Monday, January 11, 2016

Precious and Beloved

A note: I'm off to a preaching workshop this week (read about the neat history of the conference here), so I don't have time to add pictures this week. Given yesterday's Seahawks' game, I know that the prayer life of Washingtonians has strengthened. However, given next week's game time of 10am, here is yesterday's sermon for some nourishment of the soul.

Baptism of our Lord, Year C, January 10, 2016
Luke 3:15-22 15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John 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. 17His 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.” 
 21Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22and 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.”
I love you. You are mine. You are precious in my sight.
These are some of the most tender and intimate words used in the Bible to describe God’s love for God’s people. This reading is a favorite for baptisms and for devotional reading, and it sounds so beautiful and comforting that we might miss some significant and powerful meaning behind the words.
This chapter of Isaiah was written for a people in exile, after they had been carried into captivity, conquered by the Babylonians. They were a broken and forlorn people who worried that God had abandoned them.
In the ancient world, if you were in debt or taken in to captivity, slavery was the inevitable result. To be freed from slavery, someone had to pay for your release- and this was called redemption. To redeem someone meant to pay for their very life.
This was the promise that God made through Isaiah- that God had not abandoned God’s people but instead promised, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.” They were not abandoned and they were not worthless. Instead, God considered them worth entire nations, including Egypt, the symbol for wealth and power in the ancient world. God says, “I give nations in exchange for you. You are precious in my sight.”
That word, precious, in English and in the Hebrew for which it is translated- those words mean “worth a price.” Precious isn’t just sweet- it means, “I’m willing to pay a ransom. You are worth something.” The people in exile were worth something because God loved them, even when they wondered if they were lovable or worthy. God treasured them, even at their worst.
In the New Testament text, in which we hear about Jesus’ baptism, we hear the words from the voice from heaven, “You are my son, the beloved. With you I am well-pleased.” God says, “You are mine. I love you.” It’s an echo of God’s words to the people in Isaiah.
Like the people carried off in to Babylon, there are times when we will doubt whether we are loved or lovable, when we will wonder if we are worth anything. These times often come when we are broken- by a hard year or a hard life, or when we realize the depth of our own sinfulness. We’ve made a mess of things, and can’t see a way out.  As we say in confession, “We are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves.”
How do we get out? We are stuck in a pit with slippery sides. If we try to climb out, our footholds crumble beneath us, the walls cave in. There is no hope of getting out on our own.

But in baptism, we are claimed by a god who loves us, who names us, who will not leave us. We fall into the pit, but God does not leave us. Instead, God sends Jesus to be with us, to rescue us, to stay by our side.
God looks at us and calls us beloved. God sees our distress and rescues us. We are enslaved, and God calls us precious. God redeems us from sin and death, and what is the price of our redemption? The wealth of Egypt and Seba could not compare to the price that Jesus paid in giving his very life on the cross.
If you have ever doubted that you are worth God’s love, know that when you entered the waters of baptism, God promised to be with you. If you have ever wondered about your worth, know that God says you are worth God’s very self.
Rivers will not overwhelm you, fire will not consume you. You, beloved child of God, are precious in God’s sight, and God has redeemed you because God loves you, more than you could ever imagine.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Being brave, foolish, and wise

Epiphany 2016
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, 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.’” 7Then 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.

All Christmas, the spotlight has been focused on the baby lying in the manger, the glow from the Holy Child reflecting on the face of his mother, his earthly father, the shepherds, even the animals. We see within the stable the cozy warmth of the manger holding the miracle of God’s gift of the incarnation, the Word made flesh. Yet atop that humble shelter, a star shines in the night, and the light of that star draws our attention to a faraway land, to a people who did not share the language or beliefs or even the same gods.

by Gentile da Fabriano
In the Old Testament, prophets proclaimed God’s promise that nations would bow down to the king of Israel, paying homage, bringing gifts, and recognizing the power and sovereignty of the ruler of God’s people. God’s mercy and love and presence would not be only for the insiders- God’s chosen people- but will be good news for foreigners, and expanding God’s tribe to include people who are very different from Abraham and Sarah and their descendants. And because of this inclusive salvation, God’s presence would found, not just in one specific and holy place, but everywhere.  So it is that the cozy scene at the crèche is not complete until we get some foreign wise men arriving from their dusty journey to Bethlehem. They’re part of the unfolding story of God’s salvation, too.
The Magi and the Star, Gentile da Fabriano, 1423
This story takes a while to be accomplished. While the baby is being born and the shepherds are receiving the news, the Wise Men are just getting the first glimpse of a wondrous sight- the brightest star they have ever seen. It’s unlike anything they’ve ever seen before, but being scholars, they figure that it means something. The star piques their curiosity- they have got to go see what it’s all about.
Adoration of the Magi, Guido da Siena
No one else goes with them- they’re the advance team, or maybe the only ones brave enough to head out on the journey. Maybe their friends and neighbors thought they were silly to head out without directions or certainty of their destination, only a start to guide them. So they are a small crew of people, heading out into the unknown, willing to go on what could be a wild goose chase. Somehow the wise men step out into the dark, ready to let a star guide them, daring to be a little foolish on the chance that this journey might lead to something greater than their usual lives.

We all have times in our lives when we are called to follow the glimmer of a new star, to step out on an unknown journey. Perhaps a major life change has happened, like the beginning of a relationship or an ending. Maybe you are waiting for the arrival of a child or you are unsure what the New Year will bring. Perhaps you don’t know what is next, but you know that the way things stand must change, will change, whether you want them to or not.
The Wise Men had to follow some vague directions, and they took some wrong turns and made a stop in Jerusalem at Herod’s palace first.  We, too, will take wrong turns and make dangerous stops along the way. Like the Wise Men, we will need to be brave and curious, willing to enter into foreign territory, and ready to meet the stranger. But the journey will be worth it for it will change our lives.
So let’s be ready to go out on foolish journeys, to risk our reputations and our comfort and our usual routines. With the Wise Men, let us go to seek God’s presence, to follow the light of God’s star, to see what God is up to. God goes before us and with us, a light in the darkness, a glimmer of a star in the cold night, calling us out into unfamiliar territory, into an uncharted future. On that road, God will meet us.  Amen.