Wednesday, March 25, 2015


"But how are they to call upon him in whom they have not believed?  And how are they to believe in him whom they have never heard?  And how are they to hear without a preacher?  And how can they preach unless they are sent?  As it is written, How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news." Romans 10:14  

I admit I'm not comfortable with the title "preacher".  When someone calls me "the preacher",I suspect they do so with some ambivalence.  I think the assumption is that a preacher comes to talk at people, spouting moral absolutes and biblical imperatives that judge, convict, and condemn the hearers.  Preachers purport to speak for God or maybe audaciously as God.  Preachers stand on street corners with bullhorns and condemn bad behaviors.  Preachers threaten people with the fire of hell. And they do so as those sent by God, as ambassadors or representatives.  Some are charlatans and salesmen and liars, for sure. Some are just adding to the noise.  And they make it harder for the authentic preacher to be heard. They bluster and shout and tell some people want they want to hear, just so that they will be praised by their hearers.     
 Now I'm not that kind of a preacher.  But I am passionate about the Word of God and the people of God.  And I believe there is good news, hopeful news, empowering and encouraging news to share with the world that is contained in the biblical story.  Stories about the hungry being fed, the blind receiving sight, violent enemies being defeated, prayers being answered, goodness overcoming evil, light overcoming darkness, the power of life defeating the power of death. There is also a way of life described and embodied by people in the bible.  From Abraham to Paul, the bible is full of fallible humans who, by the help of the Spirit of God, transcend their fallibility and enter into the creative work of God. There is redemptive suffering, liberation for oppressed captives, nonviolent resistance to evil, and sacrificial love found in the bible.  The bible contains a story worth sharing, but it does require interpretation.  The bible was not meant to be read privately.  It is a community's holy Word.  It seems that God appoints or sends people to do this sort of work of interpretation; someone who is just bold or crazy enough to ask the scripture and the God who speaks through it (to those with the ears of faith), "What does this mean?"  I think this is the task of a preacher.  To inquire and dig and search on behalf of the community of hearers who gather and on behalf of all the searchers for the truth about the things that matter the most.  This is the business of theology and the theologian.  Not to be confused with the academic or the biblical/religious scholar.  Though they are called theologians too.  I'm speaking of the human task of making sense of life from a perspective that requires God, a being than which nothing greater is possible--to paraphrase Anselm.     
Theology means a Word about God.  Divine speech. How we talk about God, ultimate things, things that matter the most.  The bible is the collected theology of an ancient middle eastern people that developed over the course of some 2,500 years. And yet, its content lives and breathes and gives meaning to contemporary life in 2015, too. There is a timelessness to it.                    
I've been preaching to a congregation for 10 years now. They hear me speak about biblical texts and God most weeks.  In 10 years, I guess I've preached about 500 sermons. But, I probably improvise on a hand full of common themes; Grace, compassionate service, beloved community, baptism, the table and Lord's supper, hospitality and generosity.   I'd like to be more versatile, more humorous, and more creative in my delivery and content.  But I suspect that's my concern and not the concern of my hearers.  They are more concerned about their own lives; the house, the family, their work, their physical and mental health, etc...And shouldn't they be? A Word about and from God that is disconnected from the world in which we live and move and have our being is not a word anyone can hear.  Thus the power and promise of the good news that Jesus of Nazareth was the Word made flesh. God comes to dwell with us and to know our stories and to claim us as beloved children.  
I'm convinced more and more that there is good news to be shared.  I'm convinced also that it is not good news if one is not willing or able to hear it as such.  And it is not good news if the announcer is not also thoroughly convinced of its goodness.  I'm convinced that Jesus of Nazareth was a preacher of good news precisely for the people who needed good news the most. And that any preacher's job is to find the people who long to hear good news and to share it with them, for them.  I'm certain that any preacher of good news will find in equal measure people who reject the message, hate the message, and care not for the message.  Chiefly because this good news threatens our own sense of what is good with an alternative narrative about the world in which we live.  A narrative that suggests that the losers and the poor and the brokenhearted and the oppressed and the weak and the dying and the insignificant are treasured, cherished, and valued by God the giver of life is a story that might threaten the winners and the powerful and the wealthy and the great.  Its why some preachers have been crucified.  What does it mean to be sent?  Who sends?  How does one know this?  What word must one speak?  What shall we say?  Can silence speak?  These are the questions the preacher asks.  
And there are no easy answers. Self-reflection is 90% of the work.  The other 10% is what comes out of my mouth. 
What would be good news for you right now?  What does your Spirit need to hear?  
Lord, give us your words; words of  life and love and freedom and grace.  Give us courage to speak and to listen. Amen.           


Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Sacrificial Love and Snakes

The art of preaching has two steps to it:  First, Find something or someone relateable in the text and uncover what God is doing with that character or characters. Second, if that doesn’t work, sing a hymn people like.  Well, today I’m not sure I followed either of these steps.  But as any good public leader knows, confidence trumps competence any day.  So, in confidence this is what I have to share today:
The Gospel of John puts a strange Old testament connection on Jesus’ lips right before the most famous gospel verse of them all.  And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so the son of man must be lifted up that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.  For God so loved the world...Now that means that Jesus, reflecting on the crucifixion he was yet to endure, found its precedent in the book of Numbers.  So, one might conclude that the story in Numbers demonstrated God’s unending love and faithfulness for the people, right? Now maybe Jesus had a really strange idea of what love looks like or how God demonstrates love, but the Number story does not sound like a love story.  It sounds like a horror movie.  Like “Snakes on a plane” or “Anaconda”. 
So, it seems that the people of Israel, very recently rescued from slavery in Egypt, still on their way out, on the underground railroad as it were,with a longer journey than necessary ahead of them---not because God’s GPS was off but because the Israelites couldn’t follow.  Now, on the road they become hungry.  And they complain, pretty much right away.  Like the long car ride with the kids?  Whining in the back seat.  Imagine a large crowd of whiners.  They complain, and God feeds them.  Manna for breakfast and quail for dinner.  And plenty of water gushing out of a rock.  They get two meals a day in the desert on their way to freedom and they complain.  Their complaint, according to the storyteller went something like this:  We have nothing to eat out here and the food is awful too.  Ugh.  Parents, you know how this goes.  Kid:  What are we having for dinner?  (Assumption that you made dinner for them).  Parent: Chicken, broccoli, rice, applesauce.  Kid:  Ugh.  I’m not hungry for that.  Parent:  If you’re hungry enough, you’ll eat it.  Kid:  No I won’t.  I want something else.  Parent:  This is what I made for supper.  Appreciate it or be hungry.  Kid:  Ahhhhh.  Can’t I have cereal?  Parent:  NO.  Kid:  AHHHHHHHH. 
The Israelites say to Moses, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, we have no food or water here and wait hate the food her.”   Have you ever been to a restaurant for the first time, ordered from helpful waiters, promptly received your meal, ate it, and then complained because something wasn’t quite to your liking?  Or maybe eve received the meal, saw or tasted that something wasn’t right and sent it back?  Contrast this with our neighbors who do not have enough to eat. A complaining attitude rather than a grateful one.  Where does that come from?  Hearts enslaved to the world, where you scrap and strive to get more, get the next best thing.  We are taught to be dissatisfied consumers.
So the loving God sends poisonsous serpents to bite the people and they died.  The end. BUT they become acutely aware of their insolence, their sin against God. Maybe the snakes remind them of the story of the garden, Adam and Eve?  Clever of God to throw that in their face.  Because it was clear that the snake was a choice the first couple made.  They chose the snake over God’s grace.  Maybe that’s what God is saying.  You are free to choose.  Don’t choose the snake. And they cry out for mercy. God listens to their cries through the prayer of Moses and God gives them a medical intervention.  God does not take away the snakes.  God neutralizes the power of the venom with a bronze serpent on a pole.  Sounds like a potential idol is cast, but it is symbolic isn’t it?  God does not eradicate all the malaria-carrying mosquitos, God provides a net and the medical treatment.  The world and the God who made it are both dangerous.  We might face illness, violence, pain, weakness, loneliness, with fear and complaint and anxiety.  But God provides a way out. There is another way.  There is always another way.  Choose the way of God and live.   
A woman came to my office this week.  She was dropping off her mother’s clothes for Peter’s Porch.  She is the daughter of Monica Miller, who was murdered in Ephrata on February 18th by Randall Shreiner. It was a domestic violence situation that escalated. What do you say?  The family wants this tragedy to shed light on the potential severity of domestic abuse and the inability of victims to escape from it.  They want to choose life and a way out for others.
So back to Jesus.  Remember, he is the one who sent us to the snake story.  Somehow, Jesus becomes like the bronze serpent lifted up for the people to see and live.  The cross, symbol of death, becomes life-giving.  How does this happen?  Theologians have theories.  Substitutionary atonement; restorative justice.  Call it what you want, God sends Jesus to provide the way out.  The way out of violence is non-violent resistance.  The way out of prejudice is radical inclusion. The way out of rivalry and competition is self-giving. Divine mercy toward sinful humans comes in the form of a single sacrificial death on a Roman cross.  When you need mercy, look at the cross. You will find it there.  Because in it God knows violence, suffering, and death.  God knows what it is like to be us.  In the wilderness.  Struggling.  Failing.  Dying.  Jesus knows. And the cross is the power of God to heal.  Amen.          


the one about the wilderness

Jesus is in the wilderness for 40 days and forty nights; he contends with Satan, the adversary, and angels minister to him.  The original Greek text describes this experience using verbs in the perfect tense, giving the entire scene the sense that this is an ongoing action or reality. Its as if Mark is saying here, Jesus was, and is, and continues to be in the wilderness, under attack, comforted by angels.  Why?  Because Mark is suggesting that the entire length of Jesus’ earthly life and mission is a wilderness struggle. 
Now when we think of the wilderness, our 1st world notion is more or less nostalgic and romantic isn’t it? Like hunting camp or hiking in the woods or a vacation in a beautifully harsh landscape.  We saw some wilderness, some desert on our honeymoon.  But we also stayed at two resorts and at three meals a day.  Wilderness adventure makes for good TV too, from Survivor to Wild Alaska, there are shows that put people artificially in hard conditions to see what happens to them.  And we know there are people who take risks in the wilderness, climbing high peeks or camping in backcountry environments.  Dangerous places that risk our survival attract people.  We admire people who endure, even if we are unable or unwilling to push our own endurance.
But we also know-- from a distance mostly-- that there are many places in the world inhabited by people who must endure harsh conditions every day.  There are places where people live where children must walk many miles every day to fetch a daily supply of water.  We know there are places where crops don’t grow and the expanding desert displaces populations of people who used to subsist there.  We know people live in wilderness environments, not by choice but by circumstances of their birth and placement in the world.  There are places that challenge daily survival for millions of people on the earth today. 
The wilderness is more than a journey into a place where conditions for survival are hard.  The wilderness is also a spiritual reality.  According to the story, the Spirit drives Jesus out into the wilderness.  The word to drive out is ekballo, same word for exorcism.  Jesus is exorcized by the Spirit and cast out into the wilderness---a place of danger and adversity, of extreme challenge and discomfort. Why does this happen?  In Matthew and Luke, Jesus undergoes a series of tests to determine his willingness to accept his fate as the Son of God, sent into the world to sacrifice himself for the sins of the world.  But in Mark’s gospel, that identity formation experience is left out.  Jesus is not there to learn, to grow, to prepare.  Jesus is there to wage war. Now, I don’t picture Jesus as an army ranger here.  His warfare is not with conventional weapons.  He is there to wipe out the forces that threatened humankind, God’s precious children.  He is there to destroy the power of sin at work in the human family, causing adversity, struggle, hardship, hatred, fear, mistrust, inequality, prejudice.  Jesus experiences the adversity and challenge of the human community as a wilderness, every bit as harsh and deadly as the desert landscape in which he finds himself.  People will treat him like the desert terrain treats him. And he will be in the fight for the rest of his life.  He will die in the wilderness of public life at the hands of powerful, violent men:  unloving, unkind, unrelenting law-breakers like you and me.  We are the wilderness. We are the wild and the chaos.  Jesus is the calm and the peace. 
What is happening in your life that is like a wilderness experience?  Where are you experiencing adversity and challenge?  Where are you experiencing hardship and risk?  Where do you experience threat to your health, vitality, and peace?  We experience these adverse challenges and risks more often than we think.  Know that Jesus journeys with us into the chaos and uncertainty and worry and despair that is the wildnerness life we live.  And that this wilderness is God’ good creation waiting to be redeemed, set free from its bondage to decay and death.  In Christ, the wilderness is cast out and the Kingdom of God is established, a kingdom of order, peace, compassion, and love.  Amen.

Monday, February 02, 2015

the one about inviting Angie

Come and see.  In the gospel of John these are words of personal invitation to step into a new life, a life with Jesus.  They are unexpected by the recipient, Nathaniel. Because he does not yet believe that Jesus is a rabbi worth following.  But Jesus promises that he is inviting them into a world in which the heavens are opened up, the veil between heaven and earth is pulled back, the distance between them and God is removed.  God’s world is being revealed in the flesh of Jesus, if they will come and see.
Come and see.  When have you heard these words or uttered them yourself?  They are spoken with some anticipation.  Come and see the baby.  Come and see the new house.  Come and see the puppy.  Come and see the flower garden project I completed.  Or a plea for companionship. Come and see me when you get a chance.  I am invited to come and see people in their homes quite often.  It is a way that we give people access to our lives. No?  Think of a time that you were invited to come and see or a time you invited others.  What was the meaning of the invitation?  With these words we let people into some part of our lives that has meaning for us.  
At Peter’s Porch, I go with a mission every month.  I pray about it.  I pray that God would make me open to see someone who needs to be seen and give me the courage to step into their world.  Show me a person or family that needs connection.  I look for the one person.  This month it was Angie.  Angie is 27, engaged, with four kids.  She lives in Ephrata.  She actually knows to people in this church.  She was going to LCBC, but they lack transportation.  She wants to become more than a consumer of feel-good religion.  She wants to contribute to other people.  She has empathy, the power to step into another person’s world, look around with them, and stay with them even if it’s dark in there.  I like these people.  She’s also starting over.  She was recently released from Lanc. Co. prison.  And I think she has the potential to become a person with faith, whose story may change lives, positively influence others, and serve God’s will.  But, baby steps.  I invited her to dinner church.  Actually I called her.  I told her that I prayed for guidance in my conversations and that God led me to her and her mom.  She confirmed it by saying that she was recently told by another minister that she would get connected to a place where she could help others.  So, I invited her to come and see.  I told her about us. She said yes.  Gave me her number.  Now, I was no pick up artist.  I basically got lucky once and she married me and she’s still married to me.  I’m no charmer.  I’m open and willing to speak the words; come and see.  I used those actual words.  And she said yes.  She needs a way to get here tonight, but she intends to come and see what we are doing here.  I hope some of you will come and see, too.  So that Angie can experience a community of believers, seeking Jesus together.

Actually I invite folks to come and see what we’re doing a lot.  Not because I think we are doing special things, per se.  People ask me if this is a big church.  It’s there way of saying, “Could anything good happen at little Zion on Main Street in Akron?”  The assumption is always "bigger is better".  I tell them we do big things. It’s not flashy entertainment here.  It’s real.  And personal.  And Jesus is the one who invites us in.  When we gather in community here, our intention is to show the love of Christ.  Disciples are people who are willing to give others access to their lives, their hearts, their minds, so that others might experience Jesus in them.  Because nothing matters more to me than what Jesus has done for me, for us, for the world.  My hope in the future of this world is in Jesus, in the gospel.  Disciples are people who have experienced the grace, love, and peace of Jesus and are called to share it.  When people come and see, do they see Jesus in us?  I hope they do.  Every time.    Amen.  

Post-script.  Angie did come to dinner church with her four children.  I picked them up in my minivan.  We ate together and talked about their life situation. We prayed together. We shared the Lord's supper. I took them home.  She has a written journal that she would like to share sometime, a sort of testimony of how God's grace has saved her.  I hope she can do that with us soon.  When we invite people into our lives, it is often our own eyes and hearts and minds that are opened.      

the one about kairos time

Based on Gospel of Mark. 1:14-20. 
Time, money, friends, material goods, land.  In this list of resources, which do you feel you possess the least?  If you could have more of any one of these which would you choose?  If you were to pray to God for any of these things, which would you pray about?  Who among us today wishes to expand their real estate? Show of hands.   Other items?  Friends?  Money?  Time?
Time is a real bugger.  At the end of the day, you run out of it.  We cannot add more of it, can we?  It’s a fixed economy, in some ways.  24 hours a day.  7 days a week.  356 days a year.  But what is the span of a lifetime?  Unknown, right?  You could live to be 107 or die tomorrow.  Pleasant, I know. But that’s the hard truth about time.  We can plan for tomorrow, but we have to live in the immediate NOW.  And time speeds up as you age, doesn’t it?  Does it seem like a year goes by faster to you than it once did?  Is that real? What is that?  We lose time.  We waste time. We spend time.  Time goes by and we don’t get it back.  When our dog died last month, we did not say “That was the exact right amount of time with her.”  No, we wished for more time, good time, walk and play time with her.  BUT, we also discovered that the timing of her death was right for our family and our life.  And that’s the other bit about time.  It is not always fixed by the clock.  Last week, we went to the farm show in HBG.  We weren’t there five minutes when we ran into one of our oldest and best college friends and his wife and daughter. Jake and I experienced God’s calling in our lives through prayer in a little chapel at SU.  He is a reminder to me that God called us to public ministry.  Later, we ran into Jim Dunlop, the son of our Bishop.  He and I are Facebook friends who have never met.  When he saw me, he recognized me and we stopped to talk for a few minutes.  What do we make of these chance encounters?  If we weren’t somehow dialed in or alert and aware, we would not experience them.  And though seemingly random, they might mean something else.  I’ve been thinking about Jake and Jim since.
Because timing matters.  It is a way that God speaks to us, according to Jesus.  He says, "The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is near.  Repent and believe the good news."  The word for time here is Kairos.  It's like when fruit ripens.  It's a moment.  Kairos is the encounter that interrupts, the experience that breaks into the routine.  A Kairos moment is an unexpected moment that gives us pause and transcends the schedule.  A Kairos will blow your plans, your schedule, your calendar totally away.  Illness, death, surgery, incarceration are all Kairos experiences. But so might be an opportunity or idea or or encounter or invitation into something new.  And in Jesus’ own life, he was experiencing a Kairos moment.  Mark says, "After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming."  His public ministry began, not on a Monday at 9 am.  Or a Sunday at 9:30; not immediately after his 33rd birthday.   It began after John was arrested.  Timing is everything. The Kairos for Jesus is the arrest of John. Does John’s arrest foreshadow Jesus’?  John was arrested for his public ministry, a voice crying in the wilderness: prepare the way of the Lord.  Now Jesus begins a public ministry with the same message as his predecessor.  Except that Jesus is also claiming that the Kairos moment of John’s arrest and his inauguration into public ministry is the Kairos moment for all of us.  It is the moment when everything changes.  It is the moment when God comes near.  
And as a sign of it, he begins to invite people to follow him.  First four fishermen.  And they immediately go after him.  Why?  What is it that compels them to so hastily drop their nets and go after this man?  His invitation is not filled with promises and promotions.  It is simple.  Come and I will make you fish for people.  What does that mean anyway?  Casting a net to capture people?  How? Why?  For what purpose?  None of this is clear and they go anyway.
Because they are experiencing a Kairos.  It is more than a chance encounter with a preacher on the beach.  It has significance for them.  They may not know what it means, yet.  But they know that they have been summoned, called, invited into something they cannot ignore.  A Kairos is like the ripening of fruit.  These people were ready for action, ready to go, ready for a call.  They were fishermen with dreams and hopes and needs beyond their boats and nets.  They were eager to follow a teacher, a leader, a guide into a new and better way of life.  What if they had said, we don’t have time now.  We have three hours to mend our nets before dusk and fishing time. Clock time can be a powerful tool of resistance.  We are often too busy to notice a Kairos or when they happen we choose to keep our schedule and routine instead.  I can’t.  I have to do this. But these men respond. Jesus breaks into their world and they leave it behind and go. Why? They are disciples. And the first characteristic of a disciple, a learner, a follower of Jesus is this:  Be open to Kairos. God can call you any time.  Maybe this is a time in your life when you have questions or are seeking a way to see, know, hear, trust, and love God, yourself and others.  Maybe something is happening with you and you are struggling with a challenge or an issue for which you cannot see a positive resolution.  Maybe you have experienced something you don’t understand.  A Kairos demands attention and action.  What is God saying and what am I going to do about it?  Jesus’ commands to repent and believe are the faithful response of a disciple experiencing Kairos.  To repent is to stop and turn around.  To get reoriented.  To believe is to take up a new direction without knowing the destination.  It is to trust God to reorder your life in a way that will please God, serve others, and give you life.  I am here to help you mine out a Kairos experience and move in the direction God is calling you to.  Next week, we will honor two people who have demonstrated discipleship in 2014.  And we will welcome three people into church leadership, all who have had Kairos experiences in their lives that prepare them to enter public ministry as servants of Jesus.  Be open to Kairos time and a call to discipleship this week.  Jesus is still inviting you to follow him.  Amen.      


the one about the smelly man in the tattered coat

There’s a small congregation like this one and one Sunday the Pastor is ready to begin worship with a prayer and a new hymn when a man walks in the back and starts down the aisle. He is a visitor, never been in there before.  He sits down about halfway up next to an older couple.  He sits down, but says excuse me in a normal speaking voice. This draws the attention of about 80% of the gathered congregation.  He’s wearing dirty boots, sweat pants, an old brown sweater, and---despite the frigid temps outside--a windbreaker with a hole in the back about 3” round, looks like a burn hole.  He looks to be about 40 or 50.  He settles in.  He seems fidgety and uncertain, maybe a little anxious.  He coughs.  A lot. The kind of coughing that makes you want to get out of the way.   He takes out the hymnal and bible in his pew and thumbs through them, not looking for anything at all.  He looks at the bulletin.  The couple next to him slide down and smile when he looks their way.
Also, they notice right away, he smells bad.  Like cigarettes and liquor and body odor.  His hair is dirty but combed.  But the odor is foul and distracting. And not just to the people sharing a pew. Behind him and across the aisle, he is noticeable.  The pastor notices, too.  But worship begins.  He stands when the people stand and sits when they sit.  He doesn’t look in a hymnal or read the bulletin at all.  He just stands and sits, stands and sits. He stays for about half of the service, gets up, walks out, uses the bathroom, and exits the building.  No one speaks to him. He speaks with no one.  He comes and he goes.  What remains is the odor.  And the concern of others in the congregation.  Who was he?  What did he want?  Why was he there?  Would he come back?  What should they do if he does?  Was he homeless?  Drunk?  Did they have a policy about how to handle such occasions? The pastor did not know this man either.   His visit disrupted, startled, confused, and concerned a few people.  Afterward, there were conversations heard about those people hanging around.  And safety concerns for the church building.  And what they should do if he comes again. He seemed needy.  But he didn’t ask for assistance. They don’t want to seem unwelcoming or unfriendly, but his presence was a distraction from worship.  Even for the Pastor, who wondered about the smelly man in the tattered coat. 

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

the one about infanticide and baptism

Based on Matthew 2.  The slaughter of the Innocent babies of Bethlehem

Grace and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus.  Amen.
Merry Christmas. My middle son, Luke, wanted a new scooter for Christmas.  And he received it.  Along with a new helmet.  I think he has three helmets now.  One for his bike and scooter, one for his skate board, and one for his roller blades.  Luke must wear them when he rides.  It’s a requirement.   I think we would wrap his body in bubble tape if we could to avoid injury.  With the exception of some minor scrapes, we have done so.  For 10 years.  Luke did fall off the monkey bars once, got a bad cut on his forehead, landed in the ER twice. Ended up with a bad staph infection.  A little wound debreeding in the OR and some high octane antibiotics and he was good to go.  That was not a fun weekend.  He still has that scar, like Harry Potter.He lost a weekend and a little skin.  His mother and I lost about 5 years.  It was multiplied by the fact that she and  I were in Philly with friends visiting a museum on the morning that he fell at school.  My wife’s parents handled the first er visit.  But our day out came to an early end. 
Talking helmets and head injuries, when I was a kid we didn’t have bike helmets.  I think I got a head injury about every other day.  Accounts for a lot of things, come to think of it.  You know that old saying, its like falling off a bike.  I tested that many times.  We used to build jumps out of scrap wood.  We’d fly down the hill as fast as we could and hit the jump doing about 35 miles an hour, and then we would crash.  No helmet.  Just me and the Cherokee chief, my first bike that outweighed me.  They build everything light weight now.  But then, you landed with the bike on you, it hurt more than the ground. I also got a three wheeler ATV one Christmas, when I was 10.  Don’t get any ideas, Jonah.  It ain’t, happening.  I remember racing in the woods against my neighbors’ dirt bike with no helmets on.  We could’ve died.  I flipped that thing a couple of times.  That was scary.  But I never broke a bone.  And I never told my mom. That was the rule, risks are secrets.   
When we were kids the seat belts were safely tucked under the seat cushions, out of the way thank you.  We did not wear them.  In front or back seats.  On those vinyl seats, ice cold in winter, hot and sticky in summer, you would just slide around.  My kid brother fell right out the car once.  Turning left in the inner section.  He pulled the car door handle, no child safety locks, and out he went.  Eventually we alerted my mother, who was driving and we turned around.  He was scraped, but uninjured.  Today, my mother would do time for that.    We don’t move the car, unless everyone is buckled.  And baby seats?  You have to have an engineering degree to install them in the vehicle.  This is one of the 700 things new parents have to figure out.  And the baby looks like an astronaut about to launch; seat is reversed, five point harness, baby helmet, padding, cushions, bubble wrap…in 1962,John Glenn was launched into space and orbited the earth in an aluminum can.  Our babies are wrapped in Kevlar body armor and strapped into a tank before we go to target.  As parents, we get a new perspective.
Its Christmas and we are celebrating the birth of Jesus.  His incarnation, the physical presence of God on earth, does not provide divine protection.  His birth was not to provide a blanket of safety and a way out of the insecurity, vulnerability, and risk of human life.  It was the opposite.  God joined us in the vulnerability.  God takes off his seat belt and climbs in the back seat with us.  God gets on the three wheeler, takes off on the scooter.  God takes the risk of being human.  And it is a great risk, a perilous one.  The story we hear of infanticide is remembered on the 28th of December by the church every year.  As we celebrate the joy of birth, we encounter the risk of death.  It is the second bible story about infanticide by public policy or government decree.  The first is the story of the Exodus, now in theatres.  The Egyptian Pharaoh feared the growing population of foreigners in his country.  So he enslaved them and instructed their midwives to kill and the males, drowning them in the Nile.  Baby Moses was saved in a basket and rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter.  He would later become the public leader of the liberation movement that included violent opposition and the death of Pharaoh’s own son.  Four women protected baby Moses from drowning; midwife, mother, sister, Pharaoh’s daughter.  Maternal instincts doing the work of God.  Further proof that God is a woman.  Or he answers to one.
Jesus’ parents are warned in a dream to flee to Egypt to avoid the tragic massacre.  They do.  But the massacre happens. Mother’s wept and Father’s cried.  No one should have to bury their baby.  That is a rule in every culture.  Unfortunately, we live in a world where that is impossible to avoid sometimes.  War, disease, famine, violent oppression.  Children are casualties still.  We remember them today. All of them, in every time and place.  
Baby Jesus will grow up.  And be baptized.  And lead a liberation movement to free all people from the power of sin and death.  He leads the forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation movement.  He gives his life for the life of the world.   He leads the death and resurrection movement too.  According to the story, Jesus’ mother Mary will see his crucifixion and bury her son. Despite her attempts to protect him as a boy, she could not protect him as a man.  And he died young.  As a prisoner, executed under the watch of the son of the man who ordered the slaughtering of the children of Bethlehem. 
Today we baptize Mason James.  Our instincts are to protect our children.  We may think of baptism as a kind of holy protection.  An insurance policy against sin, death, and the devil.  And it is, in part.  But it is more than that.  Mason becomes a child of God.  You are handing him over today, in one of many acts of parenthood in which you must risk letting him go.  He belongs to God and to the Christian family. He is our baby now.   If he is raised to know Christ, then he may also risk following him.  If he does, he will experience the cross. Because Baptism is also Christian calling.  Put in his hands the Scriptures and teach him to love God.  Teach him to walk in His ways, ways of compassion, justice, and peace; Because we are performing infanticide today.  Luther called Baptism a daily dying and rising, drowning in God’s Word and the water.  When we are baptized into Christ we are baptized into his death and his resurrection, said Paul. Today, you put Mason in the hands of God.  The God who knows what it means to suffer the pain of losing your son. The God who knows what it is to live and to die.  I have done my share of presiding over the death of adult children, whose parents suffer terribly.  I have baptized many children too.  When we are born, we enter the good creation and take on the risk of living and the promise of death.  In Holy Baptism, we acknowledge the risks and the promise.  But we hope for something more, resurrection and eternal life.  We hope for divine protection, salvation, and peace.  We hope for Mason to reflect the light of God, to become a faithful servant and caretaker of God’s creation.  May you experience God’s protection and peace and may you risk everything for Jesus’ and his kingdom.               


Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Happy Birthday, Jesus?

My wife's family on her mom's side, the Plott side of my mother-in-law's family, my wife's Nan's family used to hold an annual Christmas party at the Bainbridge fire hall.  It was a family reunion/Christmas party.  It included a ham dinner, lots of desserts, a penny toss, and a visit from "Santa". A penny toss or scramble is just what you think.  An adult throws pennies and kids scramble to collect them.  There were other antics that I will not mention.  I married into this.  We went every year the Saturday before Christmas. It was an obligatory event. Not that we didn't enjoy it. These people were funny and knew how to have a good time.  Every year my wife and I would rehearse who belonged to who and who was related to whom.  Changes in relationship status and the additions of children made this a continuous endeavor.  Since Nan's death in 2002, it hasn't been the same. Last year was the first year that there was no party.  We buried Aunt Ann instead.
Aunt Sis, the eldest of the Plott siblings always said the blessing and hosted a birthday party for Jesus.  We sang Happy Birthday to Jesus and ate cupcakes.  There were even candles. I remembered that in my church growing up, we had a birthday party for Jesus too.   I suspect a lot of churches did this near Christmas as part of the celebratory cheer.  Why not add a birthday cake to the table?
Here's the thing: December 25th is not Jesus' birthday.  The church does not celebrate his birthday. We don't know his birthday.  We are not told. It was not known or it did not matter to the writers of his story. December 25th was a Pagan festival celebrating the winter solstice.  Christians adopted it for their celebration of the Nativity and Incarnation of Jesus the Messiah. It was an idea festival to adopt because it explored the themes of darkness and light, rebirth and renewal, and the anticipatory hope for the sun's return.  These themes were also Jewish themes and fit well with their notion of Messianic hope.  "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,"wrote the ancient prophet Isaiah.    
We don't celebrate his birthday, but we do celebrate his birth.  There is a difference. Because His birth points to the bible's claim of the incarnation; that is, the bible claims that the God who made the earth and the heavens descends into human flesh; the eternal and immortal puts on a mortal human body. And that personal expression is found in Jesus of Nazareth.   God comes near by showing up in the person of Jesus, a man whose birth becomes important precisely because his death and resurrection identified him as the Son of God, the physical embodiment of the invisible God.  Mark's gospel is concerned in telling the story of his ministry, death, and resurrection.  Matthew and Luke are concerned with telling about his special birth as a fulfillment of ancient scriptures and prophecies.  The story of Christmas comes from Matthew and Luke.  Mostly from Luke chapters 1 and 2.  
The Gospel of John proposes that Jesus' earthly presence, his humanity, points to the greater truth of his divinity.  God is the Word made flesh in Jesus.  Jesus is God in human form.  That is who and what we celebrate at Christmas.  And Jesus' tells us that his flesh and blood are available for consumption, so that he might get inside our own flesh and blood.  He is in bread and wine, when we remember that he promised to be in bread and wine for us.
So you can eat birthday cake for Jesus.  But, if you want to celebrate his birth and life and death and resurrection; if you want to celebrate who he is, the man of God, the God in the flesh,the embodiment of the Good and gracious creator and giver of life come to the table and dine with his church, who gather to eat the bread and drink the wine to remember the one who carried the power of God in his body--a power that overcomes darkness and death.  Christmas is not a birthday party.  It is a celebration of the presence of God in the body of Jesus Christ, as a baby boy and a crucified man. God is born and dies and is raised from the dead.  That's what we celebrate.  God is with us.  God is not invisible, unknowable, far away.  God has come.  God is Jesus.  Jesus is God.  This is the bible's story and why we celebrate the Nativity of Our Lord, the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. The best place to celebrate this is in a fire hall with some crazy relatives or in a church.  Make sure you eat a cupcake or too.          

the one about adultery

Human sexuality is a gift from God.  People share a level of vulnerability and intimacy that binds them together.  Through sexual relations, we can participate in the creation of life. Sexual intimacy is an expression of a loving relationship between two consenting adult partners. It is not the only expression or even a necessary one.
There is an underside or dark side that we all know.  Unwanted pregnancy.  Rape.  Exploitation of children.  Prostitution.  Sexual violence and abuse.  Sexual activity can be a criminal act, as much as it can be an act of intimacy and love.  Is there another human activity or behavior that is both so desirous and so dangerous, so good and so bad, so affirming and so destructive?  I suppose it is like the difference between someone who shares a glass of wine with a companion and someone who drinks a bottle of vodka and gets behind the wheel of a car. Not only about moderation and social responsibility, it's also about the content of human relationships and the biology that drives our behaviors. But I am not speaking as a biologist or a psychologist.  I speak as a theologian.
How might we come to grips with sexuality and the human condition that can often turn something beautiful into something scarred and ugly?