Saturday, January 23, 2010


“Just you wait!” The ultimate threat. “Wait and see.” The perennial promise. “Good things come to those who wait.” The ubiquitous cliche. Wait. Just wait.

Been told to wait, lately? Looking forward to something that is not yet, longing for something that might be, could be, will be? Wanting to get beyond a difficult moment, wanting to heal, to forget, to move on? Wait. Just wait.

We spend a lot of time waiting, it seems to me. A lot of time invested in somewhere other than where we are. That is a healthy thing, I think. We need to have goals, we need to have dreams. It is a healthy thing to anticipate and to hope. Sometimes our today is not so good, and the tragedy need not define our whole existence. We need to trust that there will be wholeness and healing again. We need to look forward to completion, to reunion, to reconciliation.

It is a part of the human experience to look beyond today, to anticipate, to lean into what might be someday. We can celebrate this gift that God has given us, the gift of tomorrow, the gift of Someday.

But there is another gift that we sometimes overlook in our desire for tomorrow. The problem is that we are sometimes blind to this gift. We sometimes forget that to claims this gift takes as much faith and as much trust as to claim the gift of tomorrow. And what is this other gift? Today. Now. This moment.

It might not feel like much of a gift, depending on your circumstances. And yet it is. If only we could see it through the eyes of faith. If we could see it with Jesus’ eyes.

Luke 4:14-21 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15 He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. 16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18 "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." 20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

We often concentrate on what comes next. The stories offer differing views of how folks hear the words that Jesus preaches here in the synagogue. But they all end the same, with anger and frustration and cynicism and violence. Or at least attempted violence. And there are various theories as to the source of this hatred - the contempt of the familiar, the prodding of long held exclusivism, or plain and simple jealousy. But, even though the response is not really a part of our reading for this week, I’d like to offer another theory. I think that people got angry, that people discarded his words because he said “Today.”

I watched last night the amazing array of stars of stage and screen sit an speak on telephones to ordinary folks like you and me encouraging donations for the healing and comfort of earthquake ravaged Haiti. I listened to the heartfelt pleas for support, and the heartbreaking stories of devastation and death, the emotion laden music, and the news reports and I wondered how they would hear verse 21. “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

There was a part of me that was offended when I read that. Or maybe, I thought, I read it wrong. That Jesus didn’t really say that it was fulfilled today. Surely, he would want to be saying that this is the year of the Lord’s favor. This year? With crushed bodies and broken homes, with mass graves and scant resources, with limited access to the people with the needs and governmental red tape snarling good hearted response, this couldn’t possibly the year of the Lord’s favor. Maybe we are reading it in the wrong year. Maybe it was a short term fulfillment, only applying while Jesus walked the earth. Maybe it is some obscure interpretation of the word “Today” that we can’t really comprehend.

Fulfillment is coming. We would march behind that banner, we could shout that slogan. Advent is a much more accessible season. Coming, that’s our watch word. It’s coming! What’s coming? I dunno, but it will be good! When is it coming? I dunno that either, but it will come. Someday. Soon. I hope.

Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing. OK, we could look at the scripture that Jesus quotes again. The Spirit is upon me to preach... Ah, yes, well, preach. He’s going to preach. That’s a good thing! I am a preacher after all. I like that he is going to preach - to proclaim, to bring good news. That is a good thing. But does it really change anything? Are we really excited about preaching?

There seems to be something more in this promise than just words being spoken. There needs to be something more to this fulfillment than a sermon. Silence sure seems a more appropriate response to tragedy, whatever the scale. This is what I get asked often by well meaning people who want to be present in the midst of a difficult moment: “What do I say?” The words aren’t there. Words that would make a difference anyway. Words that don’t seem cheap or even offensive in the face of grief or hurt or despair. They aren’t there, available to us to bring some comfort or some hope. We would love the Spirit to anoint us to speak.

And maybe that is a part of what is being offered here. That in those spirit filled moments, when words come from somewhere, something is shared, something is offered and a bridge is built. When our words offer true comfort and eyes are raised high enough to see more than the dust of our despair, then we have a sense of the Lord’s favor.

I wonder though if we need to look again at the promise. We get caught up in the fulfillment. We get stuck on the Today. Slide over those words for a moment. Look at the end of the sentence. “In your hearing.” Maybe in your hearing is just another way of saying now. Maybe he is doing that bible emphasis thing, repeating himself - today at the beginning, in your hearing at the end.

Or maybe it is an invitation. Maybe it is the offer of a relationship. In your hearing, this fulfillment will happen today. When the Spirit that has anointed him slides over to anoint you, then fulfillment will be within reach. Maybe the Lord’s favor is felt, not when you observe someone else, even someone like Jesus the Christ, proclaiming and sharing and giving, but when you join in.

They seemed sincere, I know they were actors and performers and all. But they seemed to genuinely want to be there, to be a part of the solution, a part of the healing. Maybe the Lord’s favor doesn’t mean that everything is sweetness and light all the time, but the God’s children will work together to bring about wholeness and hope. Maybe when we give, or help, or speak, or love in some form or fashion, then we are a part of the fulfillment. Today.


Saturday, January 9, 2010

Well Pleased

It is a difficult weekend here at Aldersgate. Difficult because we lost a bright spirit from our midst. We will celebrate her life during the time that I would normally be writing this bible study, which is why I am doing it early. Or at least I am trying to. I’m not being terribly successful. Partly because I am worried about what to say tomorrow that might bring some comfort and some hope to broken hearts. And partly, I must confess, because my own heart is broken.

In times like these is seems like silence is the best response. Even typing these words to send out seems loud and inappropriate. Yet, I am charged with speaking a word into this silence. It is my job, and my calling; it is my duty and my joy. Sometimes it is easy, the words line up to be spoken, the right ones are there to be dealt out like cards in a friendly game of chance. Sometimes they are like ice cream on a hot summer day, dripping down on hands and faces, sticking with sweetness and flavor that lasts all day long. Those are the days I thank God for the gift of call he has placed on my life.

But there are other times. Times when words run and hide from me, when they wedge themselves between the rough places uncertainty and pain, when even the tools of training and experience can’t free them for use. Or worse when they seem to transform before me, and a word that was once a glittering jewel now feels like a lump of coal unfit for the purpose intended. And the “gift” feels like a burden, like a punishment rather than a blessing.

You know that feeling, I am sure. A moment of import, a crisis, a question, an uncertainty happens and eyes turn to you for understanding, for healing, for explanation. And you stand speechless. Someone breaks the heart of your child, says a hurtful thing, casts stones and that tear streaked face looks at you and asks “why?” You find yourself in a crowd staring at a screen broadcasting some unspeakable horror, and a voice says “You go to church. Explain this to us. Where is God?” Suddenly you have a lot more sympathy for Peter that night in the courtyard of the High Priest’s house, and “I don’t know” feels like a betrayal of some kind, but it is the best you can do in that moment.

What do you say? In the mess of living in this world, what do you say? What words might explain, or interpret, or give meaning to what seems to be meaningless? What do you say?

That isn’t really what our Gospel passage is about this week. At least I didn’t think so. But then I read it again. And maybe because I didn’t come to the text full of words, I heard something I didn’t expect to hear. Listen for your self.

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 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 First Sunday after Epiphany, which means that the story is about the baptism of Jesus. It is the second of the three Epiphanies that border this liturgical season. We begin on Epiphany with the Wise men who saw the star, they were given an epiphany, a revelation about who this child really was. Not the son of a poor girl and her husband who couldn’t find a room in the inn, but the savior of the world.

The first Sunday of the season and the last Sunday after Epiphany contain two revelations that also identify Jesus as God’s Son. We begin with the baptism and then we end with the transfiguration, that misty mountain top experience.

What is interesting about Luke’s depiction of the event is that the baptism hardly figures in at all. The verses we skip serve to usher John the Baptist off the stage in favor of Jesus who now begins his ministry. But after John’s bluster, the next thing we know is that the baptism had already taken place. We missed it. Ain’t that always the way? We come for the show and by the time we got our seats, it had already happened. “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus had also been baptized...” Darn it!

You’d think that if Luke had a clue about the centuries of struggle the church has had about the detail of baptism, he might have spent a little more time with it. We don’t know if Jesus was immersed or sprinkled. We don’t know which liturgy John prefers, or if the vows that Jesus made were the same as the ones we make or not. We don’t know if John was properly credentialed or if Jesus followed the rules. We don’t know who signed the certificate. We need to know these things, don’t we?

Luke doesn’t seem to think so. “Jesus had also been baptized...” That’s the sum total of the description here. If Luke is saying that the methodology isn’t what is important, then what is? Why is Jesus even there in the first place? That’s the question that has puzzled biblical scholars since the beginnings of the church. John was preaching a baptism of repentance. But we know that Jesus was without sin. So, why would he need to be there? What’s going on here?

The other interesting thing is that the next verses in Luke’s third chapter are the genealogy of Jesus. Since the Gospel writers never do anything for the heck of it, we have to ask why is the list of Jesus’ earthly family tree following the story of his being claimed by his heavenly father?

Here is the leap I’m asking you to make with me this weekend: Jesus went to John to be baptized because he was entering into this messy world that we live in. All of us are born into a world not of our making. A world we can barely understand at the best of times, a world we cannot explain at the worst of times. A world that needs repentance, which is a corporate need as much as an individual one. Jesus strode into the river to be buried up to the neck in the sin of the world, and then to rise to the Spirit. He didn’t approve of the brokenness of this world, but he embraced it, he made it his, and he carried it with him, like a chip on the shoulder, like a pack on his back, he carried it all the way to the cross.

And what did he say, when he embraced all that is wrong in this life, all that is less than divine, less than holy? What words did he use to give meaning and understanding and explanation? He didn’t say a thing. Like us he was silent, did he want to speak? Or was the weight of the burden he accepted so heavy that even he was struck dumb. Like us, he was silent. So that he would know what we experience when we have no words to say in the face of death or worse.

There were words spoken in that moment, though. Words that echo in the silence of our moments even to this day. They weren’t his words or ours or any human. They were God’s Words and they said simply: I love you. Words of affirmation, not for deeds done or not done, but for being. Just for being. I love you. Words to hear in the midst of darkness, words to cling to in the midst of doubt. In the maelstrom of living and of dying we hear and then - by grace - speak these words, they are all we have: I love you.


Saturday, January 2, 2010

In A Blue Moon

Did you notice? If you watched TV at all on New Year’s Eve you couldn’t help but notice. Whether it was football, or New Year’s Rockin’ Eve (and does anyone else think it is time for Dick Clark to enjoy his retirement?) and probably the 11 o’clock local news, mention was made multiple times of the rare occurrence of a blue moon that night. Could be a sign, don’t you think?

Now for you amateur astronomers out there, let me say that I know about the debate raging about blue moons. Apparently the popular notion that a blue moon is a second full moon in a calendar month is not the “true” definition. The term originated with the old Farmer’s Almanac early last century, and was used to refer to an extra full moon in a season. Normally, you know, there are three full moons in a season. But once in a while (once in a blue ... ) there are four. And for some reason it is the third full moon that is called the blue moon. I’m not sure why it is the third instead of the extra fourth, but it makes sense to someone. A magi perhaps.

The point is people get excited about these phenomena. They argue about them, just like we argue about other important stuff. Like whether resting key players before the playoffs is a recipe for disaster or success! Like whether blowing a perfect season for the purpose of not getting a owie on the multi-millionaire makes any sense whatsoever!! Sorry. Gotta focus here.

I wonder if the wise men argued about the true meaning of the celestial phenomenon all the way to Jerusalem. Melchoir argued that it meant a king, a true blue-blood ruler with a pedigree and royal birth mark and everything. Caspar snorts in disdain and says that is obviously referring to a warrior, a military type, someone who can wield a sword and look good doing it. But Balthazar declares they are both as blind as Persian fruit bats, it is a leader on fields of play who isn’t afraid of perfection or getting a hangnail and is ready to stick it out to the end, 16 and 0!! The others look at him and ask, “what are you talking about?” “Dunno,” he mutters, “came to me in a dream.”

Could have happened. But probably not. That’s the tricky thing with signs, they are open to misinterpretation. Here’s what Matthew thinks happened:

Matthew 2:1-12 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 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." 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6 '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.'" 7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 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." 9 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.

I am always amazed at what isn’t told in this story. We don’t know how many magi there were. The traditional number is based on the number of gifts, since no one believes that “this gift is from both of us” explanation. We don’t know where they come from. “The East” is bible talk for foreigners. Persia, what is now Iraq or Iran make the most sense, but we don’t really know. We also don’t know why they went to Jerusalem. Were they heads of state making an official visit, or were they just a bunch of guys who got lost? According to Matthew’s story, it is the star that gets them to their destination and not Herod’s rather dubious directions. So, why stop in the first place?

And then there are the gifts. Much has been made over the meaning of the gifts. Some argue that gold is a gift given to kings. Incense is a gift given to God. And myrrh is a gift given to one who is to die. In that giving, says the tradition, the wisemen told the whole story of this child. The first declaration of who he was and what he came to do was laid there at the feet of the mystified girl who gave him birth.

Did she grasp what was being said as the gifts were placed there before her? Did she grasp what it meant when she said yes to being the vessel for God’s entrance into the world? Did she understand what was about to happen to her? She pondered, says Luke, in her heart all these things, all these signs, but it never said she figured it out. She just said yes.

For that matter, did the magi who opened their treasures even understand what it was they were saying? Probably not. But something about what they saw there in that house in Bethlehem, something about the celestial phenomenon and something about their journey, something about this whole event moved them to generosity. They gave, maybe more than they intended when they set out, but they gave because they saw a sign.

We’d so like to be sure, wouldn’t we. We’d love to know, not just hope or not just believe, but to know that what were doing was the right thing to do, the right direction to follow, the right choice to make. We’d like a sign that would come along and convince us. We keep asking for, looking for a sign.

The problem with signs is that they are open to a variety of interpretations. The wisemen might have argued about the interpretation as they started their journey to follow that star. There might have been others who saw it and came to the meeting, but in the end decided it was just a coincidence and didn’t make the trip. When the travelers returned with their story, one wonders if those who didn’t go regretted it. If they watched the sky for their chance to go with even more intensity.

That’s the message of Epiphany, it seems to me. Not that there will be convincing evidence. Not that something will happen to remove any trace of doubt. An Epiphany is an opportunity. It is a moment of clarity in a dark time, a glimpse of something larger than the everyday concerns of our lives. And it demands a response. Are you going to follow your star? Are you going to say yes to that angel in your living room? Are you going to keep believing, are you going to keep hope alive, are you going to serve as though the most important thing in the world was not you or your happiness, but the one in front of you, the one who needs you?

Then, in the in between times where most of live, we go on in the strength of that sighting, with the memory of that clarity. We go on still wondering, uncertain but hopeful. We go on convinced that a life of service is a better way to live. Convinced that a life of living in community is a better way to find yourself. Convinced that worship is a better way to connect with that something larger.

And we go on because Epiphanies are rare. Some say, only once in a blue moon.