Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Together at last!

Finally, after about two and a half months, P is coming to live up here permanently. He found a job and will begin soon. Though his old company is seriously courting him with promises of enough work to keep him busy remotely. I guess we'll have to see how much he loves this new job, 'cause I'm pretty sure they'd give him the old one back in a heartbeat. But I guess it's always good to have a back-up!
We're pretty excited about looking for a house so we can finally be settled and get our things out of storage. I'll be glad to have a yard for the dog again and enough space to turn around without a cat, dog or kid under my feet all the time. Yay!

Sermon: Recalculating

Texts: Isaiah 9:1-4; 1 Cor. 1:10-18; Matt. 4:12-23

When I was getting ready to move up here from Atlanta, one of the things I got for myself was a GPS unit. I found a good deal on a nice Garmin and thought it might come in handy for not only getting to know the area, but getting me around to other churches in the presbytery for meetings and such. I call it my magic box, since it seems as if by magic that it knows where I am and how to get me where I’m going.

I knew I was getting brave the day I decided to go a way home that was not what my box suggested. It doesn’t matter really, as it will figure out quickly where I am and design a new route from there. Whenever I take a turn that it has not laid out for me, a voice, a nice alto female, comes over the speaker and tells me, “recalculating.” It may be my imagination, but sometimes she sounds a bit testy that I’m not following her directions and she has to figure out a new way home.

When I first was learning the roads, since none around here are straight, I sort of had to go on faith that my magic box knew where I was going, since I generally had no idea. There were, in fact, a couple of times that it was wrong. See, you can type in street addresses, but it also has a database of gazillions of retail locations. You can tell it you want to find a fast food place and then narrow it down by type of food and further by specific chain. So I only have to push a couple of buttons to find the nearest Chic-fil-A or Starbucks. And it has lots of other types of stores in its memory, though like most people, it apparently isn’t a faultless one.

I had used the location by name finder, typing in ‘Borders’ and it told me where I could find the nearest one. I followed the directions laid out for me by my magic box, peering around intently when it told me “approaching destination” only to find there was not a Borders in sight. It seemed to think that the Borders-owned Waldenbooks inside the mall was an appropriate substitute, which was not at all what I had had in mind. So even with satellite-guided electronics there are still sometimes I just have to go on faith that it’s going to take me where I need to be.

That’s pretty much what the fishermen who went with Jesus had to do too. They had to go on faith that he was the Messiah, they only had John’s word at that point, and that he would indeed take them where they needed to go to be fishers of people. Remember, they hadn’t seen any miracles or heard him preach yet. All they’ve heard is Jesus calling out, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Pretty strong words for a guy who is still pretty much unknown at this point. Jesus is just beginning his ministry now. He has not, that we are told, performed any miracles yet or even angered any Pharisees. At this point his words sound like most of the other prophets that the Israelites had heard over the centuries. Even rather like his cousin John the Baptist. Unlike John though, Jesus isn’t telling the people about their awful sins and the need for confession and forgiveness. “Repent,” though it has some of those connotations, is a pretty interesting word. When most modern Christians hear it, they do think of asking for forgiveness for their sins. Repent, say you’re sorry. But that’s not really what it means, at least not entirely. The Hebrew root of the word means to turn round, to go a different way. It’s not just a change of heart, it’s a change of life. “Repentance here means more of a change of direction, the gaining of a new set of values, the readiness for life under the reign of God.”[i] Jesus’ isn’t issuing just a blanket call for repentance. It’s a call to repent because the kingdom of God has come near. “It is so radical and powerful, its presence calls men and women from their safety and routine to a life of unheard-of newness.”[ii]

Jesus is really telling these fishermen, “Recalculate, figure out a new way to go. And the way to go is to follow me.” It entails a good deal of trust and allegiance to just drop everything and take a new direction. We have to be willing to let Jesus take the lead, and to follow him, trusting that he knows the way to the kingdom.

It’s difficult for some of us to take directions from others. We like to strike out on our own. It’s often easy to recognize those people. They’re the ones who drive around in circles, or have pieces left over from an IKEA project. They’re people who have a difficult time trusting in someone other than themselves, I think. Not that they can’t, just that it’s hard for them. We might call them self-reliant or independent. And those aren’t bad traits, but they do get a bit in the way when Jesus is asking us to drop our nets and follow him. We want to ask “But why, Jesus, why should I follow you?” But Matthew tells us that the disciples did it “immediately,” with no hesitation, with no backwards glance. And we might ask why, why did they drop everything to follow?

Our family used to go on “get lost rides” when I was a kid. It was our way of adding some adventure, a get away, on an otherwise ordinary day. We’d all pile into the car and head out into the country, sometimes wooded, sometimes fields, depending on where we were living at the time. My sister and I would get to pick the direction we took when we came to an intersection. We’d go places I’d never seen before, my sister and I (and probably Mom, too) thoroughly lost, but always trusting that Dad knew the way home no matter where we were. And you know, he always did.

The disciples remind me of that. They themselves not really knowing where they would be going with Jesus, but somehow trusting that he knew the way to go, so they just left everything and followed. All Jesus says is “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And like that, (snap), they dropped the nets they were casting and followed him. We aren’t told anything beyond that. Matthew doesn’t elaborate. The difficult thing about this story for me is the fishermen's unflinching, immediate decision to follow this man. Where’s the rational "let’s think this over," or "I’ll get back to you?" We have no indication that they had counted the cost. We’re not even sure that they stopped long enough to say goodbye to family and friends. They just up and leave everything connected to their life. Immediately and with no looking back. To get back to the question of why they did it, the answer is simple. Almost too simple. Because it was Jesus. It was Jesus who told them to follow.

Yesterday at the presbytery meeting, we heard a woman preach on this same Scripture passage. While her sermon went a different direction than mine, I did come away with this thought. When the disciples put down their nets to follow Jesus, the nets they put down, cast aside, were not just fishing nets. They were also safety nets. They represented what was safe and familiar to these men. They were a source of income and stability, a link to their family and their homes. No, they were not just nets to catch fish. But once they were put down the disciples had empty hands. Now they could use those hands to catch people, to heal them, to feed them, to hold them. We have to come with our safety nets put down, cast aside, so that we have empty hands to offer to Christ so he can fill them again with the tools we need to help others.

“Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” Notice though that he doesn’t tell these fishermen, “Follow me and you can be shepherds for my sheep,” or “Follow me and you can be a soldier in God’s army.” No, he meets them where they are, who they are. These fishermen will now fish-for-men. It is right here that we get a glimpse of the way Jesus works in the world. He doesn’t start a conversation with them about farming or shepherding, even though those will be metaphors he later uses. No, because he is speaking with fishermen, he speaks to them in their own terms, not what he knows best, but what they know best.

A professor of mine at Columbia Seminary played around with some of the other calls Jesus might have extended. She offers these.

Follow me, you miners, and I will make you mine for people!

Follow me, you bankers and tellers, and I will make you bank human life!

Follow me, you builders, and I will make you builders of God’s house!

Follow me, you shopkeepers, and I will make you keepers of God’s shop!

Follow me, you clowns and fools, and I will make you fools for God!

Follow me, you landscape workers, and I will make you landscapers of life!

Follow me, you cooks and chefs and butchers and bakers, and I will make you season and leaven and serve and preserve more than food!

Follow me, you instrumentalists, and I will make you instrumental to others!

Follow me, you friends, you parents, you children, you siblings, you neighbors, you strangers, you hosts and guests, and I will make you all these things—to every other human being!

It’s not as hard as you might think. Christ always starts where we already are.

Take a deep breath, put down your nets…and follow, simply because it is Christ who is asking us to do so.

[i] Brueggemann, Cousar, Gaventa, Newsome. Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV-Year A. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 1995.

[ii] ibid.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Sermon: "Eye Witnesses"

“Eye Witnesses”

We get another servant text this week. This is one of the primary texts that led me to believe last week that the Servant was meant to be the nation of Israel, for in this text it is explicitly said “Israel, you are my servant.” The rest of the language is also similar to the passage from Isaiah that we read last week.

This week we are hearing God tell the servant
Israel that it is not enough that she is free from captivity and restored to her rightful land. No, God wants all the people, even their captors and the infidels to know God’s saving love. “I shall make you a light to the nations,” says God, “so that my salvation may reach the remotest parts of the earth.” God’s salvation is not just for Israel, but for the whole world, and it is for Israel, the chosen people, to spread the word of their God to all the nations. It is their job as servants of God, as witnesses of God’s power and glory, to tell others what they have seen and heard; to tell the world of the faithfulness of Yahweh. It is their birthright, what they were chosen as the descendant of Abraham to do, says Isaiah. “Yahweh has spoken, who formed me in the womb to be his servant…”

We are all formed in the womb as God’s servants, made to proclaim the glory of God to the nations. From the moment of our birth, we are called to be witnesses to God’s power at work in our world. As we discovered last week, we are also God’s chosen people. God gives us the power of the Holy Spirit to guide us and give us the strength and courage we need to undertake such a daunting endeavor.

Being a witness isn’t always easy. Often doubters scorn and scoff. How many of you heard on NPR the story of the supposed UFO sighting in Stephenville, TX this past week? I have to admit, I’m a bit of a skeptic about UFO’s, though I try to remind myself that UFO just mean “unidentified flying object,” and not ‘alien spaceship.’ Some folks seem to confuse the terms. I certainly believe that people saw something unidentified, just perhaps not alien. Apparently dozens of people saw the same thing in Stephenville though, which, at least to my mind, makes it somewhat more credible. But what I want to point out to you is the fact that none of them tried to keep quiet about what they saw. In all of the interviews, every person said that after their initial shock, they immediately called someone else, anyone else, to come and see what they were seeing. It was too incredible not to share, not to have someone else to talk with about this amazing event they were witnessing.

Even after the experts at the Smithsonian Institute’s astrophysics lab said it was most likely explained by a fairly common atmospheric mirage, some, or even most, people were still convinced of what they saw. Not all were jumping on the alien bandwagon, many just believed it was a secret military aircraft. But no matter what they were convinced it was, they all had to tell somebody. The little local paper was inundated with calls and emails about the event. Everybody had an opinion or a question. The paper contacted several of the eye-witnesses to get their side of the story, just an the interviewer from NPR did. These eye-witnesses were eager to share their story, to tell what they saw and to convince others of its truth.

John the Baptist was an eye-witness of another sort. John saw the Spirit descend upon Jesus, something of his own UFO, you might say. And he could not sit idly by and not tell anyone what he has seen and heard. He had to tell others what he saw and convince them of its truth. He was given this revelation as a gift from God, a gift that he was to share with others. “The revelation does not remain the private possession of John only to nurture his own faith and experience, but becomes the opportunity to address others. Furthermore, John’s witness echoes beyond his own control. Andrew, one of the disciples who abandons John, becomes yet another voice to speak to his brother, Simon.”[i]

And so it goes, he tells another, who tells another, who tells another, and so on. John’s witness cannot keep to itself and be a quiet faith. Ours is a telling faith. We have not been given this revelation to keep it quiet, hidden like a treasured secret. What good does that do us or the world? No, like Isaiah’s servant, we are to be a light to all the nations. As Jesus will later explain in a parable, what good is a light if we hide it under a basket? We ourselves will not be able to see, nor will those who enter our home.

When the disciples, first of John, soon to be of Jesus, ask him a question to get to know a little more about him, his answer is, “Come and see.” In other words, don’t take my word for it, come see for yourselves. Witness with your own eyes. And they do. They see, they really see. Andrew sees. He tells his brother Simon, “We have found the Messiah.” Simon sees, he really sees. He becomes Peter, the rock of the church. They become followers of Jesus, witnessing to all who will hear, sharing what they have seen and heard.

How can we sit idly by and not tell what we have seen and heard in Jesus Christ? Just as was John’ revelation, our own revelation is a gift, a gift that is to be passed on to others so that all may share in the delight. I found myself thinking that this gift of faith that we share is rather like sharing a wonderful book. In my family, when one of us picks up a good book, it is not long before it has been passed around, even mailed half-way across the country to be shared. We’ll email the recommendation to friends we know with similar tastes to pick it up in their library or local bookstore. We want to share our own enjoyment with them and later be able to talk about it, sharing the pleasure of a discussion, discovering new insights and points of view as we talk.

That is why we share the gospel too. So we can discuss it, enjoy it with others, find out their points of view, know the myriad of ways that Jesus shows his love to us and to others. It is a way to let others know that we have found something too good to keep to ourselves. Though it seems that is often what Christians do these days. Now we are often ashamed of our Christian identity and won’t tell others what we know to be true in God’s story. We keep Jesus safely inside our sanctuary doors. Some might say that is where he belongs, inside the church. But Jesus’ was a ministry that wandered about, place to place. Come and see! he says. Everywhere he went, people came to see and went away telling of the amazing things they’d witnessed.

If John hadn’t witnessed and then testified to what he saw, Andrew would not have had anything to tell his brother Simon Peter. If Peter had not heard Andrew’s words and wanted to see for himself, he would not have witnessed the miracles that he saw as a disciple of which he told stories to others. That is how we have the Gospels and the Letters that make up our Bible. They are the written witnesses of those who wanted to share what they had heard and seen of the love of God in Christ Jesus.

It takes a willingness to muster our courage and be willing to take the risk to tell others what we have seen in Jesus Christ. It feels safe to talk about it here, inside these walls, but it is a harsh world beyond them that often does not welcome talk of religion, at least not beyond the status quo. That is why Christians often talk of ministering by example. It somehow seems easier for most of us to demonstrate rather than to speak of Christ’s love. In many cases it can even be more effective to ‘practice what you preach’ as the saying goes.

John was quite bold in his witnessing. He’d shout out, “Look! There goes the Son of God!” Even if we cannot bring ourselves to be quite so bold as individuals, we can be so bold as a community of faith. We can shout, with community services we can shout, with our mission work we can shout, with our facility we can shout, with whatever means we have, we can shout, “Look! Here is the Son of God. Come and see!” And some will come and see, and they will go out and tell others what they have seen. And they will tell others, who will tell others…. to the glory of God. Amen.

[i] Texts for Preaching, Year A. Brueggemann, Couser, Gaventa.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Friday Five: Read Any Good Books Lately?

The website promoting this piece of art says, "For the first time, the worlds most influential religious texts are brought together and presented on the same level, their coexistence acknowledged and celebrated”. The shelf is made of reclaimed wood that contains seven religious books. The designers have put them – literally – on the same level.

Well, pish posh! I think that some books ARE better than others! How about you?
  1. What book have you read in the last six months that has really stayed with you? Why? Like Cathy, I was also struck by Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Sure, some parts were better than others, but it made me aware that I could easily make better food choices for myself and my family that could affect the whole earth in a positive way.

  2. What is one of your favorite childhood books? I loved the Little Miss and Mister books by Roger Hargreaves. They were so funny and delightful. Now I love sharing them with my little one.

  3. Do you have a favorite book of the Bible? Do tell! I love Jonah. It's such a great story. It's got action, adventure, drama, and a happy ending. What more could you want!

  4. What is one book you could read again and again? Ok, ok, I'm picking two. I can't decide. I love both Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird, and Daphne DuMaurier's Frenchman's Creek. (Really about anything by DuMaurier is good. Rebecca, Jamaica Inn, My Cousin Rachel...)

  5. Is there a book you would suggest for Lenten reading? What is it and why? I enjoy Ann Weems poetry and every Lent I pick up Kneeling in Jerusalem again. It puts me in the contemplative and repentant spirit that I hope to maintain for the season, yet brings a bright spot to it as well.

And because we all love bonus questions, if you were going to publish a book what would it be? Who would you want to write the jacket cover blurb expounding on your talent? I honestly have no idea. A book of sermons, a book on parenting, oh, I know! A book of knitting patterns I've created. Except that I haven't created any yet... maybe someday. And I'd have P help me design them... he wants to have knitting patterns for outdoorsmen like hiking socks and extra warm gloves. I'd want knitting goddesses to extol my knitting genius, like Amy Singer and Stephanie Pearl McPhee.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Sermon: "By Water and the Spirit"

''By Water and the Spirit"

All baptisms have at least one thing in common. The water. Some churches have immersion tanks, some use natural rivers or springs. Some have big, elaborate, flowing fountains, some have lovely carved pedestal fonts, and some use a beautiful bowl. It doesn’t really matter where the water comes from, or how much of it there is, and, though some would argue, I don’t think it matters how much of the person gets wet. It is, after all, a symbol. The water is not doing the actual baptizing. Neither, for that matter, is the preacher, really. It’s about the God and the Holy Spirit. The water itself has no power to save, that power belongs to God alone.

The first year I arrived at seminary, the theme for the opening colloquium was “Remember Your Baptism.” I have to admit that about the only thing I remember about the colloquium was getting water flung at us from palm branches and thinking, “Glad I didn’t wear my glasses today,” after watching several annoyed folks wipe the water spots off of their eyewear. But the heart of the matter was to remind us that we had been washed clean of our sins and God’s Holy Spirit had been poured out upon us. It’s a good thing to remember as often as possible. That is one reason why we keep the font up front in a place of prominence in the sanctuary, so that it can be seen and serve as a visible reminder of the sacrament that sets us apart as beloved and chosen by God.

As Reformed Protestants, we have only two sacraments, communion and baptism. That ought to clue you in to how important the church views these acts. Both involve a union with Christ through the Holy Spirit—One through sharing his body and blood, and one through sharing the waters of renewal. At a baptism, God’s Holy Spirit comes to be with the person who promises to live a life according to the will of God by following the example of Christ Jesus. And the first example we follow is that of his baptism itself.

When John the Baptist sees Jesus coming to him for baptism, John is rather shocked. “What are you doing here? I can’t baptize you! You’re the one who should be baptizing me!” But Jesus calms him, saying, “Let it be so now.” In other words, don’t make a fuss. This is what needs to be done to fulfill all righteousness. 'Fulfilling righteousness' in this context means doing the work that God has given one to do. John's work is to announce the presence of the Messiah and the coming reign of God. By baptizing Jesus, John's mission is fulfilled. And it was at this point that the Spirit of God descends in the form of a dove and the voice of God is heard proclaiming, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."

We hear very similar words spoken about the one known only as ‘the Servant’ in the Isaiah text. “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.” God sends the Spirit to empower the Servant to be able to do God’s work in the world. Once the Servant has received the Spirit, he is able to go about bringing justice to the nations, says Isaiah. And he will not grow faint or be crushed until this goal is brought about, says the Lord. Through the Holy Spirit, the Servant has the strength and power to serve God’s purpose, which, in this case, is justice.

Of course, we Christians can easily place Jesus in the role of this Servant. Especially when we hear Matthew’s words right next to Isaiah’s. I imagine it is to no one’s surprise to find Matthew drawing on words from Isaiah again here. But another parallel we certainly can draw is the initiation of the Servant, whoever it might be, into the work of God upon receiving the power of the Spirit. And since I am sure you are expecting me to say it, and since I wouldn’t dare disappoint you, I will tell you that we, too, can find ourselves in the role of servant, receiving the Spirit to initiate us into the ministry God has planned for us. We can always be sure that God has a purpose, a holy purpose, for us to fulfill. We, too, can bring about justice in the world. It is what the servant has been set aside to do. My own research leads me to believe that in Isaiah’s words, the Servant is a metaphor for the whole nation of Israel, God’s chosen people. Hey, wait! That’s us too! We’re God’s chosen people. We’re the Servant. We’re given the Spirit so we can have the power to bring about change for God’s creation, to bring about justice to the peoples of the earth.

God wants to work with his chosen people to bring about change in our broken world. But rather than leave us to it on our own, God equips us with the Holy Spirit, in order to do what the world regards as impossible. God brings about change through his chosen Servant who is empowered by the Spirit to work for God’s change. The impossible things suddenly become within reach and the order God intends for the world is attainable. God sends the Spirit as a gift, as an intimate connection with God, that we might better know and fulfill God’s will.

In the gospels, Jesus’ baptism marks the beginning of his ministry. He receives the empowering Holy Spirit, that intimate connection, and we hear God proclaim Jesus as his beloved Son. Jesus receives the Spirit to be able to do the impossible, to thwart the powers of death and destruction by rising from the grave and taking upon himself the sins of the world. The Servant, in any guise, by any name, is the instrument for God’s Spirit to work in the world to bring about newness. It is change that can only be wrought with the power of God’s Spirit behind it.

Just as Jesus’ baptism was his inauguration into ministry, so it is ours. That is why the questions asked at baptism are similar to the ones asked at ordinations. They are both commissions into a life of service with and for Christ. When we are baptized, it is into the body of Christ, and as such we are commissioned to be obedient, faithful servants and to follow the path blazed by the unique Son of God. Don’t let anyone fool you into thinking that baptism is simply for your personal salvation! Oh no! It is also an initiation into the church of Christ, an ordination into the priesthood of all believers-and one of the biggest reasons why we never do private baptisms in the Presbyterian Church. We are all members of the one Body of Christ and we make our promises in full view of the community and the community makes promises to us in return.

At Jesus’ own baptism, God is publically claiming Jesus as his beloved. It is exactly the same at our own baptisms. God is publicly claiming us as God’s own beloved children. We use water to symbolize not only the washing away of sins, but the pouring out of God’s love and Holy Spirit upon us. God sends the Spirit down upon Jesus, showing the world that God is promising to be with him throughout his life and ministry, just as God promises us at our baptisms to be with us throughout our own lives and ministries, no matter what form they may take. God, in full view of the world, shows his favor and shows Jesus’ chosen and holy status as Son of God. We are chosen by God to join the faithful followers of Christ. Baptism is God’s love and promise in full view of the world. The water is a visible reminder of the invisible Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives. Augustine called the sacraments, including baptism, “an outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”

Let us not forget, the water also reminds us of our cleansing from sin. As we are washed clean by the water, all our sins are forgiven and we become free from the power and corruption of sin by the baptism of the Holy Spirit into our lives. Jesus did not need to be cleansed of sin, but he washed in the water that would cleanse the same sinners he came to save, to be in solidarity with the very people he loved enough to give his life for. He did it “to fulfill all righteousness” says Matthew. In his full divinity, he did not need baptism; in his full humanity, he became one with those he came to save. It is by the power of the Holy Spirit that we are united with Christ, united with each other in him, and to his life, his death, his resurrection, and yes, his baptism. And that is power, power greater than all the mighty waters of this earth, power enough to bring about justice and change to God’s creation. And we have this power, given to us at our baptism. Given to us in the intimate gift of God’s Holy Spirit so that we might be instruments of God’s love in the world and bring about God’s kingdom on earth. In the words of St. Francis, “Lord, make me an instrument…” And so we pray, Come, Spirit, Come! Amen.

Sunday, January 06, 2008


You know how things are when your life is just out of balance? That's how it's been around here. See, if you're keeping up with things, you know that P is down in Huge Southern City and we're up here in a whole other state. And it's not that things are going bad per se, but they're just a little out of whack.
My theory is that it's because 1) our family is not all together, 2) we're not surrounded by our familiar things (they're all in storage until we find a house), 3) we are in limbo with P's finding a job, causing at least some anxiety, 4) our routines are completely, entirely new and still a little unfamiliar to our bodies, 5) we are with unfamiliar people in unfamiliar places doing unfamiliar things.
All of these things and more sort of tie together, causing a circular pattern of distress to our minds and bodies. I can't speak to the mind of L, but she's more clingy, she's wanting me to do simple things for her that she's done on her own plenty of times before, and there are other signs that only a mom would notice.
Of course, there are the physical illnesses we've contended with. With her first foray into preschool, she came home with a terrible cold, double conjunctivitis and a double ear infection-taking not less than 2 antibiotic shots and an oral medication to clear up-after the doctor assures me that she doesn't give antibiotics unless it's seriously needed. I guess it was pretty serious.
Me, well, other than sharing the horrendous cold and then catching the pink eye, well, I just seem sluggish. I feel in a perpetual fog. Lack of sleep is part of it, a big part. Some of it is getting used to a new job and a new schedule. I'm sure there are other factors that, being somewhat foggy, I'm not thinking of at the moment.
Our bodies are just out of whack. Tummies seems to be cranky a little more I've noticed, for us both. I'm perpetually stuffy and headache-y and will probably have to suck it up and go find an allergist soon.
Even the animals seem off. I know they don't like P being gone. The dog especially. She does naughty things on the carpet that let me know this. Not in the last couple of days though, knock on wood. The cats well, they are just a little more needy, if that's possible.
Now you may be saying, but R, you said things weren't so bad, and that sounds bad indeed! It's not really, it's tough, especially without P to take some of the slack with L, but I love the church people I'm working with, and they've been wonderful to us both. I like the area we're in; I like the preschool L is in; I even like both the pediatrician and family doctor I had to find on short notice. I just can't wait for things to come back into alignment. P here, job secured, home moved into, stuff unpacked, child well, sleep adjusted. I'm just sure that things will be better when things are the way they should be as far as us being together as a family and being surrounded by our familiar and beloved belongings in a place that is our own.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Sermon: "Home By Another Way"

“Home by Another Way”

We go a little backwards in our gospel readings today. Last week we heard the story of Herod and his fear of this new king born in his territory and his subsequent killing of all the young male children in his kingdom to try to prevent said new king from growing up and taking over the throne that Herod wanted for his own children. We usually hear it referred to as “The Slaughtering of the Innocents.” But this week we go backwards to the story of the wise men arriving to worship that child-king at his home in Bethlehem. This was when Herod first heard of this threat to his royal lineage; it all started with those wise men.

Those wise men, who were most likely scholars of magic or some sort of astrologers, those wise men show up in Judea, asking about a child born there who was to grow up and be a king. They were really just looking for more specific directions; stars can be kind of vague, I suppose. They may have assumed that everyone had heard of his birth, that the star was just as obvious to everyone else as it was to them. So where is this kid? We know he’s here in Judea somewhere. They seemed to know they were looking for a child, so they didn’t waste much time with Herod, since he obviously wasn’t the king they were after. They’d just stopped in as a courtesy.

Herod is thrown for a loop when these magi show up. What are they talking about? A new king? This is the first he’d heard about it and he wants to know what’s up. After checking with his own court wise men as well as the Jewish scribes and Pharisees, Herod finds that there is indeed some minor reference to a new ruler for Israel coming out of Bethlehem, but it’s from a pretty old bit of prophecy in Micah that no one had really thought would ever come to pass, nothing to get really excited about. Herod figured on saving his own servants (and the royal coffers) a reconnaissance mission by having these foreigners go up to Bethlehem and scope things out for him, just in case. He pretends that he’s interested in wishing this new king well and asks the magi to go with his blessing. Just like welcoming a new neighbor, he insists. He wants to give a tribute to the new guy and wish him a long and prosperous reign. Yeah, right.

But since there was probably something of a language barrier between the magi and Herod, they don’t seem to suspect right away that he’s a phony. So, they get on their way. They have brought their own gifts for this king. They don’t really know much about him, except that their astrological calculations show that he’s somebody pretty important. As I mentioned before, they do seem to know they are looking for a child, at least according to Matthew. He also tells us they were pretty excited when they found him, “overwhelmed with joy,” to quote the Gospel. They had been traveling for a long time. Matthew doesn’t say exactly how far they have come, but it took a long time to get anywhere in those days, so we have to assume that it was quite a journey. Most scholars assume that “the East” Matthew refers to was the kingdom of Persia, which is now Iran and the surrounding area, a pretty good trek in those days.

I suspect their arrival caused quite a stir. Even Mary who knew the divine status of her son, probably hadn’t been a hostess to foreign dignitaries before. She probably had to rush around to find enough chairs, and call on neighbors and family to borrow enough food and drink to offer them hospitality. I can only imagine the people peering in the windows, trying to catch a glimpse of these visitors and wondering why in the world they were visiting at the carpenter’s home. There would definitely have been a stir if anyone had caught sight of the gifts they offered to the child.

As is so much of Matthew’s writing, the arrival of the magi is shown to be a fulfillment of Scripture. That was one of Matthew’s main agendas, making sure to point out that the happenings surrounding Jesus were fulfillments of the earlier Jewish prophecies. I spoke about it a few weeks ago, noting that this is Matthew’s way of giving legitimacy to his own writings as well as to the legacy of Jesus himself.

These magi, at least according to Matthew, are aware that this child is hailed as king of the Jews, and they have come to worship him, though they themselves are not Jews. They have followed a star; no map, no compass, no GPS. And since they weren’t Jewish, they didn’t have the prophetic scriptures to look at either. But they still know that this kid is important enough that they travel a long distance in order to find him and offer up gold and expensive resins in his honor. So they must have divined that he was pretty important. Enough that they came with their treasures themselves and did not just send the gifts by Fed-Ex camel. Maybe they were just too curious about that star to not follow it themselves. Either way, they could tell it was leading them to something, or someone, really important.

But I’ll tell you what, it’s not the following of the star, it’s not the meeting with Herod, and it’s not even so much the worshipping of the Christ Child that got me really pondering this text. I have been haunted by the fact that they went home by another way.

Those wise men started out as agents of Herod's destructive agenda, though most likely unwittingly, by seeking out the child to report back to Herod where he was and who he was. Up until the last moment, it was their intent to retrace their steps and return to Herod’s palace and make a full report, just as he had asked, supposing that he wanted to honor the new king, just as they did.

But the night before they are to leave, they get a warning. Not another star or a prophecy, but a dream. A dream that warned them that Herod was up to no good. So all at once they are turned around by this dream, not on the path back to Herod with the information, but a path that protects this child. It was as though once they had offered their gifts and worshipped this new king, once they had come face to face with what was Right and True, they could no longer continue along the old route.

They found that the star had led them to more than just a king, but a Messiah. And not just a Messiah for the Jews, but for all people. I find in interesting that the first people who come to worship the Christ child are foreigners (remember, there are no shepherds in Matthew’s telling), so these magi are the first in this account, not Jews who have been looking for the fulfillment of these prophecies for generations, not even a next door neighbor or someone from the same city. Didn’t they notice the star? Weren’t they curious about it? No, it was these wise men, who’d traveled quite some distance to find him, who were the first. And they worshipped him as a king, not as a prophet, not as a nice guy, but a king, a ruler, a leader of people with divine right, though they may not have realized just quite how divine. Jesus was as much their Messiah as he was the Jews.

When the wise men were warned by a dream not to report back to Herod, they knew why they had to sneak out of the country on a different road than the one they came in on. There was something so obviously special about this child, that they knew they must protect him from discovery and harm. So they went home by another way. They deviated from their planned route, maybe even taking a longer and harder road, just to keep Herod away from this little boy who would become the Savior of his people.

Isn't that what our own encounter with Christ does for us? He guides us off our familiar, planned paths. We can no longer follow on the way we intended. Our trajectory is forever changed.

Epiphany, indeed.

The definition that Merriam-Webster’s offers up for epiphany is “an illuminating discovery or a revealing moment.” That’s the one we usually think of for epiphany, an “ah-ha moment” if you will. But they also post this definition: “an intuitive grasp of reality through something (such as an event) usually simple and striking.”

And how true for those magi. They come face to face with a tiny baby, something so simple and striking, and the path they are on changes dramatically. The way they looked at their mission became radically different when they met the Christ child. They were no longer to report his location, they must now protect it. They became not just travelers, not just worshippers, but guardians. An intuitive grasp of reality as seen in the eyes of a child, stark and simple.

Listening to God, whether in a dream or in our prayers, or however it is that God comes to us, well, that can always shift our trajectory and cause us the need to consider a new route. It happened to the wise men, it happened to the disciples, it happens to us.

When we come face to face with Jesus, our paths will be changed. We cannot continue the way we were going. Once we have committed to worshipping the Christ, we will have to go home by another way. It is an intuitive grasp of reality. The reality of love incarnate, the reality of death on a cross, and the reality of a resurrection that says that death is not the final word. That is what we intuitively grasp when we follow the new path laid out for us by Christ. A path that makes straight the desert highway, where every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill made low and the uneven ground shall become level and the rough places a plain. Then, says Isaiah, then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.

Epiphany, indeed. Amen.

Thanks to Cheesehead whose words from the lectionary discussion board appear in a couple of place here. They are really what this sermon was build around. Inspiration, indeed.

Friday, January 04, 2008


In an institution known for its gossip mongering, you'd think that communications wouldn't be much of an issue. But for some reason, small churches just can't seem to agree on the best way to distribute information to its members. I have found this to be true of most of the small churches I've been a part of, so it's not just an instance of one.
Even though everyone had heard that my husband surprised me by showing up on Christmas Eve unexpectedly within 24 hours of it happening, for some reason it is vitally important that the unchanging date and time of weekly choir practice be printed in the bulletin every week.
Which publication does this or that information belong in? The weekly bulletin, the monthly newsletter, the hallway bulletin board, the website, all of the above? How long does it stay there? And probably worst of all, who gets to decide (meaning, who gets the fallout when someone doesn't like the decision)?
We're working it out here at Church of the Status Quo. Since I hold the titles of both pastor and secretary, there is no doubt who gets the fallout around here. 'Course it's one of those things where ain't no way everybody's gonna be happy all the time. So who do I try to make happy in the end? Why, ME, of course! I do, in fact, know what I'm talking about when it comes to dissemination of information. It's just a matter of bringing them around and having some folks realize that if they're constantly out of town or can't be bothered to pick up a newsletter, they are going to have to find things out on their own since we can't be sending personal reminders to every member of CSQ for every event.
Then there's email. I have an oddly large number of people without it. I cannot figure how anyone today can get by without it. Even my 86 year old grandmother can figure out how to get email. Even if she can't send it, I know she can at least read it. I actually even have one or two people on my session without email. Did I mention that I honestly cannot fathom how people function without at least an email account today? No, you don't have to surf the 'net, or even (gasp!) blog, but how do you not have email?!
Next post: "You don't like the hymns I picked?! Then you go find me some words to tunes that don't stink and are theologically appropriate and go with today's lection!"