Unexpected roads: The transformational wisdom of the magi

The manuscript from my sermon on The Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 2019.  The link to the lectionary is here.

Have you ever gone to meet someone or to do something and have it turn out differently than you thought it would?  Maybe you’ve heard stories about someone and carry those stories with you into a meeting. You go into the meeting prepared to react in particular ways, to have feelings like those of whoever has told you the stories.  And then something odd happens.  You meet this person and it is as if he or she must be someone else.  Your experience is so different than you were told to expect, that you find yourself wondering if it is the same person.

Maybe you’ve agreed to do a favor for a friend or co-worker.  At first it seems like it makes sense but then…after you’ve actually started in on whatever it is, something changes and you think, “Ahh…not so much.”   So you change things up.  You listen to whatever is telling you something is not right. You go in a different direction.

The wise men in today’s Gospel are kind of like that.  We call them “wise men” but their real title would be “magi.”  Magi were people from Persia or Babylonia.  They were not Jewish.  They were not kings.  They likely were astrologers who believed that the stars always shine a bit differently whenever a king is born or crowned.  Back in those days it was customary for people to travel great distances to show their respects by bringing gifts to new kings, so the magi set out from their homes to do just that.

Along the way they run into King Herod, who asks them to come back and tell him where to find the newborn king.  It seems they agree to do that, and why wouldn’t they?  Herod says he wants to be able to visit the baby and show his respects.  That probably would have made complete sense to the magi.  After all, it’s what people do.

But …something happens.  The magi follow the star and find the place where the baby Jesus lay.  Before even seeing Jesus,  “they were overwhelmed with joy” (Matthew 2:10).  Just being in the place where the infant lay, they were overwhelmed with joy.  Wow!  And then they meet Jesus and it can’t have been what they expected.  A newborn king born into poverty?  Lying in a feeding trough?  No trappings of wealth or privilege?   Suddenly this isn’t just a polite visit to make nice with a new king.  This isn’t what they expected. This is different.  Sure, they go on and pay their respects as planned, they give Jesus the gifts they brought.  But they don’t go back to Herod as agreed. They have a dream and decide to heed its warning. They return home by another road.

One of the most amazing things about this story – something we don’t think about that often – is that the magi didn’t know what we know today.  They didn’t have 2000+ years of history to help them understand who Jesus is.  They weren’t Jewish so they didn’t even have the Hebrew Scriptures with the prophets’ foretelling of the birth of the Messiah.  We’ve all heard the stories of Jesus’ life, with all the miracles and the parables and the absolute commitment to love and justice.  We have Easter and the Resurrection.  We are part of a Church that is founded, that gets its very name, from the reality of those things.

The magi didn’t have those things.  Those things hadn’t even happened yet.  The magi had themselves and their experience in the world.  They were intelligent men, learned men, some of the scientists of their day. They were courageous and curious, traveling great distances to learn more about the stars.  And they were willing to change their plans when it made sense.

They had something else we have today – what all people for all time have had and will always have – God fully present and at work in their lives.  What the magi responded to that day in their encounter with the baby Jesus is the God who is present to all of us even when we do not know it.  Even when we do not understand it.  Even when we don’t know we are seeking God.  In following that star to the place where the baby Jesus lay, they got the answer to a question they probably did not know they were asking.  That was the overwhelming joy.

They felt God’s presence up close and personal and it changed their lives.  God had come into the world in a new and different way and they were curious enough and courageous enough to let go of their plans and their expectations.  Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ we, too, get to experience God in new and different ways, all of the time. We are able, as were the magi, to live with a curiosity and a willingness to be changed by the new, by the unexpected, by any of the myriad ways God will show God’s grace and love to us.  That isn’t always so easy, though, is it?

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one here who has had the experience of God’s presence in a new or different way and known it at the time.  I’m probably not the only one who has said, “Thank you, God, for being with me in this way at this time,” and then gone right back to doing whatever it was I was doing.  Living with the kind of curiosity and openness to God that leads to changed hearts and minds, can be a challenge.  It often is easier to rely on the planned, the familiar, the status quo, to accept the change that comes in surprising, unexpected, even overwhelmingly joyful ways.  And, yet, that is what the magi teach us.  They teach us to be open to the ever present invitation from God to journey deeper into the heart of God and to let that set the course of our lives.

As we journey through the season after the Epiphany and beyond, may each of us be curious enough and courageous enough to feel the overwhelming joy that is ours through Jesus Christ.  May we be open to changes of mind and heart as we follow where the Living Spirit guides us, trusting in the presence of God at all times, in all places. May each of us welcome God’s presence with joy and express our gratitude to God in ways that make a difference in the world. Amen.

Rainbows and incarnation

This is my homily for the spoken Eucharist on December 30, 2018, a day on which our principal service was Lessons & Carols.  The lectionary can be found here.

A little more than a year ago, I had one of the most amazing experiences of my whole life.  It was a dreary day and I was feeling kind of blah.  Okay, I was feeling more than “blah.”  I was cranky.  The dreary day followed a couple of intense weeks, with several deaths and other sad or frustrating experiences in my hospice chaplaincy.  I was tired and grieving and hungry and anxious to get home to my warm and comfortable home on a wet and dreary day.  It wasn’t happening soon enough and I was cranky.  Very cranky.

Finally, after what felt like an eternity, I was on my way home.  To get from my office to my home, I headed due north on Rt. 95 and made a right turn onto Rt. 195 East. I turned onto 195 and had not driven more than 100 yards when I saw the most spectacular rainbow I’ve ever seen.   A double rainbow with colors so vivid they didn’t seem real.  It was huge!  It was so huge that it seemed to touch the ground.  You couldn’t see the arch at the bottom of the lower rainbow.  And I love rainbows.   They remind me of God’s promise to Noah after the flood.  Seeing this rainbow lifted my spirits immediately.

And then it got better than that, if you can believe it!  I drove a bit further and found myself noticing that everything looked soft, kind of fuzzy, and oh-so-colorful.  I realized I was driving in the rainbow! The colors were beautiful: vivid and vibrant, shimmering.  They were spectacular and I saw them with an astounding clarity.  As clear and as vibrant as they were, there was nothing harsh or stark about them.  I wish I could describe what I felt in those moments.  What I can say is that I had an awareness of God, of God’s presence, that is beyond the typical.  And although only a few minutes before I had been dying to get home, I found myself wondering if it would be possible to simply stop, to stay where I was, to bask in the prismatic light and continue to soak up this awesome experience of God’s grace.

I remember thinking of the passage from John that is today’s Gospel, which, though not necessarily the easiest to understand, is one of my favorites. I love the poetry and the mystery. On that day on the highway I thought about light and grace.  It thought about the kind of light and grace that brings life, that which can overcome darkness, all sorts of darkness, including the darkness of my crankiness. And now, reading this Gospel I think about what it was like to be bathed in light, to want to sit and be silent while basking in it.  I can honestly say this was truly a transformative experience, beyond what it did to lift my spirits.

Now, I know not everyone will be lucky enough to be able to spend time inside a rainbow.  Yet, we all will have some kind of experience that speaks to us in the way we need in order to be open to experiencing God’s grace and light in the ways we need to be reminded of what’s most important, to be reminded who and whose we are.

Today’s Gospel reminds us who and whose we are because it is all about who God is, who Jesus is, and what that means for us, for the world.  We are reminded that, no matter our attempts to define God, to understand God, to do what sometimes feels to me like putting God in a box, God can never be fully understood.  Nor is there anything God would not do to help us journey deeper in God’s heart, to invite, encourage, and support us to be part of the realization of God’s dream for God’s world.

The incarnation, the inbreaking of God into the world in the infant Jesus, is one of the many ways other than rainbows that God reminds us of the promises that are ours simply because God is who God is, regardless of whether we can navigate 40 days and nights of flooding with an ark full of animals or if we get unusually cranky at some time or another in our lives.  It still amazes me, after all of my years of living and the years of intentional study and commitment to my faith, that God could love so fully and completely and unconditionally that entering the world in human form, to live and grow and die as one of us would even begin to make sense.  Can you imagine knowing what God knows about humankind and the mess we so easily make of so much and then deciding of your own free will to make the choice to become as vulnerable as one can possibly be to show the people who do ultimately kill you how much you love them?  Wow!  Just wow.

The incarnation is one of life’s most awe-inspiring mysteries.  It is the most wonderful of paradoxes: nothing we can begin to be fully understand and yet something we can personally and intimately experience, even today, over 2000 years later.  My prayer for you, for all of us and the world, is that we remain open to experiencing grace and light whenever, wherever, and however we have the chance. I pray, too, that when we have those experiences we remember them in the darkness that will undoubtedly be a part of our lives, and remember that the promise for us is light and life.

 

Surprisingly important…

This is my sermon from December 9th, the Second Sunday of Advent, more or less… The link to the lectionary is here.  We use Track 1.

Today’s Gospel is one that is pretty well known.  For many people, John the Baptist, traveling the countryside, proclaiming the coming of Jesus, evokes images of camel hair cloaks and meals of locusts and honey.  I’ll admit that when I read, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” in my mind’s ear I am singing, “Pre-e-e-pare ye, the way of the Lord.  Pre-e-e-pare ye, the way of the Lord” from “Godspell.”  It’s an important message, sometimes told in catchy and memorable ways.

You might end up wondering, then, why I am not going to preach this message, at least not at the start of this sermon.  Instead, I am going to focus on two verses that tend not to get much attention, verses that I admit I know are there but haven’t given much thought since I passed my New Testament and Church History classes in seminary.

Bishop Doug Fisher, who was my bishop in Western Massachusetts, spoke about these verses at diocesan convention in October.  I dare say he caused a couple hundred clergy and lay delegates to scratch their heads when he challenged us to name the “two most important verses in the Bible” and then quoted the first two verses of today’s Gospel:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. (Luke 3:1-2)

Yep.  Lots of mystified delegates.

Bp. Fisher is a wise man, so of course the confusion was cleared up when he explained his thinking.  He reminded us that these two verses are the verses in the Gospel which firmly and unequivocally ground Jesus in a particular time and place.  These verses give Jesus political, social, economic, religious, and historical context.  It occurred to me that, just as for readers of a certain age who hear the name Franklin D. Roosevelt and think “New Deal” or hear the name John F. Kennedy and think “Cuban Missile Crisis,” Luke’s community and the earlier followers of Jesus would have heard Tiberius, Pilate, Herod, etc. and had an understanding of what it meant to be living in Jesus’ time.  They would have heard and understood Luke’s Gospel though the lens or filter of that particular context.

And this is point at which I start to share my thoughts about Bp. Fisher’s contention.

This is different than the times we are given Jesus’ genealogy, as in the first chapter of Matthew, which seems to go on and on and on…detailing Jesus’ ancestry.  Don’t get me wrong, this is important, too, although quite frankly it can be hard to follow and has been known to provoke a bit of boredom.  While this helps us to understand Jesus in the context of generation upon generation of family, what it doesn’t do is tell us anything about the times in which Jesus lived his life on earth.  And that to me is the crux of it, why I agree with Bp. Fisher that these two verses are so incredibly important.  In some significant ways, understanding that context helps us to answer the question, “Why Advent?”  And, I dare say, it goes beyond understanding Advent better.   It helps us to understand in deeper, more profound and life-changing ways why it is we even celebrate Christmas.

So why is the social, political, economic, religious, and historical context important to understanding Advent and Christmas?  Because they tell us that Jesus didn’t enter a world that was not in need of God.  The in-breaking of God into the world in the person of the baby Jesus happened at a time that was far less than perfect, a time that was not all that different than our own in terms of violence, conflict, misuse of power, economic and social injustice, gender inequality, and…The list goes on and one.

Jesus was born into the world at a time and in a place that so closely resembles our own that one wonders if humans have made any progress at all.  This adds layers of meaning to the “God so loved the world that he sent his only Son” message that is such a huge part of Christian understanding.  Perhaps it should be written, “God so loved the crazy, out-of-control, mixed up, messed up world and the broken and deeply flawed humans who inhabit it that he sent his only Son…”

That is the Good News, isn’t it?  That God so loved the world as the world was, not as God dreamed it to be, that Jesus was born.  The unconditional, undefinable, beyond-human-comprehension love of God compelled God to take our human form to live as one of us, to live among us, to show us what it means to be loved by God and to love as God would have us love.  No easy task then.  No easy task now.

But God did it.  Jesus lived and died as one of us.  Jesus lived with us, loved us, and was killed by us.  And still Jesus lives, as our Christian faith tells us.  The Holy Spirit continues to work in and through us, inviting us and guiding us and, if I’m any example, occasionally cajoling us to accept the invitation to journey deeper and deeper into the heart of God.

Which brings me more directly to today’s Gospel.

John the Baptist got it!  He understood and was not shy about proclaiming the ways in which we humans need to shift our focus away from the distractions and influences of our human lives, to focus on Jesus, to accept the amazing grace that is God’s love.   In a way few others do, John the Baptist gets right to heart of it.  “Repent and prepare to meet Jesus!”  You can’t get much clearer than that for an Advent message.

“Repent” means to turn away, to feel regret or remorse, a kind of letting.  For us, as for those in John the Baptist’s and Luke’s times, the admonition would be to let go of all the distractions and influences of our time and our place that keep us stuck in our brokenness, to focus on Jesus and living our lives as Jesus would have us do.  Think about what happens when you turn away from something – you turn toward something else.  Along that path there may be lots of other something elses, some we may notice, some we may not.  But the Holy Spirit notices.

I know that when I am intentional about turning away from the distractions of my life to focus on God, to letting go of my human flaws and frailties, to which I am often oddly and sadly attached, I find myself smiling. It occurs to me over and over again that, in the turning away from those things that are not of God, that are not life-affirming or life-giving, I get chance after chance after chance to seek to see God, to see Jesus in all sorts of people and places.  The wild and wonderful Holy Spirit will jump at the chance to use whatever opportunity I give her to show me how to accept the invitation to move deeper into the heart of God, the invitation to transformation.  And I’m pretty sure she’d jump at your opportunities, too.

Last week I gave you a little challenge: to spend some time each day in prayer and reflection to help you prepare to meet the incarnate God as if for the first time.  Today I want to add a bit to that challenge: in the time you spend each day, carve a bit of that to focus on those things about which you want or need God’s forgiveness, those things you need God’s help to let go of so that you can turn away from them and toward God. Accept God’s forgiveness. Pay attention to the opportunities you can create so that the Holy Spirit can jump in and do her thing.  Remember, God does not need us to create huge spaces in order to fill them with immense grace.  Amen.

 

 

And the journey continues…

This is a link to an article written shortly after I arrived at Grace Church, Oxford MA .  There are a couple of minor errors, e.g. I was six not “barely 12” when I first felt called to the priesthood (in a Roman Catholic Church, no less!), but overall Amanda Roberge did a great job telling this story.  I’m adding it to this site mostly so that I don’t lose track of it as I settle into a new call, another step on this wildly and weirdly wonderful journey.

I post this from my office at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Millburn, NJ.  My husband and I, along with our kids (in the ways young adult kids move when they are connected to college and graduate school and the Peace Corp) moved to Millburn three weeks ago and I began working at St. Stephen’s two weeks.  There is so much to say, though, because there is still so much to do to get settled in the rectory and in my ministry with these beautifully faithful and generous people, what I will say is that my heart is once again filled to overflowing with gratitude for the life I am so fortunate to be able to live.  God is indeed good, or, as my seminary colleague Cathy C. and I like to say, “Life is good. God is gooder.”

 

Imagining the people of God

This is more or less the sermon I preached on November 25th (I preach from the aisle without notes), my first Sunday with the faithful people of St. Stephen’s, Millburn NJ. The lectionary can be found here.  We use Track 1.

Before I get to the actual preaching, let me take a minute or two to tell you how happy my family and I are to finally be here with all of you.  My husband, Ron, and two of our three children, Sean and Kathleen, are here this morning. Sean lives in Princeton and Kathleen is a first-year at Smith College, so they will be around more than our middle child, Kevin. Kevin has recently completed two years of Peace Corps service in Peru and is traveling a bit in South America.  He’ll be back in the States in December and will spend some time here with us before settling in New Mexico.  I hope you take time to introduce yourself to them, as well as to me.  I also hope you are patient with us as we try to learn all your names.  Please don’t take it personally if we ask you to remind us of your name a time or two.

We will have lots of time to get to know each other so, for now, I will touch on just a few of the details of who I am.  I am a graduate of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  My discernment to the priesthood is a long story, quite literally, as I first felt called before women were ordained.  Before beginning formal discernment and through most of seminary, I worked as a social worker, doing both direct clinical work and management and administration. Prior to coming to St. Stephen’s, I served parishes in the Dioceses of Massachusetts and Western Massachusetts.  During those years I was bi-vocational, serving part-time in the parishes and part-time as a chaplain in hospice and a women and infants hospital.  I loved both aspects of my ministry, though over time I learned that I loved parish ministry in a more complete way and wanted to devote myself to it full-time.  With Kathleen, our youngest, in college, the time was finally right to make that change, and now we are in ministry together.

Although it’s only been a few months since I first met Maryalice, Roger, and the other members of the Vestry/Search Committee, it has seemed much longer than that because I have known since early in our conversations, that this is the place God is calling me to be.  I cannot tell you how much I am looking forward to getting to know you and to being in ministry together.  I know that together we will learn much about how God’s Holy Spirit is at work in and through each of us and all of us together.

Although we can’t know for sure exactly where she will lead us, our faith assures us that the Holy Spirit will help us to move deeper into the heart of God and inspire us to do the work God has given us to do.  Together we will discern what that work is and how we will get it done.  Although there is no way to know exactly what it will look like, it’s a safe assumption that we will worship and pray together, will learn and grow together, will do good work in God’s world together, will laugh and cry together, and, if we are doing it right, will even fail and forgive together.

Today we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King, which seems like a great day to begin our shared ministry because it reminds us of why we are together as a Christian community.  Today is the day we state what should be obvious to us all the time: that Jesus the Christ is the essential reason for our gathering together.  If we believe the truth that we are beloved of God and that Jesus is the Messiah, then we listen to Jesus’ voice.  And, if we listen to Jesus’ voice and believe it to be the voice of truth, then we can’t help but be motivated to live our lives differently than if we did not know or believe that truth.  This, my friends, will ground us in our shared faith as we begin the work of discerning how the Holy Spirit, who is “wild and free” (Bp. Douglas Fisher), is working in and through us here at St. Stephen’s.

Next week is the first Sunday in Advent, which means we will journey together from the beginning, if you will.  Knowing what we know and celebrate today, that the infant Jesus was the Living God’s inbreaking into the world, we will prepare to meet the incarnate God and then walk with him through his public ministry and to the cross, before celebrating anew the miracle and promise of the Resurrection.  As we do that, I want us to remember that all of it – from the birth of the baby right through to the empty tomb– is about one thing, and one thing only: that God created the world and all of us out of perfect love, love that is unimaginable, unconditional, indescribable, and never-ending.  It is grace, freely given and undeserved. It cannot be earned. It cannot be lost. It is the love that sustains and nourishes us.  It is the love that comforts and consoles us.  It is the love that strengthens us to live our lives and to partner in mission and ministry.

As we enter into our shared ministry, our task is to grow in that love, to move deeper into the heart of God.  The theologian Henri Nouwen talked about belovedness as both a state of being and becoming. We are beloved, that is a given, and we get to choose to live our lives acknowledging that truth for ourselves and with others.  If we can do that most of the time, with faithfulness and trust in God, with honesty and compassion, with patience and good humor, with creativity and imagination, loving our neighbors as ourselves, we will become the church God is calling us to be.

In a little while the choir will sing a Communion anthem and, if Kim and I had planned the music to coincide with the preaching, we could not have done any better.  The lyrics to that song capture well our call to live our belovedness as a state of being and becoming:

Imagine, imagine the people of God,
Imagine the people of God.
Believing, receiving,
becoming God’s love.
Imagine the people of God.

Seeking the way of Jesus Christ,
Trusting the courage to change.
Being God’s love with our neighbors and friends,
Imagine the people of God.

Trusting in God’s abundant grace,
Speaking the truth in love,
Nourished by the Spirit’s power,
We are your people, O God.

St. Stephen’s, you are the people of God, loved beyond your wildest imaginations. Believe that. Receive God’s love and endless grace as you become more and more who God created you to be. Live as Jesus would have you live. Trust that you have the courage to change, to be transformed. Be a beacon of God’s love to all you meet and all those you serve. Trust grace. Speak truth in love. And let’s imagine together where the power of the Holy Spirit will lead us. Amen.

Gentle Jesus? Radical Jesus!

This is more or less (I preach from the aisle without notes) the sermon I preached yesterday.  The lectionary we used is Jeremiah 11:18-20,  Psalm 54, James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a, and Mark 9:30-37.  The link is here.

Today’s Gospel gives us one of the most beloved images of Jesus.  At the end of the passage, Jesus has the apostles gathered around him.  He reaches out to a child, gathering the child into his arms, onto his lap.  This is the image of the loving, gentle Jesus so many of us call to mind when we think about him.  It’s the child-focused equivalent of that other gentle favorite, the good shepherd.

And while it is true that Jesus is loving, Jesus is gentle, when this is the image of Jesus on which we choose to focus, we completely ignore the fact that this passage is about something very different.  This passage is about the radical Jesus, the Jesus who defies the societal norms and challenges our very human expectations and standards.  This is Jesus giving us yet one more example of how it is we are to live our lives with him

I invite you to think about what you know about children…Think about the complete dependency of babies and very young children.  They need a responsible someone to take care of them and their most basic needs for food, shelter, nurturance, just so that they can live and grow.  Children are, by virtue of not being adults, weaker, more vulnerable, and in need of care.  Their very survival depends upon their having someone to depend upon, and they let us know in their own ways what they need (think crying, whining, demanding to be fed, wrapping their little bodies around legs, and such).

Children show us what it is like to be weak, to be vulnerable, to need and to accept care.  They show us what it is to trust that our very survival depends not on ourselves but on someone not us.  And they show us that it is okay to ask for what we think we need or what we know we need.  We may not always get it, but it is okay to ask.  How many of us are as comfortable as children in our prayer lives?

As they grow older and start to talk and to show their personalities in more socially outgoing ways, they begin to ask the question I think I came to dread with my children: “Why?”  Although to tired and overworked parents (and other responsible adults) there never seems a time when the question is not asked, even when it has been answered before, it is a good question.  It epitomizes their curiosity with and wonder about the world around them.  It is not asked to be contrary, but rather as a way of saying, “Hmm…I see that this thing is this way and I want to know more about it.”  Children are so beautifully accepting of life and diversity in life, while also wanting to understand all they can about it.

Children show us what it is like to accept what is, while also asking questions to satisfy their seemingly insatiable curiosity.  Can you imagine how transformed life would be if we all approached God with childlike awe and wonder?

And then children do what children do: they use that learning and experience in ways intentional and not to continue to grow, to refine their questions or to discover new ones. They do this in so many ways, including changing their minds and deciding that what they knew yesterday or what they had to have yesterday is now not true at all. (I’m thinking of the umpteen times I heard from one of my children, “I don’t like to eat…” when the day before they were sure they would die if they didn’t have whatever it was that is now unwelcome on the plate.)  Can you imagine how different life would be, how different we would be, if we were as open as children to the possibility that what we think we know about God deserves a bit more reflection, a bit more study, or a bit more prayer? Or perhaps it deserves to be set aside to make space for new insight, new learning.

In summary, children bring their full selves to their lives, and they do it over and over again, day after day, week after week, and on it goes.  That’s not a bad way to approach relationship with God.

I’ve been talking about our relationship with God on the individual or one-t0-one level.  It’s just as important to talk about our relationships with each other.  This is Jesus after all, and Jesus is never only about individual relationship.  Jesus calls us into a specific kind of discipleship, the kind that is willing to defy the status quo, to loosen our hold on some of the things our flawed humanity tells us are important. It’s the love-your-neighbor-as-I’ve-loved-you kind of discipleship, which really is the only kind.

Imagine being one of the twelve.  You’ve been hanging out with Jesus, witnessing his ministry in the community.  You’ve been with him when he touched people considered outcasts, healing them of all sorts of ailments.  You’ve heard him speak out against the government and the structures that support the status quo, including challenging some of the religious practices that are deemed necessary to right relationship with God.  All of this is pretty indicative of a leader unlike any you’ve ever met before, the kind of guy who takes risks and does things differently, defiantly sometimes, but always with active love  for the other.  You’ve signed on to this plan. And then Jesus tells you that he is going to be tried, convicted, and executed, all before rising from the dead on the third day.

And your response?  You step back and talk amongst yourselves about who is the best, who is the greatest?  You clearly know this is the wrong response because when Jesus asks about it, your initial reaction is silence.  You’ve seen what you’ve seen and heard what you’ve heard, and still your response is to compete, to jockey for the “prime” position? Really?

But Jesus doesn’t miss a beat.  Instead he overlooks your immaturity – not childlike awe and wonder or  demanding curiosity, but self-centered immaturity – and gives you a completely radical way of understanding what it means to welcome him.

Jesus tells you that to welcome him, which is in fact welcoming God, you must welcome those considered the least among you. (Remember that children in Jesus’ time were not cherished in the same way we cherish children today.  They were born and raised with an eye to how they would contribute to the well-being and sustenance of the family and community, if they lived into adulthood.)  You must welcome the weak, the vulnerable, the dependent.  You must cast aside your ideas of who is important, who is worthy of your time and attention, to take up the cause of people with no apparent value to you and your life.  You are to offer hospitality, to care for those who have nothing to offer you in return.  It is the doing of that, not your wealth or your status or some other measure of “greatness,” that will please God.

This, my friends, is radical Jesus at his radical best.  Jesus is calling us into the kind of discipleship that changes how we live our lives.  In reminding us that he came to show us how to live life in vastly different ways than we think are important, Jesus calls us to life-affirming, transformative relationship with him.  We are to approach this journey deeper into the heart of God with awe and wonder, with curiosity and hope, aware of our weakness and our vulnerability, trusting that God will give us all that we need to thrive.  And then we are to go out into the world to do the work that God has given us to do, to love others, to serve others, to do as Jesus would have us do, with kindness and gentleness of heart.

 

 

Starting Fresh

This is the sermon I preached today, though perhaps I should say, “This is more or less the sermon I preached today,” because I preach from the aisle without a manuscript or notes.  You can find the lectionary here.  We are using Track 2.

In the Episcopal Church, it is almost unheard of for an ordained person, whether that person be deacon or priest, to serve in his or her sponsoring parish.  The sponsoring parish is the parish that discerned ordained vocation with the clergy person, raising them up for ordination, so to speak.  Though the person may go back once or twice after ordination, or even occasionally to do supply, serving as the assigned deacon or the rector or priest-in-charge is, essentially, a “no go.”  And there is good reason for that.

For example, my sponsoring parish, where my husband and kids are still members, is now beginning a search.  Their rector of nine years left just last week.  As word of her move made its way around and at her going away party, several people asked me if I could “come back.”  My answer to them was a flattered and loving, “No!”  Begging the question that I serve here with you, there are larger issues to consider, the primary one being that, although I have from time to time done Saturday supply for them (obviously before I began serving here), and we have all enjoyed that time together, as a more permanent option, it would not work out for them or for me.  We know each other differently than as priest and people, and there is no leaving that behind.

It’s the parochial equivalent of the teen-age breakup in which the kids promise to remain best friends.  It almost never works because there is no going back, no forgetting or truly moving beyond the relationship you had before.  In my case, there are still many people who remember me as the young mother whose husband was away in the Navy, trying to manage a job and getting to church with two little boys, and then having a third child.  I’m remembered as someone who always listened to, and sometimes gratefully took, the advice of my elders in the community. I’m the choir member, stewardship chair, vestry member, search committee chair, food pantry volunteer, reluctant holiday fair chairperson, friend, and… What I am not is their priest.

Jesus has a bit of a similar experience in today’s Gospel.  In what is the third of three consecutive weeks of stories about how those around him view Jesus’ authority, we hear Jesus say, ““Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”  Jesus says this after the people who likely have known him longest, and may know him best, essentially say, “This kid is getting too big for his britches.  Does he forget that we know he is Mary and Joseph’s son?  Look!  We know the whole family.  Where does he get off thinking he’s got that kind of authority over us?”

At this time in his ministry, Jesus has been out and about in the community for a while, gathering people to him, preaching his message, and modeling how to live as God intends. I’m pretty sure word of the miracles Jesus did, perhaps including the calming of the sea and the stilling of the winds (the story we heard two weeks ago) and the healing of the woman with the hemorrhages and the raising of Jairus’ daughter (from last week’s Gospel) would have made it to his hometown.  And, while people seem to accept that he can do those things, we are told “he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.”  People can accept the healing of specific illnesses but they cannot accept his authority to bring a new way of being, a way in which all people are reconciled to each other and to God.  Because they know him and have known him as they do, they cannot wrap their heads or their hearts around the idea that he is the Messiah, the incarnate God.

This is true about our relationships with God, too.  I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to, mostly in my work as a chaplain, who are sure that they cannot be loved or accept God’s love because of some way they’ve felt about God or something they have done in their life.  Maybe they’re angry with God because they have cancer or a child has died or anyone of the myriad ways our human-ness means life does not seem fair or kind. Even though they truly want to move beyond the anger or the fear or the lack of faithful behavior, they cannot quite get past it.

The good news for us in today’s Gospel is that Jesus tells us he understands this and he gives us some insight into how it is that he is different than us, that God does not hold onto or get caught up in anything that has gone before the very moment we are in.  Jesus tells the disciples to go out into the countryside to do what they do, to be who they are, without trying to plan for the usual way of being greeted, bringing only what they need to do the work they are given to do, to be who they are.  They are not to try to plan for every eventuality or to meet their own needs.  No food.  No money.  Only one tunic.  Wear your sandals, which, among other things, would make shaking the dirt off your feet much easier.  And, while we often hear “testimony against them” as punitive, I’m not so sure we can assume that.  It may be an indication of the reality that we are not always ready or able to meet God where we are. God gives us opportunity after opportunity to invite God into our hearts and lives, though God also gives us the free will to decide to forego the invitation.

The Scriptures tell us in at least a few ways that every day with God, every moment with God, is a new one.  God knows us fully and completely, God knit us in the womb, God knows us better than we know ourselves.  It’s frightening, I know, and yet God invites us to move deeper into God’s heart without any desire to hold onto the ways we’ve been unfaithful, the things we’ve done wrong, or, I suppose, even the things we’ve done well or faithfully.  What God wants is for us to want to be in relationship with God, and for us to leave behind any of the baggage we carry so that the journey brings us closer to the realization of God’s dream.  God wants us to recognize Jesus’ authority, Jesus’ love, Jesus’ mercy, compassion, and hope.  God wants us to recognize the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through us to bring about peace and the reconciliation of all people to each other and to God.  God wants to be invited in, to be welcomed in our hearts and lives.