Saturday, January 26, 2013

Help Us Remember Who We Are

What if I announced we’re going stand outside and I’ll read to you all of the first five books of Scripture- Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy and THEN after about six hours, we’ll come in here and celebrate? Just like they did in Nehemiah! I don’t know why we don’t do that! But more importantly why DO we do what we do here? Minus the six hour part, what these people did is part of what shapes what we do when we gather to worship. What we do is called the liturgy, which literally means “the work of the people” in worship. If you look closely you’ll see parts of our worship there in Nehemiah. Standing for part of Scripture, getting low for confession. Our pattern of gathering, confessing, being forgiven, blessing, feasting and sending forth, has roots in what they did. And frankly our need for doing so does too. It has everything to do with the ongoing relationship between humans and God across time. But today we hear about the Israelites. They’ve come home. Back from living in exile for half a century. A time that started when they’d been not only conquered and overrun, but stripped of their land, their language, their religion and their identity. Now they come home struggling to remember who they were. Some were born never even knowing that the old stories they heard were true. “Home” was unrecognizable, and things they were counting upon lie in ruins. Their leaders began rebuilding but even when they gather for worship, enemies, exhaustion and divisions mean they’re still not sure it’s right. What if there isn’t anything to pass on? They beg to hear the words of their God- that seems so distant. We need you to help us remember who we are. We feel a little unglued. And the things we are supposed to do don’t make sense.

So Ezra reads their story to them, the story of God and the people. God creating everything to fit together, and created humans out of a desire for relationship. God freeing them from slavery for a relationship. God giving the joy of  land and security and abundance saying, “I am the Lord your God and you are my people. All of this is for you.”  Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman says it was the memory of God’s gifts and that relationship that was the glue that bound the people together, keeping them close to God, reliant upon God and responsive to God. But years passed and they grew careless and cynical, their prosperity caused amnesia about who they really were, what they’re expected to do and to whom they’re accountable. It ends with them carted off to Babylon. Now for them to even hear their story, it takes more than a book because many of the people didn’t get the language. The Israelites spoke Hebrew but as exiles had to learn their conquerors’ language. For some it’s the only language they ever knew. It took not only Ezra and a book but those who knew the story and could speak the languages to translate so everyone could understand what was being said and what it meant. And they did because It was that important.

Important enough that everyone- men, women, young and old, are drawn together to learn who they are and how they got to this point. Their “Amens” at the end are a collective cry of recognition of just how far they’ve strayed and just how devoted God had been. The scope of God’s devotion and laboring overpowers them, and when set alongside the scope of their sins, they weep. And they’re scared-a God that powerful might decide enough’s enough. Frankly they wouldn’t be able to blame that response. How can anyone bridge the enormous gap between who we are and who we were made to be? This is not just their confession, it’s ours.

But as surely as the law reveals our sins, it also reveals our hope. The story of a God who keeps promises, promising Abraham he’d be the father of a nation, and assuring Jacob “I am with you and will protect you wherever you go.” A God who heard the cries of the oppressed in Egypt and delivered them. A God who forgives sins and helps those whose strength is gone. This same God says DO NOT WEEP. In spite of all that’s passed, do not weep. Because THIS day you have let God’s law fill your ears and it is a holy day. There is forgiveness as this day you have drawn near to God. Your being here is the joy of the Lord! God’s joy and ours- this is what it means to be a holy day!

And being here is our strength. Because every week we leave and it’s not long before we’re in danger of falling victim to amnesia as well. We too can lose sight of God’s gifts and the glue that holds us together, how we rely upon God. And if we take seriously our lives and confession, we come back like the Israelites, confused and unglued. But we get to come back! To confess and be forgiven and freed to worship God. That’s why confession is at the beginning.

Then we hear the word, and God invites us to feast. Again this day-Body,blood,grace. Bread and wine- for you.

It’s all designed to help us remember who we are, who God is and our call to help each other grasp how this shapes who we are to be. Because it’s that important.

And It all happens here together. It needs to be together. God’s word has authority, but it cannot live only in the pages of a book. It takes the “all” of community. Our faith is strengthened by hearing God’s word and by interpreting it together. None of us is able to be the sole source of strengthening our own faith. The glory and power are not in this book or a speaker or ourselves, but in what God brings forth in the midst of us as God’s people. We need to be glued together. That’s why we’re here.

So hear God’s Word anew. No matter where you’ve been, do not weep. Let God fill your ears and hear that this is for you, this holy day. Whether you are like me and often feel unworthy of this grace, remember our response to God is to thankfully radiate the glow of our joy farther and farther out. To share with those who haven’t heard, who have no joy, who know no feast, who feel no strength. May we be lifted up in forgiveness, filled with joy and strengthened by God’s Word that exceeds our expectations, and our reasoning, and then after the feast we sing- Thank the Lord and sing His praise! Tell everyone what He has done. Let everyone who seeks the Lord rejoice and proudly bear his name. For He recalls His promises and leads his people forth in joy with shouts of thanksgiving! Hallelu-jah- Praise God!

So go forth! Help others remember who they are. As we draw together in ever larger ways, being rededicated in God’s presence. Confessing, forgiving, worshipping, feasting and sending. Again and again. Until all who can understand, do. And tears turn into joy and we remember we are a people, not scattered exiles.

May God’s word fill our ears and hearts anew, inspire our speech, make us shine forth God’s love and glory for all to see. Our reminder and our mission starts again with this day. This holy day.


Sunday, January 13, 2013

Living in God's Beloved

Some of the most tender moments happen in baptisms- we set everything aside to gather around water, hear God’s word and watch as parents and grandparents bring little ones here. And smiling faces speak God’s word of welcome and love. And we forgive the baby or young child for however they behave because this is a special moment. They are our beloved, not just for their families but hopes and dreams for all of us. Then there are other tender moments when we set everything aside to gather and watch as a beloved one is dying or to remember them. We gather to hear God’s word and pray that the welcome and love are for real, and that there really is forgiveness. We hope God really loves our beloved. Recently I was called to the hospital bedside of such a man. When I arrived, only five minutes before the family met the medical team and learned, there was nothing more to do, it would only be hours. And what had seemed like the thing to do, to call the pastor, and for the pastor to come took on God’s timing and purpose.

I was told he wasn’t really religious. That though Pastor Radcliffe had baptized and confirmed him, he fell away after he left. Then the conversation got stuck for a minute as the family awkwardly paused unsure what the response to that revelation might be either from me, or perhaps later from God.  I have these conversations all too often. Moments of “after the fact” evaluating a life, in some ways popularized by the poem “The Dash” that one of you shared in our devotion time recently. The author notes that on a tombstone there are two numbers, the date we’re born and the date we die. Two numbers separated by a dash- a little line that represents our lifetime in between. And it asks the question how will you have spent your “dash”? How will you have lived? As noble a sentiment as it is, encouraging us to live life meaningfully, there is often another meaning. It’s the one I heard in that hospital room. We haven’t been to church often. And perhaps we’re fearing God might think we haven’t lived up to the deal. Somewhere beyond baptism, there isn’t much to the dash in between, at least as far as the church is concerned. And what does it mean? Feelings of guilt, shame or doubt surface. Will it be enough? Then there are the conversations when people tell me they think baptism “covers” you until you can speak for yourself, as though what parents and the Pastor share in is almost provisional. Til someone is old enough to articulate a mature faith and know what it all means as a Christian. Because true believers will be able to do just that. But for me growing up in a different faith, I was supposed to be able to not only give a statement of faith but to talk about THE MOMENT I had accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior. A conversion moment. The problem was, I never had that crystal clear moment. I’d just kind of grown up in the church and in faith. What would it mean if I don’t have a “story”? Will I meet God and find I missed the mark? What if I find myself standing before God hearing “Not enough” as far as I am concerned? So many questions about our role and response to baptism I wonder how we feel today about Jesus baptized.

Why would Jesus even do it? He didn’t need to. Some writing of the time beyond Scripture even suggests he just did it to make his Mom happy. Maybe we recognize that.  

SO what does it really mean? Today we hear God’s words for us about just why our relationship really is forged and what it means. Words that were literally critical to the man and his family in the hospital in moments that feel like waters raging, and fires consuming. Words that are critical for us. We hear God assure us- I am with you, I am for you, I have chosen you.  You belong to me. And we see God’s Son come not as someone exceptional but as someone who stands exactly where we are to show us part of how far “with you and for you” will go. Where God is revealed in a prayer and a promise.

A prayer and a promise were exactly what were needed that day in the hospital. After the family thought they should have me come, no one was sure the man might want anything from a pastor. I asked if he might want a prayer. With tears in his eyes he acknowledged he WOULD like a prayer. Almost instinctively, God drew this “not religious” family around a bed, to hold hands and pray and entrust a beloved into God’s hands. I reminded him that God WAS still with him, and placed that reminder on a weary brow- that sign of the cross. The same one made in baptism, reminding him he was still a beloved child of God for whom all God’s promises were true. And then-God’s healing love and peace broke in, standing there with ordinary people. A peace so profound that the family continued to talk about it for days. I hope they continue to live into it forever.

What God revealed was that neither this man nor any of us could stand and deliver to prove worthiness to God, neither our history nor ability to find the words that would be enough. None of us are special Christians. Our dashes are often unremarkable in that way. We’re all just one in a sea of people. And sadly the greatest loss of disappearing after baptism is that we just move around in that sea of people never really enjoying the benefits of being beloved with others. We wrestle with the reality that not in all our hopes or abilities can we rise to meet God. And the love and assurance we long for eludes us. It’s into this sea of all our worries and doubts Jesus comes and is baptized by John- as just one in our sea of people. Walking the same earth, standing in the same dirty water.

Sharing in the same struggles of our earthly life.  God comes to us and binds us together.  There’s no trying to meet God on some higher plain.

But what God also revealed is that God comes to all our ordinariness and stands in it with us to open our eyes and ears as God proclaims that Jesus is “Beloved” and Chosen to fulfill God’s will- for us. Bringing to life the words of Scripture that God longs to draw all the sons and daughters to God, even after really horrific times and flat out reprehensible behaviors. Salvation. For the exceptional, and for the ordinary and even those we’d rate as missing the mark altogether.

Made known as Jesus is baptized and begins his ministry and that journey to the cross. Made known that day in the hospital as I spoke again God’s promise, that in our baptism we share in that cross of Jesus’ death but also in resurrection, and new life. Made known for us this day.

And it happens not because we have the right words or deeds, but for no other reason than because God says so. God says we are Beloved, and breaks through in the Spirit, making us family. While God’s deepest desire is that we live as Beloved, in the end, nothing we can say or do is more powerful than God’s “beloved” spoken to us. Blessedly good news!

To only hear this at both ends of our lives is to miss out on living baptism in between. Where we smile and share forgiveness, because it’s special, where we gather and pray because all around us are our beloveds. Bound together by God who stands with us, and for us, who choses us. How we respond is still up to us. Whose lives will we draw close? May our ministry begin and begin again knowing that because of Christ, we don’t live to become beloved.
In Christ, we the beloved, get to live.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Dusting Off the Creche

Here in one of America's poorest cities, I think there is often a greater risk that we so sanitize the Gospel that there is no way in for many who gather here, especially on Christmas Eve. And as we continue to experience a deepening of the connections with our actual geographic neighborhood, this year there were many great connections to be drawn between the world of our newer faces. And at the same time for our more seasoned folks, who've been there, done that, there may be very little anyone expects to hear or think about.
The first part of this is my late service Christmas Eve message to about 80 people mainly from the immediate neighborhood where I focused on the improbability of the shepherds.
The second part is for this coming Epiphany Sunday where we dust off the Magi. And after defending against the onslaught to just put everything away this Sunday there are still trees with lights and the creche with the magi. Interestingly they come from a different set and are a little outsized- the camels look enormous. Oh well.
As an aside, I should note that I thought David Lose and Craig Satterlee's insights on Working Preacher this year were delightful.


Take a look at this guy, the shepherd. He looks so gentle, so devoted, so humble. We probably imagine him like “The Good Shepherd.”

But when you know who he and his companions REALLY are, it turns out that the shepherds were the least likely candidates to hear the story, much less get to share it. The easy explanation, of course, is they are NOT in Bethlehem, not in the city. They are out, W-A-A-Y out, beyond civilization, scattered, frankly, kind of forgotten. Their main conversation partners are… sheep. But, more meaningfully, the shepherds would be the guys voted “least likely to succeed.” They were people of very little prospects.

You see, first born sons get the inheritance, and second born sons find a trade, but last borns? And Immigrants? Well. They become shepherds. And they kind of fell off the map. Doing a job someone had to do, providing clothing and sometimes food, for a world that wrote them off. Doing a job that fell to them, whether they really wanted it or not. Spending endless time in all kinds of weather, sleep deprived from having to be hyper-vigilant a lot of the time. More than a little edgy. Serving a need of a society that considered them too dirty, and smelly and dangerous to be around. Living by their own rules, always defending against predators and thieves, making them perhaps a little violent. The truth is that no one wanted the shepherds to come to town, and certainly not to worship. Their arrival was not good news.

And their messenger service on the way home was probably ignored. The sheep they tended were like money on the hoof. So if you could sidle on over to another flock and make off with a few to get a little something in your pocket, well good for you! They stole from each other. Shepherds were considered so dishonest they were not allowed to give testimony in court because given their reputation, no one would believe a single word they said. THESE shepherds are the ones God singled out to hear the good news? Of hope and joy and peace?
And then THESE shepherds walk away from their world- to search for a baby? And a story of good news?

How odd.
How odd- that the good news comes to those with the fewest prospects and sketchiest reputation
How strange- that they went!
How hard it must have been for them to let it sink in.
How unusual that THEY were the ones who then went testifying throughout the whole region, telling of God’s revelation!
A baby, born into their world, amidst the animals. Here with them…God
Life changing news in a broken world. Confusing news.
Yet this wondrous news shows, I think, that in GOD’S world, Jesus is born where people need Him most.
Tonight, we’ve all walked away from our worlds and come to this place. We all have different reasons.
But perhaps we too are searching for a baby, hoping for good news, and perhaps, we hope more of the story.
Maybe you’ve come excited, full of joy, surrounded by love and family. Maybe you’re wondering where all that is in your life.
Maybe you’re grateful God loves who you really are, or maybe you’re hoping no one knows who you really are.
Maybe, you’re like the shepherds- you’ve left outside so long you’ve given up on God, but something told you to come.
We’re all here- to hear and to share in this mysterious good news

That the God of grace has come here bringing salvation. To unlikely people in unlikely places- to US
To change our lives.
In all our longings, hope is given new life.  In this baby, with us.
Christ is born into our world. Christ entering here and now. Christ, where we need Him most.
To heal all the broken places, to show what true love looks like, to bring real peace.
It’s still confusing for us, but tonight, let’s try to let it sink in.

Let it sink in:
Jesus, born for you, for me, for our world. C
hrist in our midst. Here with us now
Is God.

Every year, it happens. “Why is the crèche still out? Christmas is over.” It’s kind of tedious, this waiting for the wise men. We already know the story. We know what God did.
So many years ago, religious insiders were longing for God to act, longing to see God in their midst, but despite being people of God, perhaps marching through the readings year after year, after awhile it was more like- “yeah, yeah, yada, yada”  than believing God was really up to anything. I suspect that it can be that for us sometimes too. We see the Magi and think- gold, frankincense, myrrh, got it. See ya til next year! And I imagine that most of us spent more time in the past week waiting to to see the predictions for 2013 than waiting for the Magi to be placed in the manger, and thinking they have anything new to reveal to us about God.  On Christmas Eve at the late service we dusted off the shepherds and talked about who they really were and what their story tells. Today, let’s dust off the Magi.

Let’s start by imagining we’re back in the day-Leaders encounter three guys who show up out of the blue in a caravan. Three guys, not from anywhere nearby, foreigners. Three guys who are not only not regular worshippers, they’re not religious. They come and tell the people who are looking for their Savior, that the Savior is here! How could they know? Especially when you realize that over time we’ve cleaned up the Magi. We’ve made them be kings, and we’ve made them be wise. But while kings in their country consulted them, they were astrologers, magicians, fortune tellers, psychics.  If they existed today they’d have a hotline or a reality TV show. They’re about as far away from Yahweh the God of Israel and Jerusalem as you could get. Searching the skies for a message but not really sure what they were looking for. Now they’ve come convinced they’ve received a message and it’s true. A child is born who is a ruler like none other!  The one you’re looking for! A message brought by people that those leaders and those who first heard the gospel, thought was a joke. They were fools! No one would be expecting the magi to be a source of truth!

So we have the story of the birth of a prophet to an elderly, kind of shunned woman, and then the birth of a Savior to a young girl of no account in a tiny village of an insignificant family. News shared first with those who were of the lowest prospects, who no one would listen to when they went around telling the story.  And now the official announcement of the birth of this King is brought by three psychic friends who come to say- did you see and do you know? Only to hear- there’s a star? What star?! We sing the songs of Christmas and Epiphany with such certainty, but it was all so very unlikely.

Not only to the outcasts but to those not even really wired to believe, God came. The magi came, looking, and drawn by God through of all things, the light of a star. Following something they were used to looking for, but believing something great and new was happening. Only to be met by the people of God as unwelcome. Greeted with alarm, and interrogation, and told that if they were serious they should prove it, and they were sent away. Because to be the “magi” was a slur, and a slam. We should keep our distance from “those people.” The magi kept on, and came to a town suddenly overwhelmed by this influx of strangers. Men who came to meet a baby and met God.

They were drawn by an overwhelming sense that there was something greater, something more. The irony is that it is often those no one expects to reveal Jesus are the ones show us God, the source of true Wisdom and joy and salvation. And God brings people in ways they can connect to. The Magi were brought by a star, and then sent on a path by a dream, things they could relate to. Guided by a God who continued to speak in a way they could grasp. This story of the Magi will have its fullest revelation later in Matthew, in chapter 11, verse 25 when a grown Jesus will give thanks, to his Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for hiding things from those who consider themselves ‘wise and intelligent’ and revealing them to little children.” God coming to those we think are too young, too foolish, too insignificant, too unknown.  They see the Jesus, experience real wisdom.  For those of us who’ve been around awhile, there is a real danger- that we fall into thinking we already know, or are already wise and intelligent. Today we’re reminded God is still doing something more, and something greater. What a shame it would be to miss it!

It is always startling to grasp that God’s agenda is so universal. That the insignificant are no longer patronized as “the least” and those who are sure of their status find themselves at odds with God’s vision. When we think we know, we risk missing out on the benefits of being Christ’s followers. We miss out on experiencing what the Magi did- the absolute delight of God encounters! The ones that touch our hearts and reveal Christ to us. When the Magi met Jesus, they were absolutely delighted! And they gave the best gifts. Even more than the luxury items, they opened their hearts. They not only saw the power they realized they were sought out and shown extraordinary welcome by God.  They gave themselves over to this child for who He was. And it all started with of all things, a star in the sky, not a structured worship moment. When we wonder where others are, perhaps we must seek them out, and perhaps they will come in ways we do not expect but in which God is asking us to welcome not doubt.

And I suspect our search will continue to reveal God active in the unscripted, unexpected people and moments where light shines and reveals the love of God in Christ in our midst. Recently God became known through an artificial Christmas tree.  This past year many have come here through our afterschool program looking for resources and for help with their kids, but are discovering a place where they meet God, and can talk about God. But it is not only these new faces that get a revelation.  So here is where the artificial tree comes in. A few weeks ago, people here had an extra Christmas tree. They wondered if anyone who could use it. At the same time, I knew of a family who had traveled here from far away who has come to this place believing God wanted them here. When the tree was made known,  one of the kids was absolutely delighted! The next day he showed me a small box of a few cards he had made of his artwork at school. He only had a few. But he’d taken the very first card and used it to thank us. I felt more than a little unworthy to be shown such adoration as something he treasured he gave. But what he really saw was Jesus, and what he really showed was that same Jesus.  And this boy from a family from far away, coming first to our afterschool program, then finding their way here for worship, was here on Christmas Eve. He was one of our wise men.  I don’t think that is by chance.

I hope and believe that he and his family keep coming because they know God wants them to meet the Child and to know the story.  To experience God’s love and guidance and salvation in our midst. And I hope and believe that they keep coming because God knows we need to see and hear too.  So, whether you realize it or not, here is news in which you can delight. You are here this day because God wants you here and wants to show you this story that’s still happening . There really is something more when we gather around Jesus and follow where God leads. Even when the ways are just as unlikely as a star in the sky, or an artificial tree, or maybe a cup of coffee.  Let’s never believe we are so sure we know the story of how God acts, and who God speaks to or through that we become closed off to this message. God is still coming to us, giving what we can only humbly receive, but bringing light and life for all people.  Let’s never grow tired of seeking or sharing this good news!