Hills and Valleys

Matthew 17:1-9

In much of Scripture the valleys are where the common occurs, where the are the work-a-day. The mountains are special, saved for holy experiences. It doesn’t matter if its Abraham and Isaac, Moses and the 10 Commandments, the places of worship at Dan and Bethel, or even the Temple in Jerusalem.

I think that there folk fall, generally, into one of two groups. Either the mountain-top experiences are where you feel more comfortable or the valleys are where you feel more at home. And how you respond to today’s Gospel lesson gives a hint of where you might lean.

I have a hunch, though, that for many of us, the valley’s are where we feel more comfortable. The valleys of life are where most folk congregate. Its where find meaning in our work, we are familiar with the surroundings, or maybe we say, “you know, I don’t have time to venture up that mountain. There’s so much work to do.” There are people to feed, folk to visit, injustices to confront, people to tell the story of Jesus to. There’s no time to stop.

And I will not contradict that observation. There’s is a lot to do in the name of Jesus. With violence continuing, Ukraine seeming to over-boil, and indicators like the reporting coming out showing that Atlanta is tops in the nation when it comes to disparity between the richest and the poorest in our city, we better no rest too easily. And even if we do all we can and more it seems like there’s still more to be done. And it just seems like its exactly at the times when we feel like that we must adhere to our tasks in the valley with all our efforts that this is the time when we are called to ascend the mountain.

When that call comes, or when we find ourselves summiting a mountain lets not resist. While the work remains and will not go away, sometimes we have to go up the mountain.

I know how difficult this can be. But we must go to the mountains

  1. to remind ourselves that its not “all about me”. It helps to remember and experience that things will not fall apart if we step away from good and important work.
  2. But it also helps to step away to remember that there’s a subtle difference between me doing what I do on behalf of Jesus and the church and me doing this for myself. The key is what’s in the middle AND is there any difference between outcomes if you “get your way” vs “what’s God’s vision”
  3. to remember why we do what we do when we are in the valley. The fields are ripe but the laborers are few. This is the language used in agrarian times. We get a sense that there’s this almost overwhelming sense of task to be done. Coming away to the mountain tops staves off burn-out and dissolution

It reminds us why we do what we do. We don’t do what we do as a church simply because we are great, interesting people (which we like to think we are) Peter, James and John experienced something Holy and this gave them a sense of purpose, even if they only understood on the other side of Easter.

What we do is holy work and it is work that we do because we, too, have experienced something holy. And these mountain top experiences give a sense of meaning, purpose, trajectory.

Radical Love sounds like a great centering thought but it takes on a completely different shape when we remind each other that we practice radical hospitality and radical love because tof the radical nature of Jesus’ ministry and Jesus’ life.

Finally, we go on the mountain to be changed ourselves. Surely Peter James and John were not transfigured as Jesus was but they cannot have come down from that mountain the same persons they were when they went up. They experienced something powerful, beautiful, and they could not be the same.

So how do we find mountain top experiences because its not like we go find Jesus, Elijah, and Moses hanging out just everywhere, right?

  1. The first way we can is to do what we will do today later in the service… participate in Holy Communion as frequently as we can.
  2. But then find some practices and spiritual disciplines that invite you to take some time away from your daily routine and daily work in order to not always be in the valley… alway be about the task, always be at work.

A few practices to consider maybe just for Lent that begins next week:

  • Place a basket by your door. Leave your smartphone in the basket once you walk in the door. Don’t pick it up until the next day. If that just isn’t possible, set a time in the evening after which you won’t plug into the various screens in our house.
  • Find time to prepare a meal and invite friends over for that meal. This is so important… from sharing table fellowship with others to practice of spending enough time to slow down to prepare and share in a meal.  Maybe we can’t do this every night but try to do this at least once.
  • Give yourself permission to find recreation. A walk in the morning. Go to the gym in the afternoon. Go for a run at night (if your community is well lit). Get out of town and even head to a mountain
  • Grab a Lenten Calendar and do what is suggested for each day.

These kind of practices are great, they create a space, which was part of the mountain experience. But they also experienced the holy while they were on that mountain:

  • Participate in one of the studies we’re offering during Lent
  • Adopt some pattern of engaging Scripture and prayer throughout this season of Lent. Upper Room is great (they’re here at the church, available on your tablet or smartphone)
  • Pray the daily office… a regular pattern of morning and evening prayer (reflection on district retreat).
  • Try to see if you can pray all 150 Psalms during Lent.
  • Read the scripture for the upcoming Sunday before coming to worship- this will change your expectations

It doesn’t matter what you do, ultimately, but try something. I promise you, you will at some point experience God, and your life will be changed.

If you do this, then the work that we are more comfortable with in the valley, those work a day tasks, that holy work that gives dignity to many who consider themselves unworthy, the work that sustains so many will become not just important, not just vital, not just life-giving but sacramental because what we experience on the mountain means what we do in the valleys in some ways conveys and expresses something about God’s great love for us.

Image: S.K. Lo

Perfect

So we’ve been reading and studying different bits and pieces of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. The part we’re studying today is the conclusion of the chapter. After laying out a vision of the Kingdom of God with the beatitudes and reframing of the 10 Commandments to demonstrate he wasn’t doing new, he concludes this part by a curious ending. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Perfect, really?

I think that the writer of Matthew intended something akin to a “mic drop” moment…. ‘nuff said, there’s nothing that can top this.

For me, the call to be perfect, like God is perfect is not only daunting, its off putting. “I can’t do THAT. Not even close.”

Who can blame anyone for that kind of response.

A quick google search on “perfect” returned a result that was almost entirely one thing: perfect body image. Think about how pervasive that topic is. So much so, that I thought it was a joke when I heard that Barbie was featured in Sports Illustrated. What we’ve got this image of perfect that is so warped that what would only be seen as satire is now reality.

Maybe body image isn’t a place you can connect. Maybe you live out this need to be perfect with an expectation: such as your house looking like it belongs in the pages of architectural digest or not being satisfied with your kid getting a 95 on a test but wanting the “100”. We say we want the best for our child in hoping like that but educators say the effect is otherwise.

Have y’all seen Frozen, yet? The older daughter has this gift of being able to create snow and ice. It delights her sister. But because it is different, because there’s the possibility it could cause harm, her parents teach her to hide her abilities, so as to appear perfect, normal. I won’t spoil the movie, but that lesson internalized and generalized.

Maybe we borrow from the puritans a definition of perfection where perfection is not attainment of ideal in some status but perfect is a moral category, where abstaining from anything that might be enjoyable or fun combined with an over-emphasis on duty and work made for a combination that did a lot but has proven to have it down side, too.

Maybe there’s another another to read the “be perfect” admonition.

Our very own Rex Matthews explored this very thing in one of the lectures he did in Brazil last May. Looking at texts and translations, both ancient and modern he proposes that maybe our other uses of the word “perfect” to mean without blemish or fault… like the perfect diamond… gets in the way of how we mean perfect here.

Perfection is not a finished-product state,without any faults. Perfection is a process. Growth is implied, moving towards a goal. John Wesley, himself, said that it was plausible that someone, probably as they were nearing death, could achieve as state that was near perfection, if not perfection itself. But he said that this was rare, if ever. And this perfection was not a perfect, without sin. It was perfect as in have perfections and intentions and perfect love.

I think another clue for us thinking about perfection being a process of growing in faith, growing in service to Jesus comes from what comes next in the Gospel of Matthew. Right after this “be perfect” are instructions on spiritual disciplines: how to pray, how fast, how to tithe, how to serve.

Its almost as if he’s saying, “you want to grow in faith, you want to join in? here’s how.”

That same invitation applies for us.

The way I was trained, formed, was to think about it this way: perfection is more of a process and less about a goal. In this process of perfection, our desires and intentions become more and more closely aligned with Gods desires and intentions as we participate in the life faith.

So our invitation to a process and not a goal has several knock-on effects, the first of which is that we can be as gracious with ourselves as we are with others. This is not an invitation to being a slacker for Jesus—but we do need to pay attention to rest, sabbath, and retreat.

There’s also the implication of not letting perfect being the enemy of the good. So many times, especially in church (and I’m particularly good… or bad, as it were, at this one which makes sense since this seems to be something that liberal congregations seem to have a penchant for, as well). We talk it out, leave it to discern, only to talk some more. We wait for the perfect plan with full funding and a perfectly laid out set of goals, expectations, and measurable outcomes that we wind up planning, and planning, and planning. And one day we look up only to realize that there’s lots of plans but a lot of good intentions.

A model for how to go about a new ministry with a little grace is our food pantry. Initially, we planned on having a small number served… I think 30 households. The plan was also to meet short-term needs. But need before us, is something different with on-going needs and a regularly served, community. We have been malleable, responsive to the need. And I appreciate that hard effort.

We also need to be a little patient with others until they are ready to receive the invitation to lay down idols of perfection. Some have more traditional notions of perfection deeply ingrained in their being. This is something folks can’t simply turn off or change. It takes time to believe and live out being more gracious, more forgiving to not only others but to ones self.

And we can look at ourselves, too.

In Frozen, Anna… one of the sisters… is told that an act of true love is needed. True to Disney Princess script, everyone thinks that the act is kissing her prince, falling in love and living happily ever after… everything tied up with a pretty bow, story book ending. But that’s not how the story goes. The act of true love that happens in the story is one that is not only sacrificial, but it is also just another part of the story.. though an important part.

If the loving, gracious actions that we live out can be just part of the journey that is that towards God and with each other, then that would be nothing less than… well, perfect.

Why

Matthew 5:21-37

Why?

We’re all used to, at least in one venue or another a litany of “why’s”:

  • why is the sun yellow?
  • why is the sky blue?
  • why does it hurt my eyes to look at the sun?
  • why is the sky dark?
  • where’s the moon in the daytime?
  • why are there stars?
  • why can’t I build a snowman?

Why’s are all around us:

  • stars “move”, not because God sweeps God’s hand across the sky but because we are not the center of the universe.
  • particles behave the way they do because they are responding to smaller sub atomic particles that we are only beginning to learn about.
  • Why do earthquakes happen in Georgia? You’ve got me, there.

These why’s are in every discipline, even in the church. The biggest why that the church seems to be wrestling with is “why pay attention?”

Looking at Matthew, in this sermon on the mount, “why pay attention” is their salient question, as well.

Here in the Sermon on the Mount, part of the question that is being answered is, “how is this not doing something different than what Torah says.”

With every “you have heard it said” Jesus cites Torah. With every “but I tell you” is not so much a reinventing or saying anything new, but reappropriating, trying to say the same thing in a new and different context.

Let’s face it, the Torah, given to a nomadic tribe, sure of their identity but still searching for a place to call home is a lot different than being subject to the Roman Empire. Jesus skimmed beneath the surface of Torah, looked at the why does this exist in the first place, and appraised in a way that is faithful to tradition while also relating to a new context.

He saw Torah as a way for God’s people to live in covenant community with God and each other. He was merely finding ways to bring this same message forward into the period of Roman Empire.

The Church has done this, too.

Many in the church thought it good that clergy do not marry. Contexts change. Reappropriation happens. Likewise, many in the church saw Paul’s words as saying that women shouldn’t be ordained. We didn’t change Scripture. But folks looked at the “why’s”, what was Paul trying to get at, and realized that it was not a universal truth that for ever and all time gender should matter when it comes to discerning who is and who isn’t eligible for ordination.

As context changes, reappropriation, contextualization is made.

Why aren’t we speaking out against usary… high interest? Have we really gotten to a place where the community of faith has said that this is not a matter of faith? And why has it taken so long for the “middle” if you will to come around to the realization that how the immigrant, the stranger in our midst is, indeed, a reflection of what we believe about Scripture and how we understand our live and our livelihoods as being gift from God.

When it comes to the question of “why do we do this thing called church or faith, why is this important”, these are deeply felt question that convey some of things that we value this deepest and hold closest. In the midst of these questions, more and more folk are making the observation that faith is irrelevant.

And we’ve got three options for how to respond. The first is to look at what has been the primary source of understanding our faith, Scripture, and say “if it’s in here I believe it and I don’t care about relevance.” It seems to me that this kind of response turns faith into something heavy-handed, and not very respectful of the horizontal nature of faith… our life together… and the journey’s of others. Another kind of response is to say, “the Bible is no longer relevant. We agree. We need new and different books.” While this sounds appealing to some, every time the topic of re-opening the Cannon has come up in serious conversation, it has been dismissed, not because people shouldn’t read other books… which we should (Wesley even published a library), but because we have said that there’s something special about this volume. The third way to respond then, is to fall within the long tradition of faithful people and ask the question how do these words, written in another context, nearly 2,000 years ago bear any impact on our lives, today in 2014.

I think what Jesus does in the Sermon on the Mount gives us a clue for how to do this, giving us a model. Stay well within the tradition, but find new ways to say the same things, getting at the “why’s” behind what is said, and not so much worry about how to apply the same rules across the ages.

For example, Methodism and the Temperance movement have been linked. We know the temperance movement was rooted in the economics of the working poor, where hourly wage earners would spend their salary at the bar rather than buy their kids shoes. We all know the story about how Mr. Welch read about milk pasteurization and found a way to do that to grape juice so that his friend who was a recovering alcoholic could receive Communion. The United Methodist building in Washington DC was built to be the staging ground for the righteous battle to keep alcohol illegal. Well, guess what friends. For the past 12 years, things have been different. While the prohibition of alcohol being present on United Methodist property remains, the simply worded “don’t drink” now has this added section talking about the possible positive witness of responsible drinking.

So the question changes from “is it okay to drink or not” but changes to what does the fight for children’s rights and bringing people struggling with addiction fully into the life of the church look like in 2014?

Divorce: We have come to a place where we know that not every marriage than happens in a church, before a pastor, is blessed of God. Likewise, especially with the prohibition placed upon my life and work, there are marriages that don’t happen in the church that are, indeed, blessed of God.

Dr. Tom Frank, onetime professor at Candler, wrote an open letter to the bishops. In his letter his says that while the office of bishop is important, maybe the day has come when the office of bishop as rule-keeper has passed and the day of bishop as exemplar to fellow clergy has begun. In this case, he is saying that instead of trying clergy for presiding at same-gender marriages, why not find another way to faithful live into the covenant of ordination… you know, thinking about that, they ask us to keep the discipline for conscious sake and not for wrath. I wonder how many of the charges against clergy are made for wrath’s sake?

I think the words of Charles James Cook says it best, ”Scratch a true believer & you will not find a love of doctrine as much as the love of liturgy.” Now I don’t think he meant simply printed prayers and orders of service but I do think that worship is part. What he meant was that a true believer doesn’t look for more rules to keep, but loving the work of the people (what liturgy literally means), together.

 Henri Nouwen put it another way, when contemplating the “why” of his life… as he left the Ivy League and went to live with differently abled people, they didn’t care about his degrees, books, and list of published works. He said that for Christians to be fruitful, we need to be less moral (here defined as legalistic) more more mystical.

For us this means two things:

First of all, the Good News is that we don’t have to ditch the Bible to live as faithful witnesses in the world. Likewise, we do not have to twist ourselves up in knots worrying about relevance. The point is to be more, fluid, more gracious, but not in a way that is so soft that it makes our covenants between each other and God as if they do not matter.

But I also have to bad news… well maybe not bad news, but words of instruction. This is not the easier way. It means investing time in listening to God, in engaging Scripture alongside others in the difficult task of discerning ways to stand in that long line of faithful followers who reappropriate Good News for new and different contexts. And it means being patient, doing the slow, work of being a part of God’s gracious activity in the world.

So why do this, why pay attention, why listen, why? I can honestly look at each of you and tell you as honestly as I can tell anyone anything that I do not know, save for this prompting that says, this is good, this is right, this is the faithful way to respond and live.

Amen.

Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/openpad/3718789722/sizes/o/ Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution License

Blessed Are They

Matthew 5:1-12

Don’t you love it when there’s a simple set of instructions? Many of you know that I love to cook, the experimentation with flavors is great. But there are times when I love simply following the three easy step instructions of easy mac. Exact measurements of milk and butter. No need to be creative, just tell me what to do.

Wouldn’t it be great if all of life was like that? For example, wouldn’t it be great if there were “three simple rules to being a good ______” Fill in the blank: parent, spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend. And the plethora of self-help books to the contrary, the truth of the matter is that they don’t really exist. They don’t exist even for the life of faith… and those would be really nice.

This desire to make this opening of Jesus’ sermon on the mount a today list. And then we take a look at it and realize that this is difficult. For example, if someone tries to complete the “blessed are those who mourn”, how much mourning is required? And not only that but even if the beatitudes were a list of instructions for how to be a good follower of Jesus, we’d have to be careful that we were not turning a vibrant, rich faith that is lived in response to God’s gracious actions towards us into a list of checkboxes that would amount to saying that our works are what saves us.IMG_0458

The beatitudes are not instructions and neither are they aspirations. These words of Jesus are descriptors of God’s KIngdom, they tell us how we act when we are living in God’s kingdom.

Blessed. When we use this term, we usually mean it to convey that we’re doing well or that we are lucky. Many times I hear people refer to being blessed as a way to convey that they are doing far better than they desire. But these mis the mark. Well, at least they miss the mark for the way blessed is used hear. For these beatitudes, to be blessed is not a temporal state of being, but to be blessed is to be deemed by God to be included in God’s kingdom.

So “blessed are those who mourn” is not an admonishment for a follower of Jesus to mourn for someone who has died. Rather, blessed are those who mourn tells us that we are living in God Kingdom and included in God’s kingdom when we look out and realize that we are still some distance away from the vision that God has for creation, and we mourn that distance. Blessed are the peacemakers means that we are not blessed when seek to end violence but that we are participating in God’s Kingdom as we seek to live out and proclaim in God’s peaceable kingdom.

This is a subtle but important distinction. We aren’t performing deeds so as to gain God’s favor but rather, we have received God’s grace and as a faithful response we seek to participate in what God’ is already doing.

What does that look like for us today?

With the snow storm that we all lived through this past week, there emerged a story about who to blame. Your response about who to blame for the inexcusable tragedy of people having to spend the night in their car when it was below freezing depended on, mostly, political party. Some wanted to blame the governor, others wanted to blame the mayor. And while there will be time to ascribe blame as well as figure out what to do so as this never happens again, another story emerged.

That story had to do with how people responded to crisis. I was overwhelmed as I sat there Tuesday night, the news on, my laptop in my lap and Facebook exploded. Individuals began posting things like, “My loved one is stuck in traffic on I-20, can anyone put her up?” or another would post “I live near the intersection of i-85 and Bever Ruin, I have an extra bedroom and plenty of food. If you need a place to stay, text me” And they left a phone number.

It is told that a pharmacist walked up and down the interstate with needles, insulin and test kits, knowing that there would be diabetics stuck in traffic, unable to get to life saving medication. And others tell that though they brought no provisions of their own, others who had plenty shared so that everyone in the surrounding cars had enough to eat.

These are signs of the in breaking of God’s kingdom. People did not do this so that they could tick a checkbox. People did these acts of mercy as a response and their compassion is a sign of God’s coming kingdom.

When we are “blessed” we are deemed to be part of God’s kingdom. We are included.

Isn’t that what this is really what its all about? Not simply “what happens to me when I die.” Well, yes, that but a much bigger question, “am I part and partial of God’s loving and gracious activity?” Not am I in but am I included? I’d have to say “yes” if reading these beatitudes resonates with part of how your life has been shaped as you have sought to life a faithful response to God’s love in Jesus in your life, then yes, you are included.

Yes, you are, indeed, blessed.

From the Top

Matthew 4:12-23

Beginnings matter. Just think how different our expectation would be if Star Wars didn’t begin with “A Long Time Ago, In a Galaxy Far Away….” and see that crawl and we didn’t see that crawl telling the background information of Galactic Empires and rebellions.Or the beginning of the movie Up, totally setting us up as we see in a few short scenes the love story that is Carl and Ellie, or think about the very first episode of the series “Lost”– the eye opening, the disorientation, and the dog.

They set our expectations. They, if not point us in the direction we’re going, give us a few landmarks so that what we’re about to experience has some sense of context.

Its no different with Matthew as we begin following Jesus’ ministry. Three things to gleen are that: Jesus’ ministry begins as John’s ends after his arrest, that Jesus went someplace new to begin his ministry, and that when Jesus began calling the disciples, he didn’t veer far from his new home and the lifestyle of the residents of Capernaum.

Scripture seems to point that subsequent to Jesus’ baptism, his 40 days in the desert,  and then John’s baptism, Jesus assumes the mantle of foretelling that the Kingdom of God had drawn near. A page has turned. Much like Elisha assumed the ministry of Elijah

with John’s demise at hand, his pronouncements that one would follow after him now take root in Jesus stepping forward and living more fully into a public ministry. There was a season for John and now the season of Jesus’ ministry has come into being.

We have seasons in our lives when we are active and when we are resting, when we are leading and when we play supportive roles. I think the key is to, like Jesus, know that there’s a rhythm and a timing to this.

To mark this point of transition and coming to the forefront, he left his home and went to Capernaum. Now, depending on how you read this, it could mean that Jesus went to a place where he was unknown and obscure so that he would not be associated with the ministry of John in a time when it was dangerous to be associated with John, or he was going to the relatively cosmopolitan area that was near the major Roman road traveling north and south from Asia Minor and Syria to the north and Egypt to the south. If it was for the latter, then he wasn’t going to be obscure but for a strategic reason for the spread of the Good News.

I don’t know which reason he went to Capernaum and I’m not really sure that it matters why, but what I think does matter is that he did go. Elsewhere in Scripture we have the words, “a prophet is not without honor in his hometown”. Maybe Jesus knew this before the day when he was run out of his hometown. To tell the good news he needed to be away from distraction and prior narrative about him and his family so that he could be about the work of his public ministry.

We’re like this. Did you know that in many school districts, it is against school policy to go back into the school from which you graduated in order to do your student teaching and practicums? You’re too close, too familiar. There might be something difficult to say that you need to say and folk cannot hear, or maybe the other way around. People who come out of inpatient addiction recovery are told that if they want to have a good chance of staying clean, find a new circle of friends.

New places for new beginnings. Sometimes, responding to our baptism is a very comfortable thing. We receive accolades and recognition. But as the Covenant Service prayer says, sometime we cannot follow Christ unless we deny ourselves. And sometimes that denying self means venturing into the unknown, and it doesn’t have to simply be geographical in nature. For those of us who like control, to give certainty over to God for the sake of responding to our baptism and doing a new and different thing can be scary.

Which leads to a very natural third point: when Jesus called the first disciples, he related well to their context. It is assumed that for all his childhood and early adult life, Jesus trained, apprenticed and grew into the same role as his father: a carpenter (well tekton is better translated artisan, craftsman, or handyman but tradition hold carpenter, so we we’ll go with that).  Have you ever heard the phrase, “if all you have is a hammer in your hand, then everything looks like a nail”? Well, the point is that Jesus grew up in a different environment, different language. And so when he called the very first disciples into ministry, he eschewed the language of either woodworking or stone working. He adopted the metaphors a fisherman would understand: “I’ll make you fish-for people”. And they got it. They understood exactly what Jesus was inviting them to join in on.

It is so easy to stick to our language that we know.

As United Methodists we’re particularly good at this, especially when it comes to code language and acronyms. And sometimes we forget what that what is clearest and simplest is the best. We don’t always need to festoon with such colorful language that we obscure (see what I did there). We don’t need to use insider language or imagery. What we need to use is whatever language or medium that is clearest and most accommodating for people whom we graciously invite into the shared ministry of Jesus.

I’m glad the first children’s sermon I ever did is not on video anywhere. I’d be so embarrassed. Finding accessible language is important for the children in our midst, the teens in our community of faith, and all the people who are not yet here and maybe have no inclination towards church but yet find the need to seek out something beyond themselves as a reoccurring theme in their life. If we can find ways through our deeds which we practice, the metaphors which we embrace and the language we use to connect, who knows how many others can join in this ever-moving, ever changing movement of Jesus followers. New beginnings could be happening all around.

Yes, beginnings are important. We don’t need to doubt that. We know this from our experiences. What’s the phrase? “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” Regardless, how we begin matters. How Jesus began his ministry mattered then and matters now.

Today is the last Sunday of January in 2014. That’s hard to believe, right? One month almost gone. But that’s okay. There’s still 11 months to come. We don’t know what they will entail. But what we do know is that while we are in the opening strains of this year, we might have some clues as to how this year is going, so far. Some things we like and some things we don’t.

If you aren’t thrilled with the way things are going, its not too late. You can still begin anew, find a new and different pattern of life, a changed way of attending to this journey we call our life with Jesus.  The invitation is there: maybe we’re out in the boat and its a fine days catch and its difficult to leave our boats and tend a different kind of nets. Maybe we’ve been casting from the banks and not only is our arm sore from casting but our creel basket is empty—we haven’t caught anything. Maybe we’re looking forward to an invitation to try something new. Maybe we’re somewhere in between.

Regardless of where you are on this continuum, Jesus’ invitation to begin new and refresh abides for you, for me and the world. What do you say? Lets go join in.

How Long?

John 1:29-42

”What are you looking for?

Do you remember the Christmas commercial we talked about during our Advent series that advocated spending less on others so that you can spend more on yourself? We all felt so good that that kind of blatant commericalization until some of the post-Christmas ads here advocated buying what you didn’t get for Christmas. When Jesus asked the disciples what they were looking for this is not what he had in mind. A better way of looking at this might be “what do you long for.” May be a better way to look at is like this:

  • what keeps us up at night?
  • what wakes us up in the middle of the night?
  • what gets us out of bed in the morning?

For Dr King it was this ever present cry for all of God’s children to treat each other equally and fairly. His vision for the civil society reflected a more just community was embodied in his “I have a dream” speech that many of us find the words So familiar. Some say that we have achieved that dream, that we live in post-racial society–we have an African-American President is often cited. But its almost as if Dr King knew what we would do. When he was in Memphis, he was attending a protest by sanitation workers. He knew the next step in the civil rights movement was to expand to a poor people’s movement.

We know this, too. As soon as it became illegal to discriminate on the account of race, we looked at class and social economic status. Ever notice the correlation between race and class on one side and what is a desirable school district on the other?

Yes, Doctor King thought about  the day when we would fully live into the dream. But I find something interesting: “Living the dream” has become a sarcastic way of appropriating our lives when our five year plans do not fully work out. Say you meet someone you went to school with. In catching up someone recounts that things aren’t turning out as planned–the job didn’t last or there are health issues. And to turn the conversation away from something awkward there’s a sigh and a smiling face saying “I’m just living the dream.” How sad that we have taken something aspirational and relegated it to something as a symbol of unfulfilled dreams.

Today’s Psalm is “How Long”, like the U2 song 40… how long must we sing this song? How long until God’s kingdom comes into its fullness? How long must we abide injustice?

Some of you know that I am something of a recovering evangelical. For the first years of following Jesus, faith was only about what happens when we die. But the gift of Methodism is that how we live our lives is somehow wrapped up in the process of salvation, both our own and of all creation.

So, given that we are connected, our how long is not “how long until Jesus comes back”  or “how long until we can return home” but “how long until we get to join in”.

One of my core beliefs is that if we greeted this new morning, we are blessed. And, thus, there’s some response. Each of us must decide what our gracious response will be.

Let me give you a few example. Say you think your days of service to the church have passed. Maybe it is true that you are not mobile. But guess what? You can pray for our preschool, teachers & parents. There’s 150 families on our campus during the week. And praying for them is quiet a vocation.

Maybe you say, “my life is too busy”. This is a truism for many. One of the realities of our congregation is that there are several long-serving servant of Jesus and the church who–though they have faithfully responded with their prayers, presence, gifts, and service–they find it increasingly difficult to get to worship. So I would like beginning in February to have folk gather back at the church after lunch on the first Sunday of the month and us take the unused, reserved Communion elements to our home-bound folk to connect the life of this congregation to those who cannot any longer be present physically. That will add an hour to your week, maybe.

Maybe you say that your life is too chaotic, that you cannot commit to anything long-term. That’s fine. There are one-time opportunities. Our trustees have said they want to cut back some shrubs and raise some limbs before spring comes. We’ve also said that we want to beautify the corner of Ponce and Briarcliff as well as our St. Charles entrance. Plans aren’t really in stone, yet. But talk with Andy and he can point you in the right direction for how to get started. Also, the children’s ministry will be repainting our children’s spaces in February. Come for an hour, come for two. Help make our children’s space hospitable. Do you like to cook? Volunteer to cook for our youth group.

This is on top of all the on-going ministry we do like 4th Monday meals at Journey and the food pantry.

Why do we say this? Why is this important?

Roger Nishioka quoted Teresa of Avila this past week in one of the devotions I read. Here he cites Teresa as saying:

Christ has no body now on earth but yours;

no hands but yours;

no feet but yours.

Yours are the eyes through which to look out

Christ’s compassion to the world;

Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good;

Yours are the hands with which he is to bless men [and women] now.

So, we wonder how long? How long until the dream is fulfilled? How long until injustice is ended and compassion abides?

Well, friends, you tell me.

We are the vehicle for God’s redemptive activity, through the Spirit. We are capable of so much good. All we have to do is say yes and join in what is essentially a parade of life. Its a long parade, one where if Dr. King is the drum major, then Jesus is the director of bands. But we can join that parade of Teresa’s (both of Avila and Mother), Martin’s, Andrew’s, Edwina’s, Dorothy Day’s, Joseph Lowery’s, and Harvey Milk’s of the world. And once we do, then it won’t be long.

How long?

Amen.

Down by the Riverside

Matthew 3:13-17

It had been a long bus ride. We were near the end of our day of pilgrimage. The bus pulled off the road and tried to go down a dirt road. We asked, “where we going?”

“The Jordan” the tour guide replied. She continued, “Oh, I could take you to the tourist trap… nowhere near where Jesus would have been. But this place is a little out of the way.” Our pilgrimage coordinator wanted to end the day with a remembrance of Baptismal vows.

Soon the coach stopped and started backing up. Tour tour guided added that it was too difficult to get to the “local place” she wanted to take us. We got back on the road and soon turned off the road again, stopping in a park. There were trees, dirt, and a deep, fast-running river nearby, so I assumed it was a park. But I didn’t see park benches or picnic tables.

What I did see was the floating pontoon bridges that tanks use to cross rivers where bridges have been blown up. The guide said they were left over from a prior conflict, stationed nearby, hidden from the trees, in case they were ever needed again.IMG_0837

And so it was there, among the trees, evidence of war, and a fast-moving river, too deep and too dangerous to wade into, that we had a service of remembrance of vows.

We even had to hold someones hand as they leaned over the edge of the riverbank to dip an empty, used water bottle as our vessel.

I didn’t think too much of that service of remembrance that day. To be honest I would have rather on the day been at the tourist trap. And it was because I was angry about the floating bridges for trucks and tanks. But now I’m glad we were there. Life is not a tourist attract.

Life is messy. Life has abandoned parts. Life has turbulent parts. And all of that is in the middle of God’s beautiful creation.

One of my favorite things to do in a life of ministry is to baptize children. It is a lovely service and its full of hope. But in the way we usually perform baptisms… that sweet moment when a child becomes part of the family of God… we miss something that our Baptist sisters and brothers have retained: that in plunging into the waters and raising back up, we are dying to an old way of being and raising to a new way of seeing and being in the world.

Part of that new way of life is engaging the world. But there’s this rhetoric out there that this new life is:

  • easy street, or
  • burying our  head in the sand

Neither is true.

For the first, we are called to discipleship and a large part of that discipleship involves our finances. This is not that money comes easy or there won’t be any hardship. This past week when I, like many of you, saw our giving statements, I stopped for a second… for a brief second… and thought, “Hmm. If I tithed to my student loan, I’d be debt free in 4 years.” Sometimes radical love means putting something besides your own bottom line first.

Followers of Jesus don’t sit in a room praying, hoping for Jesus to come back. We engage in addressing the hurt and sufferings of the world. This past week when folks in this congregation called our home bound folk to make sure all was well before and during the cold spell, we were serving. When we opened the warming station for the time when the homeless folk in our neighborhood didn’t have a place to go, we provided warm drinks, shelter, games, reading, and dancing!

But what is it about our baptism and our faith that forms us to do such a thing, rather than sit in our warm homes, drinking hot chocolate, waiting on school and work to be cancelled?

Because Jesus, in beginning his ministry, chose to begin with submitting to John’s baptism. He didn’t need forgiveness of sins. He didn’t need to turn life around. But he was beginning a new journey. He chose to begin new journey at the Jordan.

Because of this, he is not going to ever ask of us something he hasn’t done. But more importantly, he began ministry among the people who felt they needed a new start and repentance, who felt not worthy. So Jesus’ ministry is not just to us its with us. He journey’s with us.

We get this in culture: the president, though his healthcare is provided by the Air Force signed up with healthcare.gov gov as a symbol to say “I am with you.”

[Update: a friend gave me a good tip on another leader who has done something symbolically to express solidarity. Dr. Robert Bentley not taking a salary until Alabama’s unemployment rate gets to 5.2%. Thanks, Heather! Wish I had this for the sermon delivery.]

We need “I am with you moments.” My daughter loves the beach. At the same time, she’s afraid of water. And that’s okay. There’s something about the water that can be refreshing but there’s also something in the water that foreboding: tides and currents, we don’t readily see what’s swimming out there (jellyfish, anyone? Hammerhead sharks?). We are not anxious in life for no good reason, usually.

Whenever we have anxious moments, we need someone with us, someone who’s been there, someone who knows the way forward. For my child that meant me or her mother. For us in our lives, many times that’s a friend, a family member a loved one. It could even be a member of this congregation. And that helps many times.

But sometimes we need to remember that Jesus is near, too. And we need to remember that, especially when no one is around.

It’s comforting but it’s also a reminder that we’re not doing anything novel. Jesus has gone before and Jesus still travels with. He says, “I am with you.”

After all, that’s the story of Christmas, right… radical identification with something most precious… and that most precious thing is you.

So when you find yourself near the deep, fast-moving waters of life or you find yourself surrounded by reminds of conflict and maybe even war, when even find yourself alone and you think no one is around. Remember, your baptism. And be thankful. More importantly, remember Jesus’ baptism. And be thankful. You’re not alone.

Amen.