You are loved. Pass it on.

2-11-18

Mark 1:9-15

9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 12And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

14Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

 

            I saw a slightly cheesy comic online the other day. It shows two small furry creatures, prairie dogs maybe, talking to each other. One says, “The world is hurting. I want to help, but how?” and the other small furry creature just gives him a hug and says, “You are loved. Pass it on.” So the second furry creature finds a rhino and hugs her and says, “You are loved. Pass it on” and the rhino finds a lion and gives him a hug and says “You are loved. Pass it on” and the lion finds a giraffe and pretty soon whole world is saying “You are loved. Pass it on.”

            Like I said, slightly cheesy. But also a lot like what is happening in the gospel of Mark today and what we are doing tonight and what most of the whole church around the world is doing for Lent, saying again and again, “You are loved. Pass it on.” Or as Jan Richardson put it in the poem “Beloved is where we begin.”

            Lent can feel like a time doing a lot of things, and it often is, but the doing of all the things is not where we start. It’s not even where Jesus starts. That was chapter one of Mark, the first gospel to be written, and the first appearance Jesus makes. You might expect a grand entrance of miracle working or a speech, but instead Jesus goes to get baptized by someone else. In this first scene we don’t hear Jesus speak at all, instead he hears a voice from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” That’s where Jesus whole ministry starts, with being beloved.

            Now Jesus hears this at his baptism and baptism is an important manifestation of God’s love for us and the ways we promise to pass that on, but baptism formalizes that relationship, it doesn’t create it. Jesus was thirty years old when he was baptized. It’s not like until then he had been walking around with God thinking, “I don’t know about this guy” and then baptism changed God’s mind. God already knew that Jesus was his beloved son, and whether or not you have been baptized, God already knows that you too are God’s beloved child. Baptism is important to bring up today though because it gives us a context for our use of ashes on Ash Wednesday.

Part of the baptismal ritual is to trace a cross on the baptizee’s forehead with olive oil and say “You, child of God, you are sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” In other words, you are beloved and you have an identity completely apart from what you do or what happens to you. When we put ashes on each other’s foreheads tonight it’s also with olive oil and in the shape of a cross, but now we say “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” It doesn’t contradict the words at baptism, it adds to them. That blessing of “child of God” is always underneath the new words and where this Ash Wednesday ritual begins. The ashes that are added to the oil add another truth, “You, child of God, are mortal. You, child of God, are flawed. And you are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”

You are loved is always where we begin, but the reason that that comic struck me as kind of cheesy is because we all know it’s more complicated than that. If we could just pass hugs around and achieve world peace I think we would have done it by now. But it’s more complicated because we are flawed, the churchy word would be sinful. We all make decisions and get caught up in systems that harm ourselves, each other and God’s creation. And so ashes are a sign of repentance, that means stopping that harm and living a different way. In the Old Testament when people realized just how messed up they or their communities had gotten, they would put ashes on their heads as a sign of that repentance. So that is part of what we do today. Because I know that everyone in this room knows how messed up things have gotten, and the ways that each of us has participated in that or at least stepped back and watched it happen. And we want to do better, we want our communities to be better. But in order to actually live differently we have to not only acknowledge that we’ve messed things up, but hear that God still loves us and we still love each other, and it really is worth it to try to do better. That’s what confession lets us do: acknowledge the mess out loud, commit to trying to do better and hear that we are still loved and that it’s still worth it to keep trying. 

            But we also use ashes and the words with them, “You are dust and to dust you shall return” to remind us of our mortality. We are not forever. We are not limitless or the complete captains of our own destiny. We die, and people who we love die. Even in the sincerest hope and belief that death is not the end for us, being mortal is difficult and often filled with grief. We put ashes on our foreheads both to be honest about that fact, but also to set it right next to that promise that you are a beloved child of God. Yes, we will return to dust, but doesn’t make us meaningless, because before and through that truth is the truth that you are loved, that is where you begin and that part of your identity will last forever.

            These are difficult things to say: I am sinful. I will die. And yet there is a freedom in acknowledging our mortality and our world’s brokenness that exists even within our own hearts and minds. We know we are broken. We know we will die. What Lent asks us to remember with that is that we are loved. That sin and death do not have the last word on who we are and they are never our most foundational piece or the place where we begin. During Lent we’ll have plenty of opportunities to take that love and pass it on, but only because we are loved. In God’s eyes we are all mortal and loved, sinful and loved, but beloved is always where we begin.

 

 

Find the good

1-7-18

Matt. 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, 2asking, ‘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.’ 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They 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. 8Then 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.’ 9When 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. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On 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. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Around Christmas I saw Star Wars twice. I liked it a lot better the second time, but both times my favorite line was the same. No spoilers, but it’s when a character named Rose Tico has made has made a dramatic and risky judgment call (that I know not everyone here agrees with) and she explains it by saying, “We're going to win not by fighting what we hate, but saving what we love!” It’s a quote that sums up a lot of the story arc in the movie, but it also tells us something as the audience: Rose has found something that she believes is worth saving, and in spite of the chaos around her she believes it’s time to stop and recognize that.

I confess that this year I felt more hope from Star Wars than from Christmas. Not because of the stories themselves, but because of how they were each presented. In Star Wars I could see the struggle, the courage and the joy of the world the characters live in, but around Christmas time it’s like we pretend that Jesus was born in a snow globe, all pretty and walled off from the rest of the world. And that’s a problem, because the world that you and I live in can at times feel closer to a nasty galactic battle than sparkly snow drifting onto a softly lit manger scene. The truth is that I’m tired. And that if Jesus showed up in some fairy tale then I don’t see what good that does you or me.

So in a weird way it’s helpful to read today, “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born.” King Herod was a nasty character, the sort of politician that will do anything to increase and hold onto his power no matter the cost to his people, or even those closest to him. He is among other things remembered for killing several immediate family members, including his second wife. In our own story, Herod is about to order the death of every baby boy in Bethlehem in the hopes that Jesus will be among them, and Jesus only survives by fleeing as a refugee to Egypt. If Jesus was born not in a snow globe, but in the time of King Herod then that is a world I can recognize. That is a world of struggle and courage. And yet today we hear not about fighting Herod, or even about saving anyone from him quite yet, but about searching, and bringing gifts, and joy.  

When the three wise men, probably astrologer priests from Iran, get to Judea they very logically go to the palace. After all they are looking for a prince. But when they find Herod, not Jesus, they are wise enough to leave and keep following the star until it stops above an ordinary house with an ordinary looking woman and her toddler inside. The wise men are wise, not so much because of their astrology, but because they recognize what is good when they find it. They recognize that it is Jesus that they have come to pay homage to, not Herod, and in finding him they are overwhelmed with joy. In spite of the fact that Herod is still out there, in spite of this not being what they expected, they recognize that with the star God has led them to something truly and purely good. So they stop and they give proper honor to what they have found and they offer what they can. It’s only after recognizing and rejoicing in finding something precious, that they protect it by defying Herod’s orders and sneaking out of town without telling him where to find and kill Jesus.

Many of us have spent a lot of energy in the past year fighting what we hate and protecting what we love. And that is good! But I at least also need to remember the wisdom of the wise men, to focus when God is trying to lead me to what is good and when I find it, to stop and recognize that. To bring what I can offer and to enjoy it! When he had grown up, Jesus took the time before saving us to make his first miracle changing water into wine at a wedding: simply recognizing what was good in that moment, what he had to offer and pausing with the joy of the people he had ultimately come to save. When we take the time to follow where we are being called, we also find what is good and what we have to offer, and our own joy in pausing there, in spite of the Herods, and as reason for the difficult decisions of when to fight and what to save.

So as this year begins I encourage you: find the good. Let God lead you towards the things in your own life that are precious, meaningful and of God, even if they’re more like a fragile baby in an ordinary house than the power and prestige of a palace. What is truly good is worth spending the time to find and to stay with. There will be times to save what you love, and even times to fight what you hate, but first there is time simply to find joy in the good that God has called us into.

On waiting with joy

12-3-17

Luke 1:46-55

 And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord, 
   and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, 
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
   Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
   and holy is his name. 
His mercy is for those who fear him
   from generation to generation. 
He has shown strength with his arm;
   he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly; 
he has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty. 
He has helped his servant Israel,
   in remembrance of his mercy, 
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
   to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

 

Today we celebrate Advent, the season of waiting for Jesus to be born, and we celebrate with the Magnificat, the pregnant Mary’s song of praise as she also waits.

First let’s get a few things straight about Mary. She was young, but of normal marrying age for her era and not as much younger than Joseph, as is often depicted. She is neither meek nor mild, I think her song about bringing down the powerful from their thrones speaks for itself on that count, and she is not a divine advertisement for female sexual availability. When she told the angel yes, she would carry the child of God her answer, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” is the answer of a prophet, not a concubine.

But the accumulated muck of bias aside, Mary is a bit of a shadowy figure. We know a few events in her life as they relate to Jesus, and even a few of her personal reactions to them, but in the scheme of the gospels we hear very little from her. Today’s reading is the most she speaks, or rather sings, and it is not at all what one might expect a pregnant teenager to say. There’s nothing here about babies or family, in spite of the fact that she might very well have expected delivering her firstborn son to be the most important achievement of her life. Instead Mary begins with praise for God’s faithfulness to her personally and then leaps straight into the greater meanings of this birth: God has fulfilled the promises to Abraham, has filled the hungry with good food and sent the rich away, and has “scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.”

You might notice something else odd about Mary’s song, and that is that she is singing about the future actions she anticipates for Jesus in the past tense. Much academic ink has been spilled over this, but essentially Mary is rejoicing over something that hasn’t happened yet, but is consistent with what she knows of God’s actions in the past and what the angel told her to anticipate for the future. So she claims the joy now, even in the first fragile months of her pregnancy, before she could know beyond a doubt that she would have a son, she knew that this child was worth waiting for beyond anything she had experienced in her young life. She knew that she was not alone in her waiting; that God and generations of promise stood with her. And she knew, even as the full beauty and pain of who her child would be were still beyond her, that what was holy would turn her whole world upside down.

Like Mary, we never really understand the full implications of what we hope for, especially when those hopes involve God and the holy. Our hopes go out beyond us, and they should. In our anticipation we can only know part of what it is we wait for. Our anticipations may not be as world upsetting as giving birth to the Christ child, but they do go beyond what appears on the surface and even have potential to go into the realm of holiness more often than I think we realize.

I don’t know what it is that you are waiting for, whether the longings most personal and dear to your heart or the things that might seem a bit frivolous, but I believe they are all more than meet the eye. That even in your most joyful, or nervous, or sad or frustrated anticipation, there will be parts that are more beautiful, more complex and more holy than you can know. So I hope that together we can wait like Mary, knowing that what we wait for with God is so worth it, trusting that we can go ahead and claim some of that joy even of things that have not yet come to pass, and making room for a bit of awe that all that we wait for is both very human and will be brought by God’s presence into being something that is also a bit divine. May you find joy in the waiting.

 

Enough and more than enough

8-6-17

Matthew 14: 13-21

13Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

 

 

My question about the Feeding of the 5,000 this week has been “Why is this so important?” It’s one of very few miracle stories that is repeated across all four gospels, it’s taught to children, depicted in art and there are even Churches of the Multiplication…though not a lot because that’s really hard to say. And yes, in some ways it is an extraordinary story… but in the scheme of Jesus’ miracles: walking on water, raising Lazarus, casting out demons, calming the storm…taking bread and fish and making more bread and fish is pretty ordinary. So why does it stick in our imaginations the way that it does?

            I think that’s because for Christians, this is a miracle story, yes, but it’s even more an identity story. We understand God as the one who shows up with us, heals us, and feeds us in both our physical bodies and our spirits. And we understand ourselves as people who gather looking for something from God, then eat together, provide for each other as we are able, and always believe that whatever we are able to bring to the table, God will make out of it enough, and more than enough.

            Now in a way I mean that very literally: eating together is what we do. Christians have been having gatherings much like tonight for thousands of years now and sharing both ordinary and ritual meals. Of all Christian ritual, the most central is a meal. Communion is now quite stylized but at its bones, it’s dinner with friends and dinner with God. It echoes Jesus’ last dinner with his friends, but also this story of bread and fish for thousands, and dinner on the road to Emmaus, and heavenly banquets, and every person through time and space who has gathered around a table like this. There are layers upon layers of meaning brought together by what we do that is both ordinary and extraordinary: eating together and eating with God.

            …and in some mysterious way, eating God. That’s a much more extraordinary claim that having more bread and fish than you started with. In some ways, it’s downright offensive, and it’s no wonder that Christians have been accused of cannibalism from time to time. Some Romans believed we ate babies since they heard stories of dinner gatherings that included a ritual meal of body and blood, and also noticed that when Christians found babies who had been been “exposed,” left out to die in the elements, they took them home. Putting two and two together, we must be eating the babies.

            But in reality of course, what we eat is in most ways very ordinary. The wine is from Total Wine, the bread, crackers and grape juice are from Target. Part of what connects us to communion is that this is the recognizable stuff or our daily lives. Yet it is also body and blood of Christ, in a miraculous but very real sense, so that in this ritual God becomes both the hosting friend who is always cooking for us, and the meal itself that gathers community, gives strength and forgives whatever is twisting our spirits. It is the most visceral reminder possible that God loves us creatures enough to die for us.

            And so Christians gather, week after week, all over the world to follow some ordinary and yet extraordinary instructions, “this is my body that is given for you, do this for the remembrance of me.” And we remember again who God is and who we are:

God is the one who sticks around and feeds us. We are people who eat together, share what we have, and expect that in both ordinary and extraordinary ways, God is present and will make it enough and more than enough. Amen.