Monthly Archives: January 2011

Epiphany Verbs

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.

At the end of Advent, and on Christmas Eve, I asked the question: What great light are we longing to see? Here are the same words of Isaiah, no longer Advent words but Epiphany words: the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. What great light have we seen? What great light do we see? During this Epiphany season, the great light is Jesus, walking around proclaiming the kingdom and asking people to drop everything and follow him.

I know someone who likes to say, sometimes a little bit too dismissively: “I’m not a believer, I’m a follower.” What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus? Today’s gospel spells out exactly what it means to be a follower. Listen to today’s verbs to describe the work of Jesus: he goes, proclaims, teaches, calls, and cures. All in a day’s work, right? These are Epiphany verbs, words that reveal to us who Jesus is, and who we are to be as followers.

Jesus goes. He went. He went throughout Galilee. He didn’t set up shop somewhere, using lovely period architecture, to wait for need people or volunteers to come to him. He went.

Jesus teaches. He teaches in the synagogues and lots of other places. He raised a few eyebrows (especially when he taught in the synagogues), because he had no rabbinical training, which tells me that you don’t have to have a seminary degree to talk about scripture and tradition.

Jesus proclaims. He’s got good news to share—the kingdom of God has come near! He’s got good news to share and he shares it indiscriminately. He doesn’t only share it with people who look like him or people who have money or people whom he knows will get it on the first proclamation. The good news that the kingdom is near is for everyone.

Jesus calls.  While following Jesus is clearly not for the faint of heart, Peter and Andrew and James and John seem to do so with no effort at all. Immediately they leave their nets and follow him. Two of the brothers even leave their father. Immediately. How do they leave their family and their livelihood so easily? And why? What would make you drop everything to follow Jesus?

Perhaps they just have no idea what they’re getting into. Sort of like someone who visits a church for the first time looking for a spiritual home, and then immediately finds that they are not only expected to host coffee hours and teach Sunday school and give to the work of the church, but they are also expected to proclaim the Good News of Jesus in the world.

Or perhaps they see something in Jesus that makes it easy for them to drop everything and follow him. Peter and James and John and Andrew may have been able to tell that he was no ordinary guy. He was indeed a great light, living, breathing, and walking along the Sea of Galilee. To see someone like that in their everyday world would have transformed their perspective and make it easy for them to hold their attachments lightly. At any rate, Jesus calls. He walks up to total strangers and says “follow me.” Can we do that? Can we ask others to follow? And will they follow?

Jesus cures. He cures every disease and every sickness. No exclusions for pre-existing conditions or foreigners. In ancient Israel, sickness and disease were all about separation and exclusion. People who were thought to be diseased were cast out of community life. The experience of being healed may have simply taken the form of being invited in. To be a follower of Jesus means to heal individuals and perhaps whole segments of the population by removing barriers to community life. Healing means inclusion, restoring communities to right relationship with those who had been separated for any reason at all.

Followers of Jesus go, teach, proclaim, call, and cure. All in a day’s work, right? How do we do this?

I like to think of church as a gathering place and as a training ground for followers of Jesus. Here’s a place where we can come and share meals—including the holy meal we celebrate each Sunday—and support one another in these practices that Jesus not only engages in himself but also commends to his followers, of being on the move, of teaching and proclaiming, of calling disciples, and healing.

I believe that Jesus always wants us to go out, to go to strange places and engage with people we don’t know. But I also believe the purpose of the church is to practice this discipleship work. Let’s just say we practice around here. What does that look like?

Sometimes, walking across the aisle during the exchange of the Peace to welcome a stranger can be as life-changing as going out walking around the Sea of Galilee proclaiming the kingdom. Taking time to read scripture and sharing your understanding with friends here in this place, claiming your own voice, is an important teaching for our community. Talking about how you have experienced God’s blessing and God’s promise: that is proclamation.

In a small community where it sometimes seems that a handful of people do all the work and don’t need any help, saying to a stranger come, follow me, and inviting them into the kitchen or the sacristy may be a life-changing call.

Healing, curing dis-ease can be as simple and as profound as removing barriers, making room for someone where there hasn’t been room, inviting someone in who is usually on the outside.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. As we respond to God’s call to follow, what great light does God long for us to be?


Notes from the Congo

Here’s a letter from Sarah G. who is spending three months working and community organizing in the Congo:

I am here in Congo, safe and sound, settling into my new community and getting to know the students and staff at UCBC (Christian Bilingual University of the [Democratic Republic of] Congo).  This is a very remarkable place, functioning against all odds.  The students and staff are wholly dedicated to the mission of transformation in the community, country and region. I am seeing how sustainability education is necessary for truly transformative education and community development; the students and staff here are so full of vision and energy but without sustainable practices and systems understanding their visions will remain grounded.

Saturday, I will be meeting with the 5 service- learning interns, leaders in the school and in partnerships with the community, to speak with them about their visions and hopes for their community. I would like to see how it would look to help them do community-based needs assessments to partner their vision with needs/desires from the comunity.  The students have never been taught needs/assets assessment strategies, and I think this may be a good introducion to systems thinking and will help me get a better understanding of what God is already doing around here!

In other news, it is not too hot, the food is good, and the people are so welcoming and comfortable to be around.  I am very happy and content here! Thank you for your prayers!

Being beloved

God anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit and with power; he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.

Yesterday I was driving over on the West Side and saw a church with reader board announcing a new Adult Ed class. The title of the class was “What if God took over?” I thought about how that wonderful and vivid question would make a great opener to the sermon I had been working on in my head all week. Then I heard about the shootings in Arizona of congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, a nine-year-old girl, a district court judge, and many others. When I put the two together—that question “what if God took over?” and the image of devastating violence and chaos in Tuscon—it is tempting to think something like “God, you’re a little late!” Why couldn’t God have taken over the day before yesterday? And there are probably some who view events like yesterday as an assertion that God has in fact taken over and was acting through the sick young man who was willing to stop at nothing, even the deaths of six other people, to murder a woman whose political beliefs he may have found troubling.

We always want to know, in the face of unspeakable tragedy, whether the tragedy is on the national stage or in our own families, where God is. What was God thinking? Where was God?  What kind of God is this? These questions make all the sense in the world. And, I’d like to suggest some other questions instead: “where ought we to be? What are we to make of this? What does God want from us?”

Then he sent Jesus. Jesus’ baptism is his anointing for God’s mission. Jesus is not baptized because he has sins that need to be washed away or because he needs to become a member of a particular church or denomination, but because this is God’s way of anointing him for the work God has sent him to do.  Look again at the words from  Acts: God anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit and with power; he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. This is God’s mission: to go about doing good and healing all who are oppressed by the devil. What comes next is that while Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.

Just as for Jesus, baptism is the way that we are anointed for the work God has sent us to do, not so that we can become members of a church or have our sins washed away, but so that we can follow Jesus in his mission of doing good and healing. As we are strengthened and sustained in our identity as followers of Jesus, we become better and better equipped to respond to violence and tragedy and illness, the kind that has filled the news in the past 24 hours and, more often than not, the kind that doesn’t make the papers.

Undergirding all this talk about mission—God’s mission, Jesus’ mission, and our mission—is the promise of God’s great love. It is this love that can feed us and fuel us for healing, reconciling work. Imagine hearing the words this is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased, addressed to you. You are my child, my beloved. Imagine. Now, say it to yourself. I am God’s beloved. Let the words sink in. I am God’s beloved. Now, think about the person sitting closest to you. This person, also, is God’s beloved. Say it to yourself. He—or she—is also God’s beloved.

Imagine that this is our mission in the world. Imagine that this is how we respond to the hurt and pain and confusion and illness and strife all around us. How would your life be different if you really believed that you were God’s beloved? How would the world be different?

* * *

What if God took over? God has taken over. Our job is to make that known. All of this comes together on as we reaffirm our baptismal promises—these promises are how we follow Jesus in the world.

There was a campus minister in a small east coast college who—like many Christians throughout history and throughout the world—believed in baptism by full immersion. Instead of taking his new converts to a church or down to the river, he reserved the swimming pool in the campus athletic complex. It was a large three-lane lap pool, and he reserved the center lane, never the whole pool. I don’t know if this was by design or if he was only able to reserve one lane, but he would stand at the shallow end of the pool during open swim hours and these new Christians would line up and get in one by one, while on either side of them other people would be swimming along, doing what swimmers do: breathing, splashing, kicking, turning. I love this image of extremely public baptism, this public way of saying: I am God’s beloved, and I am willing to do something strange and awkward because of God’s love for me and my love for God.

What will you do?

Dreaming of the reign of God

Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you.

There’s something missing from today’s gospel. What’s missing is the part of the “infancy narrative” that no one wants to think about, that story we call the “slaughter of the innocents.” We commemorated the Holy Innocents this past Wednesday, and heard their story:

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under.

This is not a happy story—it’s the dark side of the events we read about and celebrate this time of year. Maybe this story of the Holy Innocents is symbolic of the dark side of the Christmas season. Many of us have horror stories—not as bad as Herod, but horror stories nonetheless—about Christmases we’ve spent alone, or with difficult in-laws, or with someone who was very ill, or without someone who didn’t want us around. Many of us experience a painful sometimes irrational let-down when Christmas is over, the presents are un-wrapped, the decorations put away, and life goes on.

It may be helpful, when we experience our own dark side of Christmas, to think of Herod. He is sort of an extreme anti-hero of the Kingdom of God, a stand-in for everything that is not of Christ, and not of the Kingdom.

The reality of Jesus’ birth that comes through in today’s gospel is that Jesus and everything he stood for was a threat to the existing social and political order even before he was born. No matter how much we romanticize images of shepherds on a cold winter’s night or cattle lowing in a stable, God did not send the Good News to be born in a safe, cozy place. Think about it: why would he?

This gospel—the parts we heard and the part we didn’t—reminds us that the Word of God became flesh in a dark and scary time, a time desperately in need of a savior. What Joseph comes to understand from his dreams is that it’s dangerous to be the Word made flesh. Even in Jesus’ infancy, the proclamation of the reign of God is good news to some and bad news to others.

Joseph’s task is to respond to God’s nudging—take the child and go. Even in Jesus’ infancy, the Good News is always on the move. Joseph’s dream is of a reign of God where his family is safe and where God gives him clear instructions, and where God is present with him in this journey.

As Jesus begins his active ministry, it is his disciples who keep the Good News on the move. It is never any more safe and easy for them to do this than it is for Joseph.

As descendents of the first followers of Jesus, we, too, have something to proclaim that is not necessarily safe, not necessary aligned to the economic and social structures of our time. What is it? What good news do we dream of proclaiming about God’s reign? Where and how is God telling us to get up and go in order to proclaim the Kingdom of God?

Imagine you are Joseph, that great dreamer: What is your dream of the reign of God?

Now remember that you are your own wonderful and dreaming self, and ask yourselves the same question. What is your dream of the reign of God?

Here are some of the answers from the wonderful dreamers who worshipped at St. David’s Sunday morning:

  • Peace–enough for everyone–a place like St. David’s is [where] people would serve love
  • Perpetual peace and serenity, an unending hymn of praise of God’s glory echoiing through the universe
  • Better use of Caesar’s heated space unused except when official reps or ticket-payers are present, with Caesar volunteering to share
  • Quiet self-examination
  • He will renew the earth, seas, atmosphere, and plant and animal life. He will simplify the space between himself and mankind
  • That one day everyone can feel and experience God’s healing power that Jesus carries out in gospel stories
  • Community, Assistance, Listening, Mindfulness & Mercy (CALM); Humility, Obedience, Peace, Equality, Stability & Silence (HOPES)
  • The hungry are fed and people without homes find shelter and community, connectedness, support, warmth, inclusiveness
  • A world of peace, empathy, and forgiveness. Eternal sunshine and warmth for all. An endless banquet open to all.
  • Justice, peace, acceptance of all–races, gender, age–food for everyone–health, equality, laughter
  • All people are capable of tolerance of each other. All people are capable of coming to agreement instead of fighting. The Ten Commandments are followed by everyone.
  • The dream is that the birth of every child is another chance to perfect humans and move the culture forward, whether we mean an actual child or the divine “child” within every person.

What is your dream of the reign of God?