Saturday, February 11, 2017

February 12, 2017, the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

We are surrounded by rules. The Ten Commandments are painted on the wall. We obey traffic laws on the way to church. We accepted terms of service to use the apps on our cell phones. We are guided and our lives are bounded by rules. We often only think about them when we break them. Was I driving too fast when I passed that police car? Should I have that second brownie? In working out our spiritual lives, we are often worried about the rules we have broken, and perhaps less concerned about rules we have neglected.

Jesus teases out the meaning of the rules. He extends beyond “You have heard it said…” He tells what seems to be an even stricter interpretation. We have to remember what the rules are for. Moses gives the law to show the people how to live. God’s law is not merely a set of peculiar practices – it is a way of life. The motivation to obey is not fear (of punishment) but love. We obey because we love God. We obey because we love our neighbor.

As Jesus unpacks the commandments in the Sermon on the Mount, we are drawn to the sexual sins for which we are ashamed, and somehow we neglect the other sins that seem to be more common. People fret about divorce. Why do we not worry over anger, or telling lies? When Jesus tells us not to look with lust, and not to divorce for trivial matters, he is reminding us to respect each other. He is not instituting yet another barrier to separate people with shame.

Jesus uses many more words to talk about anger. Even an off-hand comment of disrespect imperils our soul. It is so important to cease from anger that we should leave everything else – including worship – to rush to seek reconciliation with our sister or our brother. Wouldn’t things be better if we spent more energy seeking reconciliation in our time, rather than seeking new ways to shame each other? We are surrounded by anger and fear. Jesus would have us work for something better. We need to be troubled about our lack of respect for each other more than our worry about keeping the letter of the law.

All of ways that Jesus reframes of the rules are about moving beyond the trivial to the profound. It’s not enough to give up murder. You have to give up hate. It’s not enough to refrain from adultery. You have to give up lust. It’s not enough to fill out proper paperwork for divorce. You have to respect marriage. It’s not enough to swear an oath. You have to always speak the truth. When we only obey the law in a technical way, we miss the purpose behind it.

If we hold onto anger, we will have broken relationships with our neighbors. We can still hold onto our principles. We do not have to agree. We are forbidden to hate. We are forbidden to treat another person as merely something to gratify our desire, because people are worth infinitely more than that. Divorce is forbidden because marriage was not the equal partnership we know. Women had few rights. They could not obtain a divorce. If women were released from marriage by their husbands, they had no status or income, and it was disastrous for them. God did not give permission so that it could be abused. The rules are given so that we treat one another with dignity and respect.

And when we fail or fall, we are reminded that our relationship with God and with each other is not meant to be broken forever. How odd that divorce keeps people out of community? Why should that failure be uncorrectable? We sin and God forgives. We begin again and God helps us live into new life. The rules are not a barrier. They are a path towards life. The goal is to live lives of love and integrity where our words match our actions and we rejoice in loving relationships. Our yes is yes and our no is no because that’s how people talk when they love and respect each other.

Jesus doesn’t demand our obedience. He demands love. We might be fooled into thinking that God’s love is contingent on our obedience. We have it in the wrong order. The grace of God is never contingent. It is always true. It is where we always begin. Moses doesn’t say that God will love them only when they obey the commandments. The offer is a way of life or a way of death. God always offers love and life. We only die when we refuse to accept it.

As Jesus re-tells the rules of life, it can sound even more difficult. In a sense it is. We have to seek the meaning in all that we do. We have to seek the best way to love in every circumstance.  If we succeed or fail, God loves us anyway. Jesus is calling us to persist in the better way. Jesus is not setting up an impossible standard so that we can retreat into misery and dependence. Jesus is offering a path where we have to keep seeking the best outcome. We have to seek the way that recognizes the dignity of every person we encounter. We are given eyes to see as God sees, and hearts to love as God loves. As we come to every inevitable impasse, it is not enough to judge who is right or wrong. Jesus calls us to seek the way of life. That is what saves us.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

February 5, the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

For Christmas, my wife was worried about my back injury, so she signed me up for yoga lessons. I had my first class this week. I marvel that some of my muscles are as stiff as they are! I marvel that I have aching muscles I didn't know I had. I am not generally unhealthy, but over the years, parts of my body have become less used, and bad habits of posture have begun to catch up with me. This new discipline has made this plain.

We think we are doing pretty well until we adopt a new perspective. In general, we are good people, living the best way we know. Once in a while, we see ourselves from a different perspective and we have to re-evaluate how we are doing. The prophet Isaiah has a stern judgment about the people of God. This poem of warning was probably written after the people returned from exile, yet hadn't seemed to return to a place of blessing and success. Perhaps they had managed to accumulate some wealth and power, yet the people seem disconnected to God.

Isaiah points out their hypocrisy. They make a show of fasting, and they neglect to feed the poor among them. No wonder God ignores their prayers. Isaiah reminds them that it is not words or ritual that gets the attention of God, except when they are accompanied with works of justice and mercy. In all our public discussions about true religion, we forget the obsessions of the prophets. You'd think God cared about sex as much as we do! The prophets scolded the people almost exclusively about two sins, idolatry and neglect of the poor.

Idolatry is the sin of worshipping a God who is not God. While we do not set up physical idols, we are often guilty of worshipping money, or power, or patriotism, or whatever besetting sin you can imagine. For all our worry over the worthiness of others, the prophets commanded the people to care for the poor without any tests of worthiness or neediness. Imagine how different the world would be if we competed in how much we gave instead of in how much we have?

Isaiah (like all the other prophets) is reminding the people about the most important purpose of the law. We are to love God and we are to love our neighbors. When we worship another God, we lose our love for God. When we neglect the poor around us, we neglect our love for our neighbor. We stop being who we are.

This is what Jesus is talking about when he tells us we are the salt of the earth. I have read many interesting commentaries that try and explain how salt can lose its saltiness. Perhaps ancient Israelites used a sort of low-grade salt that loses its efficacy? I read another commentator who surmised that salt used in religious rituals could become ceremonially unclean - and then it had to be discarded. I think all of these explanations miss the point. There is no such thing as “unsalty” salt. There's no such thing as a lamp shining under a basket. There is no such thing as a city on a hill that you can't see. So, how can we hide who we are?

The good we do shows the glory of God. Why do we try to do otherwise? Later, Jesus will talk about doing good deeds in private, and we will be reminded of this on Ash Wednesday. Jesus is speaking of the absurdity of a private faith. We are so careful to be tactful; we forget that everything we do is an expression of what we believe and of who we are. This public faith is not for our own ego, but to proclaim to everyone around us just how good God is. We do good works as a declaration of Gods love for us and to declare how God helps us to love our neighbor.

Jesus will begin to compare two ways of true worship. Jesus will speak against the scribes and the Pharisees, yet it is also important to remember that he is teaching as if he is one of them. If you were to read ancient accounts of arguments of points of law between first century teachers and Pharisees, those arguments sound quite similar to what Jesus is arguing. He is very much like a first century liberal Pharisee. There was a tendency to become over-scrupulous in the observance of the law after the exile. Those conservative Pharisees didn't want to make the same mistake of their lapsed ancestors. In exile, they learned to adhere to the law as a way of devotion and as a way to preserve their identity in a foreign land. After the return, and under Roman rule, there was still a tendency to live a life in opposition to the dominant culture of Rome. The Pharisees took great pride in their observance of the law and they worried about anyone who had any excuse to relax their practice.

Jesus reminds us what true practice of obedience is, and why we do it. We devote ourselves to God because we love God (or we seek to deepen our love for God.) We perform good works, not to prove our commitment to laws, but to declare our love for our neighbor (or to deepen our love for our neighbor.) This is how we might surpass the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees - not in some ridiculous race to be even more correct and pure in our obedience - but in our desire to draw nearer to God in love, and nearer to our neighbor in love.

Of course this is not easy. As soon as we try, we face our own fears and hypocrisy. We are immediately confronted with questions about how best to serve the poor. Are we serving their true needs or only our own? Are we helping or enabling bad behavior? What do our neighbors really need from us? Who are we responsible for? How wide a circle can we draw? The closer we look, the more we feel like we are at our first yoga class, discouraged and stiff. The good news is that God's righteousness does not look like perfect observance. God's righteousness is love.

As long as we keep asking uncomfortable questions - as long as we keep offering our imperfect love - God will help us discover how best to shine. We must be ready to look foolish. The cross is no wise or easy thing. The truth of the cross is love and sacrifice. As we are willing to offer whatever we have to be used for God's glory, the closer we will find ourselves to the heart of God. We will gain our saltiness. We will shine more brightly. We will be a people on a hill, for everyone to see.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

January 29, 2017, The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

I’m trying very hard to find positive examples for us to follow today. It is certainly easy to find negative examples, so let me try some unfamiliar ground. I have been a life-long fan of Boston teams. I have even been a fan of the New England Patriots, long before they were any good at football. In the decades of the seventies and the eighties, they were a laughing-stock. Now others despise them because they win too much. The difference is the mindset or the culture of the team.

The head coach is often disparaged because people think he cheats, or he wears a dull grey hoodie, or he grunts at press conferences. What he has brought to the team is a no-nonsense approach. Do your job. Good players are let go when they demand too much. It’s all about the team and everyone doing what they need to do to win.

I remember when the Patriots had a few good players – and it was all about a few spectacular plays and maybe a few wins, and maybe some success as a team. I raise this because a change in attitude that everyone accepts has made a great difference in this team. Attitude can make a great difference in our life together as well. Sports metaphors are often stretched to make the wrong lessons. We are not athletes, and we are not seeking success by our natural abilities, nor are we trying to achieve worldly acclaim. We are trying to be faithful together and to live as God calls us. Are we on the right path?

Micah is speaking to people who have lost their way. He is discouraged, and he imagines a heavenly court where the people are guilty of failing to follow God. What is required? Through Micah, God commands that we “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly” with God. All three aspects are with God – not just humility. We are to do right actions – with the help of God. We are to do good things out of love (not fear or pride) – with the guidance of God. We are to be humble, or live in a right attitude towards God and others. This is God’s more articulate, “Do your job.”

Jesus proclaims a similar and expanded message in his sermon on the mount. The blessings sound “spiritualized” compared to a familiar version in Luke. Jesus is not discounting the lives of the poor or the weak. In fact, the attitude he is describing is that of the mass of many poor people who make up the majority, who are trying to live faithfully. The poor in spirit are also the meek. Those who mourn the failure of God’s people are also the ones hungry for righteousness. They are also merciful or compassionate. They are seeking peace, as an act of reconciliation. They are pure in heart. The reward is persecution. They will be reviled and persecuted and spoken about falsely. This is the expected reward of living as Jesus calls us.

Why is this? To accept the ways of Jesus is to reject the ways of this world and it’s values and its rewards. We live under the illusion that our world shares our values. Increasingly this is not true. In the early church, there was a need to stand in opposition to the ways of honor and shame. The church opposed the machinery of the empire. They rejected the conventional measure of blessing – money, status, and power. The early church declared Jesus to be Christ, the anointed one, the Son of God – as opposed to Caesar. They accepted persecution because of this.

When Paul writes to the Corinthians, he no longer praises their gifts and their wisdom. He reminds them of the foolishness of the cross. The message of the gospel is not wise or clever. The good news is a gift that we don’t figure out as much as accept and agree to live into. From the outside it looks foolish. From the outside we are naïve, or stuck in the past. We are not trendy or creative. We have nothing to brag about. We know we are called to follow Jesus, who gives us life. The act of following is the path of living as Jesus lived. We try to do right and we ask for forgiveness when we fail. We have no idea when we will ever arrive at our destination, but we keep on going.

In the past, we could have taken pride in our liturgy or our status as a de-facto established church. No one takes any of that seriously anymore. We have nothing to sell, and nothing to boast of – except the love of God given freely and gladly taken. That’s all we have to offer. It doesn’t look like much, yet it is what changes hearts and changes the world.

God has no need for any of us to be superstars. God needs us to walk the path we’ve been given each day. We are called to live rightly, as God shows us. We are called to do good things out of the love we have been given. We are called to be humble and remember that all that we have is a gift from God. This changes us and it has the potential to change the people we meet.

Coach Belichek says, “Do you job.” That’s all he expects (which turns out to be quite a lot.) We can’t be overwhelmed by all the nonsense we see in the world. We can’t be perpetually outraged by what we hear. (Perhaps we shouldn’t even be surprised.) We can seek to know God and to follow Jesus. This may be even more important than we thought. God will use us to accomplish greater things than we ever thought possible. God will use us to bring light and life to the world.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Hope in a time of darkness, Jan. 22, 2017

In many ways we could say that we live in a time of darkness. We are worried about the future. We worry about violence and a poor economy. Perhaps we are a little short sighted and lack perspective, but right or wrong, we live in a time of great anxiety. We don't need reports that everything is really OK. We don't need some sort of economic measure that tells us everything is progressing as it should. We need the spiritual virtue of hope. We need to grow in our ability to trust that God will bring us what is promised - not just what we expect.

Isaiah reminds us of hope in a dark time. Sometimes we hear this prophecy at Christmas time. It is the lands on the border that will see the light first. It is the poor people on the edge who will see God first. Partly, this is a promise that the tribes that never found their promised land, the tribes that never conquered or overthrew their overlords - they would one day get what was promised. It is also a reminder that God always blesses those most in need of blessing first. This is God's preference. The outcasts, the disenfranchised, the poor, the powerless, the forgotten ones are always first in line with God. So we can have hope. We might discover that we are not first in God's line (there are others in more need than us), and that God will rescue us when we think all is lost.

Jesus goes to Galilee. It is the very land that Isaiah prophesied would most need saving. It is a land of many masters - the Romans. Jesus retreats here because John has been arrested by the powers that do not believe in God. It is here that Jesus begins to proclaim good news. It is in this place of darkness and this time of darkness that Jesus proclaims a message of light.

We live in a different time of darkness. We are free to choose our leaders and we can't agree on the directions we should go. Neighbors don't know how to talk to each other. We are surrounded by wealth and abundance and we never seem to have enough and we don't know how to share. Perhaps we have traded good news for something else.

Paul begins to talk about the central problem to the church in Corinth. They are gifted and blessed and they are a mess. They are terribly divided. One group vies against another and they all have favorite leaders around whom they gather. Paul wants none of this. He won't even claim authority over any he has baptized. He won't claim to own any party on his behalf. Paul points only to the gospel. He will only proclaim the power of the cross. He admits that it sounds like foolishness, yet it is the foolishness of the cross that saves us.

How willing are we to embrace the foolishness of the cross in this time of darkness? We want to create a reasonable and a rational answer to the problems of our time. We want people to understand what we are about. We want to create a friendly space foe people to find God's love.  Are we doing this for God or for ourselves? I think the best answer we can give in our time is the message of the cross, not the message of some kind of easy or popular alternative. We have to be willing to proclaim hope in darkness. We have to be willing to walk in the dark places where the message needs to be heard most.

We hear again the call to follow. Peter and Andrew and James and John abandon their nets and follow Jesus to fish for people. It sounds so miraculous. How did they find the courage to drop everything? Perhaps it isn't about them. Their families owned boats. They seem to have a large and profitable enterprise. Perhaps they had the means to take a break from work and follow a Rabbi. It might have even been a point of pride for the families that their sons were studying the Torah. The act of following is interesting, but much more extraordinary is the message! They followed Jesus as he went from town to town. He taught, he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom, and he cured every disease and every sickness.

We want to grow as a church. We want to make a difference in this time of darkness. Maybe we have to abandon the desire to find what ever we need to be comfortable. Maybe the gospel isn't about comfort but about hope. We don't need to entertain people. We don't even need to serve their needs (even if we could figure out what people wanted). The good news is first proclaimed in a time and place of darkness. Maybe we shouldn't be so quick to pretend there is no darkness.

We are called to engage the world around us. The darkest parts first! We need courage to enter those dark places and meet people where they are. Can we hear people's fears without judgment? Can we hold the sick and embrace the diseased? Do we have the courage to proclaim good news when we are surrounded with nothing but evidence to the contrary? We will find that (as we suspected) it is not about us. It is not about this church. The gospel is a message of hope if we are willing to give it away without any expectations.

When we are most discouraged is when God can begin to make a new thing in us. When we fail, we have more sense to sit with other people who have failed. When we are sick, we can sympathize with the diseased and the broken. When we can't tell what will happen next we are more likely to look to the promises of God. It is not the path we would choose, but it is how Jesus chose to walk with us. He did not proclaim his perfection, nor does he set up standards that we cannot achieve. He walks through death for us and calls us to follow. The promise is light shining in the darkness.

Following Jesus, MLK Weekend, Jan. 15, 2017

Jesus turns and asks, "What are you looking for?" That's not a bad question for us. What are we looking for? We gather here for many reasons. We are here to worship. Perhaps some of us are here to find comfort or support. Maybe we are looking for an insight to help us live better, or some words of wisdom to help us cope with the crazy world in which we live. The disciples were following the instructions of John and they were following the one to whom he pointed.

John has an odd message. He tells a story about how he would know the one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit. He tells about seeing the Spirit descend upon Jesus like a dove. He calls him the Lamb of God. Behind all of these odd and cryptic words is a sorting out of place and power. John is powerful and his message is compelling. He is only preparing us for another. I think sometimes we have forgotten to move on. We accept that we must be forgiven and cleansed from sin. Are we ready for the next step?

Two of John's disciples follow this Lamb of God (whatever that means.) Jesus turns and asks them what they are looking for. They ask, "Rabbi, where are you staying?" Some scholars believe that this is a polite way of inquiring if Jesus is taking on any students. His response, "Come and see," is a welcome to learn from him. It may not seem like a change has happened, except that these disciples have taken on a new teacher. This is also a different kind of commitment.

The work of teacher, or master and disciple is to learn how to live. The disciple doesn't simply learn truths. The disciple desires to become like the master. These disciples are following Jesus. This is what we need to reclaim. We are not coming before Jesus to simply learn more facts. We are here to become like Jesus. Certainly, we believe that Jesus is our messiah, and that we are somehow saved through his life and work. We also believe that we participate in this work of salvation - far more than accepting the truth of it.

As I have been observing, the prophecy we hear from Isaiah points to a future messiah. We cannot help but see how this promise is fulfilled in Jesus. If we pay attention to the work that is described, we see how it can also refer to the people who are saved. The people who are saved become the ones who participate in saving the whole world. "It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth."

This is an enormous challenge. We worry about it in our time. We worry about sharing the good news and about bringing people to God. It seems beyond our ability. How do we talk about Jesus? Will people take us seriously? Will they be offended? Who are we to be so presumptuous? On the other hand, we assume that folks in mega churches have it all figured out, because they are all growing by leaps and bounds and have people packing in on Sunday. I'm not sure either narrative is completely true. The problem for us is that we assume that God's work must follow the way that we are used to working. We collect our assets and use our gifts and talents in the best possible way, hoping that we can convince other people of the truth we know.

We have to unlearn our way of doing things. Jesus doesn't want us to work harder or be smarter. Jesus wants us to follow him. We worry about many things. We want to collect enough money and people to do all the work. Jesus wants us to become like him. We can't imagine how this will help. We are anxious about all our losses. We see ourselves losing ground. Jesus only cares about how we are being changed.

Paul writes the beginning of his letter to the church in Corinth using the format of his day. In naming his audience, he already begins to suggest that the church is bigger than they know. They are very proud of who they are. They are proud of their many spiritual gifts. Those who have many charismatic gifts are especially proud. In his prayer of thanks, Paul acknowledges their many gifts, and also suggests the true purpose. God is making them ready for fellowship with God (and isn't it nice how blessed they are in the present.) Later, Paul will chide them how they use their gifts to divide instead of unite. He will remind them that love is better than prophecy or tongues. We secretly desire great charismatic gifts (of some sort) so that we might draw people by attraction. This is not what we are about.

All we have is Jesus. Interesting programs of beautiful music or the latest technology might make us feel attractive, but it is not the gospel - it is not the good news. The hopeful truth is that God chooses to save us and love us no matter what. God's love does not depend on our attractiveness. It does not depend upon our cleverness. It does not depend upon our wealth or our talents or our building or our heritage. God chooses to love us. Jesus invites us into a way of life so that we might begin to be transformed by the truth of it.

The disciples follow Jesus. That is the work of the disciple - to follow and to become like the master. The disciples (and John) immediately begin to invite others along with them. John gives up his work to share his disciples with Jesus. Andrew finds his brother to come along with them. No one waited until they understood everything or until they had reached some form of mastery. The good news of God's love is not a concept to be unraveled. The good news is too good to keep to ourselves. We are meant to share it as we know it, in all our confusion and imperfection.

It is not that we are so much better than anyone else, or that we know something that others don't. We have been given life and peace. The truth of it is best seen in the living of it. We declare it by loving our neighbor. We proclaim it by setting aside common knowledge and treating the stranger as a sister or a brother. We show the truth and power of God by following Jesus, and ignoring all the other markers of success and fame that we are tempted to follow.

Tomorrow, we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Day. We remember his powerful words and actions. We know we cannot speak or inspire like he did. For him, change was not about being articulate or powerful. He urged people to become like Christ. It is the transformation of people to be like Jesus that gives them the power to change the world.

We may think we are powerless and that our words and actions will not amount to anything. In a sense that is correct - but we are not acting alone. It is God who has saved us and given us a way of life. God's words and God’s will acting through us will always make a difference. We only need the courage to follow and trust God for the result.

The Baptism of Jesus, Jan. 8, 2017

What is an epiphany? We have the image of a floating light bulb over someone's head. It is kind of idea or an insight. There's more to it than thinking. It is also a kind of discovery. We use the language of revelation. It some sort of supernatural message. We get an insight outside of ourselves. We understand something larger than the evidence before us. It is something that was once a mystery and now it is revealed for all to see. The feast of epiphany celebrates three stories. We hear about the arrival of the magi to the infant Jesus. Sometimes we remember Jesus’ first miracle - changing water into wine at a wedding banquet. We also remember the baptism of Jesus. All of these are public proclamations of who Jesus is. The significance is that the message is for everyone.

We often think of epiphanies as private messages. We even carry this into our faith. We act as if we are privileged to know the truth and everyone else is out of luck. I think about this with my leisure time reading. I read a lot of classic murder mysteries. The usual plot begins with some crime or act that is the mystery. The detective (professional or otherwise) comes upon the scene and observes the details and the people involved in the case. Often for the reader it is still a mystery. By the end of the book, the detective explains the mystery, using observations that were available all along, but were missed by everyone else. Holmes often tells Watson, "You see everything but you fail to infer its meaning."

Still, God doesn't mean to hide anything from us. We see the truth all around us, and we often fail to see the significance. We look for simple and direct meanings when God would show us depths and complexity. We look for easy rewards when God would show us the first steps of an unknown path.

As I have reminded us in previous sermons, Isaiah is writing to a people in exile. The prophet captures a longing for a messiah, for a deliverer. There is great hope in God's restoration. We can share that hope in the person of Jesus. We can acknowledge that we have been saved. We might rush past the depth of that salvation. Those who are saved are part of God's work of salvation. The second half of Isaiah's words can be to a people and not merely one single messiah. "I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness." We are invited to be the blessing proclaimed by God to others as well as receive it.

Peter's sermon in acts is his own epiphany. He has a dream of unclean animals that God commands him to eat. God tells him, "Stop declaring unclean what I have named clean!" Peter immediately sees that he is to share the gospel to non-Jews. This is obvious to us, but a completely new idea to Peter.

Now Jesus arrives at the river Jordan to be baptized by John. "Why?" John asks. "You should be baptizing me." "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." Jesus doesn't need to make himself right or to repair his soul. He is fulfilling righteousness by setting things right, or setting things in place to make us right. He is setting us up a new way. We are made new in baptism. We are also participating with Jesus in creating something new. The Spirit descends upon Jesus and God declares, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased. In the same way God's Spirit has descended upon us. We are God's beloved daughters and sons.

We share the new life of the messiah. We also share the work of the messiah. We are not saviors of the world - and we can drop our hyper-responsible and controlling habits that put ourselves in the place of God. We participate in living the new life we have been given. Our very lives are to shine with the truth of God's love.

We often use our religion for all the wrong reasons. We feel shame. We feel judgmental. We talk about God's love and then we build a wall of rules and expectations. We believe and then live as if we don't believe. We are like the characters in a classic murder mystery, who can't believe the truth even when confronted with evidence. We are like the dull police sergeant who can only believe the obvious explanation. Or we are like the relative or friend who cannot believe the evil work of another. The detective finds the truth because she or he sees what is essential and sets aside all the diversions and non-essential information. Which is what we have to do.

We live in a world that values wealth and appearances. We have to see the value that God sees. We were all brought to the waters of baptism long before we had any wealth or power. We were made children of God long before we had beauty or strength or wisdom. Therefore we need none of those things to participate in God's new life. The gifts we have should be used to point to God who has always loved us first. In this way we are an epiphany to others, as we shine the light to the one who is our light. We grow new life by shining new life. We grow in love by living in love.

What do we see in the baptism of Jesus? What have we discovered? Do we see merely a ritual that keeps us safe and saves our soul? Do we see something more? God is always beginning a new work of creation. We are invited to share in the promise that we are beloved children of God – sons and daughters invited to begin a life of declaring the plain mystery of God’s love.

Christmas 2016

About ten years ago, Bishop Steven Charleston reflected that Christmas is a time when we don't want anything to change. We've all heard the Christmas story over and over again. We know all about the shepherds and the angels and the babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. We want to sing all our favorite carols. We don't care how Victorian or sentimental they are. We want there to be snow, and poor shepherds, and three wise men.

I've seen my children grow up, and now I share my home with my granddaughter. She has just reached the age where Christmas is fun. She loves all the decorations and the tree and the presents. She doesn't like cookies, but she loves to help bake them. She sings familiar holiday songs, sometimes with her own words. There was a time when our children were like that too. Then they grew up, and got jobs, and fell in love and created their own families. Now, the only thing they really want to do is get together and talk and catch up with each other. The rest of the holiday is a kind of chore to be gotten through.

So I wonder if we really want all the craziness of the holiday? I think we would give most of it a pass if we could. The people we love all have different expectations and we try to meet them. I think that our gathering this evening is a kind of antidote. We don't have to wrap anything, or make anything. We don't have to figure out how to get along with some distant relative. We can simply return to this house and hear again the good news - with no strings (or wrappings) attached. We might even be able to let some of our stress slip away as we hear again the true story about God's gift to us.

The only danger in our sentimental attachment to the familiar story is that we might only remember the truth we knew as a child. The simple message of God's miracle and God's love may seem naive to our adult perspective. We also come with our fears for the world. We hear of war and danger. We live in a divided world where people can't seem to hear each other, much less live with, or have respect for each other. Peace on earth seems like a quaint idea in a world of violence and disrespect.

In our sentimental memory of the birth of Jesus, we have forgotten the revolutionary message. The humble birth of Jesus challenges all the pride and folly that human beings have created. The birth of Jesus challenges all our notions of value and wealth power. His name means, "God saves," and his other name, Immanuel means, "God is with us." This is not merely a hope it is true. The gospel is written in such a way that the birth of Jesus is firmly fixed in a time and place with in a society that people have created for their own ends. The Emperor Augustus called for a worldwide census to exercise control over a world that did not recognize God.

Jesus was born into a place we would find very familiar. He was born at an inconvenient time for his parents. They found accommodations where they could. The barn they used suggests their poverty and powerlessness. The angels bring news to the shepherds because they were the only ones awake at the time. There is also something disruptive and subversive about this story. God does not call on the Emperor Augustus. He doesn't appear to King Herod. God doesn't call out the priests or the religious leaders. God uses Mary and Joseph, and announces good news to shepherds (not the most intelligent or highly respected people.)

This is a reminder that God doesn't participate in all our worries. God takes no sides in our endless wars. God desires no division between races or classes. God doesn't choose the rich over the poor or the powerful over the weak. Every intractable problem we have created is all our own. God chooses a different way. God meets the weak and the poor. God empowers those our society would reject. God chooses those that the world casts aside. God turns the world upside down. This is good news for the poor, and perhaps a problem for anyone invested in the status quo.

God does not meet us within the world we create. God isn't bound by our expectations. God dwells with the poor and the humble. God seeks those who are broken and grieving. This is a truth beyond our sentimentality. God does not meet us in our power and within our control. God meets us most closely when we have nothing to give and can only receive. God meets us most closely when our hand are empty. God meets us when we have run out of ideas and we are at the end of our line. God can begin to work in us when we get out of the way.

This is the place where God is. God is in a barn full of animals. God is on a hillside in the middle of the night with simple shepherds. God is with an unwed mother as she bears her first child. God is with her fiancé who has come along not knowing how things will work out. God is with a people who are oppressed by the pride and fear of a more powerful people. God is with those who maintain the oppression because they don't know what else is possible.

God is with anyone who feels alone and lost. God is with the widow and with the estranged family member. God is with those who are lost in addiction and shame. God is with the unemployed and the people living one paycheck away from eviction. God is with the stranger and the refugee. God is with anyone who practices another religion, or increasingly, no religion. The Spirit of God is always moving in all these dark places seeking to proclaim the good news of God's love. Where are we? Are we with God?

We gather in sentimental remembrance of Christmas's past all the way back to the first Christmas. I hope the truth is a great comfort and an inspiration for us to love. We will sing with joy all the old tunes we love. We will take heart that God does not forget us, even if we live in time where it seems to good to be true. The great truth is that God has already arrived in all those places that we find to dangerous to visit. All our shame and fear are nothing to God. God would have us discard these useless burdens and take on the good news.

The amazing truth is not the sentimental story of two millennia. The amazing thing is that it is still true. "I am bringing you good news of great joy to all the people. To you is born this day a savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord!" It is true right here. It is true right now.