the opposite of what you believe to be true.  Their whole attitude is pretty bad, frankly.  They complain about everything.   Or, there’s the aging hippy Pollyanna type, who sees rainbows and unicorns everywhere, and you wonder how she manages to dress herself in the morning.  But it’s family.  It’s not going to be perfect.  And you can always avoid conversations with the family members you don’t like that much, but you will hug them when you see them because . . . family is family.  You don’t have to agree with each other. You don’t even have to like each other.  But you do have to love each other.    Jesus said so.

I know there are folks here who’ve been showing up for a while and haven’t made that scary walk down these really long aisles to receive the right hand of Christian fellowship and become an official member of this congregation.  I know that some of you are still deciding, and some aren’t sure why you need to do that. Because you can do everything here without being an official member. You can come to all the worship services, and receive communion, and be part of all of our volunteer efforts and social events.  You can be in the women’s group and Bible study and help out with the Youth and preside at worship and do all sorts of things. You can pledge your money and time.  There are, in fact, just two things you cannot do if you are not a member.  According to our by-laws, if you are not a member, you cannot vote in congregational meetings, and you cannot serve as a Deacon or Elder or Board member - or any other elected capacity.   So next week, when we vote on whether to approve the budget for 2018 and elect new officers, if you have not joined the congregation, you cannot vote.   And for those of you who may want to be a member here, but don’t want to give up membership in your long-time home church - you don’t have to.  There is such a thing as dual membership.  

You may be wondering who these Disciples of Christ I keep talking about might be.  Those of us who have been around this church for a while say “Disciples Rock!”  But we know this denomination.  We know how it works in this particular congregation, or maybe even several different ones.  But what if you have no idea who we are - you just came to check out this church, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Selma, California.  What makes the Disciples different?  Why are we right for you?  (or not.)  If you want to know those things, talk to me.  Talk to some of the long time members.  Better yet, sign up for a Pastor’s Class, where we will talk about what it means to be a Disciple of Christ.   We’re pretty cool, actually.  We even have a joke book . . You might be a Disciple if your Elder prays about wine but the deacon serves you grape juice.  You might be a Disciple if you don’t want the sermon to last more than 20 minutes so you can beat the Methodists to the restaurant.)   If more than two people want to learn more about the Disciples, we’ll set a time and day that works for everyone, and we’ll have a class.  It’ll be fun.

Being a member in a congregation is not a once and done thing.  You can’t just shake my hand up front one Sunday and think that’s all there is to it.  It’s is more than sitting in your favorite pew on Sunday mornings.  It is more than putting money in the collection plate or singing in the choir or helping out at events. It is a commitment to be part of Jesus’ family here, in this place, at this time.  It is agreeing to embrace this body of people as your family, and to be embraced by them in return.   Membership in a congregation is a covenant to be there for each other, in whatever ways you are able - from something as simple as praying in the privacy of your home to serving as Chairperson of the Church Board.  (Which isn’t really all that difficult a thing.  Our Board meetings are really quite civilized, and our teams work well together.)  Even those of us here who have been members for a long long time continue to commit to serve each other and the church to the best of our ability - because it is what Jesus wants us to do - to love one another and take care of one another, as he commanded us to do.

Nathaniel had a decision to make.  It wasn’t an easy one, and yet he made it quickly.  Because he recognized that Jesus was the Son of God, the King of Israel.  He may not have been entirely certain what that meant, and he certainly had no idea what was ahead for him and for the other disciples Jesus had chosen, but he made the decision.  He made the decision to follow Jesus.  Let us also make that decision, today and every day.

Sunday, January 7, 2018


 Mark 1:4-11 NRSV

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 

I imagine that some of you showed up today hoping to hear the Gospel story from Matthew about the arrival of the Wise Men and the gifts they brought, or maybe Luke’s story about Anna and Simeon in the Temple, and the very first time when Jesus was recognized as the Messiah that the people of Israel had been awaiting for so long.  If you are of a theological turn of mind, you may even have wondered whether I was going to talk about how when the Wise Men came it was a sign that Jesus was for the whole world, not just for Israel.  Or maybe about the prophetic nature of the gold, frankincense and myrrh.  Instead, the Gospel reading for today came from Mark, who didn’t speak at all about Jesus’ birth or childhood.  Rather, he started telling the Good News from the first day of Jesus’ ministry in the world - the day he was baptized by his cousin, John the Baptizer.  In fact, Mark begins with these words:  
“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,    
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
    ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight,’ 
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

On this particular Sunday we celebrate, not the Epiphany of the Lord, but the Baptism of Jesus.  When I told someone that earlier in the week, she was disappointed.  For most of us, the arrival of the Three Kings is an important part of the Christmas story.  But I have a secret to share with you.

Epiphany is not a day.  It is a season.  Just like Christmas.  Christmas doesn’t end on the day Jesus is born.  Christmas continues for 12 days, ending on the day that the Wise Men appear.  Epiphany begins on that day and continues until Ash Wednesday.   (Which this year falls on Valentine’s Day . . . so if you usually give up chocolate for Lent you might want to reconsider . . . .  just sayin’.)   This year, during the season of Epiphany here at First Christian Church, we will be focusing on Discipleship - on baptism and church membership and reaching out into the community.   

Baptism.   Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee to be baptized in the Jordan River by his cousin John, just as many others were coming, even from Jerusalem.  They came in droves, to repent their sins and have them washed away in the water.  And John said to the people, “I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”   When Jesus had been baptized and came up from the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Holy Spirit descending, while God’s voice filled his head saying, “You are my son, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.  It is not written that anyone else saw this, but at this point, really, no one else needed to see.  This was a moment between Jesus and God.   

The history of baptism is filled with controversy and change.  In the early days of the church, whole households were baptized together and we assume that infants were included, although the Bible doesn’t tell us specifically whether or not that was the case.  Baptism took place pretty much as soon as someone said “I believe that Jesus is the Messiah.”  Like the three thousand new believers on the Day of Pentecost, and the household of Cornelius, and the eunuch Philip baptized on the road out of Jerusalem.  But as time passed it was determined that new seekers should be better informed before they were allowed to become full members of the church.  So they would spend a year learning Scripture and learning the history of the Church, and even have to leave worship when it came time for communion, until they were baptized - often on Easter with many others.   The new member would stand on one side of the baptistry, which was a pool with stairs on both ends, and remove their clothing.  Entering into the water, they were immersed and baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  They were then anointed with oil, and came up out of the pool, where they received new clothing and a new name - their Christian name.   More time passed and the belief arose that baptism was necessary for entrance into heaven, and since so many died in infancy or childhood, by the year 250 ce, it had become the custom to baptize infants with water, then confirming them in their belief in the Christ by anointing them with oil when they reached the age of decision.  That practice continues down to today in many Christian traditions.   In about 1523 ce some of the leaders of the Reformation rejected the concept of infant baptism, declaring that only believers baptism was Biblical.  These Anabaptists (re-baptizers) were considered heretical by both Protestant and Catholics, and were executed as heretics (usually by drowning) well up into the mid 1600s.   In the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) we practice believers baptism by immersion, but in most of our congregations we do accept as valid baptism by any other denomination, including infant baptism.  So if you were baptized as an infant, that counts here.

This is a bigger deal than one might think.  I read a story recently, about a couple who were getting married in Kentucky.  They both loved their congregations and neither wanted to leave their church. So, they came to the agreement early in their marriage that they would attend which ever church was closest to their home. Joyce’s church was closest to their first home together so the plan was that Louis would join her church and that is where they would raise their children. However, when Louis went to visit with the minister about moving his membership, the minister informed him that he would have to be baptized. Louis said, “I have been baptized.” The minister replied but for membership here, you will be required to be baptized in this church, in this denomination.   Some of their family and friends thought that Louis should just be re-baptized. Joyce taught Sunday school and sang in the choir.  She was an integral part of the congregation and it was closer to their home. For Louis, the point was that this church did not recognize the holy event that had already taken place. They took something away from Louis and from God by suggesting that his baptism was not valid. So, Joyce joined Louis’ church which did accept her baptism. Baptism can bring us together and it can keep us apart.    Here at First Christian Church, we are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.  We will not let differences in practice keep us from being one with Christ.

Baptism is about repentance.  When we enter the waters of baptism, we are washed clean of our old ways, but not in some sort of miraculous event.  I had a person come to me once complaining that her life hadn’t changed after her baptism. She thought when she was baptized that she would suddenly no longer crave alcohol, that her marriage would get better, that she would be happy.  I tried to explain to her that these changes happen because we are willing to make changes.  We are washed clean because we have made a decision to change our lives, to turn them over to God, to be a follower of Jesus because we believe that he is the Messiah, the anointed one, Son of the Living God.   We come into the waters of baptism willing to become the best persons we can be, willing to look closely at ourselves and to reject the ways of the world that keep us from doing what we know God wants us to do.  We become willing to be made new, and open ourselves to direction from the Holy Spirit.   This isn’t easy.  We can’t just say, “I repent.”  We must reach into ourselves, find those sins which keep us from happiness and peace in Christ, repent and remove them, making space for the Holy Spirit to work in us and with us, to make us new in Christ.  

Baptism in the Holy Spirit empowers us to go out and do God’s work in the world.  It gives us strength to face difficulties with serenity, knowing that God is in us and with us.  It is more than a rite of passage.  It is an opening of ourselves, our own spirits, so that we may receive the fruit of the Spirit - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness,  gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23)  

 I have no idea how Jesus may have felt when he heard God’s voice speaking to him, saying “You are my beloved.  In you I am well pleased.”  I don’t know whether this was an epiphany to him.  I do know that he immediately went out into the wilderness, to pray, to meditate, to consider the path ahead of him. I do know that from that moment forward his life was different.  No longer a carpenter, no longer a resident of Nazareth.  From here forward he would be a preacher, a teacher, a healer.  From here forward, he would be filled with the Holy Spirit.   Jesus’ baptism changed his life and sent him out to do God’s will in the world.  May we, today, remember our own baptism, and let the Spirit fill us with gifts we need to do God’s work in our world.  May we look into our hearts, finding those things that keep us from being the people God wants us to be, and say to God and ourselves, These I lay down.  

Sunday, December 24, 2017

How is that possible?

Luke 1:26-38   New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)   

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”[a29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
How many of you here have played Mary in a Christmas Pageant?   I did, although not at my own church. My Girl Scout troop did a Christmas program the year I was in 5th grade and since I was the only one with long, straight, dark hair, I was chosen to be Mary.   My mother made me a beautiful blue robe and pinned a white cloth on my head like a veil, like all the pictures we had of Mary.  I felt so special, to be chosen to play Jesus’ mother.   

Mary is special, in so very many ways.  She has been revered by Christians since the beginning, as we can tell just from the fact that Luke’s includes her story in his Gospel.  She encounters an angel.  Now many people in the Bible have had encounters with angels, but most of those angels aren’t named.  Mary however, is approached by not just any nameless angel, but the Angel Gabriel, who had previously appeared to the prophet Daniel and the priest Zechariah.   He greets her as “favored one” and goes on to tell her that because she has found favor in God’s eyes she will bear a child who will rule the Israel forever.   This hasn’t happened before.  Other women had been told they would bear a son, after having been childless - Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Samson’s mother, Hannah, and Elizabeth.   And like Mary, they were told their sons would be special, chosen by God for great things - prophets, priests, leaders, the father of nations, even.  But all of these were married women, struggling with infertility, and none were told their son would rule Israel.  Mary would have known these stories - well, except for her cousin Elizabeth’s story, and Gabriel tells her that one.  And she would have wondered how on earth this was supposed to work for her, since she wasn’t yet married.  We all know the story - we tell it every Christmas.  But over the millennia this story led the Church to revere Mary in ways that no other human is revered.  

In 1854, Pope Pius IX proclaimed the immaculate Conception, saying “the Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God, and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the human race, was preserved free from every stain of original sin.”  In 1950, after experiencing a vision in which Mary spoke to him while he walked in the Vatican gardens, Pope Pius XII proclaimed the Assumption of Mary, saying that “the Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.”   No other human was born without sin.  And according to scripture, only one other, the prophet Elijah, ascended bodily into heaven.     And although these particular beliefs about Mary are not scriptural, many Christians believe them to be true.

Unfortunately, Mary has also been used by the Church to teach women to be mild and self-effacing, and to allow themselves to be guided in all things by men.  She is presented as the example of the perfect woman, pure, meek and obedient in every way.   And yet, that isn’t really the way the Bible portrays her.   Nancy Rockwell, in an article titled, “No More Lying About Mary,” (  points out a number of things that would contradict the image of Mary as meek and mild, or even as a traditional woman of her own time.  Unlike most other women portrayed in Scripture,  she isn’t engaged in any household chore at the time the angel appears - or at any other time she appears in Scripture.  Frankly, we don’t know what she was doing when the angel appeared, but later she will usually be portrayed as traveling or visiting someone, even attending a wedding, but not in her own home.    When Gabriel tells her that God has chosen her to bear this special child, she doesn’t agree right away.  She wants to know how that will be possible, since she isn’t married.   She knows what could happen to her if she is known to be pregnant and unmarried - she could be stoned to death.  She knows that God is asking her to literally put her life on the line.  It is reasonable, if a bit bold, that she should stand up to this terrifying creature and ask him, “How is that possible?”  She doesn’t agree until Gabriel tells her about her elderly cousin Elizabeth’s pregnancy and assures her that with God all things are possible.  And then she replies, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

A meek and mild Mary wouldn’t have been God’s first choice, I don’t think.  She was going to have to face great difficulties - traveling in the last days of her pregnancy, fleeing into exile in Egypt, raising a son who she knew would be special but having to keep that all to herself, his death, and all that happened in the years following his death.  No, God was going to need a strong woman, a self-reliant woman, a faithful woman, to do all the things that lay ahead for Mary.   Just giving birth for her was going to be more difficult than for her contemporaries, most of whom would at least be in the comfort of her own home.  Not Mary.  Nancy Rockwell said of Mary,  “She gives birth in a barn, lies down with animals, and welcomes weathered shepherds in the middle of the night. She is determined, not domestic; free, not foolish; holy, not helpless; strong, not submissive.” (Nancy Rockwell December 3, 2017

How is that possible?  Mary’s story is about faith.  She is told that she has been chosen to walk a certain path, she accepts that path and proceeds to walk, no matter how frightening or potentially dangerous that path might be.   Many of us here have been at a point in our lives when we know what it is we are supposed to do, but we have no idea how that’s going to happen.  During Bible Study Wednesday night we shared stories of things that had been obstacles, things which might have kept us from doing what we believed God wanted us to do, how we had faith that God would bring us through - and how God did bring us through.  If God really wants us to do whatever, then it’s going to happen no matter what obstacles got in the way.  There is a prayer form known as, “Name it and claim it,” in which you proclaim that the thing you need has already happened, and it’s just a matter of walking forward into a future in which that thing exists.  I’m not entirely comfortable with that in every situation that comes up, but there are times when “name it and claim it” is appropriate.  If I believe that God wants me to do something in particular - like, be a minister, or a teacher, or a music therapist - then I must also believe that God will give me what I need to surmount any obstacle in my way.    

“If God brings me to it, God will see me through it.”  When everything seems to be going sideways, when troubles and trials seem to be outnumbering the blessings, this helps.  No matter what is going on in my life, God will be there with me to help me walk through it.   For Mary, this thought probably became a way of life.  In the very near future, she was going to have to deal with a confrontation with Joseph, and probably her parents, and then the whispers of her neighbors.   Who is going to believe her if she tries to tell them that the child came from God?  Only Elizabeth.  Joseph would require angelic intervention.  There would be times, I suspect, when Mary wondered, “Why me?  Why couldn’t He have picked someone else?”  Like, maybe when Jesus decided to stay behind in Jerusalem the year he was 12.  But you know, I don’t think that happened too often.  Because if 10 year old me felt so much awe and wonder at being allowed to play the part of Mary one Christmas, with a plastic doll taking the part of baby Jesus, I can’t even imagine what the real Mary must have felt when she held the the Christ Child in her arms.   I think that no matter what came her way throughout her life, that awe and wonder must have been constant, because she knew that the child, the boy, the man, who came from her body, was truly the Son of God.   

Tonight, a Child will be born to us, again.  Tonight, new life, new meaning, will come into the world, again.   Tonight, we will be reminded again that nothing is impossible with God, for the Child is coming.   Therefore, let us be like Mary, and go forward from this place knowing that All things are possible with God.   Let us lift up our voices, our souls and our hearts, to give Glory to our God.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

How to build a Christian

 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24   (NRSV)

16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise the words of prophets,[a21 but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22 abstain from every form of evil.
23 May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.
It is Advent - a time of waiting and anticipation.   It is a time of looking back to the birth of the Christ and looking forward to his return.   Paul wrote this letter to the church in Thessalonica at a time when they were dealing with uncertainty and not a little fear.   This letter is almost certainly the earliest of the letters, the earliest Christian writing that we have available to us today, and yet already there was confusion and uncertainty.  Paul and all the other leaders of the Christ followers had been so sure that Jesus would return soon, next week or maybe the one after.  They had gone out from Jerusalem to carry the Good News to as many people as they possibly could reach before the end of days arrived . . . and here it is some twenty years after the resurrection and he still hasn’t come.  In this letter, Paul comforts his people, telling them that just because it hasn’t happened yet, doesn’t mean it isn’t going to happen.  He counsels them to faith and patience, and reminds them that God, the one who called them, is faithful.  Meanwhile, all around them are people who chase after wealth and pleasure, whose only care is for themselves, whose lifestyle and attitudes could easily tempt these young Christians away from their new life in Christ.  He  urges them to remain faithful, and to behave always in ways that will encourage others to respect them, and perhaps even emulate them. 

This may sound silly.  I play a game called Township on my iPad.   It’s a city building game.  We each have our own Township - mine is Parsonville - and players form co-ops to compete with other co-ops in growing crops and manufacturing goods.  Each person in the co-op can see what everyone else is doing as far as completing tasks and we help each other to complete their tasks. I like helping people so I help, a lot.   And it didn’t occur to me that I was doing anything different or that anyone was even paying attention until last week, when for some unknown reason, our co-op went from 8 members to 30 in a day or so.  One of the new co-op members said something about how she liked that we all help each other, and one of the established members said, “I just keep trying to catch up with Parson, but no success so far.”  As the conversation continued I became aware that my willingness to help everyone had spurred others to quietly compete with me.  They all want to be the leader in helping!  I think that is so cool.  What if my co-op members go out into the real world looking for ways to help others without fanfare or reward?  That would be even more cool.  

That’s kind of what church is for, you know.  We come here to worship, first and foremost.  But we also come here to learn how to live in the world while being somehow apart from the world.  We come to learn how to help and do good things, without fanfare.  Like the people of Thessalonica, we live in a time when social norms are all about getting attention, and acquiring stuff, getting the best of others in every situation, seeking pleasure even at the expense of other people, looking for someone to blame when stuff goes wrong, even looking for the worst in others instead of the good.   For anyone who thinks that this kind of ugliness is a modern phenomenon that only happens on Facebook . . . did you know that early Christians were thought to be baby killers and cannibals?  Yes.  People heard that they shared the body and blood of their dead God, and decided what that really meant is that they stole babies and ate them at their worship services.  They also thought that Christians were incestuous - people heard them calling each other brother and sister and talking about loving one another and immediately jumped to the wrong conclusion.  It wouldn’t have been hard to get up a mob with torches and pitchforks - or stones - or crosses - with rumors like those making the rounds of the city.  Persecution of groups of people generally  happens because falsehoods are told that create fear and incite hatred.  Even today.

Paul was well aware of the dangers his people faced.  He, himself, had been stoned, beaten, imprisoned and otherwise persecuted for his preaching.   He had been lied about and heard mobs call for his death because of things said about his actions and his preaching that were totally untrue.  So he gives them a list of admonitions.  A list of ways to live their lives in Christ.   
Rejoice always.  We spoke of this at some length last month, when our focus was on gratitude.  Even when things go wrong, there is always something to be grateful for, or rejoice about.  I presided at a memorial service yesterday, and there is a reason we call them Celebrations of Life.  Even when grieving the loss of husband and father, brother and friend, there are funny stories to share, joys to lift up about that person’s life.  Rejoicing, even then, is possible for the Christian.  

Pray without ceasing.  You know, I used to wonder how this is possible.  How can I pray without ceasing if I am supposed to be working or driving - ok, scratch that one.  I pray while driving all the time!  But how can one do that?  You can do that if you make your life a prayer.  If you offer your entire life, everything you do all day, to God.  And then there is popcorn praying, which I something I tend to do. If I think of you during the day, I will pray for you at that moment.  Usually just a quick “God bless them,” or “Thank you, Lord, for putting them in my life today,” kind of prayer, offered up on the spur of the moment.  In this way you don’t get to the end of the day and realize you forgot to pray today.  Because you did, in fact, pray without ceasing.  

Give thanks in all circumstances.  Again, gratitude for everything, even the bad stuff.  Pain makes me ask for help - and I am really bad at asking for help.  So I become grateful for the pain, because it forces me to do what I know God would prefer for me to do. 

Do not quench the Spirit.  No matter what, let the Spirit have her way.  Inspiration comes from the Spirit - new ideas and aha moments.  Don’t let tradition bog you down, as it did for the Pharisees of Jesus time, but allow new ideas to flow through and catch fire in your hearts,  like the wind and flames on Pentecost.

Do not despise the words of the prophets.  Just as in Paul’s time there were disagreements between the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians about the importance of the Law and Prophets to followers of Jesus, even today some Christians think that only the New Testament is relevant to Christian faith.  Yet Jesus was a Jew. He preached from the words of the prophets.   Paul spoke of the lineage of Abraham coming to the Gentiles by adoption through the Holy Spirit.  Our God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses, whom we have come to know and to love through the teachings of Jesus, his son.  So we must respect and try to understand the words of those whom God sent to prepare the way for the Messiah - the prophets.

Test everything, hold fast to what is good.  Not all preaching and teaching will be in accordance to the will of God or God’s Spirit.  So when you listen, test the words in your heart.  If you feel that the preaching fits the teachings of Christ, then accept it. If not, do not accept it.  Not everything that you hear will be of God. Sometimes it will be driven by the personality or agenda of the teacher.  So test everything.  (In other words, just because the preacher says it, doesn’t mean you have to believe it.  That’s one of my favorite things about the Disciples of Christ.  It is one of the things that attracted me here in the first place.)  

Abstain from every form of evil.  This isn’t as easy as it sounds.  There is so much that could be considered evil - gossip, jealousy, acting out in anger, greed  - all of those sins that seem to be part of the human reality.  Consider everything you do before doing it, and choose the good.  Always, choose the path of love, compassion and mercy.  

Have you ever been to a Build a Bear workshop?  I think building a Christian might be a little like building a stuffed animal.   We take a body, and there are so many different kinds of bodies.  And we fill that body up with stuffing - teachings to help it develop faith.  Some will develop a faith that seems "Soft & Cuddly,” some will seem more "Hard & Firm," but most will fall "Somewhere In Between.”  Into each will go a heart, and each heart will be a little different.  Some have a heart for the poor.  Some have a heart for animals.  Some have a heart for the hungry, or the elderly.  Some hearts focus on sharing musical gifts.  You might not know what you have a heart for just now.  But you’ll figure it out.  And then we add the outer stuff - clothing and accessories for the stuffed creature translates into the way each of us lives our faith differently.   No matter what each one ends up looking though, each one is loved so much by its Creator.  Each one is different, and precious and beloved.

And so the Thessalonian church grew.   Each Christian grew in faith and strength.  And they waited, just as we still wait, for the return of the King - for the coming of the Lord.  Paul assured them, and us, that Jesus would return.   

Christians all, your Lord is coming.  Let us sing out our faith in the one who called us, for he is faithful, and will do as He said he would do.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Are you ready?

Isaiah 40:1-5, 11 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Comfort, O comfort my people,
    says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
    and cry to her
that she has served her term,
    that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
    double for all her sins.
A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
    and all people shall see it together,
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
    he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
    and gently lead the mother sheep.

Are you ready for Christmas?  Don’t you just hate when people ask you that?   NO, I’m not ready.  Do you have any idea what all it’s going to take for me to be ready?   The silliness of some people!   Don’t they know that December is the busiest month of the year in the church?

Take yesterday, for example.  Here, in this building, we had four different events going on.  Early in the morning, Pastor Josue’s congregation met to pack food boxes to take out to the barrio.  Meanwhile, downstairs Jane Ono and friends were setting up for a Holiday Bazaar to benefit the Relay for Life, while Vonnie and I were up here getting ready for the Community Church Open House.  After those events ended, there was time for a breather before the final rehearsal for the Community Choir Christmas Cantata - and then the performance, which was awesome, by the way!   Meanwhile, our CWF Esther Circle met and collected soap and shampoo for the Selma Convalescent Hospital, there was a performance of the Nutty Nutcracker at the Arts Center, and families could get free Santa pictures in the park.  Those are just the things I know about - I’m pretty sure there was more going on here and there around town that I don’t know about or forgot.   

Usually when people want to know whether you are ready for Christmas they are asking about things like, are your decorations up?  How far along are you on gift shopping?  Are you baking?  How’s that coming along?  Family dinner plans going well?   Did you get your cards out yet?   (My answers are Yes, I have purchased 1 gift, I made cookies for yesterday and I think people liked them, I don’t have a family, and Cards?  I set them out on my desk and that’s where they sit.  Again.  As usual. *sigh*)

But I don’t really think of Advent and Christmas in quite those terms.  Oh, I know that is what most people are thinking of, but I’m one of those odd people who live by the Church calendar.  I select outfits for church based on the color stole I will be wearing in any particular season.  I often have to be reminded about National Holidays.  In December, when everyone else is looking at end of year stuff, and Christmas of course, I am living in a New Church Year, and preparing for the new thing God has already done for us and still has in mind for us.

A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.

When I was reading this passage during the week I happened to remember  something I saw once. I visited some people in West Virginia one time, who lived on top of a mountain.  As I drove up a very curvy, steep, scary mountain road, off to my right I could see HUGE earth movers building a new highway to ease the journey through the Appalachian mountains. . . They were absolutely the biggest machines I have ever seen before or since.   And it looked like they were driving straight up the side of the mountain, as they leveled and smoothed it.   

It had to be a really difficult road to build, because it went up the side of a mountain.  And the mountain was made of rock - not the easiest substance to dig through.  And yet, those huge machines were running up and down the side of the mountain as if they were on a plain.

At this time of year we think mostly about preparing our homes and workplaces and churches for the celebrations to come.  For the parties and dinners, for Cantatas and Concerts and Christmas Eve services.  We think about finding ways to give to our community, making donations to Selma Cares and the Salvation Army and the Selma Convalescent Hospital, serving food at the Christian Cafe, and all the other ways we try to help others at this time of year.   This is all good and important.  And all of this keeps us so busy . . . John said to me last night that he has no idea how he did all of these things before he retired.  But there is more to do.   The whole making straight the way of the Lord - that’s an inside job.  

Yes,  the penalty is paid in Christ.  Yes, our sins are forgiven.   But just because we are forgiven, we don’t get to just sit back and coast.  We can’t just pray to be made new and have our life change.  We have to do the work of changing ourselves.   Because making straight the way of the Lord happens first.   Then we see the Lord’s glory.  Making straight the way of the Lord is not about following certain rules or adhering to particular sets of beliefs.  It’s about becoming new people, different people, preparing the way of the Lord in us, in our hearts, in our minds.  We become new people by digging out our own sins and defects of character, - judgmentalism, jealousy, hatred, greed, envy, fear - all of those things that keep us from having peaceful hearts, just as the earth-movers in West Virginia dug out the rocks and debris that were in the way of a straight highway.  And replacing those things with virtues like acceptance, love, generosity, willingness.  As we do this, we begin to change, and those changes show on the outside.  When the changes are made, we can know peace in our hearts.  We can experience serenity.   We become the kind of Christians hymns are written about, who are known by their love.   Once we have changed ourselves, we are better prepared to change the world.  And make no mistake, It is our job as Christians to change the world, to heal it, to make it into the Beloved Community that God so desires for us.  

We begin changing the world by learning to accept others where they are.  Not coming up with the right arguments to persuade them to our way of thinking, but working on really understanding where they are coming from.  Finding out why they feel or believe what they do.   Finding out what our real differences are.  And then trying to find a point where we can have conversation and begin to understand each other.  In today’s climate of division, fear, and hatred, that seems like an almost impossible task.  But it is our job to try, to do our best to be reconciled with each other so that all of us together can be reconciled with God.  We have to be willing to try to understand the other, to listen to each other, really listen.  This is difficult.  Most of us listen just long enough to figure out how we are going to respond.   Even after listening and coming to a place where we have some understanding of each other, we still may not be able to agree.  But we don’t have to agree.  We simply need to be able to live together peacefully.  

Because, you see, if we can live together peacefully, if we can all learn to accept one another as beloved children of God, then much of the anger and animosity that is present in our world will go away.  I know.  Wishful thinking on my part.  But I believe in miracles. I believe that we are capable of creating the Beloved Community.  I believe that a day will come when no one need fear walking alone or driving while Black or being transgender. I believe that a day will come when slavery is ended everywhere forever, and all people truly have equal rights.  I believe that one day we will live in a world where the hungry can be fed, the sick can be healed, the lonely and bereaved can know they are loved.   I believe that one day, when the way of the Lord has been made straight, the Glory of the Lord will be revealed and we will live in the Peaceful Kingdom, here on the earth.

Today’s Good News, my sisters and brothers, is that the time is near.  It is the beginning of another new year in Christ.  It is time to once again read the prophets and hear their words, follow their directions, be the people Jesus, our Lord, calls upon us to be.   It is time to change, to prepare the way for the Lord, for the day of the Lord is upon us.   Let us go from this place, willing to change ourselves, and our world. Let us go forth, to proclaim the Good News, speaking words of comfort to all the people of God.