Baptisms of Resistance: Sermon for January 15, 2017

Last Monday I saw an incredible new movie. I’m not much of a movie goer, but I had heard amazing things about “Hidden Figures”, a true story about three African-American women who worked for NASA in 1961 in Hampton, Virginia.

hidden-figures-posterAll three were absolutely brilliant, and they were what NASA at the time called “computers”. We hear that word and think of laptops or the like, but for them it literally meant that they were doing the math, the computing, necessary for the Mercury Seven astronauts to launch and return to earth successfully.

And yet, they were living in a time and a place where even their brilliance could not give them equality. While they crunched numbers for NASA all day, they did so in a separate office reserved for “Colored Computers”. And when they had to use the restroom, they went to one with the word “Colored” written on the door.

I really believe everyone should see this movie, and so I’m not going to ruin it and tell you more than that, but I will tell you that all week I have been thinking about this story. I’ve been thinking of it in light of the Civil Rights Movement, and of Martin Luther King Day, which we celebrate tomorrow. But I’ve also been thinking of it in light of something else. I’ve been thinking about baptism, and about how we live our life.

Today we are observing Dr. King’s birthday, but we are also observing a holy day in the life of the church. On the Sunday after Epiphany, which we celebrated last week, we remember Jesus’ own baptism.

John the Baptist, who we heard about throughout Advent, had gone out into the wilderness and people had started to come to him to be baptized. And this isn’t the kind of baptism that you and I know about today, but was instead an adaptation of a Jewish custom where you would immerse yourself and wash yourself clean in anticipation of a new beginning.

Jesus ended up being one of those people who came to John, and when John saw him dovecoming he said, “Wait, Jesus…I shouldn’t baptize you…you should baptize me!” But Jesus told John to baptize him anyway, and when John did Jesus came up from under the water, and Scripture tells us that you could see the Spirit of God resting on Jesus like a dove, and that a voice said “this is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

As Protestants we celebrate two sacraments, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. And we say that we do these two things because Jesus “instituted” them. That doesn’t mean that people weren’t already being immersed in water or eating bread and wine. But that does mean that Jesus himself participated in these things, and made them holy, and told us to do the same. And so today, you and I do these things because we follow him.

Jesus, being Jesus, understood baptism a little better than we do. He knew that he was about to embark on a journey, a new thing, and like the people of his place and time, he went to John to mark it and to prepare. And when he was baptized, Jesus was publicly marked as God’s own.

What was true for Jesus is also true for us. Whether we are baptized as infants, and we can’t remember a thing about it, or whether we are baptized as adults and can remember everything, the real work of baptism is not done by us. In baptism God does the heavy lifting, claiming us as God’s own and strengthening and sealing us for life.

What happens on the day we are baptized is not the end of our baptism. It’s just the beginning of a whole new journey. Because while God claims us in baptism, once we are baptized our job is to claim God’s plan for us in all of our lives.

Our job as Christians is to live the life that God intends for us. I don’t mean that in the sense that some preachers you see on TV do. This is not about being “blessed” by big houses and bank accounts, or about claiming your “best life now”. Instead this is about figuring out what gifts God has given you, and using them not for yourself but to help others. This is about finding your purpose and living out your baptism every day.

Watching “Hidden Figures” I thought about these three women who had been given profound gifts by God. They were amazing mathematicians. And yet, every step of the way they were confronted by barriers, both because they were women, and because they were African-American.

The work load for every employee of NASA was backbreaking, but can you imagine what it was like to have to carry the additional burden of breaking two barriers at the same time? To work the same long hours computing figures that could literally save or take a man’s life, and then to have to drink from a separate coffee pot? To have to claim your place not just by being the best, but by not being silent and by standing up for yourself and for others at every turn?

Last week “Hidden Figures” was the number one move in the country. It even beat the new Star Wars. Can you imagine that? A movie about three African-American women doing math beat a perennial office blockbuster.

I asked myself why that happened, and I think the answer is this. I think we need stories like this right now. We need reassurance that when the world tries its best to hold people down, when it overlooks the gifts that God has given because of the ones who bear them, that does not have to be the end of the story.

The three woman at the heart of the movie were women of faith. Presbyterians, as I understand it. And they understood that they were baptized. And so, that’s why I believe that this was a baptism story. This was the story of three women who knew that they were God’s beloved, and who knew that in them God was well pleased. And they refused to let the world treat them as anything less.

917f3bba67764b291ffc5a59916e6b2bOn Dr. King day we remember a man who lived into his baptism by doing the same. It was Dr. King’s faith that fueled his work for equality. He was first and foremost a preacher, who believed in the Gospel, and believed that each of God’s children deserved dignity because of that. He believed this enough that he could not be silent, even though he well knew that it would likely cost him his life.

That is incredible. And yet, it is nothing less than what God asks of us. That is what our baptism means.

When we baptize someone in this church it is a joyous occasion. Particularly when we bring a child to the font, there is this light and joy. They come dressed in white, with their smiling parents and siblings. We take pictures. We eat cake. We walk the cute baby through the aisles and we smile.

But there’s a part in the baptismal service that reminds us that baptism is the start of something incredibly risky. Whether we make the vows for ourselves as adults, or we make them on behalf of a child, we are committing to a life of resisting the worst in this world.

The baptism vows include this question: “Will you (or will you encourage this child to) renounce the powers of evil and receive the freedom of new life in Christ?”

And a few minutes later: “Do you promise to be Christ’s disciple, to follow in the way of our savior, to resist oppression and evil, to show love and justice, and to witness to the work and word of Jesus Christ as best you are able?”

Those are the words that the UCC uses, but every Christian liturgy I know has some form of the same questions. The implication is clear: if you want to be a Christian, if you want to follow Christ, if you want to teach a child to be a Christian, you can’t do it by sitting down or staying silent in the face of evil or injustice. You have to rise up.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was martyred by the Nazis, once wrote that when Christ calls a

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John Lewis’ work in the Civil Rights Movement was inspired in large part by his Christian faith. This is him being beaten by police in 1965 during the Selma march.

person to follow him, he “bid him come and die”. That sounds harsh. And yet, it’s true. People like Bonhoeffer and Dr. King knew that literally.

But in our baptism we too are called to die. Maybe not literally, but certainly in a real way. Because if we are really going to follow Jesus, then we must be willing to let our hopes of always being comfortable die. We must be willing to let our self-protecting silence die. We must be willing to let our neutrality in the face of injustice die.

We must do these things because in the end, it is the only way that we, and the world, may truly live. Amen?

And so, on this Baptism of the Lord Sunday, for those who are baptized, I invite you to join me in reaffirming your baptism. For those who are not baptized, I invite you to reflect on these words and see whether God might be inviting you into baptism. Let us use the words of the baptismal liturgy…

Christmas Movies and Advent Stories: December 4, 2016

I’ve said before that I firmly believe that Christmas is the best time of the year for movies and TV specials. Everything from It’s a Wonderful Life to A Charlie Brown Christmas to Elf to the Grinch to A Christmas Story and beyond. There are certain shows and movies that I just have to see each year for it to really feel like Christmas.

movie-mcc-promo03-crachitsThis week I watched A Christmas Carol. The Muppet’s version. And once again I watched the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, and how he was transformed from a grumpy, hardhearted miser to a generous and loving man. And as I was watching, I started to think about a lot of those other Christmas shows I like. And I realized that the main character often goes through some sort of transformation.

George Bailey finds hope again. The Grinch’s heart grows. Charlie Brown learns what Christmas is all about. The list goes on…

But then, we have this other seasonal character. John the Baptist. He’s not exactly camera-ready, and he wouldn’t animate well into a cuddly character. John lived out in the wilderness dressed in camelhair and eating locusts and honey. This would be a horrible Christmas special. But this time of year, right before Christmas, we read about how he preached to everyone who would listen and he told them “prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight”.

In other words, he told the people “get ready”. Get ready because someone else is coming, and he is about to change everything. Get ready because your world is about to change.

We read this story every year in Advent, and John may as well have been talking to us. Because Advent is all about getting ready. It’s about transformation. It’s about preparing our heart for someone who is coming, and opening it up to new ways of being.

In Advent we prepare ourselves by focusing on four themes as symbolized by the Advent wreath: hope, peace, joy, and love. Last week we lit the candle of hope. And today we light the candle of peace.

Christians follow the one who was called the Prince of Peace, and Advent is all about waiting for his birth, and preparing ourselves for what he is about to ask us to do. Things like working for peace. Ending violence and suffering. And standing up against hatred and injustice.

This should be the most peaceful time of the year. But have you ever noticed that sometimes people people preparing for Christmas seem anything but peaceful? Our stress levels go up. We argue. We get frustrated in the stores when we can’t find what we need. Some people even go on TV and yell about the color of Starbucks holiday cups and how no one cares about Christmas anymore.

When you think about it, if you are yelling angrily about Christmas, you are probably missing the point. But unfortunately that happens far too often.

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Santa Claus (aka, Larry Jefferson). Copyright, CBS News.

I was reading this week about how the Mall of America in Minnesota hired its first African-American Santa Claus. This man is a convincing Santa. And, like every other Santa, he does a great job listening to kids share their wishes for the season. My guess is that none of the kids he holds in his lap care all that much about what color Santa is, so long as they get to tell them what they want.

But the adults…they are another story. Adults angrily called the mall and took to social media to denounce the fact this Santa was black. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune had to take down the comments section online because of the horrifically racist and nasty comments they were getting.

It seems a lot of people are on the naughty list this year.

But more importantly, can you imagine what Jesus would say about this? This is his grand birthday celebration, after all, and I’m sure more than a few of those comments came from church-going people who would call themselves good Christians.

The reality is that Christians are supposed to do a better job. We aren’t supposed to be spreading anger and hate. We’re supposed to transform the world.

But that’s a tall order. It’s hard to create peace in the world. We can do our best, we can work for good, we can pray for peace, but in the end, we find out an important truth: often you can’t create peace in the world, until you create peace in yourself.

Oddly, those Christmas movies helped me to realize that because when you think about it, as much as those are Christmas stories, they could also be Advent stories. Because they’re all about preparing our heart and transforming our lives.

Scrooge realizes the error of his ways, and only then is his heart transformed. Charlie Brown finds meaning with his sad little Christmas tree despite the fact the whole world has gone commercial, and no one understands what Christmas is really about anymore. And if you’ve ever seen National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, in the end we find Clark Griswold, who just wanted a perfect Christmas, finds peace in love of his family despite the fact that just about everything has gone wrong.

One word we give to finding peace within ourselves is “serenity”. A sense that no matter what is going on around us, we will ultimately be okay. A sense that God is will us. And a sense that no matter what the rest of the world is doing, we are able to still find peace and joy and hope deep inside of us.

It’s been said that serenity is an inside job. No one can give it to you. And, really, no one can take it from you, either. It’s a peace that, I believe, comes from knowing what matters most in the world, and opening ourselves up to the peace and the grace that God wants us to have.

And if we’re really serious about Advent, if we’re really serious about preparing our hearts for the coming of Christ, then serenity is the natural byproduct of this time of year. Because if you are truly using this season to focus on what is coming, there is no way that you won’t be changed by it.

Maybe you won’t have a big, miraculous, carol-filled Christmas morning, but inside your heart, if you listen closely, you’ll hear the change happening and the peace filling you.

This time of year, no matter what is happening around us, we are called to prepare our hearts anyway. We are called to open them up to grace and to love and to get ready to welcome Christ into the world. We are called to be messengers of peace, not only in our words, but in our actions.

georgebailey1This week as we go back out into the world, we can go with our hearts holding that promise. We can go as witnesses to the peace that Christ offers us. And we can go as Christ’s transformed people, and Christ’s Advent people.

These are the stories we love to hear, and they are the stories the world needs to hear. The Grinch, Scrooge, Charlie Brown, George Bailey, and all the rest…they were once Advent people too…looking for peace…waiting for a transforming love. And they found it. And so are you, and your story is just about to get good. Amen?

Advent Stories: Sermon for December 7, 2014

Mark 1:1-8
1:1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

1:2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way;

1:3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'”

1:4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

1:5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

1:6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.

1:7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.

1:8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Advent2

I don’t watch a lot of movies. I really have never been good at sitting still long enough. But there is one exception: Christmas movies. Right now there is a stack of them next to our TV: It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, Charlie Brown Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Elf, Christmas Vacation…the list goes on. And each December I probably spend more time than the rest of the year combined watching movies.

I’ve found that the same is true for others too. There’s something so special about the Christmas stories we grew up with, and even the ones we’ve come to know as adults, that they become a part of the way we celebrate the holidays.

But as much as I love them, there’s a catch…and that’s that I don’t think all of our favorite Christmas stories are really Christmas stories at all.

I’ll come back to that. But first, we have this story from Scripture about another character: John the Baptist. It’s traditional that on the second Sunday of Advent churches read about John, and about how he lived out in the wilderness where he ate locusts and wild honey, and wore camel’s hair, and shouted at people to “prepare the way of the Lord”.

So, you know, really Christmasy. He doesn’t sound like he was a lot of fun to be around. Actually, he sounds a little more like the Grinch or Ebenezer Scrooge. And yet, this is in many ways exactly the text we need to read this time of the year.

Because Advent is about preparation. It is about, as John puts it, preparing the way of the Lord and making the Lord’s paths straight. And John doesn’t mean literal paths by that. He doesn’t want us to build sidewalks or pave roads. He wants us to do something much harder.

John is telling us to clear the way for God to come into our hearts and into our lives. “Prepare the way of the Lord. Make the path straight.” In other words, get ready. Make some room for God.

That can be hard to imagine during the midst of the busy run-up to Christmas. We all have things to do this time of year. Presents to buy, cookies to bake, decorations to put up, cards to send. We may be busier than ever. And now John, this guy with his camel hair, wants us to add one more thing to the list. And that’s pretty easy for him to say. His shopping list consists of only two things: locusts and honey.

But, what if he’s right? What if you and I are being asked to prepare the way of the Lord? And what if it’s not just something to do on top of everything else we do to get ready for Christmas? What if it’s the point of this whole season and nothing else really matters?

Part of how we prepare the way of the Lord in this Advent season is by reflecting on the four traditional themes of the season. Last week was “hope”. And today is “peace”. But this story about John the Baptist, this guy who is sort of out there raving in the wilderness, at first glance might not sound like it has much to do with peace at all, so you might be wondering, “why do churches read about him this week”?

I think the answer to that has to do with how we understand what “peace” means. So, how would you define peace? It is the absence of war? In one sense, yes. And I would love for us to learn how to live without war. This world has too many wars, including ones being fought right now. This year, as I’m thinking about what peace means, I’m also thinking about a friend of mine who is deployed to Afghanistan right now. And as he spends this Christmas away from his family, I’m thinking about a world in which he would never have had to go.

I believe that Jesus, the Prince of Peace, wants that kind of peace for the world. But I don’t believe peace stops there. Because peace means more than not just firing a weapon, or raising a fist. And Jesus himself showed that.

Because the child we wait for this season, the one who would be called the Prince of Peace, is also the guy who grew up to angrily flip over tables in the Temple. He didn’t believe in the kind of false peace that comes only in the absence of armed conflict. And that’s because he wanted more from us than peace without justice.

And so when Jesus walked into the Temple and saw a system of money changing and usury that manipulated the faith of people and exploited the poor, he literally turned the tables on it. And in doing so, he taught us all that real peace cannot come when some are being oppressed. Real peace only comes when every child of God is treated justly.

So, already peace is a tall order: the absence of violence, and the absence of injustice. But, what if there’s even more to it?

There is a song you may have heard: “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.” There’s also that prayer from St. Francis that we recited at the beginning of our service: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”

What if we got absolutely serious about that? What if we decided that we ourselves were going to be the place where peace starts. And, even harder, what if we committed to creating peace within our own selves?

There’s a word that I’ve come to associate with inner peace: serenity. Reinhold Niebuhr, the well-known UCC minister and theologian, even wrote a prayer about it that you probably know: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Serenity does not mean that everything is perfect. It does not mean that things are even good or comfortable. It simply means that in the midst of everything, we have a sense of peace. And for those of us who are Christians, that means a sense of connection with our God, and with Christ, the Prince of Peace.

In that way, reading about John the Baptist on this Sunday of peace is maybe not so strange after all. Because what John is asking us to do is to get ready for God. John is saying prepare your heart, and mind for Christ’s coming. Unclutter the path that God will take, remove the obstacles you have placed there, and open yourself up to the peace that only Christ can bring.

Prepare the way of the Lord, because that’s how you find peace in yourself. And if you don’t have that peace, how can you ever except to bring it to others?

And that’s important because so much of what John the Baptist was doing out there in the wilderness was witnessing to the one who was to come. John knew he was not Christ. He knew something bigger than him was coming. Just like you and I are not Christ, but we witness to what we believe by the way we live our lives. And in Advent we prepare ourselves for the work of witnessing to God’s hope, and peace, and joy, and love, that we are asked to do all year. We prepare the way of the Lord inside of us, that we may prepare the way of the Lord in a world that so desperately needs all of those things that only Christ can bring.

And so, here’s where I want to go back to those Christmas movies and specials I talked about at the beginning. Remember how I said they weren’t really Christmas stories? I say that not because they are not Christmas-themed, but because most of them are really Advent stories. And that’s because most of them are about someone who learns to prepare the way of the Lord in their heart by making a change.

Even when everything is coming down around George Bailey, he learns to see the world through grateful eyes. Ebenezer Scrooge sees the truth about himself, becomes a compassionate and kind soul, and changes his miserly ways. Charlie Brown hears Linus recite the Christmas story, and he learns what Christmas is all about. And even the Grinch hears the Whos down in Whoville singing despite the fact he stole Christmas, and his heart grows three sizes that day.

Those are their Advent stories. Each has an Advent that prepares them for Christmas. And each arrives at Christmas day different than they were when the season of Advent started. They are, in some way, transformed. And transformation is what Advent is all about.

So what is your Advent story? How are you going to be transformed this year? How are you going to prepare and make straight the way of the Lord?

You don’t have to be visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. You don’t have to have to go to Whoville. You don’t even have to have Charlie Brown’s sad little Christmas tree. All you have to do is this: open your heart, and make a little space for the Prince of Peace. Prepare the way of the Lord, and the Lord will show you the rest. Amen.

Questioning Advent: Day 11 – Wading In

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East Branch of the Deerfield River, Green Mountain National Forest

Vermont is a great place if you like to fly fish. The cold trout streams hold their fair share of browns, rainbows, and brookies throughout the late spring and summer and into early fall. During trout season I often find myself heading out to the national forest early in the morning, or rushing out after dinner to catch the dying light. I’ve found that even on a day when I catch nothing, the beauty of the river and peaceful rhythm of casting are good enough for me.

Vermont streams aren’t always easy to fish, though, particularly if you try to wade in them. They’re rocky, the stones get slippery, and the bottoms are so uneven that one step you can be standing on fairly solid ground, and the next you can be chest deep in water. I’ve found myself thrashing so loudly in the water that I’m sure I warned every trout in the river to stay way.

After a few full-body dunks in the Deerfield River I tried to fish from the shore. It didn’t work. The fish are smart enough to stay in the deep waters, and there are enough trees around the bank that my line didn’t last that long. I realized that if I really wanted to do this, I had to wade in.

John the Baptist didn’t get his name by accident (or because he went to First Baptist Church of the Wilderness). A better translation for his name might be “John the Baptizer”. He stood by the river baptizing the people who came to him, eventually including Jesus himself. For the ones who were baptized, the waters were the mark of something new. A rededication. A physical reminder of their immersion in God’s love and grace. All the while that John was telling the people to get ready for something new, he was baptizing them. The water became a symbol of what was next.

There’s something about standing in water that reminds me that I’m a part of something bigger than myself. The winter’s snow melts into the headwaters of mountain streams in Vermont. Those streams join to form a river that merges with others south of the border with Massachusetts, and by the time the Connecticut River gushes out into the Long Island Sound, there’s no stopping it. The ocean carries those Vermont waters further than I can imagine.

The same is true of our baptism. Whether we are sprinkled with water that came from a well, or a church faucet, or a bottle of Jordan River water that someone swears their aunt brought back from her visit to Israel, or whether we are dunked headlong into a lake, it doesn’t matter. That water changes us. And it makes us a part of something bigger and greater than ourselves. It gives us the potential to participate in something we can only imagine.

Just like I’ve learned that standing on the shore of a trout stream does little good, I’ve found the less I pay attention to the waters of baptism, the less fruitful my life is as well. In fact, what I’ve learned wading trout streams has taught me something valuable. When I wade into a stream, the more I try to stay in shallow water, the more likely I am to lose my footing. But the deeper I wade, the more I become one with the current, and the more I find myself standing on a solid foundation.

In Advent we are invited to stand in deeper water. In this season Christ calls us into our baptism in new ways. We are asked to step into a small stream that is heading towards incredible places. But we get to make a decision about if, and how far in, we will wade. Sometimes that river seems cold. Sometimes it seems treacherous. And sometimes it seems rocky. But I’ve found that every time I’ve waded deep, there has been a blessing in it.

Question: Where in your faith life do you find yourself holding back out of fear? What would it mean to immerse yourself?

Prayer: Creator of the the waters, the rivers, and the seas, bless those of us who stand on the shore. Call us into the living waters. Steady our feet on rocky ground. Keep us safe in the midst of the deep. And join us with one another, bound by the blessing of our common baptismal waters. Amen.

Questioning Advent: Day Nine – Plowing the Road

photoIt snowed last night and this morning in Vermont. By the time I headed out of the house this morning to run errands the road was an icy, slushy mess. The normally speedy cars on the state road were slowed to well under the speed limit. The snow plows and salt trucks hadn’t been through yet either, and as I pulled in and out of the post office, the village market, the hardware store, and the coffee shop, I took my time and hit the brake more than usual. I’m not what anyone would call an overly cautious driver, but I’m a volunteer first responder, and I’ve seen what these same roads can do to cars full of people in the winter.

In this week’s Gospel reading John the Baptist tells us to, “Prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight the paths!” I’ve often read that wondering why God needs us to do that. I mean, God could probably straighten out God’s own paths, and with a lot more accuracy than we can do it. Why does God have this guy out in the wilderness calling to us to be God’s divine road crew? Jesus came, and is coming, whether we were, and are, ready or not.

But John’s call to us is different than that. Indeed, Christ will transform the world, regardless of what we do, but John is offering us something incredible: a chance to participate in that transformation. In Advent we are called to prepare a special path for Christ to come into our hearts. While the Reformed part of me believes that God’s grace is irresistible, that doesn’t mean that we don’t have some say in what happens next when that grace comes in the form of Christ and wants to transform our lives.

On my six mile drive back from town, I was stuck behind a state snow plow. I didn’t particularly mind. The truck pushed the ice and snow off to the side of the road, making it safe to pass once again. “Prepare ye the way of the CRV,” I said to myself. (It was a lot funnier in the moment.)

In Advent we prepare the way of the Lord in our own lives. We make decisions about how we will respond with gratitude for the grace that surrounds us. We clear the paths to our hearts that are impassable, put down a foundation that lets grace take hold, and get them ready for a new season. We choose whether or not we are going to get ready for what comes next. We choose in Advent whether we will participate in Christmas. And sometimes that choice starts with something as simple as clearing a path for something incredible.

Question: Are there any pathways inside of you that are too blocked to allow grace to flow through? What would it look like to make straight those places in preparation for Christmas?

Prayer: Holy God, we know something big is coming, and we know you are calling us to get ready. Show us the paths you will take, and help us to prepare them for you, so that we may participate in what is coming next. Amen.

Questioning Advent: Day Eight – Get Ready

saint-john-the-baptist-09We read about John the Baptist every second Sunday of Advent. Here in the middle of the Christmas joy and preparation is this story of this guy who lives down by the river eating locusts and wild honey, and shouting at everyone to repent.

There’s a good reason no one is putting John the Baptist on a Christmas card.

Maybe it’s John’s call to us to “repent” that scares us the most. I hear “repent” and I either think of a religious revival where some preacher is calling everyone sinners, or a dour confessor doling out penance. Neither is particularly joyful anytime of the year, and particularly not at Christmas.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth hearing. And that’s especially true if we hear what “repentance” really means. If you go back to the root of the Greek word that’s found in the original text of the New Testament, you find that the word is “metanoia”. Metanoia is roughly translated as “to change your mind”. It’s a call to “think differently”. And, not just a call to change your mind, it’s a call to change your actions as well.

That may sound like an odd Christmas message, but it fits perfectly in Advent. This is the season when we who follow Christ are getting ready for something new. This is the start of something big. And if we are going to get on board, we have to make room for what is coming, and we have to change the things that are keeping us from getting ready.

This repentance isn’t about feeling bad or ashamed or guilty. It’s about being willing to put aside the things that are keeping us from fully participating in what comes next. It’s about believing that our mistakes and our past don’t have to define out future. And it’s about deciding to believe that we can be a part of God’s own work in our world.

And, when you think about it like that, John the Baptist was all proclaiming out chance to share in the joy to come. It may not fit on a Christmas card, but it’s worth remembering just the same in this holy season of getting ready.

Question: How are you repenting this Advent? What changes are you making in order to make room or to get ready?

Prayer: Merciful God, thank you for the chance to change, and thank you for the people you put in our lives who remind us that change is possible. In this season of Advent, help us to make the changes we can make in order to make room for a love that will change the world. Amen.

John the Baptist, Penn State, the Harder Right, and the Easier Wrong

For the past eight months, like many of you, I’ve been keeping an eye on the story coming out of Penn State. There were the accusations, the arrest, more witnesses and survivors coming forward, a trial, and finally, the verdicts. By the time the jury said “guilty”, few of us were surprised.

But more than the man who committed these heinous crimes, I’ve been interested in the whole system that was involved, all of Penn State. The coaches, the university staff, the alumni board, the rioting students, some of the fans. Most of us, thankfully, would never hurt a child. Not the way that Jerry Sandusky did, anyway. But even if they never did the things that he did, so many seemingly good people seem to have done just that. Either by their actions, or by their lack of actions, they hurt kids.

This week a report on what happened at Penn State came out. It’s well researched, unbiased, and thorough. It’s also pretty damning. It turns out that time and again those in positions of power looked the other way when they could have stepped up. I don’t know who exactly knew what when, but clearly what was happening was not a secret. And time and again the most powerful people on campus didn’t call the police. They didn’t notify child welfare. They didn’t do anything that would cause a scandal. And, most importantly, they didn’t ever seem to think about the children.

The Bible text we read today isn’t set in the shadow of a winning football team. It doesn’t involve a beloved head coach with a spotless reputation. There aren’t any children in the story. And yet, even two millennia apart, the two stories speak to one another.

We’ve read stories about John the Baptist many times here. We remember that he was the guy down by the river who ate locusts and wore camel hair. We might remember that we called on those around him to repent and make straight the way of the Lord. More than anyone else, John pointed to Jesus and told people to get ready.

Herod had heard John preach. Herod was the king, and yet he liked listening to John. And John had told him some hard things, some things he didn’t want to hear. Some things concerning his wife. But Herod still protected him, and believed he was a good man.

His wife, Herodias, didn’t feel the same way. She had a grudge against John, but she couldn’t do anything about it because Herod liked him so much. Until one night. When Herod had a birthday party. And his daughter danced for him and for his guests. Herod was so pleased that he told her “whatever you want, I’ll give it to you…anything.”

The girl asked her mother what to ask for, and Herodias saw her chance: ask him for the head of John the baptizer.

When Herod was asked, he didn’t want to do it. He was conflicted and grieved, and yet he knew if he didn’t do what he said he would, he would lose face in front of all the important people gathered there. So he gave the order. And had John killed. And brought his head on a platter.

It’s a gritty story. Not one we really like to talk about. I had thought about preaching on the Old Testament text this week just because it’s just plain less gruesome. But then that Penn State report came out. And I felt like I was reading the same story twice.

Scripture tells us that Herod may very well have been a good man. He listened to John, protected him, was open to what he had to stay. What he ended up doing caused him personal pain. He wasn’t without conscience. He knew it wasn’t right.

I believe that most of the people who looked the other way at Penn State were probably good men too. They probably loved their families. Protected their own children. Tried to be honest. If you asked them if they were good people who did the right thing, my guess is they would say yes.

And most days they probably did. Just like you and I and the vast majority of people in the world. But on the days in question, they rejected the hard right, and chose the easier wrong.

What if Herod had said “no”? What if he said, I am not killing John? He would have lost face. He would have lost the respect of his family and his officers and everyone at that banquet. He would have paid a price. But John would have lived.

What if the ones in those meetings at Penn State had chosen the harder right? What if the grad assistant who saw something so horrendous had stepped in right then and there? What if the coach had called police the minute he heard? What if the administration and trustees had said, “We will have no part in a cover up, no matter what price we pay?”

What if they had done the right thing even if it meant their football program’s name might be tarnished and it would never be the same?

My guess is a lot of children would have been saved a lot of torment.

The sad irony is that because no one stood up for those children, that football program’s name is tarnished perhaps beyond repair. Similarly, when we think about Herod, we think of a man who may have been good, but who time and again didn’t choose the right thing. First with John, and then with Jesus. History rarely remembers the person who chooses the easier wrong well.

But these stories, this sermon, is about more than a small handful of people. It’s not just about a king two thousand years ago and a handful of modern day coaches and university administrators. It’s about me, and you, and all of us.

Probably all of us have had moments where we’ve wished we could bring ourselves to choose a harder right over an easier wrong. Maybe we’ve wanted a little more courage to step in and say something when we’ve seen someone being mistreated but we also haven’t wanted to become the target ourselves. Or maybe we’ve wanted to stand up and stop it when our company makes a choice that we also know is ethically wrong, but we also know will raise profits. Or maybe we’ve been in a parking lot and seen one member of a couple hit or threaten the other, but we haven’t wanted to get involved because we wanted to “mind our own business”.

We know what the right thing to do is. We know it as surely as Herod did and as much as I hope every one of those people at Penn State did. But we’ve also known that doing the right thing could cost us something. Our jobs. Our status. Maybe even more.

At least initially.

But the good news is this. No matter what worldly things we lose, what we gain is worth even more. Our self-respect. Our dignity. Our ability to look in the mirror and know that we are following the Christ who told us to love our neighbor as ourself.

It won’t always be easy, and we won’t always get it right. But we can keep trying, along with all the others whom Christ called his brothers and sisters. And the first step is admitting that sometimes we have, and we will, get it wrong.

There’s a big mural in State College, Pennsylvania. It’s in the center of town and many well-known people associated with Penn State are painted on it. Joe Paterno is painted there. And after he died earlier this year, the artist went and painted a halo over his head. He became Saint Joe.

Yesterday, in the wake of the report that came out this week, the artist went back. And he painted over the halo. Joe Paterno was no longer Saint Joe. He was just Joe. I felt sort of bad for Joe Paterno. Maybe for the first time since this whole thing broke. It felt like an unnecessary dig after the fact.

But the more I thought about it, I realized the artist, a friend of the Paterno’s it turns out, was right. He was not a saint. He was not a saint anymore than you or I or the people we know are saints. He was just a child of God who like a lot of children of God made some big mistakes in an otherwise good life. Mistakes that cannot be glossed over with a halo, but that must be acknowledged. For the children’s sake. And for his sake.

I hope that at the end of my life, those who knew me will say that more often than not I chose the harder right over the easier wrong. But even if they do, I know no one will be rushing to paint a halo over my head. And that’s a good thing. Because we need that reminder that all of us remain staggeringly, shockingly imperfect, even on our best days.

We all, like Herod, have our banquet guests to please. We all have our own equivalent of a crowning jewel football programs to protect. And we all have a life to live that will continue to confront us with hard rights and easier wrongs. We might never earn that halo here on earth, but perhaps we can learn from the example of the one whom John died proclaiming, the one who taught us that in the the harder right can be the thing that brings the world a little more grace, and that that grace may save us all.

May Christ be with us in the places we need him the most, and may God’s grace give us courage when we face our hardest choices, whatever they may be, and whenever they may come. Amen.

“Making New Paths” – Sermon for 4 December 2011

Most of us have seen a fender bender take place in front of us before. We may have even been asked to be a witness to the accident. A police officer has asked us to remember everything that we saw, leaving nothing out, even if it seemed insignificant. And then he or she has gone and asked everyone else what they saw.
What’s interesting is that if you and I and a few other people were to see a fender bender, get separated, and then get asked what we saw, our stories wouldn’t be the same. I might remember that one driver ran a stop light. You might have seen the other driver texting. Someone might say the car was red. Another might remember where the license plates were from. And some of our stories might even conflict a little, not because any of us are lying, but because we were standing on different sides of the street or because one thing in particular caught our eye and felt so important that we remembered it.
It’s been said that the Gospels aren’t that different. There are four Gospels that we consider canonical, or a part of Holy Scripture. And each serves as a witness to the life of Christ. Each tells the story of what they saw. And they are all different. Some overlap and tell some of the same stories, but often you’ll find that a story one or two Gospels contains isn’t in the others. It’s like the witnesses to a fender bender. The parts of the story I think are most important might not even make it into yours.
Which is why John the Baptist is so interesting. Because he is there in all four Gospels. He is a part of everyone’s story. While some of the Gospel writers leave out this miracle or that parable, no one forgets John. He’s like the car that everyone saw run the red light. You can’t leave him out.
Every Advent we read about John. We read that he was the one who came first to try to tell everyone who was coming after him. He told those Gospel writers who was coming, and they couldn’t forget it.
The writer of Mark in particular didn’t forget. In fact they start the Gospel this way: “the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ.” And the beginning of that good news is that God sent this messenger. This messenger who lived out in the wilderness and wore camel’s hair and ate honey and locusts. He’s the first thing that Mark talks about. Not Mary or Joseph or the manger, but this strange guy who shouts out “prepare the way of the Lord. Make God’s paths straight.
You might think that Jesus could have gotten a better PR guy. Locusts and honey and camel’s hair don’t seem like what you want people to remember about your spokesperson. You want someone polished and dynamic and exciting. Someone with powerpoint and music and a big budget. Someone who Oprah will invite on the show and say that you changed her life. Someone who will write the feel-good best sellers that fly off the shelves. Not someone who tells everyone to “repent” and to get ready for something that is about to change their life.
But God sent John. And every year about this time we remember him in Advent. We remember him as the first person to know who Jesus was and to tell people to get ready.
As a child I thought “John the Baptist” must actually be a Baptist. I figured that there was John the Baptist, Steve the Methodist, Joe the Presbyterian, etc., etc. I didn’t understand why he was called that. A more accurate name for John would be “John the Baptizer”. Because that’s what he did. He called people out to the wilderness, away from the comfort of what they knew, and to a river. And they confessed their sins, all the things that caused them pain and grief and kept them tied to the past, and he baptized them. He helped them to put all of that behind them, and to start over fresh, because someone was coming that was going to need them.
John the Baptist was the original Advent guy. He was, as Mark says, “the beginning of the Good News”. He was the one who told you that Jesus was coming, and everything was about to change. And so, you’d better get ready.
Advent is about waiting. It’s about expecting that something incredible is about to happen, and watching for the signs that are all around you.
And we hear “wait” and we probably think about being patient and passive. You might think about the Advents we knew as children where the most we could really do was shake the presents and count down the days as you opened the doors on the Advent calendar. Advent was something to be endured.
But Advent is more than a kind of calendar. It’s a time of preparation. It’s “the beginning of the good news”. It’s the time where we are called to not just passively wait, but to get ready. John tells us to prepare a path for God. And Advent is the season to do it.
But how do you prepare that path? How do you get ready for what God is about to do next? How do you say, “Come, God. Come”?
To me, Advent is more than just four weeks a year. Advent is a lot like life. If we have faith, on our best days we believe that God is going to do something incredible with God’s people, both in this world and the next. We believe that Christmas, the coming of Christ, was not a one time only event. We affirm that Christ is coming again. And we are waiting.
But God wants us to do more than just sit around and wait. We don’t live our lives just crossing days off calendars the way we might open the doors of an Advent calendar just wanting to get to December 25th. God wants us to get ready. To prepare the way of the Lord, not just during Advent, but every day of our lives.
And so we get ready. Just like we get ready for Christmas by putting up the lights, and cutting down the tree, and buying the presents, we get ready for Christ every day of our lives. Because what is coming is more incredible than anything we have ever hoped for on Christmas morning.
But how do we get ready? We get ready by making this Advent world look like we want it to look like when Christ comes again. We don’t throw up our hands and say, “Let’s wait until God changes everything.” We look around, and we see what we can do to make this world ready for Christ. And then we work together to do it.
It’s not always convenient. It’s not always comfortable. It’s not always what we want to do. Usually it takes us on a path that is nothing we would ever expect. But in the end, if we are preparing the path that we think Christ will need in this world, we will find ourselves more fulfilled than we ever will leading a passive life of faith. That’s not what Advent is all about. That’s not what the life of faith is all about.
The church I attended in college and seminary was not a place of passive people. It was a place where people looked around, saw what they thought Jesus would be doing if he came back today, and did it. They looked around their neighborhood, saw homeless folks all around, and they invited them in and fed them and gave them somewhere to sleep. They were waiting for Christ to come again, but they weren’t content to sit by and cross days off the calendar. They listened to John. They were preparing the way of the Lord right then and there.
I was thinking of them this week, as Wilmington prepares to decide what path to take and how they will prepare the way of the Lord. My little church had slowly lost members until less than fifteen folks came on Sunday. And it became clear to all of us that God was ready to do something new. God was calling us to create a new path.
That church is gone today. At least in any official sense. There are no Sunday services, the members have all gone elsewhere, and the sign out front is gone. But its legacy lives on in the form of a building that has been transformed into a residential center for those who need a hand up. Hundreds of folks in Atlanta have had their lives changed because the people of that church decided that God was calling them to take what they had and create a new path. It wasn’t the end of a church. It was, as Mark says, the beginning of the good news.
Our job in all of our life, is to be a little like John the Baptist. Without the locusts. Prepare the way of the Lord. Make a path for God. In all we do, point not to ourselves, but to the one who is to come. And be the beginning of the Good News. Because if we can be that, God will make sure that there is more Good News to come, and that the Advent, the beginning, we create will give way to the one who is yet to come. Prepare the way of the Lord. This is only the beginning…Amen.