Monday, January 30, 2017
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Here is that pesky Spirit popping up again. In Luke's version of Jesus' baptism, John - who had just preached a sermon calling people "You brood of Vipers" (there is a way to win friends and influence people)...and then challenged people that the inner transformation of God's beloved-ness called for an outward manifestation in sharing/economy/relationship - that John is locked up in prison. This is such a great reminder that the Gospel and grace doesn't guarantee an easy life. One of my favorite quotes goes, "If you were in court on the charge of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?" That stops me cold every day. But this beloved-ness isn't dependent upon me or my good works. Jesus hasn't done anything yet. Ok, he did stay back in the Temple, talk with the rabbis, amaze the religious scholars with insights, and then get a stern talking to by his mom. But that was at least sixteen years before the moment above. The slow, steady, savory pace of God's salvation story won't fit in our modern-day microwave and race our way through our life. We want results and we want them yesterday.
So, Luke is a little fuzzy on who baptizes Jesus. Did the above happen before John's imprisonment? Did one of John's disciples baptize Jesus? Of course, I am sure Jesus could baptism himself too - which make me shift a bit uncomfortably in terms of job security.
The point isn't who baptized...the point is this voice claiming and naming Jesus as beloved. I recently heard the truism that baptism is the life of Jesus in a snapshot. In this one moment, you have Jesus understanding his life in one way. Maybe he is a carpenter...taking up the tool belt of his dear old dad Joseph. Maybe he saw himself a particular way. Just as you see yourself a particular way today. Jesus wades in the water, goes down to the river to pray...and experiences a kind of death. Under that water-like tomb (insert Good Friday image here) something happens to Jesus' understanding of himself. Drown in that Jordan river is a sense of self that was his old life. As Jesus breaks through the surface of the water there is new life...or resurrection...or the fact that God is not finished with us yet. This is why I love churches where the baptismal font is front and center when you enter into the doors of the church. I need this reminder every week (really, I need it every day). I need to remember that I am constantly being renewed/restored/resurrected to the life God crafted and created for me. I need to remember that I am beloved...not because I can somehow or another by my own willpower outsmart and outlast my brokenness. I am beloved for no really good reason other than that is who God is and how God moves. I am beloved. And that truth can sit within me. Or that truth can stir within me taking over how I see my calendar, wallet, relationships, and whole life. That is the edgy part of baptism.
At baptism I have taken to looking into the eyes of the child and saying, "For you, beloved, Jesus was born, lived, died and was raised to life...and you know nothing of this yet." Yet, I wonder if I am wrong about the last part. Maybe that child knows more about birth, life, death and resurrection than I do. What I am realizing more and more is that you cannot have belovedness without brokenness. You cannot have success without struggle. You cannot have pleasure without moments of pain. The two inform and impact each other. In the verse right after baptism...right after being claimed as beloved...Jesus is lead by that pesky Spirit out into the wilderness. It is an echo of Exodus, the wild place of God, where the Israelites wandered for forty years. For forty days, Jesus is tempted, wrestles with his own blessedness. This by the way is the image for Lent. We need to wrestle with our belovedness...that it is not some special golden ticket...but a call to be love in this world.
I hope today you take time to sense God saying to you, "You are my beloved." And take time to let those words sink in and saturate your soul in such a way that tomorrow you cannot see or live or experience the world in quite the same way.
Grace and peace ~~
Saturday, January 28, 2017
“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”
Jesus goes to the temple to be dedicated, a Jewish rite of celebration. This moment is interrupted and disrupted by a stranger, who sees Jesus and the Spirit (there is that Spirit again moving in the midst of people) helps Simeon sense that the sacred is up to something. Simeon sings out a song of praise and thanksgiving. I sometimes get caught up in equating faith and feeling. Am I in a good mood? Only then I will sing a song of praise. If I am upset or the news leaves me feeling hallow...well God...I'll get back to you.
Sometimes singing praise in a time of oppression is an acknowledgment that beauty is even found here and now. Singing praise is also a moment of protest. For Simeon to sing out that this tiny infant, eight days old, was the bringer of salvation was an a-front to Caesar, who recall claimed he was the only one to bring peace/salvation/wholeness to the world.
It isn't always easy to see salvation in our world today. In fact, part of the Christian tradition tend to make us passive in this process. Just wait until Jesus comes back...then everyone look busy. It isn't always easy to see salvation in our world today when there is so many divisions and anger. It isn't always easy to see salvation in our world today when fear...honest and heartfelt fear...are part of the daily life. Shouldn't salvation mean that the whole world finally finds peace and harmony? Is salvation something sudden or the slow dance of God's movement in our midst here and now?
But I want to point out a juxtaposition of this hymn...Simeon sings it in the temple and names that this tiny baby is for all people...Gentiles and Jews. How often in our churches and religious spaces to we proclaim such an inclusive/extravagant space? Unfortunately, more often than not, we tend to use our sacred spaces to protect our status and provide reassurance that we are right. I am not sure if such a unifying song would be heard today? I am not sure if our religious spaces, noting that 11 am is still one of the most segregated times in America on all sorts of levels, can really be a place where people of all stripes can find our voice to sing together. I pray it can be. And will do what I can to help and will start by joining Simeon in singing out that God's blessing and belovedness is not reserved only to members of the church I serve...but for people crafted in the image of God with whom I disagree.
I pray that I won't be singing a solo.
Grace and peace ~~
Friday, January 13, 2017
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
To guide our feet in the way of peace...what a beautiful prayer. Peace that might find space and place in our hearts, our home, and our world. Peace that could surpass understanding and yet embrace/enfold us and hold us. Peace that we would sense and share. Yet, how do you sing a song of peace when the world seems to either not listen or not care? Zechariah sings this song in the time of Roman occupation and oppression. Rome had what was called, the "Pax Romana" or Roman peace. Caesar said he alone was the one who could bring such peace. Yet, Caesar's peace was forged with force of a sword and the fear of a cross. Roman peace was at the expense of individual liberty and expression. All was okay if you did not step out of line or challenge the Caesar. It helps us hear those parts of Zechariah's hymn about 'serving without fear' and 'forgiveness' and 'tender mercy' in a different way.
So the peace of fragile and fought with fear. Zechariah sings of a peace, shalom, that would be well being not only for humans but also for all creation. God's prayer for peace would encompass all of God's handy work. What we start to hear in all three hymns so far is that desire for a world where the lowly are lifted and those who are fringe are embraced in the middle. But such a song challenges the status quo. Such a song is one thing to sing in a church, but we might think, "The world doesn't work that way." Yet, this song of God that has been woven in from the beginning of creation was, is and will be God's deepest dream.
How do you reconcile the melody of these songs with the hymns of world? How do we listen to these words when the headlines and newscasts sing another song...one of sorrow and lament? Living between the two doesn't mean we have to choose one or the other. There is a messy middle space where we can live. Yes, it is chaotic, but it is in the messiness where the creativity of God has tended to thrive and reside. Yes, it is chaotic, but it is in the messiness where there might be something new being fashioned and formed. How do you keep attune to both the songs of the world and the hymns of Elizabeth, Mary, and Zechariah? How can you join in these anthems with your whole life?
I pray you might sense more than a trace of God's grace and guidance in staying open to God's still sing presence in these days which can be found all around us.
Wednesday, January 11, 2017
And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” Luke 1:46-55
I admit it...I sometimes wish my life was a musical. One, I love musicals. I love the creativity of having to sing all your dialogue...and making it rhyme. I love that you can tell the mood of the moment based on the chords. I love that people spontaneously break out in song. That never really happens in my life. But in Scripture, we just hear Elizabeth just sang a blessing...Mary responds by singing right back. But Mary doesn't just sing any song...she sings that confronts our comfortable world. One where the lowly are lifted up. The lowly like the word, "Mamzer" we heard last time. The lowly like those who struggle. The lowly, those we say should pull up themselves up by their own boot straps...not bothering to notice some of these children of God don't have boot strap! Or even boots at all. God has what is called a preferential option for the poor.
Now sometimes that causes middle class folks like me to get our feathers ruffled. What do you mean God cares more about the homeless than God cares about me? Should God love us all equally? But this isn't just about love. God does indeed refer to all of us a beloved. However, when it comes to issues of care and compassion and cries for justice...when it comes to the truth that we are not dealing with a level playing field and some are forced to dwell in the valley economically or racially or due to gender or sexual orientation or all sort of ways we categorize and classify "others"...than this preference can start to take on a new light. I once heard it explained that the fire department has a concern for all houses...but we want them to have a special concern for those whose house is on fire. God cares especially for those who struggle. Yet, as people of faith, I am not sure we have always understood this or lived it. Because the logical consequence is that if God is concerned...so should I be also. I should be concerned about poverty rates and wages and those who struggle to make ends meet. I should be concerned about costs of living and haves/have nots. I need to see my role in the systems that oppress and deny and even when I benefit from those systems. And all of the sudden, I can't just consume my way through this life.
Faith stakes not only a claim upon my heart for the hour of worship on Sunday...the hymn Mary sings is to resonate and roam around my life every single day of every single week. This hymn is often called the "Magnificant"...as in to "Magnify"...make larger. If want to see God's grace in this world, perhaps I can begin with those who struggle. If I want to not let God's love be a means to an end for my own life, but guide my living, it is going to challenge the ways I look at my calendar, check book and words/thoughts. If I want to get caught up in a Mary-like life that can Magnify God...then I need to let her words take hold of every hour. And that will require more than my will power, but a willingness to let God sing through me for such a time as this. What song is your life trying to sing? How can you be Mary-like and let God's love author a hymn of love for this world and to let God's presence be magnified in you? Those questions might help each of us listen and let our daily living be guided by a sacred song that is still being sung today.
May each of us have more than a trace of God's love and may it be so for you and me.
Monday, January 9, 2017
Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord. Luke 1:42-45
Having launched into Luke, we can turn to four hymns that are beautifully sung in the opening chapters of Luke. Two by women, two by men. Each offers a beautiful expression and testimony of faith. While usually not usually considered in this category, Elizabeth's blessing that is offered to Mary upon the threshold of Elizabeth's home, in my opinion should be. It is a holy moment leading up to these words. Mary has heard that she is to be the God-bearer from Gabriel. While initially Mary questions this, she embraces this calling and accepts the responsibility. Mary would have been the subject of town gossip, leers and sneers and giggles. She may have even been called to her face a "Mamzer"....one who has had an illegitimate child. Like the scarlet letter, this term had power. It would have also cast Jesus as an outcast. I have wondered if perhaps Jesus was most comfortable with outcasts, the lowly or lost, because that was the lunch table at school growing up.
Mary set out. Maybe she flees. Maybe in a moment she realizes what she has agreed to do... the social and religious consequences of being the God-bearer. What was she thinking?!? So, she run to Elizabeth's home. Elizabeth pregnant with the possibility of God in John the Baptizer in her womb. Stop with me right there...two unknown women to those with power and prestige ~ that is how God chooses to enter our world. That should give us pause when we wonder what is God up to. On top of that, consider that while both these mothers know they are bringing about light into darkness; hope into fear...it will take years for that light to shine fully in the lives of others. The world is pregnant with the possibility of promise and hope...but it does not move at the speed of the internet...it is not breaking news in the sense we would recognize. God's still creating and crafting presence works on kairos (sacred) not chronos (human) time.
And when Mary arrived at the doorstep, out of breath...fear still caught in her throat. Wait...what if Elizabeth isn't as accepting and loving as Mary prayed she would be? Wait...what if Elizabeth slams the door in her face or says, "How could you do this?!?" We know all too well the weight of family's disproving and hurtful words. We know all to well that sometimes the bounds that tie/tether us together through DNA can cut us off from life. We all know parts of our family that put "fun" in dysfunction. But before Mary could flee again. Elizabeth flings open the door. Elizabeth flings open her heart. Elizabeth flings open a beautiful hymn of acceptance and affirmation. How many of us would have loved to hear a family member say to us, "Blessed are you!" Yet, that is exactly what God says the moment of our birth/baptism/every morning we open our eyes. Blessed are you...to be a blessing. A good hymn flows through us...and leaves a trace of God's grace. A good hymn stirs our souls and we feel our full worth. Elizabeth might not normally be counted in a scholarly way among the hymns of Luke...that is our mistake for her words are every bit as holy and melodious as what we will consider in the coming posts.
But for now, hear Elizabeth's words as being sung to you..."Blessed are you...for my heart leaps with joy and hope and anticipation at the sound of your voice." That is exactly what God's presence longs for each of us to see about ourselves and others! And if we could do that...there would be more than a trace of God's grace in this world.
Sunday, January 8, 2017
And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home. Luke 1:46-56
After her encounter with the angel Gabriel, Mary leaves for her relative Elizabeth's home; as in the mother of John the baptizer's home. One of the great images in Luke is that of a journey. Mary takes a journey to Elizabeth's house. So, here you are one week into the journey of 2017...how is it going? Have you done some prayerful pondering? Have you sensed God's presence? Are are there some lingering leftover stuff from 2016 that somehow didn't get the memo that it was supposed to go away when you hung up the new calendar on the wall?
Mary sings a song about God's realm...a world that seems upside down from the world we hear and read about every day in the news. In many ways, Mary's hymn echos that of the peaceable kingdom in Isaiah 11:1-10, click here to read this passage. Mary might as well have talked about wolves and sheep playing together...lions and gazelles dancing a waltz for as quickly as the powerful will be thrust/evicted from their thrones. Yet, this vision wasn't exactly realistic in Isaiah or Mary's time either. Isaiah lived when Babylon came in and destroyed the temple. Mary lived in a time when Rome was watching...always watching...you. Mary's words might have sounded fanciful or farce-like when they were first sung as they do our ears today.
So why? Why does Mary offer a dream? Why even talk about what God's realm will look like, sound like, feel like if it is even further away than the planet Pluto? Because if we don't keep singing this song, we will miss the sacred subtle ways things are happening even here and now. And they do happen. Almost every news cast, after filling 20 some minutes with bad news, always ends with a feel good human interest story. A police offers helps an African American boy pump up his bike tire. A celebrity pays the doctor's bills for a sick child. A local food bank gets five tons of food just in the nick of time. Those subtle, not often told moments, are happening, even in our own lives.
Where this last week did you get a glimpse (or as I would call it a 'trace') of God's grace? Where did that fan the flame of hope, offer a peace, immerse you in love, and fill you with joy? Just like on the news, those moments might seem too few and far between. We don't focus on the joy/goodness in our lives more than the news does. To be sure, I am not suggesting we ignore the pain or suffering or struggle. Mary didn't. Yet, we don't let that be the only voice we prayerfully ponder. We need to hold onto both the brokenness and beauty. We need to both face the fear and stay open to the traces of grace here and now. It is in the messy middle of those two that we might, like Mary, find our voice to sing out about the world pregnant with possibility...just as Mary and Elizabeth were when this hymn was first sung.
May Mary's prayerful plea for God's realm move in your heart and be found in moments of your life this week.
Grace and peace ~~
Thursday, January 5, 2017
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. Luke 1:26-38
So far we have seen Luke's orderly account about being a God-lover starts with staying open to God's presence in our midst. And next, Luke says that God will not be contained or confined to a temple. God shows up in our everyday lives. We have no idea what Mary was don't before the Angel Gabriel came and interrupted/disrupted the trajectory of her life. Maybe she was working or wandering around or wondering what it was going to be like to be married to Joseph. God enters into that ordinary moment. For far too long we have compartmentalized and categorized our lives. We go to church on Sunday for one hour, check...then we go about the rest of our normal lives. To be sure, one hour out of 168 for the week isn't a lot. You spend more time in traffic than in a pew...although it might not always feel that way. Yet, worship is a moment of practice of staying awake and alert to God. Through music, prayers, silence, scripture, words, and rituals, we try to model pathways you might continue to explore in the week to come. How might music on Monday or silence on Tuesday or reading Scripture on Wednesday let the rhythm of worship guide your week? The prayer practices woven together in the tapestry of worship are a song we keep singing all week long. To be sure that is not how we usually look/understand/engage worship. But, perhaps it could be. It certainly compels me as someone who tries to write liturgy (meaning "The Work of the People").
I don't think God interrupted and disrupted Mary's life because she had somehow "earned" or "deserved" the invitation to be the God-bearer in the world. I remember once a professor asking, "Did the angel Gabriel appear to other women before Mary who just did not listen or notice or even say, 'No thanks.'" I know I miss God's still creating presence in my life. In the blur of busyness that is the expectation of modern day life, God's can be sacredly subtle sometimes. Have I ever missed the angel trying to get my attention because I was trying to race to a meeting while eating lunch in my car and musing about an upcoming sermon? That question causes me to slow down...try to find a savory pace for life.
Or in a word..."ponder". By the way, this is the exact same word Luke will use at Jesus' birth when Mary hears the tale of the shepherds. Can we be more Mary-like and ponder? Ponder isn't just some intellectual exercise. It is to stand before the mystery of God and be. To enter into the mystery, not so that we understand it, but let it sink into our souls and stir our hearts. To ponder is to be open, accessible and even vulnerable. Not exactly words we often use today. But they are exactly the words that are opposite of being afraid. Remember two posts ago when I wrote about the words, "Do not be afraid," words found in both this story and in the previous one about Zechariah? Fear is about being closed-off. Pondering is an openness and willingness to let God roam around our lives. Which of those truths...fear or ponder...get the last word in determining what you do and say? Which of those truths...fear or ponder...feel like good news so that we might be Theophilus, God-lovers, for such a time as this?
I know for me...those are questions I truly want to ponder.
Grace and peace ~~
Tuesday, January 3, 2017
From the first post, we know that Luke after careful investigation wants to add his voice to the mix of Good News...gospel tellers...out there int he world. We know that there is some sense of being a God-lover (Theophilus). This might refer to a particular person who maybe funded the writing or a general name for all who this good news take root, grounds their lives.
Luke then moves on to telling us not about Jesus...but a priest named Zechariah. Huh? This is an orderly account? I thought the Gospels were all about Jesus...why this focus on a priest. Seriously, nothing interesting happens to clergy! Only in Luke it does. An angel named Gabriel appears to Zechariah when he was serving in the Temple. Zechariah had been selected to go into the holy of holies to offer a sacrifice to God. This would have been a once in a life time experience for most priests. It was his Superbowl/Grammy nomination/best day ever moment. There are stories that they tied a rope around the priest's ankle when he went in least he was struck dead...there is a cheery thought for you today. And Zechariah does encounter God...just as Abraham did under a starry sky; Moses did before a burning bush; just as Isaiah did when he was in the temple. This holy moment the angel tells Zechariah to get the baby room ready...he is about to be a father. Like Abraham and Sarah, Zechariah was "advanced in age", what a kind way of saying he had his AARP card. Zechariah isn't sure about this. And for his moment of uncertainty, the angel struck him mute (worst punishment for a pastor...ever!).
This story, found only in Luke, is one of the reasons why I love this Gospel so much. Zechariah and Elizabeth will eventually give birth to John the Baptizer (sorry...spoiler alert). But introducing us to John's parents is an echo of Abraham and Sarah and also gives us a sense of Jesus' family tree. Plus this is just a great story. There are moments I've encountered God that have left my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth, unable to speak. There are moments something happens, goosebumps race down my arms, and I sense God's presence. These are Zechariah moments. And they are difficult to explain to any one else...so we tend, like Zechariah, to remain mute about them.
Even as 2017 is young, has there been a Zechariah-like moment for you? A moment - perhaps fleeting and fading, but nevertheless real - that causes you to stand transfixed and in a trance before the sacred? How might you stay open to moments like that? After all...even though Zechariah went into the holy of holies, I don't think he expected this!! In the coming days, weeks, and months, if God is still creating, can we stay open to that holy truth? Zechariah is a sign post of the invitation to stay awake/alert to God here and now in the journey of life.
Grace and peace ~~