Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Don't Forget the Minor Character

What happened to Ishmael? He was Abraham’s son by the slave-woman Hagar. As we read in today’s lesson from the Old Testament (Genesis 21:1-21), on the day that Abraham’s other son Isaac was weaned, Isaac’s mother Sarah got jealous and told Abraham to get rid of Hagar and Ishmael. After hearing confirmation from God that this was the right thing to do, Abraham sent his first son and his mother out into the desert with a loaf of bread and a skin of water and said, “Good luck.”

The interesting part to me is what happened to Ishmael—not just in the desert, where God intervened and saved them but in the years beyond. The Hebrew bible doesn’t say much. A few chapters later, Ishmael and Isaac both come back together years later in order to bury their father. And Genesis lists the names of the twelve princes that Ishmael gave rise to. But we never hear more than that. As the text tells us, the covenant was made with Isaac—not Ishmael. For the Jewish tradition, Ishmael isn’t much more than a cast-aside.

So why, then, did the story include such incredible promises to Hagar and Ishmael? If you’re simply going to write a character out of the plot, why bother giving that much backstory? In their moment of distress, dying in the desert, God’s angel calls to Hagar and says, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” A great nation. Father of twelve princes. Those are the sorts of promises that a nation and a religion are built upon. If you’re going to prepare the audience for a spin-off, why didn’t they ever make the new show?

Of course, according to tradition, Ishmael becomes the father of the Arab peoples, and the prophet Muhammad picks up where the story leaves off and gives us the role of Ishmael. The Quran has some wonderful stories about Abraham’s love of his first-born son—how he rode across the desert to check on his former slave-woman and her son. Most of these stories don’t play a role in our faith, but they do offer some resolution to an otherwise unfinished story.

Still, why? Why bother with those little details? If the Jewish people will eventually become rivals with the Arab people, why not just excoriate the Ishmael-promise from the biblical text? Why make him such bold promises? I think Ishmael’s story, although not central to our faith, echoes our understanding of who God is. God goes off-script. He leaves open the possibility of pursuing plot lines that at first seemed abandoned. And he does that because human history often goes awry.

God’s promises are bigger than we are. Even if we don’t understand how everything fits together, God does. He doesn’t abandon any of us simply because we aren’t central to the story. God works in ways that aren’t always obvious or traditional. God seeks relationship with individuals and with peoples that don’t always make sense to those in the mainstream. We don’t often celebrate Ishmael—we leave that to our Muslim brothers and sisters—but maybe we should. How many of us identify with Ishmael’s role in the story—abandoned but not forgotten, cast-aside yet eventually redeemed?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

How Deep is the Water?

Last night at church, in honor of St. Paul, we discussed the concept of conversion. Is it necessary? What role does baptism play in one’s conversion/salvation? One of the questions that came up is whether an individual is “saved” after baptism regardless of how that individual leads his life. In other words, if I’m baptized as an infant but never show any evidence of faith, can I still go to heaven? Most of us in the room would say no. I wonder what today’s lesson from Hebrews might suggest.

Our reading is Hebrews 10:1-10, and, on the surface, it doesn’t have a lot to do with baptism. Instead, it’s the authors way of comparing Christ’s sacrifice with those sacrifices in the Temple. The author concludes that unlike the Temple offerings, which must be made day after day, year after year, the cross shows that “we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” Bulls and goats = temporary forgiveness; Christ on the cross = permanent forgiveness.

But we all know that, despite Christ’s once-and-for-all sacrificial event, we still go on sinning. We’re not supposed to be proud of it, but it happens. That means that what Christ did for me is as effective for my future sins as it is on my past. That isn’t a reason to sin all the more so that grace may abound (Rom. 6), but it is a comfort that the power of forgiveness enacted on the cross is greater than any of my sins.

So if we and our sins are buried with Christ through our baptism and if we emerge from the baptismal waters forgiven and cleansed, why would there be a limit to that forgiveness? Where do we draw the lines? When is someone not forgiven if Christ’s death is totally efficacious and through baptism we are united with him in death? I get the whole “public confession of faith” deal, but, if that’s going to be the standard of conversion/salvation, shouldn’t we find a better entrance rite than baptism? The biblical and theological symbolism behind baptism are clear—sin are buried; we are washed clean. Isn’t a lower theology of baptism a denial of the cross’ power?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A Wolf's Clothing

Something happened to me in about the seventh grade: it was no longer cool to be a Christian. That doesn’t mean that the popular crowd in middle school converted to Islam or Buddhism, but my peers and I stopped letting our identity as “good little churchgoing boys and girls” define us. Actually, that had less to do with religion and more to do with growing up. Teenagers learn to define what is cool by that which their parents do not do. So if one’s parents want him to go to Sunday school that becomes the epitome of uncool. We didn’t develop a hostility toward religion, but we stopped being proud of our faith.

Today is the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, and our gospel lesson articulates the counterpoint of Paul’s conversion. Jesus commissions his disciples by saying, “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves.” When I think of this passage, I think of my adolescence. Perhaps that’s because I can remember my youth minister saying that as Christian teenagers in the 1990s we were like sheep in the midst of wolves. Looking back, none of us got picked on because we were Christians. In fact, had I professed another faith or chosen no faith at all, I would have almost certainly opened myself up to far more ridicule than I received as an average Alabama kid. But there was still an element of truth to that youth minister’s message: by the time we were in high school, a definite distance had grown between our faith and our friendships.

Should I have been a better influence on others? Should I have openly opposed the underage drinking or the teenage promiscuity? As a Christian, was Jesus sending me into the hot bed of high school shenanigans in order to witness to my peers about the real message of our faith? I don’t know. But I do know that the one thing I wanted more than anything else in all the world was to fit in. I needed a community to which I could belong. Athlete, nerd, choirboy—I needed some identity that would make me a part of a group. And being the school prophet was not appealing.

As a Christian, I didn’t feel like I had been sent into a hostile land where Christians were killed for their faith. That sense of “sheep amidst wolves” didn’t apply. But I did feel like I needed to be like everyone else. I was a sheep surrounded by wolves, and the only way I was going to survive was by putting on a wolf costume. Actually, almost all of us were sheep wearing wolf costumes, but that didn’t matter. Once someone decided that we were supposed to look like wolves, we all scrambled to put on the appropriate outfit.

At times, I’m most thankful that high school is far behind me. But Jesus’ message isn’t just for teenagers. What about the adult world? How are we being sent out as sheep into the midst of wolves? I think there’s an even greater pressure now to let the world define who I am rather than to let my faith stand in contrast to the world. I don’t think the world is openly encouraging me to drink to excess or to be unfaithful in my marriage, but it is seducing me to think that I should look like everyone else. Wealth, power, prestige, and accomplishments are what matter in our society. Those are not the things that define the Christian, yet, if I want to fit in in the wolf-suited world, I can’t stand out as the guy who thinks we should all take a vow of poverty. Supper clubs aren’t usually the best place to call on others to repent. Pretty soon, invitations to dinner stop coming, and the sheep finds himself stranded.

But Jesus says that we should not worry. God will provide us with what we need to say in that moment. In order for that to happen, however, we must be open to the Spirit’s speaking. We must be willing to let God speak to us and through us in that moment. And the only way that happens is by realizing that we already belong to a community of sheep. As followers of Jesus, we have a shepherd who loves us and calls us by name. If I can internalize that—if I can be reminded of how much God loves me—then I don’t have to worry about whether my peers will accept me. I’m already included in God’s family—sheep amidst sheep.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

High-Stakes Promises

How often do you make promises to God? Most of us, I think, do that less as we get older. As an adolescent, I found myself promising God a litany of things I never could have given him, trying to secure any number of girlfriends or good grades. “Dear God,” I would say, “If you will give me X, I promise I will never again do Y.” When you’re 13, those variables are pretty fixed. Nowadays, I don’t say those words as often. I may still silently attempt to barter with God, but it doesn’t happen nearly as often.

As an old man, Abram made a promise to God, but he wasn’t offering something on which he could not deliver. Perhaps that’s because the promise was initiated by God. In today’s Old Testament lesson (Genesis 15:1-11; 17-21), Abram is made a promise by God—that he will have descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven. Promising that to a 75+-year-old-man is a pretty bold thing to do, but believing that promise—as Abram did—might be even bolder. It’s a remarkable moment of faithfulness on the part of Abram, which is why the author is so bold as to write that Abram’s belief in God’s promise was “reckoned to him as righteousness.” The ability of Abram to take God at his word is pretty remarkable, but the terms of the agreement are even more interesting.

As a sign of what they had agreed to, Abram took a cow, a goat, a ram, and a pigeon and killed them all before the Lord. Other than the pigeon, he cut them each into two pieces and laid them out top of each other—perhaps propped up like a meat-tent. Then, he sat and prayed, only getting up to shoo away the vultures who tried to pick at the substantial carcasses. In the middle of the night, Abram had a vision of a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passing between the pieces of cut-open flesh. In that moment, the promise was sealed.

I’ve read some secondary literature about this text, and other authors suggest that this would have mimicked a familiar ritual for enacting a promise. An animal is slain in a sacramental way to suggest that whoever breaks the promise might end up like the dead beast. Both parties would walk past or around the sacrifice to signify that each was willing to be killed if he broke his word. In other words, Abram performed this animal slaughter to suggest that if he failed to keep his end of the bargain he would be cut in two and left for the vultures to pick apart. Not very nice, but it’s one heck of a way to make a promise.

I don’t know this for sure, but I doubt Abram ever thought he’d have the chance to cut God up and lay him out on some rocks for birds of prey to eat. That means that he was laying it all out on the line and saying to God, “If I fail to follow you like I’ve promised, I’m in big trouble.” I think Abram fully expected to be killed by God if he didn’t keep his end of the bargain. As a teenager, I made promises to God that I knew I’d never keep. What would it be like to put your life on the line when making a promise to God and really believing in the consequences?

Faith is a funny thing. For me, it’s fickle. For Abram, it’s life or death. We are called to have faith like Abram—not to seal covenants we’ve made with God by passing between flayed-open pieces of meat but to put it all on the line and trust God. Abram’s relationship with God was real. Abram put his life in God’s hands and trusted God to take care of him. Whether we realize it or not, we have done the same: our life is in God’s hands. Whether we know it or not, we have trusted him to take care of us. How might we remember that relationship as more than a passing fancy? How might we discover the same all-in, high-stakes relationship with God in our own lives?

Monday, January 23, 2012

Connecting the Dots

What do we believe in? Edward R. Murrow led the 1950s radio series This I Believe, which gave individuals the chance to state the basis of their belief. NPR revived that radio series a few years ago, and it continues on a website: http://thisibelieve.org. Until someone asks me to write a short essay or give a short radio interview, I feel like I believe in lots of things—too many even to name. But the real genius of the This I Believe approach is that it forces us to ask, “What do I really believe?”

I think many things. I believe a fair number. I put my faith in only a few. I think there’s a difference in the kind of belief that Murrow has in mind and the sort of reasonable assent that we might otherwise count as a belief. For example, I believe in gravity—which is to say that I have no reason to think that my being stuck to the ground is the result of anything other than this to me abstract concept that physicists have named “gravity.” But I don’t really put my heart into that belief. What, then, is it to believe at that deeper level?

In today’s gospel reading (John 4:43-54), Jesus bluntly tells an authority figure, “Unless you see signs and wonders, you will not believe.” The gospel writer John likes to call miracles “signs”—feats of wonder that point the viewer (or reader) to something bigger (namely that Jesus is the Son of God). This official has come to Jesus asking for him to come and heal his son, but Jesus’ reply suggests that the man must see a sign before he can believe. Undeterred, the man begs Jesus to come and heal his son, to which Jesus replies, “Go; your son will live.”

It’s an odd interchange. The man asks for a miracle, but Jesus seems reluctant to give it. The man pursues, and Jesus grants his request but not by making any big show of it—simply by assuring the man that his son would live. Then the man returns home and discovers that his son is recovering. Upon learning when the fever broke, the man puts the pieces together and believes. He makes the connection between his son’s recovery and Jesus’ confident prediction. That was enough. The connection was made, and the man believes.

Unless we see signs and wonders, we won’t believe either. But what are signs and wonders? I don’t think they are miracles in the biblical sense (unless you mean this one). We won’t get to see Jesus walk on water. But we do have opportunities to see God working in our lives. What has he done for you today? How is God active in your daily life? If I have a fever, I take antibiotics and recover. Few of us would call that a miracle, but I might still call it a sign—as long as I can put the pieces together.

Signs and wonders don’t have to be inexplicable; they just need to point us back to God. What is pointing you back to God, helping you connect the dots? If you can make the connection, you can believe. Our faith doesn’t rest exclusively on the miraculous. Our belief comes when we recognize that God is active in our life—often in simple, obvious, mundane ways. We don’t need a laser-light show. We need the big picture.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Leaning on the Everlasting Arms

Sometimes the logic of God being God is baffling. Today’s New Testament lesson (Hebrews 6:13-20) clears some of that up for me. Despite the nuanced text, I think it’s one of those passages we can read and walk away from with stronger faith.

The author starts by invoking God’s promise to Abraham: “When God made a promise to Abraham, because he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself.” At first, that seems silly, but imagine yourself in court. When you put your hand on the “good book” and swear (or affirm) your oath you swear to God. I haven’t really thought much about that before, but I’m guessing that by swearing by God we put ourselves under divine consequences if we break that oath. When the author continues, writing, “Human beings, of course, swear by someone greater than themselves,” it helps me think about whom else I might swear by—my parents, my boss, the governor, etc.. We swear by appealing to someone up the ladder, and the higher up we go the easier it is for someone else to trust us.

So when God makes an oath, by whom does he swear? By himself, of course. God’s word is enough. As the author of Hebrews puts it, God simply says to Abraham, “I will surely bless you and multiply you.” Enough said. And therein lies the real lesson for me today. If God swears by himself, everything hangs in the balance when that promise is made. God can’t make false promises. If God even once reneged on his oath, the universe would collapse. Either that, or we would all find a new God to worship.

When the stakes are at their highest, even one prevarication sends the whole system crashing down. You and I get second chances. We get third and fourth and fifth chances, too. When we break our promises (it happens), life moves on. Eventually, people are willing to trust us again. But that isn’t so with God. If God—the definition of faithfulness—were to back out of a deal, no one could ever believe in him again.

If people have been trusting God for 5000+ years, it means that God has been consistently faithful for that whole time. So, when I find myself wondering or doubting about God’s faithfulness in 2012, I should remember that there are millennia of the most stringent precedent to rely on. God has been faithful in every case in every time. That’s how we define God—as faithful. My faith in him doesn’t have to be a new proposition. I’m relying on all of human history.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

What's On Your Sign?

Recently—which is to say in the last year or so—I’ve had two different people tell me that John 3:16 is their favorite verse of scripture. Yesterday, that happened during a pastoral visit. A year or so ago, that happened in church, when I was discussing the merits of reading all the “comfortable words” in the Rite I service of Holy Eucharist. I’m not sure why, but now my entire concept of John 3:16 is characterized by those conversations.

It’s a familiar verse—perhaps the most well-known in the Christian world: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son to the end that all who believe in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” Some verses of scripture I need to look at closely to quote on paper—checking every two or three words to make sure I get it right. This one I don’t worry about. Actually, I’m kind of glad to have a new way of thinking about this familiar verse. I think what’s most interesting to me about that is getting the chance to think about how other people like this verse.

Why does someone pick this verse as his favorite? That’s a follow-up question I need to have with both people. Is it its familiarity? Is it its power? What does it mean to have one favorite verse of scripture? I have a favorite gospel account (Mark), but that’s hardly a helpful designation. That’s almost like saying that the New Testament is my favorite part of the bible. What does one mean by saying that this one verse is his favorite?

Really, what hits me this morning is that two people I both admire and love would identify John 3:16 as the verse of scripture that means the most to them. I think that takes guts. That’s like saying that Beethoven’s fifth is one’s favorite symphony or like saying that steak and a baked potato is one’s favorite food. Basically, it’s admitting what I am too prideful to admit—that John 3:16 really is the beautiful statement of our faith that millions of Christians have come to know and love as their favorite.

My faith doesn’t have to be subtle. It doesn’t need to be based on some esoteric scriptural reference. No one holds up a sign that reads “Ezekiel 17:3,” and there’s a reason for that. As I read today’s gospel lesson (John 3:16-21), I’m invited back into the heart of our faith—the comfort food of the gospel. That’s a good place to be.

Friday, January 13, 2012

We Might Be Giants

Just when I didn’t think the Old Testament lesson could get any more bizarre, we get to Genesis 6 and the Nehphilim. I think this passage is weird enough that we need to just look at the whole thing before I write anything about it.

1 When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, 2 the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose. 3 Then the LORD said, "My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred twenty years." 4 The Nephilim were on the earth in those days-and also afterward-when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.

5 The LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. 6 And the LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. 7 So the LORD said, "I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created-people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them." 8 But Noah found favor in the sight of the LORD. Genesis 6:1-8 (NRSV)

Lots of strange stuff going on, and buried within the strange text are some important developments. People multiplied. Lives are shortened to 120 years. The Nephilim (whoever they are) were the heroes of old. Yet human wickedness was great, so God decides to start over. Sort of.

To me, one thing is even stranger than the giant-warrior race of the Nephilim—God was sorry that he created human beings. Really? God regretted that he had made human kind, so he decided to “blot [them] out from the earth?” That doesn’t sound like God. Granted, there’s Noah—and his story is a salvation story. But before we get to the Noah-and-the-ark-two-by-two tale, we have to go through this rather bleak valley.

Here’s my question: why does the author tell the story this way? Why is it important to the developing theology of Israel that humankind be God’s mistake? This text was written pretty late in Israel’s history—at least as biblical texts go. What must be going on in the world around them that they look back on the story of Noah and need to start that story with “God looked at humanity and wished he hadn’t bothered with them in the first place?” What kind of low point must you be in to reach that conclusion?

Sometimes we get there, too, right? Sometimes things are so bad within us that we think we shouldn’t have been born. An old football coach of me used to yell at us that he would make us regret the day of our birth. How desperate must things be to reach that point? And is there any hope beyond it?

Well, we haven’t gotten to Noah’s story yet, but he is the hopeful bridge between this point of hopelessness and God’s promise on the other side of the flood. God doesn’t actually start over. He doesn’t actually blot out all of humanity. He lets things begin again through Noah. In other words, even though things were at their lowest, there was, at least, some glimmer of hope to hold on to. God’s salvation wasn’t by wiping us out and starting over but by using what was left in the broken world to rebuild humanity anew.

Maybe things don’t ever get so bad that there’s nowhere to go. God doesn’t save us by getting rid of us and creating a new person in our place. God renews that which we are. Not with a blank canvas but with our own brokenness does God begin his salvation work. Things are not hopeless for us. We are a starting point.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Brother's Keeper

Today’s lesson from Genesis (4:1-16) infuriates me. I don’t get it. I can’t make sense of it. I find it confounding. And I think mostly that’s because I’m an oldest child.

Why is Abel’s offering accepted while Cain’s is rejected? What does God mean when he says to the older brother, “Why are you angry…If you do well, will you not be accepted?” He brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground—the work of his hands. Why wasn’t his gift accepted by God? Abel’s was. He brought the firstlings of his flock because he was a shepherd. Cain was a farmer. He brought what he had, and God rejected it. In a very real sense, it seems like God was turning his back on everything that Cain was and stood for. It was as if the Lord simply didn’t accept Cain but preferred his younger brother.

I remember studying this passage in the first few weeks of EfM. I can’t remember how many oldest siblings were in that group, but the story bothered most of the people in the room. There is an inexplicable nature to God’s actions, and it’s hard to see such tremendous consequences born out because of something we cannot perceive. But that’s the real point behind this passage, isn’t it? This passage isn’t about Cain and Abel. Those two “people” were archetypes, portrayed in the prehistoric part of Israel’s past. The real message is about God and humanity. Cain and Abel are just instruments to get that message across.

God’s ways are not our ways. We can’t expect for things to turn out exactly the way that we think they should. This passage, therefore, is supposed to be confounding. The point is that we aren’t supposed to understand why Abel’s offering was accepted and Cain’s was rejected. If the real issue were the nature of their offerings, the author would explain to us why one was preferred over the other. But the author is silent to that point. There is no explanation—neither in the pages of Genesis or in our experience. Sometimes God’s ways don’t make sense to us.

But where does that leave us? Where do we turn when something happens that doesn’t seem right to us? How do we make sense of something we can’t explain? Well, as the story continues, God doesn’t give up on Cain. Just as with the Fall in the previous chapter, God doesn’t decide to wipe the offender off the face of the earth. God doesn’t abandon his creation and start over. God preserves Cain’s life, putting a protective mark upon his forehead. Even in the midst of his punishment, Cain is still in relationship with God.

If everything worked out the way we thought it should, God would have given up on us long, long, long ago. If God’s ways were like our ways, God would have abandoned this relationship when he realized that we would never learn from our mistakes. As one century follows another, humanity continues to reject God’s word, turn its back on its creator, and give up on its relationship with God. But God doesn’t give up on us. He stays with us. God’s ways are not our ways, and we are thankful for it.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Uh Oh, This Looks Familiar

Do you know that feeling when you’re watching a movie or reading a book and things seem too good and you know something terrible is about to happen? Usually, it’s when the main characters seem to have everything they need and would be able to live out the rest of their lives in complete happiness if it weren’t for twisting plot lines (a.k.a. “real life”). For me, today’s lesson from Genesis (2:4-25) is one of those stories, and I don’t think it’s just because I know how this story ends.

This is the Creation II account—not the seven-days version we get in Genesis 1 but the “Adam-needed-a-partner” account, in which God makes every beast of the earth in search of a fit helper for him. It’s a beautiful story about God providing for humanity (and the rest of creation, too) the complementarity that makes life worth living. God says, “It is not good that the man should be alone. I will make him a helper.” And, after a long series of trial and error, finally God makes the woman from one of Adam’s ribs. “At last,” Adam declares, “This is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh!” Finally, he had the helper he needed.


We know how the story ends. Like Steinbeck, the author of Genesis plants a seed of trouble in the verses right before Adam finds Eve. God commanded the man, “You may eat freely of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” And that seed was enough to undo the whole situation. It was too much for the human to bear. Even if we had never heard the Genesis story, that shouldn’t surprise us.

Think about how many times that story gets repeated. In Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, the beast tells Belle that she may go anywhere in the mansion except one particular wing. So where does she end up going? Imagine being asked to take care of a suitcase but being told not to open it. You may have never worried about what was inside of it, but, as soon as that restriction is placed, the temptation is set. Although there are noble exceptions, I don’t think human beings can resist the need to explore the boundaries of what’s allowed and what’s forbidden. That’s part of what it means to be us. If you give me a limit, I’m going to push it—even if the consequences sound dire.

Human nature is sinful. In the 21st century, we have a hard time saying that. But all that really means is that human beings are hardwired to make mistakes—to push boundaries and test limits. The reason the story of the Garden of Eden sounds so familiar is that the Genesis story was written to reflect the very essence of human experience. It IS the human struggle writ large. We always eat the apple. There’s no way we can avoid it. It’s who we are.

But that isn’t the end of the story. The story doesn’t end with humanity’s disobedience. If our wrong was the end, then our createdness would be a mistake. But we were made in God’s image by a God who loves us and who made us good. So the story cannot end there. No matter how hardwired we are for making mistakes, God still loves us. That’s what the whole bible is about. God reaches out to his wayward people over and over. God sends his son to bring us back to himself. God doesn’t give up on us even though we’re perpetual screw-ups. He loves us anyway. A happy ending? Well, yes, eventually. But there are some gut-wrenching plot twists along the way.

Sunday Sermon - 1 Epiphany B (01/08/12)

January 8, 2012 – Epiphany 1B
Genesis 1:1-5; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11

© 2012 Evan D. Garner

Throughout my life, there have been some bits of news that I have preferred to share with my father and others that I have preferred to share with my mother. Usually, it was the threat of punishment that helped me instinctively make that decision. Once, when I found myself in particularly hot water, I called the house, silently praying that my mother would answer the phone. When it was my dad who picked up, the first words out of my mouth were, “Is mom there?” He saw right through it.

Other times, though, I’ve turned to my father first. I was never an all-star at anything, but, on the rare occasion when I achieved something nominal on the sports field, my dad was the one I wanted to tell. Likewise, when I decided to ask Elizabeth to marry me, I didn’t even think of calling my mom. I went straight to my father’s office. There are some events in my life that I want to share with my father because I want him to be proud of me. And there are others that I’d rather keep from him because I don’t want to disappoint him. I think that says a lot about my need for my father to be pleased with me.

I wonder whether Jesus felt that way when he came up from the water and heard his heavenly father declare, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Today is the first Sunday after the Epiphany, when we celebrate the baptism of our Lord. It’s a part of the Epiphany season because, in that moment, when Jesus broke through the river’s surface, God revealed something both to his son and to the rest of the world. In that revelatory experience, as the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus like a dove, God showed us who his son really was. And he also showed us that the world would never be the same.

For me, the key to understanding how the world changed on that day is held in the nature of the baptism itself. Up until that moment, the only baptism that the world knew was a baptism of repentance. That’s what John the Baptist was up to in the beginning of our gospel lesson. He “appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” His baptism was a washing off—a cleansing from sin and guilt and shame. It wasn’t anything new, and, in Jewish and Islamic culture, it continues to this day. By focusing on repentance and forgiveness, that baptism was and is an attempt to wash off that which has contaminated a person.

But Jesus’ baptism has more to do with putting on than taking off. John baptized with water, but Jesus baptized with the Holy Spirit. That means that this moment was a break in human history—a dividing line that separates the old from the new. The old baptism was about washing away sins, but the new baptism was about enduing someone with the Holy Ghost. That’s what happened in our lesson from Acts, when Paul came upon some disciples in Ephesus. He asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you were baptized?” And they replied, “No, we didn’t even know there was a Holy Spirit.” They had received the old baptism, so Paul baptized them anew, and this time they were filled with God’s Spirit.

There’s a difference between the baptisms of John and Jesus, and it’s a little like the difference I feel when I have something to tell my father—whether I’m ashamed or proud. When I do something that brings dishonor upon my family, when I disappoint my parents, I want to wash that guilt away through any possible means. In that moment, when I’m immersed in my shame, I would do anything to regain my father’s esteem. But, when I come home with my head held high because I have done something to bring honor to my family, I smile because I know that my dad will say, “I am proud of you, son.”

When Jesus’ head broke through the water’s surface, he was the same as he had been before he was plunged into the river. Jesus was always God’s beloved son. But, when Jesus was baptized, the world changed because in baptism Jesus declared to us that we, too, might receive the Holy Spirit and be named God’s sons and daughters. After that, nothing was the same. Because of Jesus’ baptism, our relationship with God is no longer defined only by whether we have been washed from our sins. Instead, God shows us that our relationship with him is defined by our adoption as his beloved children.

I’m guessing that almost all of us were baptized. Most of us were baptized when we were infants—a moment we can’t remember. A few of you were baptized as older children or as adults, which means that you can probably remember what that baptism was like. But whether you can remember it or not, I’m willing to bet that the sky wasn’t torn open, that the Spirit didn’t descend upon you like a dove, and that a voice didn’t thunder from the heavens. But I bet you can remember a moment when someone you admire was proud of you. Maybe you can even remember a time when your mother or father introduced you to someone else by saying, “This is my son…,” or “This is my daughter…my child who makes me proud.”

When we receive the Holy Spirit—when we are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection—God says to us, “You are my beloved child. With you I am well pleased.” When we believe in the power of Jesus to make us new, when we accept that which he has done for us, we become God’s sons and daughters. Because of that, we no longer have to worry about whether God will be proud of us. We no longer need to fear that we might bring shame upon our family. The only thing that matters is that God loves us, and that he has chosen us to be his children. Amen.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Depends on How You Look at It

Traditionally, the language of our faith is uttered in the extreme—salvation from the fires of hell, empty tomb after three days, two of every animal on the ark. That’s because there is no limit to the message of salvation. No matter how terrible things get, God’s promise to save is always bigger. Still, though, I find it fascinating to read the plea of a desperate man.

In today’s lesson from the Old Testament (Jonah 2:2-9), we read Jonah’s prayer to God from the belly of a fish. Even in my biggest, longest, most complete book of prayers, there isn’t one that even comes close to covering that. The story of Jonah in miniature: Jonah is told to go and preach to the enemies of Israel, he refuses and flees on a ship, God pursues him with a storm, and then he is cast overboard, only to end up being swallowed by a great fish. And while inside that fish, Jonah utters a prayer of desperate thanksgiving—“O God, just when I thought it was all over, you saved me. Deliverance is yours.”

What I find particularly fascinating about this story is that Jonah had pretty much turned his back on God. In fact, he was running away from God as quickly and thoroughly as he could. God found him, but that wasn’t pleasant. Jonah reached a point of desperation: “Then I said, ‘I am cast out from thy presence; how shall I again look upon thy holy temple?’” In other words, Jonah thought his number was up. He thought God had decided to kill him. Given his circumstances, who wouldn’t? And the central way that Jonah expresses that desperation is by saying that he had been cast out of God’s presence—cut off from God. But just then, just when he thought he was separated from God forever, God hears that expression of lostness as a prayer and saves him.

Jonah recalls, “When my soul fainted within me, I remembered the Lord; and my prayer came to thee, into thy holy temple.” Even his giving-up remarks were received by God as a prayer for help, and God heard that prayer and responded.

Perhaps faith should be defined as the ability to discern God’s presence and providence in even the worst situations. Essentially, Jonah was half-drowned because he refused to accept God’s call. He was thrown into the sea, surely to perish, and yet he was swallowed by a giant fish. Jonah saw that as salvation—even before he was vomited up on the beach. I’m not sure I would be able to see it as such.

Jonah had faith. In his moments of desperation, he was still able to connect the dots back to God. Usually, facing that sort of circumstance, I might conclude (wrongly) that God was absent. And maybe Jonah almost got to that point. Maybe the real message here is that God is bigger even than our faith in him. Whatever the case, Jonah’s prayer from the fish’s stomach points to deep faith—odds-defying faith. How am I called to look for God’s presence in even the most desperate situation?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Small Signs

I might get in trouble for saying it, but today’s Old Testament lesson (1 Kings 19:9-18) drives me crazy. Actually, it’s not the lesson itself that drives me crazy. It’s all the spiritualistic religious types who love the bit about God being conveyed through silence. I love silence. Really, I do. But I cannot stand all these church-people who act like the author of Kings was some new-age hippie who understood that we need to listen for God in untraditional means.

Yes, it’s true that God reveals himself in ways we might not expect. And yes, it’s true that sometimes God is revealed in silence rather than earthquakes or fire. But this passage also expresses the fact that God’s will is revealed through the relentless slaughter of thousands of individuals—all of whom God orders his prophets to put to death by the sword.

This passage isn’t about God speaking to us in silence. It’s about Elijah running away from God and coming to grips with God’s call on his life in a moment of quiet wrestling. In other words, when we try to run away from God, he will pursue us—whether in bold ways or through a quiet nagging. And what is scarier—God shaking the ground violently or God keeping us up at night because we’ve tried to ignore him?

God is persistent. I think God was in the wind and in the earthquake and in the fire. But Elijah couldn’t perceive it. Sometimes it’s easier for us to ignore the big, bold signs. But when we can’t get any sleep—when we can’t find peace—that’s when God get us. When even the “empty” times are filled with God’s call, we can’t help but listen.