Sunday, February 17, 2019

Being the blessing

 Scripture Luke 6:17-26  NRSV

17 He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. 18 They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19 And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.
20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
    for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now,
    for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
    for you will laugh.

22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
“But woe to you who are rich,
    for you have received your consolation.
“Woe to you who are full now,
    for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
    for you will mourn and weep.
26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

This passage is known as the Sermon on the Plain.  It’s sort of like the Sermon on the Mount (aka the Beatitudes), but instead of eight blessings and no woes, here there are only four blessings and an equal number of woes.  It balances - the poor and the rich, the hungry and the well fed, the grieving and the happy, the hated and those who are spoken well of by others.

Once again Jesus faces great numbers of people. Some are his disciples - not just the Twelve, but a “great crowd” of men and women who are there to learn from him, who hunger and thirst for the Word.  (OK, hold that thought because we will come back to it.)  And then there were all the other people in the crowd, who were there to be healed of diseases and unclean spirits, who were trying to get close enough just to touch him, because power flowed out of him and healed them.  Most of them would wander back home, healed physically, even maybe mentally, but not significantly, spiritually changed by their experience of Jesus.  He knows this, and so he looked up at his disciples and said, 
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 

If the crowd was listening to what he was saying, they would maybe have heard the “pie in the sky by and by” message that this passage has often been thought to mean.  His disciples, however, would have heard something different.  Blessed are you who are poor, who know they need God, who know they need a new life, for you will receive a new way of living, a kingdom way of living.  Blessed are you who are hungry, for the Word will fill your hearts to overflowing.  Blessed are you who grieve, for God’s love will comfort you and you will laugh again. 

And blessed are you when you are reviled and hated on account of the Son of Man.   Luke wrote this gospel more than 40 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, at a time when Christ followers were being persecuted, but not necessarily executed.  They were outcast, because they wouldn’t worship the Emperor and other gods.  They were looked down upon, because they considered everyone equal, and treated everyone the same - even slaves.  Even women.  This blessing was for them, for the disciples who come in the future, even for the ones who were following him during his lifetime, because as you will remember they will be pursued and persecuted by one Saul of Tarsus, aka the Apostle Paul.   His disciples knew their history.  They knew that anyone who preached against the status quo, like some of the prophets, were beaten and threatened with death - Elijah and Jeremiah come to mind.  Jesus knew that being different, standing apart from the world because they were following the Word he was teaching them, would cause them grief, and he wanted them to know that this, too, would be a blessing.

And now we come to the problematic parts - the woes.  Woe to you who are rich!  And who are well fed!  And who are happy!  And whom everyone speaks well of!
Wait, we’re rich, kind of. I mean, compared to the folks who sleep on the church steps, we’re rich.   And we are well fed.  And we’re pretty happy.  Is Jesus talking about us? 

There are a lot of passages in the gospels where Jesus speaks poorly of the rich.  He said things like, It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God.   But Jesus really didn’t hate rich people.  After all, we know that he had followers with money and property who helped support him and his disciples in their ministry.  
What Jesus had a problem with was rich people who didn’t help the poor.  
What Jesus had a problem with were people who were well fed and didn’t feed the hungry.  
What Jesus had a problem with were folks who were perfectly happy with the way the world was, who didn’t care about injustice, who participated in the oppression of those they considered “less than.”  
What Jesus had a problem with were people who didn’t want to rock the boat, who wanted to fit in, who accepted things they didn’t like because, after all, what difference can one person make? 
 What Jesus had a problem with were people who did not follow the commandments to care for the least, the last, and the lost.

Jesus objected, not to people having money and food and a nice life, but to people who have all those things and don’t care about others.  Consider the story of the rich man who allowed the beggar Lazarus to die of hunger at the gates of his house, then went to Sheol where Lazarus was with Abraham, and he begged for just a little water.  But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.  (Luke 16:25)   It’s kind of a “what goes around, comes around” situation.  Those who have been filled with the Word  and who are willing to love one another, treating all others as we wish to be treated ourselves, those people need not worry too much about the woes.   But we need to keep them in mind, for when we become complacent, or become more interested in maintaining the status quo than in making sure all persons are treated with love and compassion.  We need to consider them whenever we are given the opportunity to help.

Speaking of opportunities to help . . . Today is one of the Sundays when we take up a special collection for Week of Compassion, the relief, refugee and development mission fund of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada.  Week of Compassion is there to help people around the world who have suffered loss after a natural disaster - like the wildfires here in California, hurricanes, earthquakes, famines, and floods where ever they happen. They were there after Hurricane Harvey in 2017, when WoC volunteers went to help re-build in Galveston, TX and each of the people receiving their help received one of the signs of hope shown in the slide.    They are there to help resettle refugees coming to this country (with the all the appropriate permissions and visas.) They are there to help communities around the world learn new agricultural skills, dig wells, and develop community health programs.   They are our boots on the ground all over the world, supplying not just funds and supplies but also volunteers on mission trips to do the hard work of rebuilding.   And when I say “they” what I really mean is “we” because Week of Compassion is part of the Disciples of Christ.   Disciples congregations and individuals give money, make hygiene kits, sometimes even school kits.  We are there where ever Week of Compassion is, even if all we did was send a little money.    We are there when we give out of our riches so that others may be fed, and housed, and cared for.   

This congregation is actually pretty excellent at being there and helping others.  As a congregation and as individuals we give generously of our time, our money, and our talents.  We are involved with food ministries, homeless ministries, animal rescue, children’s programs, and caring for the people in the Selma Convalescent Hospital.  We support missionaries, give scholarships, and help homebound people with meals and rides to therapy.  We pray for those who ask for prayer, and for each other, and for our church and our nation.  And each of us has other help agencies and organizations we are involved with one way or another.  We give so much of ourselves.  We are being the blessing that Jesus has promised to the poor and the  hungry and the grieving.  Let us be careful not to fall into the trap of comfortability with the way things are, rather, let us work toward changes in attitudes so that the Kingdom of God may truly come to be on earth, as it is in heaven.

My brothers and sisters, when we go from this place, let us continue to be the blessing.   Let us seek always to do God’s work in the world, with mercy and compassion, so that God’s Kingdom may truly come to be on earth as it is in heaven.  

Photo credit:  Week of Compassion, Danielle Cox

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Thanks for all the fish

Scripture Luke 5:1-11

Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” 11 When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.


In the 4th chapter of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus was tempted by the devil, almost thrown off a cliff by his neighbors in Nazareth, and then went around teaching, casting out demons and healing the sick, including Simon Peter’s mother in law, and preaching in Judean synagogues.    Already he had become so famous that the crowds were a problem.  Luke tells us in 4:43 “The crowds were looking for him. When they found him, they tried to keep him from leaving them.  He was a 1st century superstar, really.  Everywhere he went, people wanted to be near him, crying out for his attention, asking to be healed, begging for him to cast out their demons, to change their lives.  

So one day he had some fishermen take him out a little way from shore so he could preach without being overwhelmed by the crowds.  Now, the boats were sitting by the lake because fisherman in Capernaum typically went out at night.  Their years of experience had taught them that night is the best time to catch fish.  Jesus told the fishermen, including Simon Peter, to let their nets down even though it was the middle of the day and they hadn’t caught anything all night long.  I can almost hear Simon Peter thinking, “You are a preacher and a carpenter, not a fisherman.  This is my area of expertise and I happen to know that the fish here are most likely to be caught at night, but we will humor you and do as you ask.  Surprise, surprise, surprise.  The nets were filled with fish, so full that it took two boats to bring the nets in and even with two boats the catch nearly capsized them!  All they had to do was follow Jesus’ instructions and the fish practically jumped into the nets.    

According to Luke, this is when Simon Peter and the sons of Zebedee became Jesus’ disciples.  As you may remember, John’s gospel has a different account of how the disciples were called.  But this is the way Luke tells it, that after causing the fisherman to catch more fish than they knew what to do with, Jesus said to them, “From now on, you will be fishing for people.” and “As soon as they brought the boats to the shore, they left everything and followed Jesus.

Wait, they dd what?  They left everything right then and there?  What about their families?  What about their jobs and responsibilities?  What about all those fish?   Did they just leave them on the shore?    The very idea of dropping everything like that kind of freaks us out a bit.   It’s pretty much the opposite of what we are taught to do as adults.  I mean, adulting is hard mostly because we can’t just up and do whatever, whenever.  We have responsibilities that come first, to our families, to our jobs, to our community.   Imagine James and John saying, “We’ll catch up with you, Jesus.  Right after we deal with the fish, tell our Dad we’re leaving the family business, kiss our wives and kids goodbye, and pack a few things.   Probably take a day or two.  Not.  They left everything and followed Jesus as soon as they brought the boats to shore.  

Most of us aren’t asked to leave our families and jobs and places in our community to follow Jesus.  Mind you, some are.  More than half of my seminary classmates were people who left behind successful careers to become ministers of the Gospel.  There were nurses, accountants, an attorney, several teachers, corporate officers, a high school principal.  Some of them lost spouses because of their call . . . their spouse couldn’t understand what would make anyone give up a successful, stable, and well-paid career for the ministry. They didn’t understand how strong Jesus’ call on us was, and is.   But for most people, following Jesus doesn’t require that kind of sacrifice.  

But we are all called to leave behind anything which holds us back from fully following Jesus.  That requires hard work.  That requires much more than being able to quote Scripture, or show up on Sundays.  It requires being the kind of person who attracts others to whatever it is that makes us the way we are - a caring, loving, giving person, a non-judgmental person, a person about whom others say things like, “I want to be like her when I grow up!”  If we are to be fishers for people, we have to have the right bait.   We can have all the evangelism tools in the world.  We can have the best preaching and the best website and the best post cards and the best worship experiences and the best Bible Studies and the best small groups and the best music in town, but if we have not love, we have no bait.  If we have not love, we will be like the fishermen in the story, who said “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing.  In his first letter to the church in Corinth Paul makes it clear to us just how important it is to have love, for he said “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.  (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)  

If we would follow Jesus, we have to leave behind all of those things that hold us back - our worries, our fears, our favorite sins (yes, we have favorite sins, like maybe over-dosing on Girl Scout cookies).  You may be saying to yourself, “Well, I’m certainly not good enough.  I can’t fish for people when I have so many things I need to change about myself.”  But here’s the thing . . . you are good enough to fish for people just the way you are.  It is our very imperfections that makes us so good at attracting others.  As Nadia Bolz-Weber said in "Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People,”  Never once did Jesus scan the room for the best example of holy living and send that person out to tell others about him. He always sent stumblers and sinners. I find that comforting.”  

Look at who Jesus chose to be his disciples!  Look at his followers in the early days of the church - Paul comes to mind.  And when they went fishing, they fished for all people, not just particular sorts of people. They were’t targeting a particular demographic.   They didn’t care about filling the pews with folks who could afford to help support the ministry.  They fished for men and women, rich people and poor, young people and old, healthy and sick, housed and homeless, free and slaves, law abiding people and criminals, people everyone despised and people everyone admired.  In the early days of the church, their very ordinariness helped to attract others, to see what it was that made these very diverse groups of people go out to help others for no payment, no benefit to themselves - even people who weren’t part of their church.  They didn’t worry about whether someone deserved to be helped - they tried to help everyone.  They went out telling others that God loves them, no matter who they are or what they do for a living or what they have done in their lives.   And the more they spoke of living in God’s kingdom on earth, and following the commandments Jesus had given his disciples,  and showed others what that meant by the way they lived their lives, loving and caring for everyone they encountered, bar none, the more people were attracted to this new way of living.  Their neighbors came to see what it was that had changed people they had known for years.  Strangers came to find out what why these people cared about them.   Everyone was welcome - everyone, even the worst sinners - and the church grew and grew as they continued to carry the Good News of God’s love for all the world.  Any fisherman will tell you, the better the bait, the better the catch, and for Christians, the bait is love.  

When we go from this place today, let us consider the world our fishing hole.  Let us use the bait of our love for others to attract people, all people, into Christ’s family.  All we have to do is follow Jesus’ instructions to love one another and the fish will jump into our nets.  

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Lord, Make us One

Scripture 1 Corinthians 12:12-14, 26-31a   CEB   

12 Christ is just like the human body—a body is a unit and has many parts; and all the parts of the body are one body, even though there are many. 13 We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body, whether Jew or Greek, or slave or free, and we all were given one Spirit to drink. 14 Certainly the body isn’t one part but many. . . . 26 If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part gets the glory, all the parts celebrate with it. 

27 You are the body of Christ and parts of each other. 28 In the church, God has appointed first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, the ability to help others, leadership skills, different kinds of tongues. 29 All aren’t apostles, are they? All aren’t prophets, are they? All aren’t teachers, are they? All don’t perform miracles, do they? 30 All don’t have gifts of healing, do they? All don’t speak in different tongues, do they? All don’t interpret, do they? 31 Use your ambition to try to get the greater gifts. And I’m going to show you an even better way.


Many of you know that I select the scripture reading and message hymn about 2 months in advance.  When I selected today’s message what I knew for sure was that today we would have a congregational meeting to vote on new officers and approve the budget, and the readings I had to choose from included 1 Corinthians 12, which is about as close to ideal for election day as possible.  Many parts, one body, no one part is more important than any other part, all are needed.  Perfect!  

And yes, we did leave out about 10 verses in the middle, which describe several specific parts of the body and their roles.  I asked Debbie and Leah to delete those verses early this morning, because frankly this is a very long passage and since there is no way I’m going to preach on every verse in the time I have available, it makes sense sometimes to shorten the reading.  And I had decided a while back that I will be focusing on the first and last parts of  this passage, the body of Christ parts rather than the body parts.   

So, looking at the body of Christ as it is constituted in this particular congregation, what do we see?  Look around, really look, to see who is here.  Not just to count heads.  But to see all the different people here.  Children are here.  The littlest ones are downstairs having their own church service, but they are here as part of the body.   There are some women here without the rest of their families, and that is typical.  But there are also men here without their families, and that is not.  There are families who have been coming here forever, and there are families who haven’t been here long at all.  There are families with children and couples and singles. There are retired folks and working people, who are able to support the church financially.  And there are the unemployed and students and families just starting out, who are not.  There are some with college educations and some who didn’t finish high school.  There are registered Democrats and Republicans and No Party Preference, and some who don’t vote.   And there are also those who have physical issues that keep them from being here in person, but are still part of this body, because they pay attention to what this congregation is doing, and because this congregation pays attention to them.  There are some who are hyper involved in church activities, serving on Boards and Teams and going to every church event, some who just show up on Sunday and are glad of the hour’s rest and renewal they get while they are here, and some who fall somewhere in between.  Some are happy to preside, and volunteer as often as possible, while others panic just thinking about talking in front of people.  All of those different people make up the body of Christ here at First Christian Church.  And some of those have answered the call to serve this congregation as deacons and elders and team leaders, and Board officers.  Some of these have served many times over the years.  Some will be stepping up for the first time.  Today you will be voting to approve their service for the coming year.

The folks who are being elected to serve on the Board will be facing some tough decisions in the months to come.  You all, in electing them, allow them to make decisions on your behalf.  Not all of them.  Not the really big ones, like buying and selling property or building a building.  But a lot of them.  They work hard at putting together a budge for the coming year - You will be voting on that today, also - and making sure we stick to it as closely as possible. And trust me, that is not always fun or easy.  Your Board has had to make some very tough calls in the last year or so, to keep our expenses in line with our income.  Because just like in our own homes, if the income drops so must our spending.   Sometimes we find ourselves in between a rock and a hard place - between what Jesus would have us do, and what we need to do in order to be good stewards of the property with which we have been entrusted.   Making decisions as a Christian church can be ever so much harder than making decisions as an ordinary business.   For example - What to do about the unhoused people who sleep on the church steps.   

I want to tell you a couple of stories from the church I served before this one.
Eusebio lost his home, his family, and his employment after his last DUI.  He slept in the church doorway and stashed his belongings - a bag with some clothes in it and a bedroll - behind a bush when he went out to look for work in the morning.  He was polite and respectful, and always left before the preschool teachers arrived in the morning.  He went dumpster diving and found many wonderful things - like the push broom he used to sweep the church parking lot and sidewalks every day.  And the reflective paint he used to touch up the lines in our parking lot.  And the varnish he used on one of the doors to fellowship hall.   And so many other things that he used to do unpaid and un-asked for work around the church property.  It was his way of paying rent.  We were happy to provide him a safe place to sleep at night (although we never specifically gave him permission to stay) because there are no homeless shelters in La Puente or the surrounding communities, only a cold weather shelter for a couple of months in the winter.  After a few months Eusebio found a job washing dishes, and a few weeks later he moved into a room.   If all the homeless people who slept in the church doorway were like Eusebio, we would never have any problem knowing what to do. 

But then there was Jim.  Jim was fine when he was taking his meds, and really hostile and paranoid when he wasn’t.  He slept behind the hedge alongside the church building, and kept his belongings there also.  He threatened the preschool teachers when they asked him to leave in the mornings.  He would listen to me, most of the time, but I wasn’t always there at 6 am when the preschool opened.  After a few months, many complaints from preschool parents, church members and neighbors, and a couple of broken stained glass windows, the board decided he had to leave.  He wouldn’t, of course, so we had to take legal steps.  We put a sign up saying no overnight camping or parking.  We called the police, and I had to make a citizen’s arrest.  They took him to jail, he ended up in a psych ward for a couple of months, and we had to hire someone to clean up his mess.  He had put so much stuff behind the bushes it took several dumpsters to haul it all away.  If all homeless people who slept at the church were like Jim, it wouldn’t be hard to know what to do.   

But they aren’t all like either Jim or Eusebio.   Most fall somewhere in between.  Some clean up, some don’t.  Some comply with requests, some don’t.  Some are fine when they are on their meds, but not so much the rest of the time.   (And trust me, I am quick to call the police when I witness threats of violence - I learned that lesson well.)  Mind you, we never specifically told anyone that they could sleep there, only that they needed to leave in the morning before the preschool opened.  It was a safe place for them to sleep, especially for women and gay men, who were often victims of assault in the cold weather shelters.  We wanted folks with no roof over their heads to at least have a safe place to sleep. It seemed the Christian thing to do.  If only they would just comply with a few requests - like leaving before people showed up, and keeping their sleeping area clean.   And for folks like Eusebio, who only wanted to get back on his feet and improve his life, that was easy.  

But frankly, many of those who live on the streets - especially in Selma where we have so many programs to help those who want help - aren’t able to comply with requests and rules.  They may have mental health issues, or drug and alcohol issues, that make staying in a shelter impossible.  There are a lot of reasons why some folks are chronically homeless and we as a society have to find ways to solve those issues.   But here, as church, we have to somehow figure out what we need to do to both follow Jesus - who told us to feed the hungry, give shelter to those who need it, heal the sick, cast out demons, love your neighbor as yourself  - and protect the property we are stewards of.  That is really not easy.  Because these too, are beloved children of God.  Your Board, the folks you will be electing in a few minutes, will have to make those decisions.  

You are the body of Christ, and parts of each other.  You are all different from each other, with different viewpoints and different priorities.  But you all have the desire to live a Christian life, to make decisions in accordance with God’s will, to live in the world but not of the world.  It is hard to be a Christian today.  It always has been.  

The hymn I selected for today  has lyrics written by Carolyn Winfrey-Gillette, who writes new words to familiar music.  I selected it a couple of months ago because it was about serving God and congregations, and it seemed appropriate to use on Congregation Meeting day.  But it became even more appropriate when I realized that we had to talk about making decisions as Christians, and about who we welcome and who we help…and who we can’t help.  We want to help everyone, but even Jesus had to ask, “Do you want to be helped?”  (paraphrase of John 5:6)

My sisters and brothers, when we leave this place today, I would ask you to pray the Lord to make us one, to be of one accord on the best way for us to move forward, on this and so many other issues, when the world and the Word, our minds and our hearts seem to come into conflict.    

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Jesus and Mary at Cana

 Scripture John 2:1-11 NRSV 

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” 11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
12 After this he went down to Capernaum with his mother, his brothers, and his disciples; and they remained there a few days.

Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra  
Shaka, when the walls fell.
Temba, his arms open.
 What if I said, 
Naomi and Ruth in Moab 
Rahab at Jericho, when the walls fell 
the Magi at Bethlehem

Most of you will understand what I’m talking about, right?  Those phrases will connect in your minds with stories you know well.  These stories have the same meaning as the ones I first named - people working together toward a common cause, the defeat of a great city, and the giving of useful gifts.  But the last three are more familiar to us than the first, because they come from our culture, our literature, even our history.

Communication is a tricky thing.   

In this Star Trek episode Captain Picard of the Federation Starship Enterprise and Captain Dathon of the Tamarians, are suddenly stranded together on a planet and hunted by a beast, with no common ground for communication.  Captain Picard speaks as we do while Captain Dathon speaks only in metaphors, using well known stories from his culture to communicate matters of vital importance.   It takes a while but Picard, who is really gifted at diplomacy, is eventually able to understand Dathon well enough to form an alliance that saves both their lives.  It turns out that Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra is the story of two strangers, potential enemies, who come together to defeat a common foe.  Which is exactly what these two starship captains must do.  And of course they succeed, because Enterprise Captains always succeed by the end of the hour.

But even when we speak the same language, cultural differences can result in lack of understanding.   I grew up with European fairy tales, nursery rhymes and Aesop’s Fables, so I would use them as illustrations in conversation.  Then I married a Navajo who had alway lived mostly among Hispanic folk. He didn’t know the stories I knew.  I didn’t  know the stories he knew.  The things I grew up to think of as “norms” were totally different from his “norms.”   It made communication a struggle, sometimes.  (Of course, it was his opinion that any marriage between a male and a female was a mixed marriage, because we tend to think entirely differently anyway . . .)

When I say, “Jesus and Mary at Cana” almost all of you will immediately think of the wedding feast where, at his mother’s insistence, Jesus changed the water into wine.  Some of you might not know the reference right off hand, but you probably can figure it out pretty quickly.  This would be because everyone here has some familiarity with the Bible.  Not because other people have told you about the Bible, or because you heard some of the stories in church, but because you have read it for yourself.   

Jesus and Mary at Cana.  Jesus has recently been baptized and has selected his first four disciples. He is about to embark upon his ministry, his mission from God.  But before he leaves Galilee he goes to a wedding, where they run out of wine and his mother says, “They have no wine.”  And Jesus says, “it’s not time yet.”  And Mary ignores his protest, because she is his mother and she has made her desires clear.  “Do something, son.”  Why?  No one knows for sure. Changing the water into wine is Jesus’ first miracle, and the one that has more people scratching their heads than any other.   Certainly, turning water into wine so that people can get more drunk at a wedding doesn’t seem to be quite on a par with healing lepers and casting out demons, raising the dead and giving sight to the blind.   And there is a lot of speculation about why he did this particular thing.  And I could probably wax eloquent on the significance of using water that is intended for purification, and the hint forward to the Last Supper and the new covenant (except that John doesn’t tell that story in quite the same way the other Gospel writers do).  But I won’t.  Jesus himself never explains it.  He just does it, lets the bridegroom take credit for the great wine, and the next day heads off to Capernaum with his four disciples, his mother and his brothers, where they spend a few days.    Jesus changed water into wine, because his mother asked him to, and to show his four new disciples that he was, indeed, what John the Baptizer had proclaimed about Jesus to his own disciples, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! . . .And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” (John 1:29, 34)  And because it is a model, a metaphor if you will, for doing nice things for others just because you can, and not taking credit for it.  

But we all know the story.  People use it as permission to drink, especially when defending themselves to Christians who proclaim that drinking alcohol is a sin.  I’m not quite sure where they get that rule.  There are some warnings about drunkenness in  Leviticus, Proverbs, Luke, and Galatians, and elsewhere, but so far as I know, there is no specific prohibition against the use of alcohol in moderation.  Believers are free to use alcohol or not, as Paul said, “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.”  (1 Cor. 10:31).

Jesus and Mary at Cana.  A reference we all recognize.  A story we all know.  But how about people who have a sort of vague understanding of some of the things that can be found in the Bible and can even quote some bits, but are also likely to think that some of Benjamin Franklin’s sayings and quotes from Shakespeare are Biblical in origin.   What happens when we use particularly Christian language around people who have never read the Bible, or had much exposure to church?  Our definition of some words may be entirely different from the way the rest of the world understands that word.  

Have you ever found yourself in a conversation with someone in which it becomes clear that you are using the same words but meaning entirely different things?   Some of you here may not always know what I’m talking about, or why we do things the way we do them in worship.   In fact - the very word worship may mean something different to you than it does to me.  To some, worship is that portion of the Sunday service spent singing praise songs.  To me, however, worship is the entire experience, from the lighting of the candles to the final Amen.   To some, God’s kingdom simply means heaven, a place they will go after their time here on earth is done, where they will meet all those who have gone before.  It may or may not be a place where Frances Shaw gets to cook casseroles for her husband again - which is what she was looking forward to - but it will be a place of beauty and peace.   To others, God’s kingdom is also a way of living. When I speak of God’s kingdom on earth, I am speaking of a world where oppression no longer exists, where those with a lot are willing to share with those who have little, where no one must live hungry or lonely, where no one is hated or excluded.  When I speak of God’s kingdom, I am talking about the Beloved Community the Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of, a society based on justice, equal opportunity, and love of one’s fellow human beings.  

Darmak and Jalad at Tanagra.  A metaphor for people working together for a common purpose.

Jesus and Mary at Cana.  A metaphor for doing something nice for someone for no  particular reason, just because we can.  And doing it without seeking recognition.  

It is one of many metaphors that we recognize easily.  But maybe it’s one that other people don’t know or understand, as with Captain Picard and Captain Dathon.  Maybe we need to tell those stories, and talk about what they mean to us, why they are important.  How they change our lives.   So that others may understand, and be drawn to the one whose stories we tell.

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.”


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.” (

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.
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.