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Sunday, January 31, 2016

More Like Jesus: From Comfort to Compassion (Philippians 2:1-8, Matthew 9:35-38)

Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other. Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus:

Though he was in the form of God,
        he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
But he emptied himself
        by taking the form of a slave
        and by becoming like human beings.
When he found himself in the form of a human,
he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
        even death on a cross.

Jesus traveled among all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, announcing the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every sickness. 36 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were troubled and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The size of the harvest is bigger than you can imagine, but there are few workers. 38 Therefore, plead with the Lord of the harvest to send out workers for his harvest.”

As the president of my college class, my most important executive action was to plan the senior class trip.  The senior class trip was an annual spring break tradition, and previous classes had gone to such exotic locations as Stowe Mountain, Vermont; New York City; Washington, DC; and one confectionary-filled week in Hershey, PA.  Our class had done considerably better in fundraising, thanks to yours truly, and so it was, that we left the snowy confines of Western New York and set sail on a Bahamas cruise.

Donald Trump might have called it, “the hugest, most fabulous, luxurious senior class trip ever.”  And it was.  Ever been pampered, where it seems like everyone was there to serve you, meet your every whim, whose sole reason for existence was to make you comfortable?  That cruise felt sort of like that.  As we arrived at dinner on the second night, and the drinks everyone had ordered the night before were already in place on the table, I distinctly remember thinking, “I could get used to this!”

To be sure, we all need a certain level of comfort in our lives.  If you live with chronic pain, you know the importance of having a comfortable place to sit.  Someone who is living paycheck-to-paycheck knows the importance of having enough money to be comfortable.  We go on vacations to comfortable places so we can recharge and renew from the stresses of every day life. We find comfort in relationships and foods and traditions and places, and again, we all need a certain level of comfort in our lives.

What we don’t need, however, is to become overly obsessed with our own comfort.  As followers of Jesus, as those who are trying, by God’s grace to live and love like him, we are often called to put aside our own comfort in order to show compassion. Following Jesus necessarily moves us from comfort to compassion.

The word, “compassion,” is rooted in two Latin words, com and passioCom means “with,” passio sounds like “passion,” but it literally means “suffer, like “The Passion of Christ,” which depicts the suffering of Christ. “Compassion” literally means “suffer with.”

Compassion is where we see someone’s need, and we feel it as acutely as our own, and we are moved to action with an unquenchable desire to alleviate the suffering.

Our first Scripture reading from Philippians tells us to

Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus:

Though he was in the form of God,
        he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
But he emptied himself
        by taking the form of a slave
        and by becoming like human beings.
When he found himself in the form of a human,
he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
        even death on a cross.

Adopt the Attitude That Was in Christ Jesus.

Think of a swimming pool, with comfort at the shallow end, and compassion at the deep end.  Our default is to hang out at the shallow, comfortable end, but as we follow Jesus, who had all power, privilege, and position – equal with God, all the comfort and splendor of heaven, Jesus who left that, willingly gave it all up in order to come to us as one of us, to suffer with us, even to the point of his own suffering on the cross.  He did that, not because he had to, but because his love for us was just that deep.

Again, back to Philippians:

Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others.

The self-centered life is a shallow life.  Jesus draws us from the selfish shallows to deep compassion.  The more closely we follow Jesus, the more compassionate we become, no longer splashing around in the shallow end, but saving lives and keeping people from drowning in the deep end.  Following Jesus plunges us from shallow comfort to deep compassion.

Compassion for the Crowds

Compassion for whom?  Matthew’s Gospel says, Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were troubled and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (9:36)

Jesus had compassion for the crowds.  Compassion – a desire to suffer with, and actively alleviate the suffering – for the crowds – a nameless, faceless rabble too numerous to count.

When you think of who Jesus spent most of his time with, who comes to mind?  His disciples – the 12 men he tapped on the shoulder and said, “Come, follow me.”

Imagine, if you would, three concentric circles.  The very center of the middle circle –that’s Jesus.  We will call the first, tightest circle around him “the core” – that’s his 12 disciples.  Now, we also know there were other people who followed Jesus, at different times in his ministry, it fluctuated somewhere between 100 and 150 people.  This group is represented by the second circle, and we’ll call this circle “the congregation.”

But what about that outer circle?  Well, you can call that outmost circle “the crowd.”

The crowd comes and goes.  It varies in size.  There are times in Jesus’ ministry when the crowd is heavy, and other times when it practically disappears.  The crowd doesn’t have direction, it’s aimless, and it’s vulnerable.  “Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were troubled and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

Jesus has compassion for the crowd.  Being like Jesus means we have compassion for them, as well.  Following Jesus is signing on to a life that shows compassion for the crowd, for those beyond our own circle.  Jesus invested in his inner circle, his core, training them, equipping them, empowering them to invest in the congregation by empowering them and equipping them to invest in the crowd.  It is Jesus’ compassion for the crowd that drives the whole process, consumes all the organizational energy – like pebbles being continually dropped in a pond, with the movement of the ripples constantly spreading his love further and further and further.

But, when we start to prioritize comfort over compassion, that’s the beginning of spiritual death.  In the medical world, comfort care is what happens at the end of life. 

From Members to Disciples

Right now, 75% of churches in America are either plateaued or in decline.  One way to reverse the decline would be to talk less about church membership.  Our obsession with church membership is killing us. Membership isn’t Biblical.  Jesus didn’t tell us to go and make members, he told us to go and make disciples!  Clubs have members.  Institutions have members.  The Church has disciples!

Membership is a term that carries all sorts of baggage of privilege.  Catering to people’s preferences, and so comfort is given a higher priority than compassion.  The comfort of the inner circles gets to be more important than showing compassion to the outer circle.  We end up with something completely inverted to what Jesus intended.

Our obsession with membership has created a situation in which too many in the church have forgotten, or never really knew in the first place, to whom the church belongs.  It belongs to Jesus!  He is its owner!  He is its Lord!  He bought it with his own blood.  The church is Christ’s body, his representative to the world, a world he loves and for which he died.

A club has members.  The church has disciples.  Small change in language, huge change in culture – to stop referring to ourselves as members, and to start calling ourselves disciples.  Members are motivated by what they want.  Disciples are motivated by what Jesus wants.

What’s he want?  Compassion for the crowds.  Or maybe you prefer the way he said it in Luke 19:10 - seeking and saving the lost. Or Matthew 28, he told us to go into the world and make disciples of him.  So call it what you will: compassion for the crowd, seeking and saving the lost, or making disciples – however you slice it, this was his passion; it’s what the church, who belongs to Jesus, must always be about.

Compassion for the crowd – it drove Jesus; does it drive us?  Where would you put yourself, honestly, this morning – in the shallow end, or in the deep end?  Splashing around and making noise with your buddies, or diving deep in order to save others?  Member or disciple?  Your own comfort, or compassion for others?

Sometimes we in the church can forget who we are, to whom we belong, and what we’re about.  When the church starts to feel and act too much like a cruise ship, remember we’re really a fishing vessel – none of us are here as passengers, we’re all part of the crew.  Let’s follow and live like Jesus.  Let’s move from comfort to compassion.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

More Like Jesus: From Self to Serve (John 13:3-5,12-17)

Jesus knew the Father had given everything into his hands and that he had come from God and was returning to God. So he got up from the table and took off his robes. Picking up a linen towel, he tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a washbasin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel he was wearing.

12 After he washed the disciples’ feet, he put on his robes and returned to his place at the table. He said to them, “Do you know what I’ve done for you? 13 You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you speak correctly, because I am. 14 If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you too must wash each other’s feet. 15 I have given you an example: Just as I have done, you also must do. 16 I assure you, servants aren’t greater than their master, nor are those who are sent greater than the one who sent them. 17 Since you know these things, you will be happy if you do them.

Several years ago, I was attending the funeral of one of my distant relatives.  I was sitting with two of my aunts who knew this particular great uncle better than I did, and I listened carefully as the pastor described him as a warm, caring, kind, person.  A model of virtue and generosity, the best of neighbors if ever there was one.  When the funeral was over, we were barely out of the church when one aunt looked at the other and said, “I had to check the front of the bulletin, because I thought we were in the wrong service for a minute.”  Then, to me, she said, “Your great uncle was one of the meanest, most miserable, selfish people to ever walk the planet.  I’m not sure who that pastor was describing, but it sure wasn’t him.”

When your life is said and done, when your story is told, does anybody here want to be remembered as a selfish person?  I would hope not.  I will say, if it’s your life’s ambition to be a selfish person, we won’t be much help to you, here.  We worship and follow Jesus, who served and sacrificed and gave himself for others, and told us to do the same.  That’s what we’re about here!

Today, we are continuing in a series of messages called “More Like Jesus.”  Simply put, we are embracing and living into our call to be more like Jesus. 

Last week, we remembered our baptism, celebrating that God claims as part of God’s family, and makes us “Christian.”  The very word, “Christian,” means “mini-Christ” or “Christ-like.”  We are called to become like Jesus!  While none of us will grow up to physically resemble him, as we live with him, follow him, and listen to his words, as we surrender our way to his way, we become like him in other ways. We are called to think the way Jesus thought, to love the way Jesus loved, to live the way Jesus lived.

In today’s Scripture reading from John’s Gospel, the disciples bounded into that upper room, scoping out positions of honor around the table.  They were bickering amongst themselves about who was the greatest among them, who should sit in the places of privilege closest to Jesus.

In those days, traveling meant walking.  Sweaty feet in leather sandals kicking up great clouds of dust.  Even a short distance could make your feet pretty nasty, and so feet were washed just inside the door.

A wealthy person might have servants who did that, sometimes you were left to wash your own feet, and sometimes, the socially lowest-ranking person present would be asked to wash the feet of everyone else.  Washing feet was the job of servants.  The disciples realized that if they stopped to wash their own feet, they might end up washing everyone else’s feet, too.  Peter, James, John, Andrew, Thomas, Judas - none of them wanted to get stuck doing that – they were all above that!

But as the supper progressed, Jesus got up from the table, and he walked back to the door, and he picked up that pitcher, basin, and towel – those tools of service everyone else had walked past and ignored.  As he tied the towel around his waist, the disciples were mortified.  “Oh no.  Jesus isn’t going to wash our feet, is he?” 

Jesus Christ – the son of God, the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords – washed his disciples’ feet.  The master performed the work of a servant.

“You call me master, teacher, rabbi, Lord – and I am all these things.  But I’ve served you as an example.  As I have served you, you, likewise, shall go and serve.”

On the altar table is a carving made from olive wood.  I bought it in Bethlehem last year.  It’s a depiction of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet – I’m going to pass it around so you can get a good look at it.  If you’ve been in my office, you may have noticed it behind my desk.  It sits next to a picture of me and Ashley from our wedding day, and those two items together are there to remind me of who I am and what’s most important in my life – a follower of Jesus, and a husband to Ashley.  And every time I look at this carving, I’m reminded that being a follower of Jesus means being one who serves.

Serving is as essential to being a Christian as breathing is to living.  Breathing requires both a taking in and a giving out.  Breath comes in, breath goes out.  Breath comes in, breath goes out.  There’s a rhythm to is, isn’t there?  A balance, an exchange.

Maybe you’ve heard the story of the man who was afraid he would run out breath, and so in an attempt to hold onto as much breath as he could, he would only breathe in, but never breathe out.  And so he’d take a deep breath in, and then another, and then another, until he couldn’t breathe in any more.  Do you know what eventually happened?  He passed out is what happened, and when he woke up, his body was naturally, on its own, breathing in and breathing out, and he felt so much better than when he was only trying to breathe in.

Or, think of it this way.  What does a sponge do?  It soaks up.  Eventually, a sponge soaks up as much as it can, and once it does, can it soak up any more?  No, unless the sponge is wrung out a bit.  In fact, only if it is wrung out, can it soak up any more.  And the more times it is wrung out, the more it can soak up.

Sometimes, I think we try to do the same thing in our faith.  We want to have as much of God’s goodness and grace and love as we possibly can, and so we can just keep taking in and taking in and taking in and taking in without also giving back out.  But that’s an inhale without a corresponding exhale – a spiritual half breath.

That’s like a sponge sitting in an infinite pool of God’s grace that’s never been wrung out.  If that sponge wants to soak up more, it will have to learn – we will have to learn – that serving is more essential to our faith than serving.  Giving is more blessed than receiving.  Feeding is the outgrowth of having been fed.

It was a hot summer day at the beach. Two seagulls were trying to keep cool in the shade, when they saw two crabs scuttling by.  Each crab had an ice cream cone in both claws.  One seagull looked at the other and said, “Should I ask those crabs to share their ice cream?”  The other seagull said, “I wouldn’t bother; they’re two shellfish.”

By the grace of God, as we follow Jesus, we become like him.  We move away from a selfish life toward a serving life.  Being a Christian means learning to serve, sacrifice, and give ourselves as Christ gave himself.

Taking on a life of service is something we have to learn, and that’s what Jesus was teaching us when he washed his disciples’ feet.  We don’t have to learn to be selfish; we all come by that one naturally enough!

St. Augustine called this curvatas, meaning “curved inward on oneself.”  He used this phrase to describe the human condition without Christ – a life lived “inward” for oneself rather than “outward” for God and others.

That curve draws us down, down, down, further into ourselves.  Unchecked, it can curve us so far that we’re only looking at ourselves, staring into our own navel, as it were.  We’ve all been there, completely absorbed in ourselves, seeing only ourselves, thinking only about ourselves.  And from this position, it’s very difficult to talk to God or other people, or care about anything or anyone other than ourselves.  Our only interest in other people will be about what we can get out of them.

This curving in on ourselves is the basic nature of sin.  Sin, of course, separates us from God and from others.  Sin is a preoccupation with ourselves – all sin fundamentally ties back to living for self rather than living for God and others.  There’s a reason the word “sin” has an “i” right smack in the middle—and a big “I” at that! Sin is all about me. When my world revolves around me, with me at the center of everything, sin is bound to result.

Rick Warren says, “It’s the ‘I’ in words like sin, pride, and mine that causes the ‘I’ in other words – like strife, bitterness, and misery.”

But, in Christ, this bent toward ourselves gets straightened out.  Indeed, what Christ does is restore us to our original condition – the way God created us before sin entered the world.  The curve toward ourselves is straightened so we can see others eye-to-eye, and be in right relationship with them.

And, as always, we don’t do this straightening up by our own ability or cleverness.  It’s what Jesus, the Son of God, does in us.  And there’s something interesting about the word, “Son.”  “Sin” has the “I,” “Son” has the “O.”  I like to think of that “O” as standing for others.  Jesus wasn’t about the “I,” but he was all about the “O” of others.  Jesus Christ, the Son of God, gave himself for others, and gave us the example that we should do the same.

Every time we serve, we follow the example of our blessed Lord.  Every time we serve, we straighten up and work against that curve that would keep drawing us down and in on ourselves.  Serving keeps us from too much naval gazing.  We will always have that natural inclination to curve in on ourselves, but every time we serve, we’re pulled up out of ourselves.  That’s why it’s important to keep serving others for as long as we can – it keeps us from turning in ourselves, and keeps our eyes on who and what is really most important.

When Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, it was an example to serve.  It was an invitation to make our lives less about the “I,” and more about the “O.”  Less about me and more about others.  Less selfish and more serving. 

You know, more like Jesus.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

More Like Jesus: Holy Water and Power Clothes (Mark 1:1-11, Galatians 3:26-28)

The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son, happened just as it was written about in the prophecy of Isaiah:

Look, I am sending my messenger before you.
He will prepare your way,
a voice shouting in the wilderness:
        “Prepare the way for the Lord;
        make his paths straight.”

John the Baptist was in the wilderness calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins. Everyone in Judea and all the people of Jerusalem went out to the Jordan River and were being baptized by John as they confessed their sins. John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey. He announced, “One stronger than I am is coming after me. I’m not even worthy to bend over and loosen the strap of his sandals. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

About that time, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River. 10 While he was coming up out of the water, Jesus saw heaven splitting open and the Spirit, like a dove, coming down on him. 11 And there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”

26 You are all God’s children through faith in Christ Jesus. 27 All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Do you remember what you wanted to be when you grew up?  Who actually became what they wanted to be?  Who actually hasn’t grown up yet?  Perhaps you are grown and you’ve already tried one of your dream careers, and maybe now you’re ready to try another.  Reality is that most people will be and become multiple things throughout their working lives.

Indeed, life itself is a process of becoming, and we are constantly “becoming.”  So long as there is breath in our lungs, there is still more for us to be and become.  We are all inspired by the 85-year-old Grandma who completes her college degree, or the person who loses 300 pounds and goes from being a couch potato to a marathon runner.

I was in seminary in my early 20s, and I had a few classmates who were in their 60s and even 70s, some preparing for a new career in ministry, others there simply for the joy of learning.  Many of them had already had highly-successful careers, and I was struck by the realization that, in a season in life when many are starting to slow down, these folks were getting ready to start a new chapter, out of a distinct sense that God was still working on them.

And friends, far more important than any job is the sense of what sort of person we are and are becoming.  You and I are called to become like Jesus.

Occasionally, someone will buck against that.  “Become like Jesus?” they say.  “But he was so good and perfect and holy and loving, and I’m just not.  I’m so far from that.  I could never be like Jesus.”

But, take a look at the meaning of the word, “Christian.”  It literally means, “mini-Christ,” or “like Christ.”  The book of Acts tells us that the followers of Jesus were first called Christians in the city of Antioch (Acts 11:26), and did you know the word, “Christian” was first used as a slur?  It was used to mock and make fun of the earliest followers of Jesus.  “Look at those people.  They follow Christ so closely, they try to act like Christ, they look like mini-Christs.  Look at those Christians!”

Interestingly enough, a label that first applied from outside the church was soon adopted by those inside to describe ourselves.  “Christian” – mini-Christ, following Jesus so closely that we become like him – yes, that describes what we’re about – yes, we are Christians, and thank you for noticing!

The old adage is that actions speak louder than words.  Don’t tell me you’re a Christian, show me.  Don’t just say, “I’m a Christian,” show me in living a life that’s overflowing with unconditional love and forgiveness and humility and a desire to serve.  In everything we do, we reflect Christ, so that people who don’t even know us should be able to say, “This person is a Christian.”

The great Methodist missionary, E. Stanley Jones, became a good friend of Mahatma Gandhi.  Gandhi was never a Christian, but he incorporated many of the teachings of Jesus into his own.  In one of their conversations, Jones asked, “Though you quote the words of Christ often, why is it that you appear to so adamantly reject becoming a Christian”? Gandhi’s reply was clear: “Oh, I don’t reject your Christ. I love your Christ. It is just that so many of your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

Are you troubled when you see people who call themselves Christians, but don’t act a thing like Jesus?  When I see Christians who are mean and hateful, selfish and stingy, narrow-minded and self-righteous, arrogant and judgmental, I think, “Well, I know I don’t have all my stuff together, but at least I’m not as bad as that person!”  But then another voice says, “Why are you comparing yourself to other Christians?  You should be comparing yourself to Christ.  He’s the one you’re following.”

More troubling than seeing other people who call themselves Christians but don’t act like Jesus are the times I’m convicted that I’m not acting very much like Jesus, myself. 

We don’t act like Jesus so people will think highly of us, it’s simply that being a Christian means being like Christ. We are called to follow Jesus so closely that we become like him.

And that journey of becoming like Jesus begins in the waters of baptism.  When Jesus was baptized, the Holy Spirit appeared as a dove, the voice of God the Father boomed out over the whole scene, saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased, in whom I delight, in whom I take great happiness and joy.”

Something similar happens in our baptism.  In that beautiful, grace-filled moment, by water and the Spirit God says about each of one us, “This is my son.  This is my daughter.  This is my child.  This is my beloved.”  In baptism, we receive the family seal of God upon us; God is claiming us as members of the family forever.  The words “Property of God” may as well go across our foreheads in indelible ink, because God is promising to us and proclaiming to the world, “This one belongs to me.”

If you’ve noticed, we don’t use last names when we’re performing a baptism.  We’ll use a person’s first and middle names, but never their family name.  Do you know why?  Because baptism makes us part of the Christian family, and being a part of the Christian family is more determinative than any other part of our identity, even our family of origin.  Baptism gives us a new name – “Christian” – and that name tells us and the world that we belong to Christ and find the truest expression of our identity in him.

Think of it this way.  Where does a North Carolinian live?  In North Carolina.  Where does an American live?  In America.  Where does a Christian live?  In Christ.

We live in Christ!  “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).  We are baptized into him and are clothed with him (Galatians 3:27).  It’s like we are wearing Christ.  You can watch award shows on TV, and as people come down the red carpet, one thing they always seem to get asked is, “Who are you wearing?” meaning, “Who designed your clothes?”

If someone were to ask a Christian, “Who are you wearing?”, the answer should always be, “I’m wearing Jesus,” because we have so opened ourselves us to his presence, his love has made itself at home within us, and the more Christlike we are becoming, not in our ability, but through God’s infinite grace.

It all happens through grace.  The Christian faith is first what God does for us in Jesus.  Claims us, makes us part of the family, offers us forgiveness, cleans us up.  But then, it quickly becomes about what does in us.  Indeed, we are always becoming.  When we look around at Christians who don’t act like Jesus, when we ourselves question whether we should or can become like Jesus, I wonder if it has to do with only accepting the part about what God is doing for us, but not also the part about what God is doing in us, which is, of course, to make us more like Jesus.

In baptism, we celebrate both.  It’s where we accept and trust what God has already done for us, and open ourselves to what God will do in us over a lifetime.

Ethel was driving their big sedan down the highway, with Charlie across the car in the passenger seat.  A young couple in a convertible drove by, obviously in love, or possibly in heat, as the woman was practically sitting in the guy’s lap, which was no small feat given the floor shifter.  Charlie looked wistfully at them as they drove past, looked across the car to Ethel, and said, “I remember when we used to be like that.”  Ethel, hands at 10 and 2, never took her eyes from the road and said, “I’m not the one who moved.”

That’s why we don’t re-baptize anyone – because God isn’t the one who moved.  Baptism is more about God than it is about us.  Our promises can be less-than-reliable, but God’s promises are always good.  We don’t need to re-do what God has already gotten right the first time.  We don’t re-baptize anyone because baptism is more about God than it is about us; God isn’t the one who moves.

But, from time-to-time, we do recommit ourselves, remember who we are, and reaffirm the promises we’ve made.  We remember what God has already done for us, and we open ourselves to what God is doing in us.

Maybe we’ve moved further away from God than we first realize, or maybe we’ve never been closer to God.  Maybe we’re not acting much like Jesus, but we’re committed to doing better.  No matter where you are on that spectrum, today is a day to recommit yourself to God, to thank God and be renewed and refreshed in the grace that claimed you as God’s beloved child in baptism.

Perhaps you are here this morning and you’ve never been baptized.  If so, then I want to talk to you after the service, so we can talk about baptism, and you can have the opportunity to experience the wonderful gift of God’s grace in baptism.

If you have been baptized, today you’ll have an opportunity to remember your baptism, recall the promises God made to you in these waters and the promises you made in response, and recommit yourself, with the help of God’s grace, to living like Jesus.

In a few moments, we will reaffirm our baptism.  You’ll notice I’m asking the same vows that were taken at your baptism, and today is a chance to recommit ourselves to them.  Then, anyone who desires renewal of soul is welcome to come to the front, where I will touch the water, make the sign of the cross on your forehead, and invite you to remember your baptism and be thankful.

When it comes to what we’ll be when we grow up, there’s a lot of ways we can answer that.  But, as Christians, we’ve been to the water and we’re clothed with Christ.  What do we want to be?  Let’s be like Jesus.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Chasing the Light (Matthew 2:1-12, Epiphany of our Lord)

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem.  They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews?  We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”

When Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him.  He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born.  They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote:

You, Bethlehem, land of Judah, by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah, because from you will come one who governs, who will shepherd my people Israel.”

Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared.  He sent them to Bethlehem saying, “Go and search carefully for the child.  When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.”  When they heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was.  When they saw the star, they were filled with joy.  They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother.  Falling to their knees, they honored him.  Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.

Honest confession today: who still has their Christmas decorations out?  Your tree is still up, the garlands and wreaths are still hung, the lights are still twinkling away – does that describe your house?

It describes my house, and you can see that it describes the church, as well, because, well, Christmas isn’t over yet.  Though our neighbors have industriously taken down their decorations on December 26, and the displays in the stores switched overnight to Valentine’s Day, we have left our Christmas decorations out as a twinkling reminder that Christmas isn’t technically over yet, and we short-circuit the story when we don’t give room for baby Jesus to be recognized as the Light of the World.

During the Advent season, we focused on preparing for the coming of Jesus by opening ourselves up to his kingdom of hope, peace, joy, and love.  We’ve celebrated his birth at Christmas, God making himself known in Jesus as a baby in Bethlehem.  Today we celebrate Epiphany, when Jesus in made known by a star’s heavenly light as a divine gift to all the peoples of the Earth.  When you see the decorations still out, just remember that the Light of the World will not be so easily extinguished or shoved back in a box until next year.

In fact, Jesus resists being placed in any box, he is one who resists being categorized or claimed exclusively by one group or another.  The bright start in the sky tips us to the reality that the Gospel Jesus brings is good news for all people, and not just a select few.  Just take a look at who features prominently in the story!

In the Scripture we’ve just read, after Jesus was born, wise men came from the east, even further east than Elizabeth City.  We don’t know exactly where “the East” was, but it was probably Persia, maybe modern-day Iran, or one of the something-stan countries – Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kazakhstan.

These men are called “magi” – hear how that sounds like “magic?”  One interpretation is that they were magicians – this isn’t David Copperfield or Michael Carbonaro type of magic.  No, they specialized in the paranormal – the hidden world of spirits and energy forces and the alignment of planets and stars.

Ashley and I spent a couple days in Sedona, Arizona last fall, which is a stunningly beautiful place with red rock formations and painted sunsets.  It’s also a place many believe to have a special, concentrated, spiritual energy, and the town has developed a pretty robust industry selling access to the supernatural – crystals and guided tours of the energy hot spots.  It’s all pretty “woo woo” to me, but I’m also struck by the realization that the wise men would have fit right in – studying the stars, feeling the energy, and indeed, with their expertise and learning, they probably would have been prominent, leading citizens – “kings of the community,” if you will.

That’s among their own people, of course.  God’s chosen people, the Jews, of whom Mary and Joseph and Jesus were part, would have viewed them with suspicion.  Whatever else you think about the wise men, know that they were outsiders, foreigners – strangers from a strange land, with strange beliefs and strange practices.  They would have been more at home with the crystal-wearing, vortex-loving hippies of Sedona than with respectable church-going folks of the Midwest or Southeast, and yet, their path still leads them to Jesus.

In reality, we know that the wise men didn’t see Jesus in the manger.  The star appeared at his birth, which meant there was still considerable time for the wise men to study it and decide to journey toward it.  Jesus was probably about two years old by the time they made it there; they didn’t see baby Jesus, they saw toddler Jesus.

I know of one church who doesn’t place the wise men in their nativity scene.  Rather, they place them on a windowsill in the very back of the sanctuary, as far away from baby Jesus as possible, as a way of remembering that the wise men were nowhere nearby for his birth, but instead were just embarking on a long journey. 

It would be more accurate to get our nativity scene out during Advent, pop baby Jesus in there on Christmas Eve as we already do, take the whole thing down and put it away, and then about two years later, swap out baby Jesus for a toddler Jesus figure, move the whole scene into Mary and Joseph’s starter home, and THERE have the wise men finally show up.

Friends, it just takes some folks longer than others to make their way to Jesus.  It took the wise men two years to get there, and it can sometimes take us just as long, if not longer.  Maybe you’ve noticed, but sometimes we human can be stubborn and hard-headed.  We can be slow to get what God is up to and even slower to respond.  But, one of the things I appreciate about the story of the wise men is that with God, it’s never too late to join the party.  God doesn’t shut us out, or say, “You missed your chance, too bad, so sad.”  It took the magi two years to get there, it will take some of us, some of those around us, just as long.  It will take some a lifetime.  Is it better to get to Jesus sooner than later?  Absolutely.  But, even if one comes late, it’s never too late.

So, that’s what I appreciate about the story of the wise men.  What I find a bit unsettling is how the wise men get to Jesus.  They came seeking Christ after studying the night skies.  Today, on Epiphany, a strange star shining in the sky announces the Gospel to foreigners, adherents to strange religion, people who have more faith in the stars than the Scriptures.

I would love for the magi to connect with God in a way I recognize, through preaching, worship, or sacraments. I would prefer that they have an encounter with Jesus through a Bible study or prayer group, I would prefer that God’s presence was made real to them through a welcoming congregation or some mission project.

But that’s not how the Scriptures tell it. Beliefs and practices that are strange and suspicious to us are the very thing that led them to Jesus.  Let me say that again: beliefs and practices that are strange and suspicious to us are the very thing that led them to Jesus.

How often have we dismissed the religious experience of others simply because it didn’t line up with our experience?  Most of us have a kneejerk instinct when we encounter something strange to quickly judge it and denounce it.  We don’t understand it, it’s new, it’s foreign, it’s different, and we immediately say, “I don’t know anything about it, but I know I don’t like it.”

A number of years ago, a friend’s encouragement was to turn to wonder rather than rush to judgment.  We see something new, something outside our expectations, and instead of saying, “That’s wrong,” we say, “I wonder how that thing/that idea/that person came to be?”  Do you see how it’s a fundamentally different response than immediately denouncing and judging what we don’t understand?  To judge is to shut down.  To wonder is to open up to new possibility and understanding.

The presence of the magi – their story, their beliefs, their path to Jesus – holds open the possibility that God is working in different people in different ways.  How truly wonderful!

That’s not the same as saying, “All paths lead to God,” – simple observation and common sense tell us that much – but, as people of faith, is our faith big enough, our God big enough to allow room for God to work in ways we do not understand and have not experienced for ourselves?

Now, that’s an epiphany – the realization that God’s work in the world is not restricted by our feeble understanding and limited experience.  God does not work in all hearts alike.  God may be working in you in a way that’s different than God might be working in me, but as a person of faith, I celebrate that God’s up to something in you, even if it seems strange to me. The things that light up your sky may not light up mine.  We may each come to God’s presence in our own way, but when people who walk in darkness see God’s great light, even at different times and in different ways and along different paths, then praise God who lights the way, and to whom belongs all the brilliant glory.  Even those who come to the party late, it’s never too late, thanks be to God!

The Scriptures tell us we are fearfully and wonderfully made; does it not stand to good reason that God’s ways of getting our attention would be equally diverse and wonderful?

Epiphany both proclaims and celebrates the reach of God’s embrace.  The bright star in the sky shows the lengths to which God is willing to go in order to announce the good news of his presence to all the world.  Jesus is King of Kings and Lord of Lords to all the world – those who are very much like us, and those whose ways seem strange and distant.  Likewise, the response of the magi shows us that faith is a journey that leads us through sometimes strange and foreign places to destinations unknown, yet the light of God’s presence is both our guide and our reward for making the journey.

Today, we will gather at the Lord’s table and celebrate the sacrament of Holy Communion, a place where we know we will experience God’s presence again.

The only requirement to come to the table today is a desire to experience God’s presence.  That’s it.  It doesn’t matter where you’ve come from, where you’ve been, how you got here, or how long you’ve been here.  Whether you have come to faith in a way that is decent and respectable and recognizable to the person next to you, or if your path has been anything but conventional, you are welcome here.  You are welcome at the Lord’s table because 2000 years ago, a bright star brought some unlikely people to their knees before Jesus, and as unlikely as you or the person next to you may think you are, you are still not outside the inclusive reach of the King of Kings, and Jesus has set this table especially for you.

It’s 2016, the start of a new year.  Would you join me in making this the year in which we all turn to wonder rather than rush to judgment?  Imagine how life could be different – in our families, our jobs, our church, our community, our politics and our world – if each of us would turn to wonder rather than rush to judgment.  I daresay the light of God’s presence just might shine – not just in Bethlehem, not just in the stars – the light of God’s loving presence just might shine from you and from me, and the world will be a little brighter as a result.