The Ultimate RSVP

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Matthew 4:12-23

When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles–
the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”

From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea– for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

In 21st century America, we are invited to join, participate, follow, watch, pledge and try out a zillion different things.  I’ve been invited to parties and participated in fundraisers; I’ve followed groups on Twitter, plan to watch the Super Bowl with friends, pledged a sorority in college, and auditioned for plays in community theatre.  When I’m invited, I experience a range of emotions depending on the situation.  Being invited to to follow someone on Twitter doesn’t necessarily mean too much to me, while being invited to pledge my sorority may have changed the trajectory of my life as I entered adulthood.  Invitations may be easy to accept or decline, depending on the attachment, commitment level and emotional involvement.  But just being invited to participate can send a jolt of excitement (ok, maybe it’s not that exciting to follow someone on Twitter – but certainly more exciting to lead an organization or join a new group of friends in a fun Friday night activity).  I am quite often caught off guard if I didn’t see the invitation coming (like someone asking me to lead a group when I don’t see myself as the leader before being asked) – receiving the request can be flattering and/or daunting, causing me to do a quick assessment of my skills to help me determine if I am up for the task.

Today’s Gospel reading finds Jesus fulfilling another prophecy related to charismatic John’s imprisonment and the unspoken freedom it gives Jesus to move to Galilee and really increase his presence as a teacher without the confusion of followers choosing between John and Jesus.  But he knows he can’t do this without a long lasting group of followers.  Andrew, Peter, James and John were most likely hard working fishermen who had little to no social standing in the community.  They caught fish for a living; they didn’t run a bank, weren’t CEOs of a Fortune 500 company, nor were they lawyers or doctors.  Their jobs were simple yet powerful – go out and get fish so people will eat.  The parallel between the jobs of fishermen and the jobs of apostles can be drawn simply: you know how to fish, now let’s fish for people.

I have often wondered over the years, as this Gospel reading comes around, about how I would have likely reacted at the invitation to leave my livelihood and family to go and do some pretty crazy things without the security of my current life. Sadly, I always reach the same conclusion – I’m not very confident that my answer would have been a resounding yes.  There is much evidence in my current life of resisting the call to serve, with most of those invitations not EVEN requiring me to give up much of anything.  I am currently wrestling pretty mightily with a very radical and transformational call to ministry and if that is any indication, leaving my nets on the side of the Sea of Galilee seems like it may have been a pretty unlikely outcome.

So here is the great news…Jesus doesn’t really tap us on the shoulder and ask us to walk away from everything to do. Whew!!!!!  His invitation is comprised of just asking us to follow him.  Seems simple, right?  Simple – yes. Easy to do – not so much.  If you are anything like me, you wake up with great intentions for the way your day will go, or you go to bed on New Year’s Eve with a year’s worth of new commitments for bettering yourself, only to find yourself forgetting all about your commitments or well intentioned to-do lists.  It’s hard to keep our focus on Christ and loving each other when we have to run to the grocery store on the way to the office to get the snacks for the meeting we will be hurrying to right after work and before we head home to fold laundry and make lunches for the next day (makes fishing on the Sea of Galilee seem quite simple after all!).

But following Jesus gives all those other things the appropriate purpose and perspective.  Committing to adding purposeful study, prayer and actions that bear witness to our relationship with Christ can start with small habits in the morning when you first wake up, at the end of the day when you are ready to rest or all throughout the day mixed in with your other to-do list items.  It’s somewhat surprising how quickly those “habits” become integrated in our lives when we do them with a purpose.

Following Christ may mean a drastic change in your lifestyle and commitments.  Or it may mean adding in special time at the foot of the Cross each day.  Whatever it means for you, the first step is accepting the invitation to accept that God has chosen and loves each and every one of us.  The next steps are completely in your court.

The love of our Father is greater than we can imagine and our invitation to follow him sometimes falls on deaf ears. Help us to see you in the world, find time to spend with your in prayer, and to live our lives as followers of you.  You are our All in All.  AMEN.

Embrace the Encounter

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John 1:29-42

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

The Lamb of God

29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32 And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”

The First Disciples of Jesus

35 The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36 and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” 37 The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38 When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39 He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40 One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41 He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). 42 He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

On Tuesday, I was given a very powerful gift.  I walked into the school office at the end of the day to get some long overdue work completed as I waited for our PTA event later that evening.  There are always a few kids whose parents are running a little late and the regulars were sitting in the chairs reading their books and waiting for their parents.  Amidst the small group was a mom I knew – being new to our school this year, I am still learning the parents!  This parent had two kids at my previous school and so we had known each other from there.  She had a baby last spring and I always ask to hold him when she comes to school.  Tuesday was no exception – I greeted her and offered my arms to this sweet angel and rekindled my love affair with him on the spot!  She had some small talk with me, then asked if she could speak to me privately; we headed back to my office with her sweet pumpkin in my arms.  Her other two weren’t with her at the time of our conversation when she asked me a favor.  She needed to leave her car and wanted to make sure it wasn’t going to be towed from our school parking lot.  After some gentle probing, she shared she was out of gas and money and planned to walk home with her three children; one infant, one with a brain injury and a kindergartner (the older two still in their car seats in the parking lot).  The short version of this story is that I had a choice Tuesday afternoon.  As a school principal, I quickly agreed to make sure her car was safe.  As a Christian, I had to take it a step further. It was one of the best afternoons I can remember once I made the decision to embrace this encounter and lend a hand. She made it home in her car that day with hopefully one less worry on her plate.

Every day, we have encounters with Christ in our regular lives. My little encounter this week wasn’t on the agenda of my carefully planned out day.  My opportunity wasn’t specific to my faith, but my choice was made easier because if it. John and the disciples had choices to make as they encountered Jesus.  The historical context of describing Jesus as the “Lamb of God” was a descriptor that meant a great deal to the Jews. Before Christ the Messiah was crucified for our sins, the faithful used animal sacrifice as their method of forgiveness from God.  Jesus’ place in the Kingdom of God was so significant as to negate the need for this ritual that was embedded into the traditions of the faithful.  I’m going to guess that I would have been pretty skeptical of such a drastic attempt at change based on my track record.  But the disciples embraced Jesus as the Messiah, and the encounter was life changing for them.  They walked away from their families and their roles in the community to follow Jesus on a wild adventure.  They embraced the encounter in a way that makes sense today, but must have seemed incredibly unusual and quite risky with benefits that would be hard to see at the time to the casual observer.

The opportunities may not be so dramatic and might not cause us to so drastically change the course of our lives, but they are present and give us the chance to serve in ways we never imagined.  And if you are like me, you may miss them if you focus on YOUR plans, YOUR agenda and YOUR comfort level.  My opportunity on Tuesday didn’t cost me much money or time, but the rewards I received knowing I could be the right person at the right time to help someone in need were immeasurable.  When she thanked me, I thanked her too.  She didn’t approach me to make me feel good, but I was so enriched by the experience.  Sometimes God has plans for us that don’t align with our vision for ourselves.  Taking the risk to embrace the encounters put in our paths can enrich us beyond imagination.  Where is God working in your life to get your attention?

Lamb of God, Giver of Gifts and Knower of Needs, I pray for families in need.  May I always be open to responding to any encounters where I can serve you through others and know that you will continue to challenge me to show love to all I meet.  Thank you for trusting me to do your work in the world.  AMEN.

Baptism as a Weapon of the Spirit

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Matthew 3:13-17

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

The Baptism of Jesus

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Holy Baptism

“Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body, the Church” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 298).

In the waters of baptism we are lovingly adopted by God into God’s family, which we call the Church, and given God’s own life to share and reminded that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ (from the Episcopal Church website).

I remember hearing this story as a child and wondering (probably out loud, as I was prone to do) why Jesus would need to be baptized by John if he was God.  My lens as a child in the church was that children and sometimes even adults, went to the front (or back) of the church to the baptismal font for a big celebration on Sundays or other holy days.  I knew it was special then, but it wasn’t until I had the honor of standing with my husband as he made the decision to be baptized as an adult in front of our friends and family that I had the full realization of the personal commitment of being baptized by water and the Holy Spirit.  Then, a couple years later, our infant daughter was welcomed as the newest sister in Christ and marked as Christ’s own forever and I nearly lost it that day as the enormity of my responsibility as her parent and fellow Christian to raise her to know and love the Lord, accepting Christ as her savior on her behalf.

Baptism was a relatively new concept started with John.  He brought people to faith and repentance with water, and with the promise of someone greater than him coming to baptize with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:1-8) John and Jesus grew up close like brothers, but had not spent a lot of time together as adults.  John prophesied in the above lesson from Mark about the good news of Baptism in Christ, so I can only imagine how he felt to be in the position to be commanded to fulfill the will of God by baptizing Jesus himself.  I can hope that John had more faith than I would have had under the same circumstances, “You want me to do what to YOU?  Right here?  Right now?  Are you crazy, Jesus???? I’m just not worthy”).

There are some things happening in my life right now that make me feel a strong pull from God in directions that seem quite unusual, difficult, even a little bizarre.  I don’t feel comfortable as I think about this plan that God may have for me that is not aligned with the plan I have had for myself.  Following Him as he leads me into uncertainty DOES NOT MAKE MUCH SENSE.  John probably felt the same way as he was tasked with the actual Baptism of Jesus.  But fulfilling the plan is exactly what he did…and much more as we go on to read in the Gospel stories of his edgy and unusual life.

The baptism of Jesus was a necessary step in the completion of the Trinity.  And each of us takes that step of joining in the relationship when we are baptized as well.  For some critics of baptism in the very young who technically cannot make the decision on their own, here is my response:  It is my job as a parent who decides to bring a child into the world and our family to ensure the choice of future of success and happiness.  I am tasked with making education a priority, teaching values which support a child growing up to contribute to the world, and demanding that she is NICE in the world and to those she meets.  But my most important job is to provide my child the opportunity for a lifelong relationship with God through Christ and with the power of the Holy Spirit.  That starts with baptism and continues in my expectations for her and the experiences we give her as parents until she goes out into the world in a few short months to make decisions far beyond our control but hopefully withing the realm of her life to date.

Jesus’ baptism fulfills God’s plan, but it also shines a light onto his bottomless forgiveness, love and compassion.  Malcom Gladwell talks about finding his faith in this article, highlighting the so called “weapons of the spirit.” He discusses meeting a family who lost their child in a horrific murder, and their discussion of forgiveness and love – sounding so foreign under those extreme circumstances of love.  Although I pray I never (and you never) have to experience a life changing event like that, the gift of baptism in my love has given me the weapons I need to approach any challenge I may have with love and forgiveness.  I’m not worthy of the gifts I have received, that much is true.  So as the receiver of those gifts, how can I be selfish and not turn around and share them with others who may or may not be deemed “worthy” in my human eyes?

We are living in a world where things happen that bring us great sadness.  Terrible things happen to the most innocent among us and as we rock along in our well-planned life, a detour pops up that leaves us bewildered and confused.  But God has given us all we need to approach these difficult situations with grace and love, giving gifts we didn’t know we could give because it what God calls us to do.  It’s the most surprising thing to see when a yucky situation is met with love and forgiveness; let’s walk our walk with Christ making it less surprising to see and more of what we expect to happen when Christians face life’s challenges.

John baptized Jesus and we are baptized by water and the Holy Spirit to join our brothers and sisters in Christ in fulfilling God’s kingdom work in our lives.  John followed God’s command and we are called to do the same.  Because don’t we all want God to see us and our work and tell the world he is well pleased with us?

Gracious God, thank you for the gift of Baptism by water and the Holy Spirit.  The love and forgiveness you show to us every day is a gift we want to share with those we meet, even when we may deem them unworthy, just as we are.  Teach us how to love one another without judgment and to respond to the challenges of our world in ways that make You well pleased.  We ask all this through your son Jesus Christ.  AMEN.

Threat of the King

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Matthew 2:1-12

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

The Visit of the Wise Men

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “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.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

‘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.’”

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then 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.” When 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. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On 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. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

I’m not always proud of my behavior.  I strive to live out God’s plan for me every day and fall WAYYYYY short most days.  On my best days, I work to remember that everything is not about me and that my job is to further God’s work in the world where I live.  In some of my worst moments, I get caught up in feeling sorry for myself, gossiping about others, passing judgement and being pretty selfish.  It certainly isn’t pretty and when I reflect on those memories I am not proud one little bit.

But some of my worst behavior has happened when I feel threatened.  In high school, the cliques of high school girls didn’t bring out the best in me. I may or may not have behaved like a spoiled child in the face of the girl drama. As a parent, the threat of something terrible happening to my family has kept me from being rational in decision making and too protective when I needed to let go.  In my job as a school principal, parents sometimes come to my office to scream, yell and make threats toward me and our staff.  My default when threatened typically isn’t to respond with love and understanding.  King Herod most certainly felt threatened by strangers coming to Bethlehem to pay homage to a new king; sounds like it was news to him and not welcome news at that.

Herod’s response makes him seem pretty insecure (somewhat understandably in the face of the loss of his power, status and livelihood) and then he gets a bit sneaky. Go find this king so that I can worship him too, he says.  Yeah, right. That’s a bunch of malarkey in light of a few verses down the page in Matthew 2:16-18 when Herod’s insecurities leads him to make a pretty nasty decision to kill ALL the kids who meet the age criteria of this suspected king.  Talk about acting irrationally in the face of a perceived threat!

And that is exactly what it was – a perceived threat.  Not a real threat.  Jesus was born to save the world, not to rule over a small group of people.  But in the face of the threat to his identity, Herod did what seems unthinkable –  certainly a drastic response to the situation.  He acts out of fear of the unknown – and we are guilty of the same over reactions in our perceived threats today.

For me, I am fortunate to be able to live a life free of too many real threats to my safety and security.  So when I feel threatened, it is typically to my reputation, my beliefs, my lifestyle or my ability to be the winner is some competition.  But in most cases, the threat isn’t really about me.  Jesus coming into the world as a baby was no more a threat to Herod than one of the cool high school girls was to my happiness back in the day.  The threat wasn’t real, but based on a misplaced sense of self importance and our need to hold on to those things which we deem important to ourselves, rather than on the real threat of loss, pain and suffering.

This story tells of Epiphany, a feast day in the church where the manifestation of Christ is celebrated along with his baptism.  The symbolism of light in the form of a star leading the way to three strangers coming to honor a king beyond the scope of their understanding, the fulfilling of prophecy (Micah 5:2) from ancient teachings and the fact that the revelation of God sending his Son to live among the people as one of them – they certainly qualify as an epiphany where we come to understand something in a new and different way. The Feast of Epiphany is celebrated on the twelfth day of Christmas – January 6, 2014 this year, to be exact.  We are still singing Christmas carols in church (give us a break – we focused on Advent every week since Thanksgiving!) and now we find ourselves with the first of a long line of threats to the life of Jesus Christ, even as he is still a very young child living with his parents in a small town in relative obscurity.  The threat to the life of Jesus was real – yet he didn’t respond in anger, defensiveness or with malice.  He offered his other cheek, his love to the persecuted and downtrodden and his heart and salvation to all who follow him – personal status being irrelevant.  Striving to live with that unconditional love for others is what we are called to do and fall short of as humans.  But we must keep trying every day to keep perspective and discern the real threats: the very real threat of a life without Christ at the center of all we do, in all we meet and in our every day work, actions and relationships.

I haven’t killed anyone when I have felt threatened (whew!!!), but I have made others feel things other than love from me.  That’s on me, and my lesson from this reading is to stop, listen and react with love, even when it feels unnatural and contrived at first.  I know I’ll get better at it the more I do it.

Light of the world, help me to view others through the eyes of your love. When I am confronted with fear, help me to see that in you, my life is secure.  Show me the way to live every day with you as the center.  To you are the power and the glory.  AMEN.

Building Your Faith

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Matthew 11:2-11

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Messengers from John the Baptist

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

Jesus Praises John the Baptist

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written,

‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way before you.’

11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

This week has been filled with stories on the news about Nelson Mandela.  I graduated from college in 1990, the same year that Nelson Mandela was released from prison.  As stories about his life were explored at this time, I realized then what an incredible man he was.  I became hungry to learn more about his struggles for freedom from oppression for the majority of the people of South Africa. As I learned then and and has been reinforced this week as his life is reflected for all to see, Nelson Mandela rose from the humblest of beginnings, experienced some of the most extreme hardships that people can face and came from all that to change an entire nation and impact people far beyond the borders of his country.  I’m sure he had days, weeks and even years of doubt that his work would have meaning or make any difference at all. And the leaders of South Africa surely hoped that this felon would never make a ripple in the ocean of discrimination. But the legacy of his humble life continues to this day and well beyond his life here on earth.

Today’s Gospel reading highlights a portion of the humble life of John – no razzle dazzle at all.  As he spends time in prison for his work paving the way for the Messiah, he himself has doubts about Jesus being the Messiah – the very reason he is living life as a prisoner. Jesus doesn’t really answer the question with a definitive “Yes,” (no surprise there!) but rather he proves it by sending John’s followers back to him with tales of miracles.  The kind of acts that can only come from the Messiah. But he takes it a step further by teaching his followers about John himself.

Jesus teaches his followers that the job of John the Baptist is a tough one.  No “soft robes” or well dressed man would do for this important job – to go out in the world John needed to “be of the world.” Jesus pays, quite possible, the biggest compliment of all as he wraps up his lesson about John’s important work by telling the listeners and us as readers, that no one was more important among the people.  This, right after John voiced his doubts about Jesus and his role in the world. I’ll be that when word got back to John about this, he felt more than a little like a jerk for wondering whether it was all going to be worth it.

There is only one John the Baptist, but the doubt he articulates is real for us all, right? Who hasn’t had those doubts? Even in the face of the evidence of God working directly in our lives and the lives of those we love and live with?  Each of us as Christians is called to do our work in the Kingdom of God here on earth – much less substantial than what was required of John for sure, but look how far we can take it when we act on faith in the example of Nelson Mandela!  I’m certainly no potential world leader destined to change the face of my country, but every day, I am tasked with waking up grateful, loving the hardest to love along with myself as a child of God, praying for guidance and studying the Word. If each of us committed to these seemingly small thoughts and actions, imagine the way the world would change right in front of our eyes?  And the bonus?  The building of our faith and the squashing down of our doubts.

As we spend these last weeks in Advent preparation, remember that preparing the way for the birth and coming again of our Savior is not passive in nature.  Building our faith to prepare the way – now that is action that will bring about the best gifts of all!

All of our gifts come from you dear Lord, and we stand before you not worthy to receive them. Help us to remember we are worthy of your miracles and tasked with spreading your love in your Kingdom.  Our faith in you is stronger than we think and we commit to building it in preparation for your coming.  AMEN.

Take the First Step

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Matthew 3:1-12

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

The Proclamation of John the Baptist

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight.’”

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

We’ve been stuck in the ice since Thursday night, victims of “Icemageddon 2013” in North Texas.  We have come together to laugh and watch movies, gone to our separate corners to have time alone and have skated across the driveway to use a hairdryer in an effort to free the teenager’s car encased in an ice tomb.  Our part of the world can get ice without snow and there is really no way to save the trees that have snapped and the cars that have collided when everything is covered in ice.  So we are pretty much just hunkered down, waiting until we can peek above the freezing mark which will hopefully come soon so life can get back to normal.

I generally prefer NOT to have a day off from school – a day that will have to made up on a beautiful spring Friday where the weather is perfect, I’m sure!  But I can’t even tell you how much this gift of time has been appreciated.  All the hectic holiday schedules were cancelled and the tempo of time has slowed down considerably. As I have reflected and studied this week’s Gospel reading from Mark, I am struck by the image created in my mind of John the Baptist.

I picture this really crazy looking guy showing up when least expected.  The Pharisees and Sadduccees are up to speed on the prophets’ stories and John seems pretty darn far fetched as the one who prepares the people for the coming of the Lord!  Dressed as an outsider and maybe even smelling a little ripe, John comes on the scene shouting of repentance and that the Lord is coming, taking people to the Jordan river to experience baptism, a completely new concept in the traditions of the faith at the time.

As John is calling out the religious leaders for their hypocrisy, I can only imagine their confusion.  That same confusion still exists today in those who proclaim their faith with television ratings and prosperity gospels, with our own hypocrisy in what we say we believe and the story our actions and words tell that conflict with those beliefs – the self-righteous were hustling to get baptized by John for sure.  But John throws cold water on this party as he tells about Jesus who will separate the wheat from the chaff (or the righteous from the lowly) and bring those who need mercy into the fold while banishing the rest of them (or us!) from the Kingdom of God.

So here are a few observations about this story and what we can learn from it in today’s world:

  • God doesn’t seem to select the high and mighty to tell of his kingdom.  He chooses the lowly, the ones who look and sound different from the usual leaders.  So listen to everyone with a discerning ear and a loving heart.
  • Get ready y’all!  Advent gives us the time to prepare for the celebration of Jesus’ birth and the future coming of Christ into the world.  Don’t squander the time we need to get ready for all God has prepared for us.
  • Don’t be the chaff.  Don’t be a wasted part of the world.  Add value to all you meet, love with reckless abandon, even when it is uncomfortable and don’t be afraid to listen to God’s message in your life.
  • If you aren’t living the life you know that God is intending for you, take a step toward that today.  One step forward brings you closer to God.  Don’t assume that just showing up at church will ever be enough to meet God in his desired relationship with you.  He wants to be known to us and makes himself available whenever we take the time to notice.

So, prepare the way of the Lord.  Make it easy to find you on the threshing room floor when the time comes, or the ice thaws once and for all.

Giver of life, you have given us all we need to love you and follow you. Thank you for your goodness and mercy.  Draw us nearer to you so that we may do the work you have called us to do in your kingdom.  Give us strength and courage to love and serve you, preparing ourselves for your coming into the world.  AMEN.

Prepare the Way of the Lord

Cycle B Advent Week 1

Matthew 24:36-44

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

The Necessity for Watchfulness

36 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

I love the season of Advent.  In this crazy, consumerized time of year, it is a refreshing take on preparing for the Christmas season.  Many folks don’t celebrate a time of preparation like Advent; from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary (Click here), the definition is the period beginning four Sundays before Christmas and observed by some Christians as a season of prayer and fasting.  The second definition is the coming of Christ at the Incarnation.  In our Episcopal/Anglican tradition, we labor to stay focused on Advent for the full four Sundays before we “green” the church and switch our focus to the Christmas celebration which carries us all the way to Epiphany (See definition here).  In our home, we have an advent wreath that we put out each year with the traditional four candles (three purple or blue, and one pink/red, depending on tradition) that we light each Sunday.  Our almost adult daughter also has a wall Advent Calendar which builds the pieces of a felt and velcro Nativity.  Somehow, the craziness of the holidays stays at bay when we take the time to prepare for the coming of Christ.

Another kind of event that I love is a good old fashioned surprise party!  When everyone does all this activity to prepare behind the scenes and the honoree carries on throughout all the preparation without a clue of what is to come at the moment we all jump out with a loud shout of “SURPRISE!!!!” – I just love it! So what’s the connection between a surprise party and Advent? Go with me here…

The season of Advent is a time to prepare for the coming of our Lord.  Christmas is a day to remember his birth and the season of Christmas actually starts on Christmas Day, but Advent goes way beyond that.  The birth of Jesus is truly a remarkable event – from the virgin, teenage mother, her betrothed taking on a potentially scandalous situation, to a long ride in less than comfortable conditions with a very pregnant mom-to-be; only to be turned away as they seemed to desperately seek shelter for the obvious and inevitable birth.  The very unlikely setting for the Son of God’s rather unceremonious birth and then all the special signs, guests/visitors and heralding angel chorus – remarkable details of Jesus’ birth indeed.  But Advent doesn’t just have us focusing on the birth of Christ as a singular event.  As Resurrection people, we go beyond the birth to thirty some odd years later and the crucifixion, and then to the second definition referenced by Merriam-Webster – the second coming of Christ.  Jesus tells his disciples there will be no warning – a literal surprise – as to when He will come again.  And tells them, and through them tells us all, to be ready. Not like the honored guest at a surprise party who never sees it coming, but like the host who plans all the details except the biggest details of all – the time and place of the surprise itself.

So Advent gives us a purpose just as the upcoming season of Lent does prior to Easter.  Advent slows us down and attempts to keep us focused on preparing the way for the Lord.  One of my favorite hymns during this time is from the Taize music tradition:

Prepare the way of the Lord.
Prepare the way of the Lord,
and all people will see the salvation of our God.

We don’t know the time or the place, and being ready doesn’t mean we need to pay any attention to those details.  The only requirement from Jesus was to be ready any time.  Knowing when and how won’t make us more ready and will distract us from our job at hand: to prepare the way of the Lord.  To study the Word, to pray without ceasing and to go out and do the work we are called to do in the world. The celebration of Advent makes us take the time to be mindful of our job in this Christian relationship – to invite Jesus into our hearts, minds and actions; to be thankful for our blessings and grateful for our challenges that bring us closer to him. Don’t skip over the preparation to jump straight into celebration just yet.  Be watchful and prepare for perfect healing through Christ.

Giver of Life, I come to you humbly as I prepare for your coming.  Your gift of your Son to live and die for me is more generous a gift than I could ever give.  The hope of Advent and the coming of Christ to save us all brings all the joy I need to help me focus on preparing my sinful self for seeing you.  Thank you for giving us time to prepare. In your gracious name I pray.  AMEN.

The Time is Near

hourglass-sand-the-time-is-near-christian-wallpaper-hd_1366x768

Luke 21:5-19

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

The Destruction of the Temple Foretold

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

Signs and Persecutions

They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.

“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” 10 Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11 there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

12 “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13 This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14 So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15 for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17 You will be hated by all because of my name. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By your endurance you will gain your souls.

Being a faithful Christian is something I strive for, but know that I fall short of every single day.

With that said, what does being a faithful Christian really mean? This week’s Gospel from Luke seems to be a doomsday prediction on the surface.  Jesus teaches that our temples will fall, false prophets will lead us astray, our families will turn against ourselves and there will be some really bad stuff happening in the world.  Followers of Christ will be treated as criminals and be hated; all while wars and natural disasters are happening around us. Pretty heavy stuff, but not too far fetched if you just watch a little television in the evenings. Jesus then says the most calming things: don’t worry about preparing to defend yourself, as he will give us the tools we need to be protected and we will not be harmed in the process of all this doom and gloom.

There are a lot of preachers teaching this “end of time” preparation stuff and tons of books that attempt to explain how it all will end for us here on earth.  There are classes you can take to prepare you and your family for the end of the world by hoarding canned goods, toilet paper and gallons of water and how to live off the grid if needed.  The news is full of stories that can align tightly with the scary parts of the reading for this week as well – it’s not a huge leap to think that the end is near.

The title of this blog entry isn’t “The End is Near,” but rather focuses on the time is now.  Reading this Gospel through the first time might elevate your heart rate a little, but go back and read it again. This is a lesson on peace – peace in the here and now. Jesus tells us about all the bad stuff while at the very same time reassuring us of our safety and security in his arms.

I’m a pretty positive person who tends toward the optimistic slant in my views of the world.  So I’m drawn to the part of today’s Gospel that focuses on faith.  I hear today’s interpretation of Jesus’ words in Luke as this; “Draw near to me in faith and I will give you all the tools you need to stay on the path in the face of the world of distractions and conflict.” The folks who say that we need to be ready for the end of times are focused on their own skills and tools – I choose to let my faith give me the tools I will need that I cannot even muster from within myself on my own. It’s way easier to get discouraged and sad by the news around us than it is to remain faithful to Christ. Yet that is exactly what we are called to do.  “By your endurance you will gain your souls” is the last line of today’s reading.  Endurance is about getting back on track as we follow our Lord and Savior through this world that we humans do a great job of destroying.  And gaining my soul sounds a lot better than having enough canned goods when all is said and done. So the time is near alright – the time to get right and stay right in our faith.  There really is no better time than now to join with God in his plans for us.

In this scary world, we give thanks to you Lord, for being our protector and provider of more than we even knew we needed.  Thank you for giving us the wisdom to choose to follow you in the face of adversity.  We love you and look ahead to our perfect relationship with you through Christ our Lord.  AMEN.

Another Perspective

zaccheus

Luke 19:1-10

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Jesus and Zacchaeus

19 He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

A different perspective:

“I don’t really know what all the fuss is, but I heard Jesus was coming to Jericho.  I’ve heard stories from travelers passing through that he has healed some really sick people, forgiven and accepted some people that don’t normally have any stature in the community and welcomed with love tax collectors like me.  I don’t really like taking money from the people in my community, but Rome wants the taxes and I need to feed my family so that is the job I have to do and most of the jobs out there require a physique I just don’t have.  I had heard that tons of people would be coming to see him as he passed through town just like other places he has been and I thoughtthe only shot I would have to get a glimpse of this guy Jesus would be to run ahead and find somewhere on high ground.  So I headed up in front of the crowd, but I was still having a hard time seeing with so many folks standing in front of me.  I spotted the sycamore tree and thought that climbing up a bit would help me get a better view, and that’s where I was perched as Jesus came down the road.  I waited with great anticipation and out of the way of the crowd.

Just as Jesus reached the spot in the road under my tree, he looked up directly into my eyes. He called me by name.  By MY name.  I was shocked; how did he know who I was?  Then, again, just talking to me, he told me to come down because he was going to stay at my house.  Well, when Jesus says he needs you, you better “hop to!” I couldn’t believe my ears!  Why me?  A Tax Collector even!  But I scrambled down and started walking with Jesus to my home.  As we turned to walk away together, I could hear the not so quiet grumblings of the religious leaders and others in the crowd – I’ve become used to the way folks look at me and talk badly about me and my family.  That’s the risk you take when you are the Chief Tax Collector.  But it still stings to have people speak about you like you aren’t as good as they are.

So I stopped with Jesus right there.  I felt like I needed to justify myself to Jesus and those who were watching, so I pledged to give away half of everything I owned to the members of our community who lived in deep poverty.  I’ve always prided myself on being honest – I collected taxes to send to the Roman government and only kept enough for myself to take care of my family, but I assured Jesus that I would make amends to any who felt like I had taken more than necessary; I promised that and so much more if needed.  But Jesus said the most unexpected thing:  He welcomed me into the Body of Christ with open arms and no strings attached.  As his eyes burned into mine, he told me he was there for me.  My life had been just lived for me until that day, when he gave me and my family the gift of salvation.  I will forever be changed by this intimate encounter with Jesus and commit to sharing the Good News of Christ to all I meet.”

Ok, I fudged a little to make a point.  Imagine how Zacchaeus must have felt on that once in a lifetime day.  Forget about the special event that Jesus provided by calling him by name and stating his intention to stay in his home – unthinkable based on his stature in society.  Then, when Zacchaeus realizes everyone is looking at him as if he could never deserve such an honor, he tries to prove himself to Jesus.  But Jesus never even acknowledges the offer to give away his possessions and pay back anyone wronged by him four times over.  He just welcomes him to accept the greatest gift of salvation.  No questions asked and no task required.

I’ll bet that shut up the crowd for a second…once they headed down the road the family home though, I’m sure the talk started right back up again.  “Unbelievable!” “No way!” “Zacchaeus…are you kidding me?”  Surely that is just a snippet of the nasty things said about him when he came down from the tree to Jesus and again when they were out of earshot.

Why do we sometimes hate it when others are blessed?  Why do we look down on others based on their lot in life?  Why do we always think we are better than anyone else?  Why don’t we read stories like this and realize that each of us is worthy of redemption and forgiveness, as Jesus proves time and time again in our Gospel readings?  All we have to do is turn to him.  So ignore the negative talk (both from others and from yourself), stop judging others like we are better than them and turn to Christ.  Simple, huh?  Simple but not easy…that’s why we keep having to do it over and over again, every single day of our lives. And spread the Good News in the world.  That is all God wants from us is to serve his Kingdom with love.

Lord of all mercies, we give you thanks for your incredible generosity and your forgiveness of all we do to drive a wedge between ourselves and our Savior.  Keep us looking ahead to salvation and give us strength and courage to speak of your children with love.  Thank you for the perspective of Zacchaeas and for welcoming us into eternal life.  We ask all things through Jesus Christ who loves us.  AMEN.

Approach with Caution

PhariseeTaxCollector

Luke 18:9-14

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

“At least I’m not like THOSE people.” I’ve said it.  I’ve thought it.  I’ve meant it.

I can be pretty proud of myself at times.  I believe it when I read a news article about my most recent professional accomplishment. When people tell me I’m a great principal, I love that feeling.  After meeting our family and chatting with our almost graduated from high school daughter, and compliments about her are given to us as parents, we can get pretty puffed up with pride.  When I do something kind for someone else and hear how I have helped them, I can feel pretty darn good about myself.  Let’s just go with this…I don’t suffer from a self-image problem or deal with debilitating insecurities.

But today’s lesson from Luke is all about the humility with which we are to approach our life in Christ.  The Pharisee does one heck of a job of pumping up and list his accomplishments to an all-knowing and all-seeing God.  It’s like he is looking for God to thank him with a big “Atta Boy!” for living a righteous life.  And in comparison, the tax-collector, that lowest of the lows in society at the time comes before God with a humble heart and asks for mercy without even raising his eyes toward heaven.   Jesus then shares that little nugget at the end about the humbled being exalted, essentially admonishing the bragger and do-gooder for forgetting that God’s gifts come without any strings attached.

To be exalted is to be elevated in status and that is exactly what Jesus tells us to will happen when we live our life in deference to the gifts of grace and mercy.  The Pharisee approaches God as if to collect what he deserves…but let’s face the truth here.  We can never do enough good and follow enough rules to ever deserve God’s mercy.  That’s the coolest and most humbling part of all – all we have to do is ask. And it is done.  That’s it.

But make sure you want the elevated status in God’s eyes, rather than search for it in the eyes of others.  With a somewhat high profile job in my community which provides a service, people tend to tell me things about myself that I could easily believe if I allowed what others’ think about me to influence my status.  I could believe that I have almost magical leadership powers if their interpretations of my leadership are correct.  I could also believe the opposite on my worst day as a principal if I let the feelings of others determine my worth.  So I try to find a balance – I am my worst critic for sure – but in God’s eyes, I am his creation and therefore must turn to him to be given the gift of grace and mercy.

Today’s parable is a cautionary tale to be wary of puffing up oneself to others and especially to God.  He knows all that we are and all that we are not without our need to list off the accomplishments and/or failures.  No matter how we are feeling about our worth to ourselves or our family/friends/community, approach God with an open heart to the gift of justification through our humility.  And we will be exalted through him.

Lord, we are not worthy to accept your gift of your one and only Son.  Yet we know that you intended that gift just for us.  Help us to stay humble in our good works and remind ourselves we are deserving of your grace and mercy.  For our exaltation is for you and for your alone.  AMEN.