Sunday, January 17, 2016

That God is here

Jesus is all grown up.  And he’s about to be introduced to the world for who he really is.  John has been paving the way, but God does the introducing.  And I think about how God wanted all this to start, and while there is a lot that varies in the different gospel accounts, Matthew Mark and Luke, and even John weighs in here a little bit, tell this part of the story the same way:

John is out there doing his prophet thing – just as his parents Zechariah and Elizabeth were told in Luke that he would be.  He’s out there telling the world – he’s coming. God with us is coming!

And then Jesus comes incognito among those gathering outside the city to listen to this wild man; in the midst of those longing for the redemption John passionately describes, to wade into the waters of repentance and renewal and say Yes to God.  Here among them, sandals dusty, palms sweaty and heart pounding hard, walks God with us.  With and alongside you and me.

The time has come, to begin what God came to earth in human form to do, and it begins here, first anonymous in the crowd, submitting to the ritual, then coming out of the waters of life to this striking moment, when God the Father, busting with joy, shouts out from the heavens, in light and dove and voice, Hey! This is my kid! My beloved! I am so delighted in him!

And then immediately the Spirit drives Jesus into the barren and lonely wilderness, with its disorienting desolation and fearsome beasts, and there, in his weakness, angels minister to Jesus.
And with the breathless urgency of Mark’s telling, immediately after that, Jesus’ ministry begins, and his first words are, “The time is now.
God’s reign is here among us! Change your mind, and trust in this good news!”
And then he calls out from the beach to ordinary people like you and me, doing their ordinary thing, “Follow me!” and something deep inside them feels seen and summoned, and without hesitation they walk away from all they’ve ever known to follow him.

And there is a movement to this whole thing, this mixture of vital ingredients, one after the other, God’s recipe for launching Jesus’ earthly ministry, and it can be shown like this, as a parent, here is what I would want my children to know about life as they head into the world:
First, you are just like everyone else, alongside them, no better, no worse. All humanity is in this together, drawn to hope and redemption, longing to say Yes to God.
Second, you are mine, absolutely beloved, and I am so delighted in you.
Third, life is really hard, and you will feel lonely, and overwhelmed.
But even when things within and around you feel chaotic and scary, God will always take care of you.
And lastly, you are not to go about this all alone – you need community, friends, people who have got your back and who will tell you the truth and will be in this with you, come what may.

And, so, this is the beginning of how God came to be with us. Immediately, these four elements are woven into Jesus’ life before he goes on in ministry, solidarity, belovedness, wilderness and community. They set him up for what is coming. The beginning of God with us.

Today we hear how Mark begins the good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God, and for the next several weeks we’re going to fly through Mark – we will come back in the summer for some of the teachings and miracles- but Mark is going to take us through the season of Lent and Easter.

And so it’s important for you to know, right at the outset, that Mark has his own particular perspective, his own take on what is most important to know about who God with us and how God is with us, and it might be encapsulated by noticing this: 0% of this gospel is focused on Jesus’ birth or childhood.  And a full 40% of this gospel is focused on Jesus’ death and the passion narrative. 

Commentator C Clifton Black says, “This is of vital importance. No other religion, ancient or postmodern, professes its most patent contradiction as its most fundamental belief…. Only Christianity professes a crucified Messiah as the agent by whom this tortured world is being set to rights. Far from transporting its adherents out of this world’s vapor or viciousness, only Christian faith continuously drives them back to its most despicable mockery -- the shame of the cross -- and dares to proclaim that there, and nowhere else, has the God of the living acted incognito to restore all of creation.”

God goes into the darkest places with and for us. Our need to have a god who is strong and invincible, set apart and untarnished, with followers who are highly respectable, and worthy of admiration? Mark will blow all that away, and the disciples hardly know what is going on most of the time. 

Mark doesn’t spend a whole lot of energy on doctrinal claims or atonement theories – the good news of the gospel is declared in Jesus’ first words of ministry: God is here. God is with us in this life. And God goes all the way to and through death with and for us.

When my son Owen was born, they handed him to Andy while they tended to me, and I was aware of a conversation, a brand new Daddy and his tiny, swaddled, red-faced son, gazing into his face with alert attention, while Andy gently talked to him in an intimate whisper.  Later on, I asked him what he said in those first words, expecting some tender, sweet baby talk, but being the warped theologian that he is, he answered, “I welcomed him to this life and told him that he will one day die- that is what it means to be alive. But even so, he belongs to God, and God’s life never ends. And then I told him that he would be scared, and he would be sad, but he would never be alone. I am his Daddy, and I will be there with him.”

What if we said it that bluntly at baptism? You will die.  But my child, feel the truth poured over you in water, traced over you in oil, and prayed around you by the breath of the brethren gathered here to witness: no matter what, you belong to God, you belong to life eternal, which has conquered death, and you will never ever be alone.

Some people here today were baptized as babies and don’t remember it at all. The community who baptized you held that story for you, reminded you of that moment, as they reminded you of your place in the life of God.  And as you grew and struggled and ran from God and returned to God, what remained over you is this blessing and claiming of God. God’s Yes to you that drew you back to grace, to forgiveness, to new beginnings and lasting hope. God’s forever words over you, This is My beloved. No matter what and always.

Some people here today – myself included-  were baptized when they were older, when they gave their life to Jesus.  It was for us an outward sign of an inward reality-  that I belong to life instead of death, and I long to follow with my whole heart, and so I receive the grace that God bestows in the presence of this community that bears witness to my belonging to God.

Some people here today have not yet been baptized. And you belong to God no less than the rest of us.  But I want to invite you to consider being baptized, “tattooed with the resurrection,” as we’ve sometimes called it.  Because it is a sacrament, a marked moment in time, with water, words and witnesses, where the Holy Spirit seals what is true about you, and gives you something to look back on in the dark times, and the sad times, and the times when death feels big and scary, and say, Yes, I belong to God, no matter what. This is who I am: Beloved.

And one day, the truth this water and witness symbolizes and samples will be complete in all its fullness, when we stand in the very presence of God, whole, and healed, and part of the community of love that never, ever ends. 

We are grounded in the truth that death is real, and it’s scary, and we might be afraid, but we are never, ever alone. And we live that out alongside each other because when you belong to the Beloved, you see others through that same lens, and are able to recognize the claim of God on their life too – this one is my beloved! And this one! Beloved of God! Precious and irreplaceable!

The followers of Jesus in John’s gospel are witnesses, those called to notice and point out and recognize and share about Jesus. 
Matthew’s gospel seeks disciples, those who learn the teachings and absorb the meaning and see the big picture and shape their lives accordingly.
But in Mark, all they need to do is follow.
And they do a mostly lousy job of that.  They are generally selfish and hardheaded, slow to pick up on what Jesus is doing, and they fall asleep on him when he needs them most, but that doesn’t stop Jesus.  Jesus stays committed to them. Because Jesus is the good news: God is here with us, no matter what. 

So that day, on the beach, calling out to the first of them, stirring them from interested spectators into followers, Jesus invites them, as they are, I will make you fish for people – I know you, I know who you are. And it’s you, specifically, that I am calling. Show up.  Stay with me. Let go of what anchors you here and follow where I go.
And dear, eager disciples, you will not be able to, at least not very well, but Jesus will not give up on you, you beloved ones. Answer the call.

And here and now, we are the followers, called to go where he goes, to watch the truth lived out in the flesh: that we, and this whole earth, belong to God, that Belovedness is our source and our calling.
So come, follow Jesus into the waters, alongside everyone else. And hear the blessing spoken over you, BELOVED.  Face your wilderness, your wild beasts, your fear and hunger – you will not be abandoned, you will be cared for, fed, blessed, even within the chaos of this place.  And seek and find the community that follows with you, well and poorly; find those who help you show up.

Here’s where I say: This is that community.  And I am so blessed to be your pastor. There are not words for what a gift it is to be in this with you, and how astounding it feels to watch you be alongside each other in solidarity, belovedness, wilderness and community.  It is true what we say: When we are with and for each other we meet Jesus Christ, who is with and for us.

Oh, friends, this is a sacred and holy thing! It’s messy and we flail around a lot, but in all its awkwardness and joy, in all the ways we get it tragically wrong and beautifully right, it is the most holy thing I know. 

You should know, if you don’t already, that I have no tolerance for pretending when it comes to these things. If this ever were about acting a certain way, thinking or believing certain things, being part of some kind of set apart club, or being comforted by platitudes that insulate us from the pain and suffering of real life, then so help me God, I’d be out of here. I want nothing to do with those things.

For me, this can only be about the good news, which is, God is here, God has come, God is with us in THIS life, and every moment is infused with grace.  And we get to live in that reality together and help each other be real, and present to that mystery in our lives. To that miracle in the world.

Today we have our annual meeting, where we’ll look back at the last year and share together where we’ve seen God, where we’ve missed God, how we’ve joined in what the Spirit was doing, and what we hope and long for as we look forward.  
And we’ll use some business language and spreadsheets, and talk about paying bills and meeting a budget, but that is all stirred together with, and for the purpose of, seeking to be witnesses like John, and disciples like Matthew, and followers like Mark, to, above all, live in trust, ready to go where the Spirit leads us. 

And underneath it all is that holy heartbeat that claims us, beloved, that brings these people together mainly to keep on saying, in word and deed, God is right here, God is with us, the whole world is God’s, and we belong to the one who calls us Beloved.

For this, O Lord, I give you my deepest thanks.


Sunday, January 3, 2016

This bright, blessed mess

So, Christmas is over- Mary and Joseph have packed away the tree and the decorations and the swaddling clothes, and have been hunkered down with their new baby in a peaceful little home in Bethlehem for some time now. 

 And to be honest, since the night when the shepherds and angels and everyone showed up in a wild blur of glory and honor, it’s been kind of quiet.  Really, there is almost nobody bringing meals or checking in on the young couple, a friendly hello here or a kind gesture there, perhaps, but they are not living near life-long neighbors, friends of their parents throwing a baby shower or aunties offering advice. They are kind of all alone – maybe seeing friends of friends, and relatives of relatives from time to time, but this was not the way they had imagined their family life would start- not even once they rearranged their imaginings to include God-incarnate crawling across the living room floor.

Joseph rented them a little house with room for a workshop, not too far from THE stable, actually, but near enough to town that he got a little business, enough to keep food on the table, and news was sent back home of the child’s birth, a few snapshots and updates now and then, “He just rolled over on his own!” “He snores like grandpa and can NOT get enough of those mashed peas!”  "He took his first steps yesterday!” but no grandparents or cousins had yet met the toddler Jesus.  It had been just the three of them, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, in a kind of suspended rhythm of adjustment and happiness, an in-between of sorts, settling into the miracle they shared, getting to know each other, becoming a family.

Until the day the pagans showed up and called their kid the king of the Jews.  
Just when the story had begun to lose its hard edges, when the nostalgia had begun to descend and the lens soften, when this baby had begun to feel like he was theirs, a reminder that he is not arrives in the form of sages from a far-off land, astrologers, mystic-scholars who had been watching the skies for signs of God.  
Surprising, perhaps, that those with no personal stake in the story, with no generational anticipation of a Messiah, no claim whatsoever to the promises of Yahweh to the people of Yahweh, are the ones Yahweh sends next.  And their arrival bursts the bubble and exposes the light to all the world. 

Epiphany, we call this day. Enlightenment. Aha!  The breakthrough that changes your perspective, and lays opens your life before you differently.  

Sometimes all the same things and people that were familiar and known one second look completely other and utterly amazing the next second, and often because you are suddenly seeing them through another person’s eyes.  That's something epiphany does.

The Christmas moment was God WITH US, Epiphany is GOD with us.  
Sweet and cuddly though he may have just been, this isn’t your own private Messiah any longer, folks.  He belongs to the whole earth, and all who live upon it belong to the same God who has settled himself contentedly here in your lap.  You are recipients of this miracle as much as the next person, of course, but with just as little sense of what it all means  - maybe less, even, than these strangers (who are, in every way imaginable, strange) seem to grasp.

I love the crazy, cozy image of Mary and Joseph around supper with these visitors, after their camels have been tended to and bedded down, when the strangers had washed up and unpacked a little bit, and the lamps are lit and the table is set. The meal at the table between these people who smell different and look different and wear different clothing and speak different languages and whose paths never, ever should have crossed in any conceivable way, but who were right now breaking bread together, drinking wine together, sharing together what used to be mostly their own private secret that nobody else could relate to but them.

And I almost can picture that star exploding right then. 
It had guided the Magi to the child, over desert and mountains, through night and day and night and day and night and day they followed its singular purpose, driven by the quest, knowing this is something big, being led right to it.  And then, from the moment they laid eyes on him, and Mary and Joseph laid eyes on them, the cat is out of the bag, so to speak.  
King Herod is now chomping at the bit to stamp out this newly discovered threat to his power, and the news is out, things are not business as usual; God has really come, the world is topsy-turvy and strangers from a strange land are eating with that nice couple down the street, normal as you please.  And then I imagine the star, it’s purpose completed, shatters into a trillion pieces, filling the sky with bright mess, scattering shards of radiance from one end of the globe to the other.

I picture them staying a while. 
After all, it took many months, maybe years, to get there; they’re not just going to stay one night and leave. At least, I wouldn’t.  I won’t drive 2 1/2 hours to my grandmother’s house just for an afternoon.  No, siree. You’ve got to make the visit worthwhile.  Share a few meals, spend a night or three, settle in long enough to catch up over morning coffee and debrief over tea before bed.

So what was it like, adjusting to being next to the miracle for a while?  
Was it all the more miraculous for its ordinariness? 
How did it feel to go from a distant star and a lifelong, theoretical quest for truth to a flesh and blood child who smeared his high chair with carrot mash and crashed out exhausted for naps, stunk up his diapers and cuddled the dog and threw bawling toddler tantrums? 
Because here’s one truth: miracles are almost never as sexy in person as they’re built up to be. 

What was it like for Joseph and Mary and for the strangers from the East, to fall into some daily patterns together, to have almost nothing humanly in common and yet get one another at a level nobody else on earth could, because your very presence represents to the other that this really is real, something really big is really happening.  Like pregnant Elizabeth validating pregnant Mary’s experience, sharing the miracle and being church– this wonky little collection of folk are now church, if church means, and I think it does, the ones reminding each other that God has come, that God is here, and that our very lives are part of the wonder and life-giving, love-bringing conspiracy of God.  But also maybe getting annoyed because they load the dishwasher wrong and forget to take their shoes off in the house?

And then, just after the dream warning not to go back to Herod, and the Magi bypassing Jerusalem altogether to return home by another road, (Oh, wasn’t Herod steaming mad when then never swung back by the palace! Didn’t he pace on his balcony with his eyes on the horizon day after day, the realization slowing dawning after one week, two, three, that they were NOT coming back and there wasn’t a darn thing he could do about it!). 
Just after the hugs and blessings and goodbyes, the little family turning back inside, sighing, and expecting, perhaps, that life might get back to normal, normal is redefined again. Epiphany keeps going, see.  It doesn’t actually let you turn back; by its very nature Epiphany’s path is almost always that of another road.

Their road is revealed when, like the one who told him two years ago not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife, an angel messenger invades Joseph’s dreams again, take the child and his mother and flea, right now, go to Egypt. Get up! NOW.
It’s your turn to be the strangers from a foreign land, Joseph. God-with-us, who was born in a stable and is now a homeless refugee, and you along with him; foreigners in a foreign land.  

Some traditions hold that the little family settled in Egypt with the Ishmaelites, that they were received warmly by the way other side of the family tree, way back before Egypt became the land of their captivity, the place God had freed God’s people from, the place that represented all that they were delivered out of – back from the time when it was all the same trunk, the roots, the beginning. Father Abraham - father of us all, descendants as numerous as the stars.

It’s like baby God is on a sightseeing tour of the greatest hits.

I have been at this project for quite some time, you see…

I am the God who delivered you out of the land of Egypt, you shall have no other gods before me. He came to what was his own, but his own people did not recognize him.  So to the land of Egypt they went, (part of the Roman Empire at the time), seeking safety and welcome in the hospitality, hearts and homes of strangers, who are part of the whole story anyway, while back home among the God’s chosen people, the children of Israel, “King of the Jews” Herod’s terrible wrath and fear commanded the deaths of all the male children under two in an effort to stamp out the light of the world before the flame caught and spread.
Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 
‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation,
 Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’

And I hate that part of the story and will never understand it, and don’t have a whole lot to say about it, except to notice both that God’s love doesn’t keep madness from happening but suffers it with us, coming as a homeless, transient peasant child, whose identity is revealed to nameless sheep-herders and pagan foreigners and NOT to the powers that be, no matter how loudly they rattle their sabers and fiercely they demand to be in on the secret. And also that as sweeping and awful as Herod’s act of terrible evil was, it seemed not to make a dent whatsoever in the God-with-us project; and while Herod himself is long dead and gone, love endures forever, profoundly and mightily in small acts of kindness and care, and the everyday, transformative sharing of life by ordinary folks that puncture the darkness with God’s light every moment of every day.

After Herod’s death the little family goes home for the first time, to Nazareth, to raise their first grader in Galilee among their own people, in their own village, with the grandparents, and the lifelong neighbors, and streets they grew up on, and the tiny, provincial world that had cradled and shaped them before their lives were ripped open by the light of the world. 

How was little Jesus shaped by those early wanderings, I wonder? 
What did he absorb from the Magi and the Egyptians, the welcome of strangers, the arduous journeys and the life-altering dreams?  
How did Epiphany bend his path?

And what about those Magi?
The journeyers, and secret-sharers, the extended family of the God, long-distance soul-friends across barriers of every kind, pen pals in a miracle, who brought epiphany onto the scene as much as they received it themselves, and then went home by another road?
How did their trajectory change after encountering the light of the world?

And what of us?  
Epiphany is our holy invitation to the miracle being revealed in our own lives, and shimmering in all the world.
Whatever this year has to bring, God is here.
Whatever the world goes through in the coming days, weeks and months, nothing can disrupt the God-with-us project.
This truth does not belong to us. We belong to it.
So Arise, sisters and brothers, and shine, for your light has come. 
We are Epiphany’s offspring: light-bearers and hope-tellers, descendants of the foreign magi who set out in trust that God will appear.  

Love has invaded the whole earth and summoned all people to its unquenchable light that shines brightest in the ordinary moments of with-us-ness between friends and strangers, in this messy, real, world.  So like the adventurers of old, we will watch together, open and ready, for the appearance of God with us, each and every day.