Category Archives: Sermons

Blessed are Those who F.R.O.G. (Fully Rely on God)

A Sermon for 17 February 2019

A reading from the gospel of Luke 6:17-26.  And remember that right before the reading we hear today, the gospel of Luke records that Jesus choses 12 to be apostles – ones sent out in the world to carry on his mission.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“Jesus came down with them (the twelve) and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.  18 They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured.  19 And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.  20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said:  ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.  21“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.  Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.  22 Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.  23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.  24 But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.  25 Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.  Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.  26 Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.’”

This is the word of God for the people of God.

Thanks be to God!

 

Ah!  The beloved beatitudes according to the gospel of Luke:  the blessings and the woes.  Blessed!  Blessed are the poor!  Blessed are the hungry!  Blessed are they who mourn!  Blessed are the rejected!  Rejoice and be glad for theirs is the kingdom of God!

I don’t know about you; but all I can ask is:  why?

The closest I’ve ever come to being poor has been trying to eek by on little to no money coming in as I worked my way through a very expensive Divinity School degree on SpaghettiOs, oatmeal, and plain rice – which was about all I could afford in those days.  Honestly:  it didn’t feel very much like a blessing.  Most of us only have been truly hungry because we forgot to get ourselves up or out of whatever we’d been doing to make our way into plentiful kitchens, with running water, and electricity to ensure a refrigerator full of fresh food and drink.  Can we imagine real hunger?  Pain in our bellies because there is no food to be found.  No freshwater.  Again.  Because of the circumstances of our lives.  Why would anybody say it’s a blessing to be hungry?  And what about mourning?  We all know this one – or will at some point in our lives if we’re willing to open our hearts enough to truly love.  To allow ourselves to fall deeply in love with a partner or a friend or a child or a vocation so much so that our own insides literally feel broken when they are no more.  When things fall apart.  When our loved one dies.  When it all comes to an end.  Any of us who have truly loved – which I imagine is every one of us sitting in this room – know how it feels to mourn.  In that dark pit, it doesn’t feel very blessed, does it?  Why would anybody say blessed are they who mourn?  And what about those being hated, rejected, reviled?  While I’ve known my fair share of struggles as a woman in this biz – one who sometimes doesn’t fit others’ expectations – I don’t remember ever experiencing the evil face of hatred.  Some of us may know this one better than others and I doubt that it feels very much like a blessing to be told that who you are or what you represent or what you believe or how you choose to live in this world is unacceptable.  Worthy of persecution through fear mongering or violating crime or riotous rage.  Why would anybody say it’s a blessing to be reviled, rejected, persecuted on account of the Son of Man?

Maybe it would help to remember what it means to be blessed.  To have the favor of another upon us.  In The Soul’s Slow Ripening:  12 Celtic Practices for Seeking the Sacred, Christine Valters Paintner writes a whole chapter on “The Practice of Blessing Each Moment.”  She explains the verb blessing.  She writes:  “Blessing is to live life from a place of gratitude, to offer thanks and honor for everything that we have, taking nothing for granted.  When we remember to bless . . . we begin to live from an enlarged sense of being” (Sorin Books: 2018; p. 39).  Paintner’s definition comes close to what the opposite way of living is like – the way Jesus warns with woe.  Paintner writes:  “At the heart of this practice and way of life is paying mindful attention to our lives.  I know hours, days, and weeks can go by sometimes before I discover I have been skimming the surface of things, preoccupied by too many tasks to complete.”  Paintner continues:  “My calendar and to-do lists become misplaced holy grails.”  . . .  She concludes:  “When we skate through life’s endless demands on us, we lose our connection to (the) deep well of nourishment” (Ibid., p. 40).  Perhaps there’s no guarantee that poverty, hunger, mourning, being despised will lead to staying connected to The Deep Well of Nourishment that is God.  But isn’t it the case, that when there is less of me (as Eugene Peterson’s take on the gospel of Matthew’s beatitudes goes in Peterson’s biblical translation called The Message).  When there is less of me, there is more of God and God’s reign.  When we’re at the end of our own ropes, we’ve no where left to turn to but to God and God’s people.  When we’ve lost all that really matters to us, our arms are left open to be embraced by the only One who really matters (paraphrase of Matthew 5:3-4).  When we can manage on our own, why bother to call upon God for anything?

I wonder about that a lot when I reflect upon the big picture view of what’s happening in so many churches today.  Everywhere we look it appears as if we’re in lean days as the body of Christ.  And then I remember what I’ve noticed in myself – what I’ve noticed in you and in other churches I’ve served these last ten or more years of significant cultural shifts.  Churches are doing things they never, ever, ever would have tried before.  Opening their doors, their hearts, their minds – not just on Sundays, but on Mondays through Saturdays too.  I have a sister who is staff support for the older adult ministry organization of Presbyterians who has told me of all sorts of senior adult ministries happening all throughout the week in congregations that used to do little more than Sunday morning worship.  I read about churches beginning Holy Grounds coffee shops in strip malls to get to know whoever comes in – in particular:  being open late nights Fridays after high school games for students to have a safe place to gather.  I’ve heard of congregations doing things like Lenten podcasts for those who commute in the community – kicked off by drive through imposition ashes on Ash Wednesday.  I see members of the body of Christ finding new ways to build meaningful spiritual connection with one another.  And – as I heard one of you remind us last Sunday night regarding our Mending Heart lunches:  welcoming through our open doors those who may no longer be welcomed by their biological families in their own homes.  I behold it all and wonder:  if everything was going just great – pews over-flowing and church coffers overstuffed – would any of these new ways of being disciples in the world be taking place?  If we could manage it all on our own, would we need to rely so heavily on the winds of the Holy Spirit to blow fresh vision into Christians here and around the globe?

About the beatitudes as recorded in the gospel of Luke, one biblical commentator writes, “God does not take kindly to half-heartedness.  God does not bless us as we maintain the status quo, reaping the accolades of those who hear us and follow us.  God does not bless us as we bathe in respectability in the eyes of the world.  God does not bless us as we quietly maintain tradition and gloss over or ignore prophetic voices calling us back to God – in the church and in the world.  God does not bless us as we protect and build institutions and empires.  God does not bless us, well off, full, comfortable, hearty, and well-spoken of.  The realm of God rests among those who have nothing but God” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 1, David L. Ostendorf, p. 360).  That same commentator writes:  “God wants the entirety of our lives.  The destitute poor have nowhere to turn but to God” (Ibid., p. 358).  For let’s face it:  only that which is empty can be filled up.  Only that which is broken can be shared.  Only those who know their need, can rightly ask.

Jesus wants his followers to know.  The blessings.  The woes.  The joy of utter reliance upon God.  The surprises we will see.  The Way with space enough to unfold.  Why?  Because there, in the midst of what is rejected, broken, battered within and without – there in what is called the Pascal Mystery – there dwells God.  Sovereign of all; crucified yet risen Christ!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2019 (all rights reserved).

Discipleship Today: A Sermon for Allie’s Baptism

A Sermon for 10 February 2019

For the next several weeks in this season of Epiphany, the lectionary takes us to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  Today our reading follows Jesus’ first two healing stories recorded in detail by Luke – one being the healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law when Jesus was at Simon Peter’s house.  The gospel next reports that many were brought to Jesus for healing.  Jesus departs to pray in a deserted place alone while he’s sought by the crowds who naturally want him to remain to do more marvelous works in their midst.  Perhaps because of his time of prayer alone, Jesus declares to them:  “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose” (Luke 4:43).  He goes on his way to continue his mission, and then we hear in Luke 5:1-11 what next takes place.  Listen for God’s word to us through this reading.

“Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret,” (which is the Sea of Galilee) “and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets.  Jesus got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore.  Then Jesus sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.  When he had finished speaking, Jesus said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”  Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing.  Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”  When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break.  So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them.  And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink.  But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”  For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon.  Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”  11 When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.”

            This is the word of God for the people of God.

Thanks be to God!

 

In a few minutes, Allie will receive the Sacrament of Baptism.  Like most of us raised Presbyterian, her journey with Christ begins by parents making promises for her.  Family and friends committed to supporting her.  A whole community of faith vowing to pray for her and nurture her faith whatever ways we can as she soon goes with her family to their new home in Texas.  Like most of us, her path of following Christ will unfold gradually.  No dramatic encounter with Jesus as we hear of in Luke’s gospel when Peter and his business partners James and John brought to shore boats overflowing with fish, then left it all behind to live out their call from Christ.  I suspect that for Allie, as for most of us, discernment of the Way will unfold more like an opening cocoon.  Slowly, when the time is just right.  She’ll hear the stories of Jesus as we all have along our way.  Learn the songs of faith.  Figure out how it works best for her to pray to be connected to The Source in order to discern the steps to take each day.

Maybe I’m pining for the past of how amazingly clarifying it must have been to have Jesus show up on the scene.  Walk right into the vessel of your profession to transform a stinky old fishing boat into a pulpit from which he preached.  Asking Peter to put out just off the shore that he could tell the good news of God’s kingdom.  After Jesus’ Amen, his command to put out into the deep water to let down the nets for a catch, changed Peter’s little boat into a eucharist table – clearly showing the goodness of God!  The fish overflowing in such abundance, Peter had to call James and John quick to come help!  One commentator reminds that “More than a ‘natural miracle,’ the catch of fish also is layered with eucharistic allusions.  (For) fish mean food, and wherever we read about fish in the Gospels, we are reading about the miracle of sustenance for the new community that Jesus is creating in the call of the first disciples” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 1, Peter Eaton, p. 335).  Wouldn’t it be wonderful on our own journeys as disciples to have such a clear, concrete sign of the sustenance we need?  The food for which our spirits long that will keep us filled as a community and as individual followers of Christ each day as we serve wherever we are sent.  I want that for little Allie – don’t you?  And for ourselves.  The miracle of the sustenance we need to grow more each day as Christ’s faithful disciples.

That’s what we are.  Through baptism:  sealed with the outward sign that we belong to Christ.  We have committed to being his faithful disciples!  . . .  But.  How often we feel just like Peter does in the story:  unworthy of God’s Presence.  Not good enough to be put in service like Christ.  Ill-equipped to proclaim good news.  To speak of God’s work to re-create this world.  How often we think our efforts aren’t enough as Christ’s disciples.  Or that, like Peter, James, and John, the REAL disciples; the gig’s about leaving it all behind – becoming like a totally different person with a totally different life trajectory.  And let’s face it:  there’s about 0% chance most any of us are going to leave it all behind dramatically – willingly divest ourselves of our employment, our families, our homes, our investment portfolios to chase all over the countryside healing and teaching and enlisting outsiders in God’s resurrection movement!  So, we decide being a disciple was for folks long, long ago.  Ones first encountering Jesus of Nazareth when his ministry began.  What does discipleship look like today?  For folks like us who aren’t being recruited to begin what Peter, James, and John began world-wide because of Christ.  What will being a faithful disciple look like for little ones freshly baptized – and for us, some baptized over eighty years ago?

Recently I came across anonymous words that were written by someone on a spiritual retreat.  I don’t know much about the person, but it seems the person was wrestling with what discipleship looks like today.  The words read:  “It is baffling to me, who always has been so driven to achieve, that I find myself at a time of life now in which I am driven to connect.  To connect with companions and allow that process to unfold.  To connect with the Holy and to allow that relationship to unfold.  To connect with my deepest Self – and to allow that process and person to be revealed.  So, the intended course becomes much more a following than a driven, planned-by-me direction.  Is it all simply about following?  Moments to decide still come.  But it is as if I have committed to the unfolding – to following the Mystery.  The allowing.  The listening.  The waiting.  All shall be well, (as Julian of Norwich reminds).  Intentions still arise, but they are different than I ever could have imagined for myself.”  The retreatant then wonders:  “Is this what Christ meant?  Crucify your self – your need for your own plan, in order just to follow?  Follow the nudge – the thread?  The stirring of what brings you fully alive?  Let the rest be.  Then, might I heartily be able to say:  ‘I HAVE decided to follow the Christ!  No turning back.  No turning back!’” (anonymous words from a spiritual retreatant).

Is this what discipleship will look like for Allie, and for all of us baptized as disciples of Christ?  Following the nudge.  Paying attention for the stirring of what brings us fully alive.  Allowing Way to unfold – sometimes waiting; always listening.  Not frantically groping in darkness at the Mystery; but allowing the Mystery to call to us as who we are and how we are to be in the world each day is revealed through those ah-has.  Those awakening insights that cause inner shifts.  So, we see the world a bit differently.  We willingly try new ways of caring – new ways of showing through action and word the good news of a kingdom in our midst.  A reign residing in and beyond us that is the direction of our path.

In a few minutes, little Allie will receive the Sacrament of Baptism.  A reminder that the Light of Christ is in her and it is incumbent upon her, as she grows, to shine.  Like Peter.  Like James.  Like John.  Like Jesus.  Like us:  baptized in Christ, disciples of the Way, we are raised to the new life of following the Light to be light in the world for all to see.  . . .  Come!  Let us gather at the font.  Let us celebrate the baptism of the newest disciple of Christ!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2019 (all rights reserved).

 

To See as Jesus Sees

A Sermon for 3 February 2019

A reading from the gospel of Luke 4:21-30.  We learn in the verses earlier in chapter 4, that Jesus has been tempted in the wilderness after his baptism that confirmed he is God’s Son.  Upon the completion of his wilderness testing, he returns to Galilee filled with the power of the Spirit.  He goes to his hometown Nazareth and reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah when gathering with others in the synagogue on the sabbath.  Remember:  he chooses to read the part from the prophet about the Spirit of the LORD being upon him.  Being anointed to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recover the sight of the blind, let the oppressed go free, and proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor – the year of jubilee! (Luke 4:18-19).  Right before the verses we hear today; Jesus rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down.  The gospel records that “the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him” (Luke 4:20).  Everything was going really good!  Then, the reading assigned for today begins.  To learn what happens next, listen for God’s word to us in a reading of Luke 4:21-30.

“Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.  They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”  23 He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’  And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’”  24 And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.  25 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon.  27 There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”  28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage.  29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.  30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”

This is the word of God for the people of God.

            Thanks be to God!

 

Well, here we have a very good example of what NOT to do if you ever want to get scheduled again as worship liturgist for the day!  Filled with the power of the Holy Spirit after being baptized and tested in the wilderness, Jesus (according to Luke’s chronology of the good news) goes back home.  Just in time to gather with his old friends and family for sabbath; he heads to the synagogue for worship.  He’s given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah – he doesn’t totally self-select the words he wanted all to hear that day.  Finding the part about the one anointed by the Spirit to proclaim God’s favor, he stands erect to read.

Of course, it was a beloved reading!  He was standing in the synagogue among those he’d seen all his life.  Scraping by on their little plots in Nazareth.  Living under the continuous threat of Roman soldiers.  Close to the spot in Galilee where foreign armies had invaded the land for centuries – the gateway between Egyptian power to the southwest in Africa; and northern and eastern powers like Syria, Babylon, Persia.  Not to mention a Mediterranean boarder vulnerable to invasion by Rome, Greece, anywhere in the Western world.  Jesus was a part of this crowd, had grown up in their midst; so that in fact he would have known the joy in their hearts that day in Nazareth to hear again the prophet’s promise from God that an anointed one was coming.  Good news was for those crushed under the poverty of foreign oppressors.  The favor of the LORD rested upon them all!

Imagine how the day might have went had Jesus left well enough alone.  Stopped right there.  According to the gospel of Luke’s telling of the events, the issue’s not because of Jesus’ lofty proclamation that he is the One!  His downhome folks in the synagogue are mesmerized by him.  The graciousness that poured forth from his mouth.  What a gift to hear the time had been fulfilled.  God’s change is a’coming!  But, launching into provocation, Jesus pushes.  “Doctor, cure thyself?” he quips.  He goes on saying, like:  “How about a reminder that God long has seen differently?  Like it or not, the outsiders repeatedly are in his examples declare.  God brings hope through foreign widows.  God heals commanders of invading armies.  It’s easy enough to see, Jesus is saying – unless you are totally blind, say like by a mis-guided sense of tribalism.  A mis-informed understanding of the way God always has worked.  A mis-directed heart that continues to buy into the system’s view of separation.  Differentiation.  Division between us and them” (paraphrase of Luke 4:24-27).  Wanna get hurled off a cliff from an enraged response to God’s way of seeing things?  Just point out to people that from the beginning of time God has made us one.  As the authors of The Luminous Gospels write:  “the return to oneness from twoness (duality) is the ultimate goal in the spiritual evolution of humanity” (The Luminous Gospels:  Thomas, Mary Magdalene, and Philip, by Lynn C. Bauman, Ward J. Bauman, Cynthia Bourgeault; Praxis Publishing, 2008; p. 4).  Jesus wanted us to see!  To know the steps we must take!  . . .  Hometown folks snap!  His words hold a mirror up to their faces.  And they are not at all interested in taking a look!

In The Art of Letting Go; Catholic priest, spiritual teacher, and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation, Richard Rohr, explains the eyes with which Christ invites us to see.  Rohr says:  “If I believe Jesus, I believe God is wherever the suffering is.  God goes wherever the pain is.  . . .  I believe awakened and aware people go where the suffering is.  Go where people have been excluded.  Expelled.  Diminished.  Abused.  And that is where they find God” (The Art of Letting Go:  Living the Wisdom of Saint Francis, Richard Rohr, A Sounds True Audio Learning Course, 2010.  Quotes from chapter 2).  That is where we see rightly, as Christ sees.  No separation between ourselves and another.  No separation between God and all.  Rohr explains:  “I look at the life of Jesus . . . and I gain courage to believe it because of (him).  That’s what (he) did.  (He) did not live . . . judging and labeling things up or down” (Ibid.).  Rohr declares, rather, “Jesus, a bona fide and proud Jew, makes the heroes of almost every one of his parables and stories . . . a non-Jew.  . . .  Jesus always praises the outsider and critiques the insider” (Ibid.).  Rohr invites us to imagine “how different Western history could have been, how different Western religion could have been if . . . we had treated other people with inherent dignity.  Inherent respect,” Rohr states (Ibid.).  Where we honor and see, as Rohr calls it: “the Divine DNA in everybody else” . . . as equally as we see it in ourselves! (Ibid.).

Can we see the Divine DNA in everybody else, as equally as we see it in ourselves?  . . .  Think about it.  Does the mess of the world begin within ourselves?  Because we can’t see in ourselves the indwelling Spirit of God; so, of course, we are not able to see God living in anyone else???  Would Jesus quote that proverb:  “Doctor, cure thyself” (Luke 4:23)?  Father Rohr wisely concludes:  “All awareness.  All enlightenment.  All aliveness.  All transformation begins with an inner awakening:  that you recognize your own inherent dignity.  (That we see our) DNA is Divine.  That,” Rohr states, “moves you . . . to this world of reverence.  This view of respect.  This attitude of love” (Ibid.).

When we see with those eyes – the Presence within and without, we see as Jesus did.  Our dual minds overcome, as two at last become one!  . . .  It’s not an easy path – we might rather drive him to the cliff to hurl him off in a rage!  . . .  The gospel of Luke starts Christ’s good news with a story that challenges us to see differently – an act that takes conversion.  The inner transformation for which Christ came.  The daily discipline of awakening the Spirit within that we will see it in all as well.  . . .  Here is the good news:  to see as Jesus sees.  May it be our daily prayer.

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2019 (all rights reserved).

Parts of One Body

A Sermon for 27 January 2019

A reading from the writings of the Apostle Paul as recorded in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a.  Listen for God’s word to us.  Note this morning that I’m reading from the version of the bible called The Message.  And I’m going to read a few of the verses at the opening of chapter 12 to place us in Paul’s line of thought.  It’s a long reading, but listen.

1What I want to talk about now is the various ways God’s Spirit gets worked into our lives.  This is complex and often misunderstood, but I want you to be informed and knowledgeable.  . . .  4-7God’s various gifts are handed out everywhere; but they all originate in God’s Spirit.  God’s various ministries are carried out everywhere; but they all originate in God’s Spirit.  God’s various expressions of power are in action everywhere; but God himself is behind it all.  Each person is given something to do that shows who God is:  everyone gets in on it, everyone benefits.  . . .”  And now starting at verse 12 and following.

12-13“You easily enough can see how this kind of thing works by looking no further than your own body.  Your body has many parts—limbs, organs, cells—but no matter how many parts you can name, you’re still one body.  It’s exactly the same with Christ.  By means of his one Spirit, we all said good-bye to our partial and piecemeal lives.  We each used to independently call our own shots, but then we entered into a large and integrated life in which Christ has the final say in everything.  (This is what we proclaimed in word and action when we were baptized.)  Each of us is now a part of his resurrection body, refreshed and sustained at one fountain—his Spirit—where we all come to drink.  The old labels we once used to identify ourselves—labels like Jew or Greek, slave or free—are no longer useful.  We need something larger, more comprehensive.  14-18 I want you to think about how all this makes you more significant, not less.  A body isn’t just a single part blown up into something huge.  It’s all the different-but-similar parts arranged and functioning together.  If Foot said, “I’m not elegant like Hand, embellished with rings; I guess I don’t belong to this body,” would that make it so?  If Ear said, “I’m not beautiful like Eye, limpid and expressive; I don’t deserve a place on the head,” would you want to remove it from the body?  If the body was all eye, how could it hear?  If all ear, how could it smell?  As it is, we see that God has carefully placed each part of the body right where God wanted it.  19-24 But I also want you to think about how this keeps your significance from getting blown up into self-importance.  For no matter how significant you are, it is only because of what you are a part of.  An enormous eye or a gigantic hand wouldn’t be a body, but a monster.  What we have is one body with many parts, each its proper size and in its proper place.  No part is important on its own.  Can you imagine Eye telling Hand, “Get lost; I don’t need you”?  Or, Head telling Foot, “You’re fired; your job has been phased out”?  As a matter of fact, in practice it works the other way—the “lower” the part, the more basic, and therefore necessary.  You can live without an eye, for instance, but not without a stomach.  When it’s a part of your own body you are concerned with, it makes no difference whether the part is visible or clothed, higher or lower.  You give it dignity and honor just as it is, without comparisons.  If anything, you have more concern for the lower parts than the higher.  If you had to choose, wouldn’t you prefer good digestion to full-bodied hair?   25-26 The way God designed our bodies is a model for understanding our lives together as a church:  every part dependent on every other part, the parts we mention and the parts we don’t, the parts we see and the parts we don’t.  If one part hurts, every other part is involved in the hurt, and in the healing.  If one part flourishes, every other part enters into the exuberance.  27-31 You are Christ’s body—that’s who you are!  You must never forget this.  Only as you accept your part of that body does your “part” mean anything.  You’re familiar with some of the parts that God has formed in God’s church, which is God’s “body”:  apostles, prophets, teachers, miracle workers, healers, helpers, organizers, those who pray in tongues.  But it’s obvious by now, isn’t it, that Christ’s church is a complete Body and not a gigantic, uni-dimensional Part?  It’s not all Apostle, not all Prophet, not all Miracle Worker, not all Healer, not all Prayer in Tongues, not all Interpreter of Tongues.  And yet some of you keep competing for so-called “important” parts.  But now I want to lay out a far better way for you.’”

This is the word of God for the people of God.

Thanks be to God!

 

What is the purpose of the IT band?  You’d know if say, any one of the cold overcast days last week you were caught unexpectedly out in the rain.  Dashing for cover, you ran – or tried to run – as fast as you could to avoid getting drenched.  The next morning, it’s highly likely that at least one if not both of your IT bands would be talking to you.  As soon as you tried to swing your foot out of bed, the whole side of your leg from your hip to your knee seized up in achy pain.  Harvard researches have been busy creating a mechanical model of a human IT band.  They know it’s not a muscle, or a tendon as many often mistake.  “The IT band runs along the outside of the thigh, from just above the hip to just below the knee, and is made up of fascia, an elastic connective tissue found throughout the human body” (https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2015-08/understanding-the-it-band/).  The researches also know – as would anyone trying to take cover from a cold, icy rain – that the IT band is responsible for our gait – that spring in our step.  It’s what allows us to swing our leg forward when we walk and run and cycle.  Referred to in full as the iliotibial band, it’s the “largest piece of fascia in the human body” (Ibid.).  It “stores and releases elastic energy to make walking and running more efficient” (Ibid.).  The IT band is what makes human locomotion possible – and when overused, the painful IT band syndrome that plagues many runners sets in.

How about capillaries?  Anyone wanna try to live without them?  Long ago my doctor tried to explain the importance of capillaries when I was down with a horrible respiratory infection that left me with asthma.  According to an online version of the Encyclopedia Britannica, capillaries are the “minute blood vessels that form networks throughout bodily tissues; it is through the capillaries that oxygen, nutrients, and wastes are exchanged between the blood and the tissues.  . . .  (They) are about 8 to 10 microns in diameter, just large enough for red blood cells to pass through them in single file” (https://britannica.com/science/capillary).  That’s really, really small.  But try taking a deep breath without capillaries in your body.  Try doing just about anything, as our hearts wouldn’t function without capillaries.  . . .  Aren’t we, as the Psalmist proclaimed:  awesomely and wonderfully made? (Psalm 139:14)  From the retina of our right eye to the joint of our big left toe, every bit of our miraculous bodies has a particular function.  If we want to live healthy, every part is indispensable!

The Apostle Paul didn’t come up with the comparison of the human body for human community.  According to biblical commentator Lee C. Barrett, the metaphor “already enjoyed a long history in classical literature.  However,” according to Barrett, “Paul gave it a revolutionary new twist.  Previously, the comparison had reinforced hierarchy, suggesting that the lowly workers, the drones, should obey and support their military, mercantile, and political leaders.  Those at the bottom should stay put and be grateful for the guidance and protection of their natural superiors” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 1, Lee C. Barrett, p. 278).  According to Barrett, the reasoning was “in the body, the brain that makes crucial decisions is more critical than the lowly organs that sustain routine daily functioning.  Even today, the analogy retains a seductive plausibility” Barrett explains.  “Our culture assumes that a talented CEO is worth more than a janitor and should be remunerated accordingly” (Ibid.).  Which, in my opinion, is all good and fine.  Until you’re sitting at a big fancy, CLEAN table at a board meeting somewhere and you really, really, really have to go to the bathroom!  Each part plays a valued role – from the one ensuring the toilet is clean and properly functioning to the one who drives forward the mission of the organization to the one who ensures everyone gets paid!

Paul’s wisdom is obvious in our life together.  Who wants to choose between having the funds to sustain a place for the church to come together for worship to having a clean, functioning sink say like for babies’ bottles to be prepared after diaper changing in Playcare, to being organized as servants of God for ministries in the community like tutoring at H.G. Hill Middle School or preparing food for 15 homeless people on retreat at Penuel Ridge on the 4th Thursday of June as we’re planning to do together this summer?  Every one of us – members of Christ’s body – has a role to play as a part of this expression of Christ’s church.  Understandably, we’re not all good at the same thing.  Depending on our age and physical abilities, we can’t all do the same thing.  None of us have quite the same passions and gifts.  Which is exactly how God created it to be.  Wasn’t it brilliant of God to ensure we’re not all like mathematical brainiacs?  Or boisterous extraverts sucking up all the room so that no one can stay quietly grounded in prayer?  But we need at least a few who excitedly can extend a hand to a guest coming for worship for the first time.  We need someone who can make the coffee for fellowship.  And another who can dream big dreams for ways to serve in the community.  We need someone who can set up an online presence in the 21st Century and someone who can cheer the lonely days of a widow no longer able to get out of the house.  We need ushers who can pass the offering plates just assuredly as we need grateful hearts who can give a portion from the work of our lives just so we can have a chance to come together for worship and service and spiritual growth.  You get it – even if you feel sometimes that you don’t matter as much as someone else.  That what you have to contribute isn’t as important as the next person’s.  It’s NOT ok to be a part of the church and neglect your part of being the church.

In her book Present Over Perfect, Shauna Niequist includes a chapter called “And the Soul Felt Its Worth.”  She beautifully writes:  “I think it’s taken me almost forty years to actually feel the worth of my soul.  . . .  The sense of my own worth.  That’s what we’re craving.  The sense that we matter.  That someone sees us.  That we’re loved and valued,” she writes (Present Over Perfect:  Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living; Shauna Niequist, Zondervan, 2016).  She continues, stating that “The soul’s worth . . . doesn’t come from earning or proving.  Image doesn’t matter.  Out-running the emptiness doesn’t work for long.  Each soul, every soul is worthy, because God made every soul and . . . because God’s love for us is so deep and wide and elaborate God wants to be with us.  To walk with us.  To teach us how to live in that love and worthiness” (Ibid.).  Take that in for a moment.  God’s love for us is what makes all of us worthy.  Is what gives us a place in the body.  Niequist concludes:  “It’s only when you understand God’s truly unconditional love that you begin to understand the worth of your own soul.  Not because of anything you’ve done, but because every soul is worthy.  Every one of us is worthy of love having been created by and in the image of the God of love” (Ibid.).

We know this stuff.  These very basic beliefs of Christian faith.  What is it that sometimes leaves us thinking what we have to offer isn’t enough?  Isn’t as good as so-and-so’s gift.  Couldn’t possibly be worked into living out the vision for ministry God has given to this church:  to serve God by serving others as we partner for mission in this community?  We’re here to make an impact for God first in the lives of one another, next in the lives of our community partners:  the 86 children of Playcare and their families.  The Small World Yoga participants who get the chance to be present and centered in peace through yoga here and in recovery centers and schools around Nashville because of the free-will donations received at class here each week.  We’re here to impact the lives of those in their own healing process through ACA, Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families.  And improve the lives of middle schoolers and their teachers down the road at H.G. Hill Middle.  We’re here to impact for good the women in recovery at Mending Hearts.  This is why this church exists.  What God intends to do through us.  . . .  Every part of this body – whether you’re more like the IT band responsible for our locomotion, for moving us forward.  Or more like the capillaries – involved in the very force of Life flowing through us.  Each part is indispensable.  Valued for the part that we are – no matter our official membership status!  Look around this room:  we each are needed if we want to be a healthy, living expression of Christ’s body.  Don’t forget that!  May God never let any one of us neglect our part in being Christ’s living body!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2019  (All rights reserved.)

Extravagant Abundance

A Sermon for 20 January 2019

A reading from the gospel of John 2:1-11.  As we move into the season after Epiphany, when lectionary readings show us more deeply the revelation of Christ; listen for God’s word to us.  And remember that this is the gospel of John’s telling of how Jesus’ ministry begins just after calling his disciples.  Listen.

“On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there.  Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.  When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.”  And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?  My hour has not yet come.”  His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”  Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons.  Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.”  And they filled them up to the brim.  He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.”  So they took it.  When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk.  But you have kept the good wine until now.”  11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”

This is the word of God for the people of God.

            Thanks be to God.

 

Following Fellowship Time today, the new 2019 session of this church will meet for the first time.  After we’re called to order for the meeting to begin, we’ll start as we always do with a time of devotion.  Sometimes we spend a few minutes in silence to gather ourselves before diving into discerning business for the church.  Sometimes we read a scripture passage and a reflection upon it.  Sometimes we share inspirational sayings around a particular theme like gratitude or gifts or recharging for leadership among the church.  Today, your new session is going to hear words from the “Foundations of Presbyterian Polity” as outlined in part two of our denomination’s constitution, The Book of Order.  (You may know that part 1 of our constitution is The Book of Confessions which contains the 12 creeds and confessions by which we are guided theologically in the PCUSA.)  Here are the words the session will hear as a part of their devotional time today.  From F-1.0202 entitled Christ Calls and Equips the Church:  “Christ calls the Church into being, giving it all that is necessary for its mission in the world.”  We’ll hear these words too:  “Christ is present with the Church in both Spirit and Word” (Ibid.).  And “Christ gives to the Church all the gifts necessary to be his body” (Ibid., F-1.0301).  Let that sink in – especially in light of a story from the gospel of John that demonstrates the abundant generosity of a God who would turn as much as 180 gallons of water into delicious, delightful wine just to ensure a family in Cana would not lose face with wedding guests who otherwise would be incredibly disappointed that halfway through the celebration of the union, nothing was left to drink!  Take deeply into your mind, soul, and heart the words Presbyterians have trusted for centuries:  “Christ calls the Church into being, giving it all that is necessary for its mission in the world” (Ibid., F-1.0202).  Just to be sure we all remember, I should make you repeat it after me. Repeat it after me:  “Christ calls the Church into being, giving it all that is necessary for its mission in the world” (Ibid.).

I love to tell the story.  Maybe you’ve heard it from me already.  A year ago, we got going full steam ahead with renewed ways for this church to live out the mission of this church that you all discerned sometime the fall of 2015.  You concluded that this church exists to serve God by serving others.  About this time last year, two Renewal Team members began the process of making contact with the high school right across the street.  Calls were made.  Emails were sent.  Calls were made again.  This went on for something like six or eight weeks.  We figured out who we already knew on the staff and tried to gain access that way.  As a church we wanted to build community partners beyond the main one we’ve had for years with the preschool downstairs.  And, as the high school literally sits across the street, we were offering to help.  Asking for a meeting or any ideas on how we might be able to connect.  Crickets.  Nothing.  No response whatsoever – nothing even back through the contact on the inside who tried to send on word for us.  Sometimes God assists in clarifying a church’s mission by what does not work!

The Renewal Team went back to the drawing board.  What about an elementary school nearby, we thought.  Or a different direction all together.  Finally, we decided to give the nearby middle school a shot.  A Renewal Team member re-composed an email sending it off something like a Tuesday late in the afternoon.  Before I went to bed that night, I received two cc’ed responses.  One was from Principle Carrie Jones.  The other from Community Involvement Specialist Maggie Dicks.  Both emails resounded with:  “Yes!!!!  We would LOVE for you all to become our community partner!”  The next thing we knew, we were scooping out ice cream in their cafeteria to host a social for the 5th grade Welcome to Middle School night.  Kleenix and hand sanitizer became regular items in all of our shopping carts to ensure teachers and students of the middle school would have all they would need.  This past fall, tutors got started – five from among us.  And, I’m excited to report that next Wednesday, our first parent from the preschool downstairs will drop off her baby downstairs then head over to the middle school to begin tutoring with students each week.  “Wanna help with a Rise Against Hunger event,” we were asked.  Two of you went during the very busy week of Thanksgiving to set up tables and pack highly nutritious non-perishable meals among 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th graders.  “Got any gently used umbrellas the children could use to get to and from their portable classrooms,” the school wondered?  And here we are:  about to go to a joint meeting with other middle school Community Partners to learn how we can work together next.  Oh:  and finalizing a date for us to provide lunch for teachers and staff during Teacher Appreciation week this March.

“Christ calls the Church into being, giving it all that is necessary for its mission in the world” (Ibid.).  Do you see how doors get opened when the Church gets clear about the mission in the world God has entrusted to us?  . . .  It happened almost as miraculously with Mending Hearts, the residential addiction treatment homes for women located just four miles northeast of here.  For months we offered Mending Hearts a whole bunch of ways we could serve.  At long last we connected on our Women of the Church hosting a women’s lunch for women in Mending Hearts’ addiction recovery process and women of this church.  After two wonderful lunches together last year, we’re looking at plans for at least 2 if not 3 lunches together in 2019.  Of course, a joint women’s lunch would be a great hit!  This church is full of great cooks and lots of welcoming love!  The thank you card received a few weeks ago from the Mending Hearts participants was confirmation!  Indeed, “Christ calls the Church into being, giving it all that is necessary for its mission in the world” (Ibid.).

I hope you know that ACA – Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families – continues to meet in a room down the hall that hadn’t been used in several years.  Every Saturday they are here.  A small group at 10:30 a.m. meeting to specifically work through the process of healing from childhood trauma.  A larger group at 1 p.m. to support each other on their journey of learning new, healthier ways to function after being children who had to become the adult of the household due to their parents’ personal problems.  You may not know how it all came about that we now have nearly 50 people here every Saturday.  You and the leaders of this church – the session and Renewal Team members – talked and dreamed and worked for this building to be used again by the community.  About 12 months ago I remember asking if we wanted to set a goal to have a certain number of outside groups using the space by the end of each 2018 quarter.  We weren’t ready to be that ambitious.  T.H.E.Y. kept on tidying up what was needed.  Prayers continued to be prayed.  Sometime last summer I got an email from a woman I had met the prior year.  “Hello Jule,” the email read.  “I’m a member of Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families.  The husband of one of your friends mentioned at our meeting Saturday that he had heard Hillwood might have space for community groups to use.”  The session and leaders here diligently checked it out.  We decided what we needed to know and do in order to make such regular upstairs space-sharing work smoothly.  By the end of September, we had given over our first upstairs key to a group from the community that would use the building weekly.  This week when I bumped into ACA leaders, I was greeted with big hugs.  One asked if we could be sure to return all 50 chairs to the room in which they meet weekly because there were only 42 chairs the last few Saturdays and one participant had to sit on the floor.  The other leader told me he was moved to tears at Christmas when they found the holiday card our Painting group made and left for each ACA group.  He said that little card made him and other participants of ACA feel so incredibly welcomed by this church.  A feeling not always experienced elsewhere before.

“Christ calls the Church into being, giving it all that is necessary for its mission in the world” (Ibid.).  . . .  I saw it again this week.  If you were here last Sunday for our FRED (Fellowship, Renewal, Education, and Devotion) brainstorm meeting, then you might recall that the following interests were put pretty high on the list:  Nature Art – which is right in line with the plan to expand creativity ministries in 2019.  A presentation by Retrieving Independence and maybe another Pet Blessing in conjunction with learning about the agency that trains retriever puppies in the local prison, then ensures those who need service animals have an affordable dog ready to go.  Learning with other churches in the neighborhood also made that list.  Wednesday I met with other neighborhood pastors.  The first thing I was asked was if we might have any interest in partnering to bring another Rise Against Hunger meal-packing event either to the middle school or to the neighborhood in general by our churches working together.  We moved on to wonder what might be possible if we pulled together the artist over at another nearby church with the people in our churches who already are into creative art as a way to feed their spirits.  Before I knew it, I was being asked if church members might have any interest in a joint Blue Advent service next year – something two of you asked about in December – a Blue Advent service being a worship experience for healing and hope during the season of Advent.  Because just when the world wants us to be jolly; many long for a quiet, holy space because they are grieving or going through other emotional challenges.  “And what about a joint Blessing of the Animals,” one pastor asked Wednesday.  “We could do it right on that big flood plain by the railroad tracks off Harding and Davidson.”  4 p.m. 29 September already is set.

We don’t always get to see the ways that “Christ calls the Church into being, giving it all that is necessary for its mission in the world” (Ibid.).  We either forgot to take the time to notice.  Or we don’t really know how everything comes together in the life of a church – how God’s Spirit hovers over it all bringing God’s will to fruition!  . . .  If the gospel of John’s way of telling the opening of Jesus’ ministry has anything at all to teach us, it is this:  an extravagant God abundantly provides.  In the life of the church.  In our lives in the world.  Sometimes it seems as unexpected as water turning to wine.  Sometimes as mystifying as suddenly having to figure out what to do with 180 gallons!  Or as one commentator writes:  “the equivalent of six hundred to nine hundred bottles of fine wine” – an act so miraculous we are called to linger for a while over an extravagant God (Connections, Yr. C, Vol. 1; WJKP, 2018, Matthew L. Skinner, p. 191).  For, as that same commentator writes, “There will be no shortages or rationings when the messianic banquet opens its doors” (Ibid.).  The prophets had foretold, as Isaiah 25 records:  an amazing “feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear” (Isaiah 25:6).  For the banquet of the marriage – the celebration of the union of God with humankind – in Christ, has begun!  And as that same biblical commentator reminds:  “The church should . . . trust in a God who abundantly provides” (Connections, Yr. C, Vol. 1; WJKP, 2018, Matthew L. Skinner, p. 190).  In our life together.  In our lives when from here we go, may it ever be so!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2019 (All rights reserved.)

Revealed in Baptism

Sermon for 13 January 2019 – Baptism of the Lord

A reading for Baptism of the Lord Sunday from the gospel of Luke 3:15-17, 21-22.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

“Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 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.’”

This is the word of God for the people of God.

Thanks be to God!

 

The College Football National Championship Monday reminded me of the quote that “Sports do not build character.  They reveal it.   (Heywood Broun, www.brainyquote.com/topics/character).  In other words, on the field of play – say when a freshman quarterback has walked onto one of the biggest national stages – just who he is will be seen by all.  Despite being one of the youngest players out there, can he calm his nerves enough to throw a 62-yard bomb in the first quarter to get his team poised to score?  Might his level of skill, grit, determination be revealed in a cumulative game stat of 347 passing yards and a trio of touchdown passes – something, unfortunately, I’ve not seen outta Aaron Rodgers in like forever!  The game reveals the player’s character.  It shows the world just what that athlete is made of.

According to the gospel of Luke, Jesus baptism revealed who he was.  Being in line with those others at the Jordan River, as the gospel of Luke tells the story, shows the world just what this one is made of.  What comprises his character.  Who he indeed is and will be.  We don’t get a lot of details in the gospel of Luke about Jesus’ big baptismal day.  Prior, we do hear John the Baptist’s words that one is coming.  A powerful Messiah, holy, set-apart who will breathe the fire of the Holy Spirit upon his followers.  Who will ignite the passion of God in his disciples.  Like the farmer in the granary, John says, this Messiah will clear away the chaff so that all that’s left in those baptized in his name will be wheat.  Substantial food within to feed a world starving for Something More.

As Luke tells it, John’s fiery sermon nearly drew more attention than the day Jesus arrived at the Jordan to be dunked all the way under by John.  “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying,” Luke 3:21 reads.  No exchange with John about “am I worthy to baptize you, Jesus?”  No clouds parting and doves alighting on his way up out of the water, as the gospel of Matthew tells it.  No booming voice declaring to all:  “This is my Son, the Beloved!” as the gospel of Matthew also records.  Just Jesus.  There.  With all the others.  And in prayer after his baptism the Holy Spirit comes.  His Heavenly Father whispering in his heart:  “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased!” (Luke 3:22).

Listen to the words of one commentator who beautifully reminds that Jesus baptism reveals his character.  Shows the world just who he is.  The commentator writes:  “According to Luke, all we know about the baptism of Jesus is that it was with ‘all the people’ . . .  (which means that) Jesus presented himself for baptism in an act of solidarity with a nation and a world of sinners.  Jesus simply got in line with everyone who had been broken by the ‘wear and tear’ of this selfish world and had all but given up on themselves and their God.  The commentator continues:  when the line of downtrodden and sin-sick people formed in hopes of new beginnings through a return to God, Jesus joined them.  At his baptism, he identified with damaged and broken people who needed God” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 1, Robert M. Brearley, p. 236).

In other words, Jesus’ baptism reveals the heart of God to stand in line with you and with me.  Ones wearied by a selfish world.  Ones about ready to give up – though the Spirit keeps giving us signs every day of ways we are not alone.  God is with us, as the birth of the baby just reminded us at Christmas.  For all the ways we’ve been beaten down by our histories, our losses, our challenges, and our sins.  For that little flicker of light that dances in our hearts because deep within we still long for a new beginning.  Despite all the ways we have damaged and been damaged.  Broke and been broken:  God in Christ gets in line with us.  With all of us who wear the skin and flesh of human kind.  So we too hear the whisper of the Heavenly One:  “Mine.” The Voice says.  “Beloved.  I’m so incredibly pleased with you.”  Then in the stillness the Spirit stirs within.  So we are empowered again.  Knowing who we are too.  To whom we belong.  God now able to accomplish through us!

In the challenges we face.  In the heartbreaks yet to come.  Let us never forget:  who Jesus is – from what is revealed in his baptism – shows who we are.  How we are to be in the world.  With whom we are to stand.  . . .  Let us renew the vows of our baptisms so we will be ready to excel in God’s game!

© Copyright JMN – 2019

The Gifts of Epiphany

A Sermon for 6 January 2019 – Epiphany

A reading from the gospel of Matthew 2:1-12.  This is the gospel text assigned for today that tells of the gifts of Epiphany.  Listen to God’s word to us.

“In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?  For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”  When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.  They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:  ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”  Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.  Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”  When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.  10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.  11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.  Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”

This is the word of God for the people of God.

Thanks be to God!

 

Are you familiar with something called the Magi Complex?  I learned of it from a friend who has been thriving for 6 years after breast cancer.  Part of the protocol used after her surgery, she found that the Magi Complex is one of nature’s most powerful healers.  Supposedly it’s a revolutionary supplement good not just for reversing inflammation to reduce pain in the body, but also for keeping cancer cells from growing within.  I admit I haven’t tried it myself – and anyone certainly should ask their medical professional before doing so, though my friend is living proof.  Along with other natural healing interventions, the Magi Complex kept her from any radiation or chemo after a double mastectomy.  In case you’re wondering just what’s in this miraculous Magi Complex, you guessed it.  As every wise healer knows:  gold (known in the essential-oil world as turmeric).  Frankincense.  And myrrh:  gifts from the earth fit for a king!

It makes good sense, actually.  Thanks to biblical details and historical legend, we know a little bit about the Eastern travelers called the magi or the three wise men.  They come seeking.  Asking:  “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?  For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage” (Mt. 2:2).  They are foreigners from another land.  Most probably professional star-gazers.  Likely ones familiar with the healing arts of the earth.  In the light of the rising star, they are aware that something bigger than themselves calls them – like a tug they had waited for all their lives.  Some legends trace them back to Persia – others Babylon.  There, Jewish exiles once kept hope with stories of a Messiah who someday would come to set the world aright.  Had the promise reached their ears so that these wise men already knew of the one who someday would be born?  Think of the words of the prophets:  “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid.  . . .  Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.  Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low” (Is. 40:1-2a, 3b-4a).  And “he shall feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.”  (Is. 40:11).  “Here is your God,” the prophet also proclaimed, who “will come and save you” (from Is. 35:4).  Then, “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy” (Is. 35:5-6a).  According to the prophets; the anointed of God, the Messiah, Israel’s long-awaited king would be the Great Healer.  Had these wise ones known all along the gifts fit to bring?

We hear the story and tend to envision the other kind of gold:  the precious metal of the earth’s crust that across cultures has connoted great wealth.  Frankincense, which biblical scholars tell us symbolized “an oblation worthy of divinity” – as the aromatic incense often burned in temples (Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 1, William J. Danaher, Jr., p. 212).  And myrrh – known in Jesus’ day as a resin or essential oil used not only for healing, but also for burial.  The ancient Egyptians actually using myrrh for embalming their mummies.  So that even in the gifts given, we are told to hear clues of who the baby born in Bethlehem is destined to become.  . . .  The gospel of Matthew is keen to point out the three gifts from the Eastern travelers.  A detail so specific that every nativity now contains just three wise men – though the gospel never mentions the number of travelers, just the three gifts.  Magi, on bended knee, falling in awe around the precious child.

In her newly released children’s book entitled Home by Another Way:  A Christmas Story, Barbara Brown Taylor tells of the gifts received by the travelers from their time with the blessed baby.  On a page near the book’s end, the three elderly men stand by their camels ready to depart as a young mother holds a swaddled babe in her arms.  The page imaginatively reads:  “So the wise men picked up their packs, which were lighter than before.  Then they lined up in front of the baby, to thank him for the gifts he had given them.  ‘What in the world are you talking about?’ the baby’s mother said, laughing.  ‘For the scent and weight and skin of a baby,’ said the first wise man, who had no interest in living on herbs anymore” (as he’d been found doing at the opening of the story when Taylor imagined each of the three men seeking something more in a life of ascetism, a life of study, and a life of rigid spiritual discipline).  Of the second gift given by the baby, Taylor writes:  “’For this home and the love here,’ said the second wise man, who could not remember how to say it in the ancient language.  ‘For a really great story,’ said the third wise man, who thought that telling it might do a lot more for him than continuing to walk on hot coals” (as he had been doing at the opening of the story, according to Taylor, in his search for something more) (Barbara Brown Taylor, Home by Another Way:  A Christmas Story, illustrated by Melaine Cataldo; Flyaway Books, 2018).

Gifts, given and received, are a huge part of this day.  The final celebration of the Christmas cycle known as Epiphany.  The day assigned to the wise men.  The liturgical feast marked as the manifestation of God’s amazing gift:  the healing of the nations!  The East and the West – represented in the story by the Eastern travelers and the Western puppet-ruler Herod; who, according to one commentator, clashed “over the birth of a little Jewish boy” (Connections, Yr. C, Vol. 1, Emerson B. Powery, WJKP, 2018; p. 155).  If the magi’s gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh truly were gifts to be used by the one foretold by prophets, then the wise ones knew what Herod and Jerusalem could not see.  Among them was rising one who would shepherd the people – all the people.  Standing and feeding the flock that had been battered and bruised by their own.  Binding up the wounds of those longing for a little good news.  Proclaiming release to captives.  Recovering the sight of the blind.  Letting those oppressed go free.  The Great Healer of all nations shining as the Light of the world from the humble spot in Bethlehem.  Gifts given.  Others received as the magi gave witness to The Morning Star that had dawned.  The great Light to light the earth as guide through the night.

When I think about the gifts of Epiphany, first given:  gold, frankincense, myrrh.  And first received:  the divine in our flesh.  Love radiating from a little place in Bethlehem.  A story about one born to change the trajectory of the world.  I think too of the gifts given us.  From the magi we learn to seek.  Like them, we heed the words that would come from the baby’s lips when from a Mount he first taught:  “Ask, and it will be given you; search and you will find” (Matthew 7:7).  From the magi we learn to believe.  To trust the signs given us.  The promises of hope to heal us all.  From the magi we learn to stay open.  Waiting when we must.  Falling on our knees in wonder – even if what we’ve found doesn’t quite match any expectations we might have had.  From the magi we receive the greatest gift of all.  The reminder that we cannot go home from Christmas the same.  God’s gift is meant to change us.  Transform us from the inside out.

In Circle of Grace:  A Book of Blessings for the Seasons, Jan Richardson beautifully summarizes Epiphany’s gifts.  She reminds:  “There is no reversing this road.  The path that bore you here goes in one direction only, every step drawing you down a way by which you will not return.  You thought arrival was everything, that your entire journey ended with kneeling in the place you had spent all to find.  When you laid down your gift, release came with such ease, your treasure tumbling from your hands in awe and benediction.  Now the knowledge of your leaving comes like a stone laid over your heart, the familiar path closed and not even the solace of a star to guide your way.  You will set out in fear.  You will set out in dream.  But you will set out by that other road that lies in shadow and in dark.  We cannot show you what route will take you home; that way is yours and will be found in the walking.  But we tell you, you will wonder at how the light you thought you had left behind goes with you, spilling from your empty hands, shimmering beneath your homeward feet, illuminating the road with every step you take” (“Blessing of the Magi,” p. 70-72).

These are the gifts of Epiphany.  Given and received so that the Light now shines in us – through us – to illumine the Way home.  For us.  For all.  Thanks be to God!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

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