Friday, January 23, 2009

First Words

Mark 1:14-20

Jesus’ first words – that’s what we just heard. Jesus first words. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” First words are important in a family, aren’t they? Mothers and fathers wait expectantly to hear whether a baby will say Mama or Dada first. The words are written down diligently in the baby book to remember for all time. Do any of you remember the first words of your children or grandchildren? Or maybe have heard the story of your first words? What were they?

(walk down into seats)

You know, I think I’m going to stay down here out of the pulpit for today, because Mark just doesn’t feel right from up there. Matthew or Luke, they’re fine from up there. John is DEFINITELY fine from up there. John’s got all sorts of imagery and metaphors and philosophy. It works really well from up there, but Mark? Mark’s down here.

Mark doesn’t have time for up there. Mark doesn’t have time for introductions and histories and genealogies. He doesn’t have time for birth stories and baby dedication stories and stories of teen life with Jesus. Mark doesn’t have time for flowery language and long drawn out stories. Mark’s got a whole lot more urgency than that. Mark’s down here with us, and in Jesus he’s got something important for us to hear, and decide, and do.

“The kingdom of God has come near!” Jesus is saying. “The kingdom of God has come near!” So near he felt the brush of the wind from the wings of the dove. So near he heard the heavenly voice speak in his very own ears. So near that the heavens had been ripped open, letting the divine come pouring out onto the earth. The divine and the human were no longer separated. The creator and the creature were revealed in Jesus. In him, we can see that God is on earth, so we better watch closely. We better listen to what he has to say. The kingdom of God has come near!

So near that everything is getting mixed up and jumbled together; everything and everyone is stirring around together, bumping into each other, elbows rubbing elbows, and lives touching lives. Gone is the comfortable order of God up there and us down here, holy over here and unholy over there, clean in here and unclean out there, man up here and woman back there. Gone are the divisions between rich and poor, worthy and unworthy, educated and uneducated, sick and healthy. Because the kingdom of God has come near, and it’s a kingdom of heaven torn open, walls torn down, and radically inclusive community.

It isn’t a kingdom of powerful nations dominating nations. It isn’t a kingdom of riches displayed and privilege exploited. It’s a kingdom defined by a man who touched the unclean, healed the sick, ate with sinners, lifted up the lowly, and even gave his own life for the lives of many. The kingdom of God has come near, but it’s come near in a completely new way.

Its coming, its presence forces us to make a choice. Are we going to be a part of this shockingly different kingdom? Are we going to do more than simply exist with those who are so very different from us? Are we going to reach out to them and let them reach out to us? Are we going to stop trying to build a kingdom of comfort and dominance and fortresses out of fear or are we going to build community in the image of the One who came down to earth to heal and teach and cast out demons and bring life to the dead?

If this is the kingdom we are going to acknowledge and join, if this is the choice we’re going to make, to be a part of the kingdom of God that has come near, we’re going to have to turn around. “Repent,” as Jesus says. Turn around. Do a complete 180. God’s kingdom is HERE, so why are you going over THERE? Make the choice to come on back, and see what this is really about. See what it means that all the divisions are gone. See what it means that the walls have come down and we’re all in this together. See what it means that the kingdom of God is here among us, the poor AND the rich, the oppressed AND the oppressors, the faithful AND the skeptics.

If this is the kingdom we’re going to be a part of, if this is the kingdom of Jesus we want to join, we’re going to have to stop walking down this divisive road of self-protection and self-preservation and start looking out for others, start building the divine community on earth. We’re going to have turn around, follow Jesus, and join him where he’s doing something about it. We’re going to have to drop the nets of comfort, the nets of security, the nets of judgment, the nets of self-righteousness, the nets that keep us from trying new things and meeting new people and serving God in new ways, and turn away from them to follow Jesus who calls us.

We have heard the good news; the kingdom of God has come near. We may even have turned away from the past, our attitudes, our misfires, our misdirected lives and actions. Now it is time to follow.

Follow Jesus, and go where he goes (and by the way he goes anywhere).
Follow Jesus, and touch who he touches (and by the way he touches everyone).
Follow Jesus, and love who he loves, welcome who he welcomes, give time to those who have been cast aside, and share the good news of the wide net God casts.

Everyone is welcome. Everyone is made worthy. Everyone is included in the kingdom of God.

Tom, chaplain at the County Jail and executive director of the Rescue Mission, is here with us this morning to tell us about just one way we can follow Jesus on this challenging, inclusive, life-giving road of discipleship in the kingdom, one way we can individually and as a congregation, continue to proclaim through our words and our lives, that the kingdom of God has come near, the love of God is for all.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Power of One

It's late tonight, at least late to still be at the church, but I had so many things I didn't accomplish this week and I'm determined to take my day off with the kids on Friday. I must get a little more sermon prep done so that we can spend that day together. I must.

I've never really observed the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity before, at least not in this country, but we will at least make it the focus in worship this Sunday. Maybe next year I'll plan ahead enough to work with some other churches so we aren't just talking about unity, but giving it a shot.

I learned about WPCU on my first trip to Hungary, where the week was observed with nightly worship and fellowship time between the Reformed and Catholic churches. It was interesting to me because it really showed how divided the church is in that culture. We don't do a LOT with our Catholic brothers and sisters here, but I guess tensions don't seem so high that I feel the need to go out of my way to be unified with them either.

I think we get so settled into the idea that different is OK that we forget that different is OK, division is not. And where do you draw the line? I don't know.

Right now in the US, at least from my perspective, it feels like the real division in the Body of Christ isn't necessarily along denominational lines as much as it is along lines of similar ecclesio-political lines. I'm pretty sure I just made up a term, but it fits what I'm thinking. Our divisions are based on a our church-politic stances more than our denominational affiliations. For example if I moved to a new town and there was a Confessing Presbyterian church, an Open and Affirming UCC church, a moderate Methodist church, and even a progressive, activist Catholic church, I'd try ANY of the others before I'd worship within my own PC(USA) denomination in that town. I can confess that division that I am part of.

(An aside - - in general I don't like "single issue" churches no matter where they are on the spectrum. I think the church is about more than any one hot button issue even if a particular church holds the same opinion that I do.)

It's hard for me to remember that the way I practice my faith, the way the church exists in this time and place, is not the way God wants it, even if we're doing the our best to follow God. In doing our best to reform it we still mess it up.

In Ezekiel's passage (Eze. 37:15-28) it's not by their own power that the sticks become one. It's not by their own will; it's not by their own word. In fact, they are only one in God's hand. Anywhere else they exist, they are divided against the will of God. When the church allows God to hold onto it, to guide it, to direct its ministry and mission, God will hold us together with our brothers and sisters as one.

God desires our unity. God desires for us to look past the artificial divisions among humanity, among the Church (Galatians 3:26-29). God has given us one identity in Christ, and as children of God we are called to share that identity that unity with the world. We are called to treat others as the children of God that they are.

Good things happen when we work together. Movements of united Christians can change the world. MLK, Jr. united churches to work together to further the cause of desegregation, a job that has come a long way but is not over yet. United churches are working to fight hunger locally and globally. United churches are laboring to battle the spread of AIDS and help those suffering from malaria.

We have heard it said that there is strength in numbers, but I say, Scripture says, there is power in one, the united Body of Christ, the church called and blessed by the Spirit of God.

Sermon focus:
When we recognize that God holds us together as one body of Christ we will be blessed with strength to love God and others as we are loved, without prejudice or hesitation.

Sermon function:
Call the congregation to make a covenant with God and this church to seek out opportunities to be in worship, fellowship, service, and study with Christians of another tradition or mindset.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Letting Go

I am the second of two daughters, so when the time came for me to be delivered to college, my parents had been through this dropping off ritual before. Although we didn’t talk about it out loud, there was no doubt in any of our minds that this was going to be hard for both my mom and me. Despite our “moments” as I was growing up, we were, we ARE close. My older, wiser sister armed me with some important advice about moving in day. “Just let her unpack your socks wherever she wants to unpack them. You can always switch the drawers around when she walks out the door.”

We had gotten me settled in with relative smooth sailing by the end of the day. Everything was right where Mom wanted it. My bed was made for the first, and probably LAST, time all year. Orientation activities were starting up on the lawn outside. It was time for the goodbye. We’re both criers so we knew it would messy, but we did well. They left. I went downstairs to meet my new best friends.

That night the college had an ice cream social for us on the picturesque quad. The freshman class serenaded the president with the alma mater we would sing like 80 more times before classes began the next week. There was a “luau” at one of the other dorms, but I didn’t stay too long. Even with my newfound freedom I was WAY TOO TIRED for a late night. I got back to the room around 11 p.m.

My campus phone already had a voicemail message. I dialed into the system and found a message for me from my very distraught mother. I could barely understand her words through the tears (she’ll kill me for telling this story), and immediately got worried that something had happened. Before finishing the message I called her cell phone.

She answered, and, hearing my voice, starting crying again. Her crying got me crying, and I thought I’d never find out what the problem was, but soon the story came out. Mom had forgotten her single most important task at the dropping off ritual. The socks were tucked away, the best bed was chosen before my roommate arrived, the comforter was in place, but Mom had forgotten to “take care” of me. She had forgotten to slip me a $20 bill.

Husband and I are YEARS away from the college drop-off scenario, YEARS, but I can already see how the letting go could very well be hardest part of raising our family.

The beginning of college. The beginning of the empty nest. The beginning of retirement. The beginning of a new relationship. The beginning of life in a new church. The beginning of life itself. All of these beginnings are also, in a sense, a time of letting go.

Mark, you may have noticed, doesn’t mess with Jesus’ birth when he begins to tell us the good news of Jesus Christ. He doesn’t tell about angels appearing to Mary or Joseph. He doesn’t make familial connections between John the Baptizer’s mom and Mary, the mother of Jesus. He doesn’t give us shepherds abiding in the fields or astrologers from the east following a star. There’s no pregnancy, no birth story, no visitors nor response. There’s no prologue of poetry, theology, and history. It’s just “This is the gospel,” there’s this guy John, and BOOM Jesus gets baptized.

Mark doesn’t mess around with anything else. And so, already in Mark’s beginning there’s a letting go. Apparently for Mark, whatever happened before that day wasn’t really all that important. Apparently for Mark, the meat of the gospel starts now – not with Jesus’ birth, not with his up-bringing, not with what happened before – but now, with his baptism. This is the start of the important part of Jesus’ life, for Mark’s telling of the gospel anyway, and, essentially, everything that happened before that is just let go.

He lets go of who he has been. He lets go of what he has been doing. He lets go of what has come before, and he moves forward as a new man, with a new life, on a new mission. He lets go of who he has been, and he lets God lead him where he will go.

The baptism we will celebrate today is not all that different. OK, it is different. While L played Jesus in our Christmas program a few weeks ago, we all know that L is NOT Jesus. And well, there’s about a 21 year age difference between Ln at his baptism today and Jesus at his baptism millennia ago. And I don’t anticipate any avian friends swooping through the sanctuary this morning.

But even with these differences, there are still a number of important similarities. L’s baptism, like Jesus’, is about letting go. It’s about being named and claimed as God’s child for God’s work. It’s about formally and spiritually being joined to the Body of Christ, the community of faith. It’s about celebrating publically the love and covenant of God with all generations. But it’s also about letting go.

In this case, an infant baptism, it’s a slightly different kind of letting go. L’s not quite ready to make that decision for himself yet, so instead it’s about his parents letting go. You didn’t think you’d have to do it so early did you? It’s not 18 years away, when he goes off to college or in other directions. It’s starting already. In baptism, as parents, we’re letting our child go, but we’re letting God hold on.

Baptism is not about tossing our children out into the world, simply giving them over hoping God or somebody holds on. We DO make promises, parents and the church, we do vow to lead our children and teach our children the way of God, nurturing them in God’s love. However, even in baptism, when we promise this care and attention, we are ultimately proclaiming to ourselves and the world that we that parents and we the church will have to let our baptized children go in the trustworthy hands of God.

And MAN, isn’t that hard? You know as well as I do, it’s a scary place our children will go someday. Letting go isn’t easy because most of us can remember what it was like to be let go of. Most of us can remember the time we could no longer live on the faith of our parents, the faith of others. Most of us can remember there was a time when we had to step out in our lives, step out on our faith, and see if the shaky ground would hold. There was a time when we had to come up out of the water that had been holding us and comforting us and cushioning us from the world around, and see what there is to be seen.

What is to be seen isn’t always easy, is it? Jesus left the waters of the Jordan, freshly baptized, freshly bathed in the love and voice of God, and IMMEDIATELY he was driven into the wilderness by the Spirit where be was tempted by Satan and lived in quarters a-little-too close for comfort with the wild beasts. Letting go is hard because we know what they will face when they walk away on their own. We know what kind of wilderness is out there. We know the temptations. We know the wild beasts and the trials they will face. We know that following God and living into the ministry that has been prepared for us is not always, or even very rarely, easy. We know that the ministry we are called to carry out isn’t always the carpentry we’ve been learning for the last 30 years. We know there are dangers and risks and struggle ahead.

We know because we have lived it. We know because we are living it. We know because there are times we don’t understand these things we think we’re supposed to believe. We know because there are times we don’t know what God wants us to do. We know because there are times we would rather crawl back under the water where sounds are muffled and pain is lessened and the world looks really sparkly and magical when we look up at it out there. It’s hard to let go because we know there are challenges to face, and the road of life and the way of discipleship aren’t always easy. It’s hard to let go because we’ve been there, and we are there.

But listen again to how Jesus steps out of the water, how he walks away from his baptism and into his God-given ministry.

“And the SPIRIT immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”

In his baptism, Jesus is named. He doesn’t get a new name like Abram turning into Abraham, or Jacob becoming Israel, or Saul becoming Paul. But Jesus is named; he is identified so that he knows, and we know, who and whose he is, the beloved child of God. And, as they say, knowledge is power. For when he rises out of the water he doesn’t walk away on his own two feet, but immediately the Spirit is with him.
Immediately he is taken by the hand by God and led away into ministry. The first forty days are not easy. They are tumultuous and threatening and scary and they probably make him want to give up, questioning the entire life of faith he has lived, the baptism and divine proclamation he just experienced.

But whatever they are, they aren’t too much for God who holds him. God who speaks order out of chaos, God whose voice commands even the seas to be drawn back, God who separates light from dark, is the God who speaks in Jesus’ ear, our ears, the ears of our children, “You are my child, my beloved; with you I am well pleased.” God who creates out of nothing is the same God who will be with them, who has been with us, ALWAYS. This powerful and majestic and ordering God who holds the seas in the palm of the hand, will be holding on where we can’t any more.

Baptism is where Jesus finds out who he is, who loves him, and then is “let go” to do his ministry. But he isn’t let go on his own. He is let go with the Spirit upon him, God’s words in his ears, and the divine beings waiting on him. Remembering his baptism, celebrating Larson’s baptism, is a chance for us to remember to do the same.

Let go. Let go of what has come before. Let go of what has been gripping you. Let go of what you have been holding onto for security, for comfort, for stability. Let go of what has been hurting you, pulling you from God, dragging you down in the sloshy, dirty mud. Let go of the clenched fist grasp on your life and your future. Let go of your ideas and your purposes, and instead take hold of the hand of God. God will lead us forward from here. God will lead us into the ministry that is planned. God whispers in our ears divine love and affirmation, and will never leave our side.

In baptism we let go of our children and ourselves, placing them in the hands of God, in the hands of angels, into the Body of Christ. And in baptism God descends to the water and picks us right up. There is new life in the life of Christ. There is a new purpose, a new ministry and calling for each us. Dare to let go and follow the Spirit into the wilderness, only there can we see the angels that hold us and find the hope of our calling.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Friday Five

Sophia posted this "light and fluffy" Friday Five at RevGals. I'll play!

1. Scratch or mix? Buttermilk or plain?
I didn't know you could make pancakes with anything but Bisquick until I got married. My husband didn't know what to do with the stuff. Now it's only scratch, but never buttermilk because they're usually a last minute decision, and we just don't keep buttermilk on hand.

2. Pure and simple, or with additions cooked in?
Love the additions when we have 'em. Chocolate chips!

3. For breakfast or for dinner?
Both!

4. Preferred syrup or other topping? How about the best side dish?
I use syrup now, but also LOVE jelly on my plan pancakes. With chocolate chips, though, I don't like a topping (unless it's whipped cream at a restaurant, another thing I don't mess with at home, though). Bacon makes me happy, so if I'm having a "big" breakfast (one that doesn't involve Cheerios or frozen waffles) I'd love bacon. However, I absolutely suck at cooking it, so I usually just reserve it for restaurants, too. If I'm doing pancakes with syrup, I love scrambled eggs, too, because I love it when my eggs get syrup on them!

5. Favorite pancake restaurant?
A local chain joint in the Twin Cities - Key's. They also have the BEST bacon in the world. In fact, I'm going there for lunch, but plan to have an omelet instead of pancakes. An omelet and BACON, of course.

Bonus: Any tasty recipes out there, for pancakes or other special breakfast dishes? Bring 'em on!
Hmmmm...if I were at home I'd get my favorite breakfast casserole recipe, but I'm not. That's my FAVORITE breakfast food of all. A good sausage, egg, cheese, and bread crumb recipe.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Maybe I'm on to something

OK - - I may have found my missing "Go! Do!"

I think the infant baptism piece about parents/church letting go is a mere stopping point, not the destination. I don't think I'll dwell with that the whole time, but move on talking about why it's hard to let them go. It's hard because we know what the world is like. We know what kind of wilderness is out there. We know the temptations. We know the trials. We know that following God and living into the ministry that has been prepared for us is not easy. We know that the ministry we are called to carry out isn't always the carpentry we've been learning for the last 30 years. It's hard to let go because we know there are challenges to face and the road of life and the road of discipleship isn't always easy.

So witnessing - no, participating in - a baptism is always another case to remember to let go. Let go of what has come before. Let go of our own tightened grip on our lives and our futures. Let go of our ideas and our purposes, and instead take the hand of God as we are led into the ministry that is planned for us.

Baptism - Letting Go

OK - - how about another theme/take on the baptism or maybe even a furthering of some that have been mentioned? I've been reading around (particularly Will Willimon at Pulpit Resource)

I like this thought I read about baptism being about letting go. The pastor who baptized my son a year ago talked about this, now that I'm thinking about it, in relation to God asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.

Another background piece for me is that in these stories that we get in several different gospels, it's important to me to sort of preach the differences. Or maybe I should said it's important for me to find my little sermon nugget in the differences. Mark had a particular slant on the story for a reason, and that's where I like to find my key piece instead of just preaching about Jesus' baptism in general.

OK so one of the unique parts of Mark is that this happens first. There's no birth story, there's no prologue with theology and history. It's just "This is the gospel" boom there's this guy John and boom Jesus gets baptized.

The baptism is the start of the important part of Jesus' life (for Mark) and essentially, everything that happened before that is just "let go." (For Mark) It's not even written down.

Baptism is where Jesus finds out (maybe he knew before maybe he didn't, another discussion for another day) who he is, who loves him, and is then "let go" to do his "business." But he isn't let go on his own. He is let go with Spirit upon him, God's words in his ears, and, if we read further, with the angels of God waiting on him (v. 13 in the wilderness temptation).

So, to relate to the baptism we will celebrate in our worship - - it's about letting go. It's about being named and claimed as God's child for God's work, but it's also about letting go. In this case, an infant baptism, it's about the parents letting go and letting God hold on. It's not about just throwing the kid out there and saying whatever happens happens because we do make promises to lead the child and teach the child the way of God and nurture the child in God's love, but it's about the fact that ultimately, we the parents (and we the church) will have to let our baptized children go to trust God and follow God's call and claim on their own lives someday. And if we (parents and the church) have done our job, that letting go (that trusting we need to do that God can do it not only as well as we can, but better) will be a little less difficult because we know we have lived and shared our faith that the God who speaks order out of chaos is the God who speaks in our ears and the ears of our children, "You are my son. You are my daughter." God who creates out of nothing is the same God who will be with them and us, ALWAYS. This powerful and majestic and ordering God will be holding on where we can't anymore.

OK - - I like the idea, and I like the teaching/comforting/expository stuff. I just feel like I'm missing a mission or a "Go! Do!" I think that's OK every once in a while, but last week sort of felt that way, and having not preached for almost a month, and really not having a sermon in our worship for that time (darn Christmas musicals) it feels like none of us have heard some of that for a while.

Maybe there's still room for some of that.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Friday Five

December didn't feel incredibly busy when I looked at my calendar, but somehow it just ended up being that way. My blog was sadly neglected and I felt different because of it - - like I was gone from a special community. Hopefull, I will learn to carve time out better for the blog and, therefore, the RevGals as this year gets going.

Here's my first Friday Five in too long:
"As we look back we may come to understand how God has worked in and through us in joy and saddness. how we have grown against what may seem impossible odds. As we look forward we may do so with expectation, and we may do so with fear and trembling. As we look back and forward in New Years liminality I offer you this simple yet I hope profound Friday Fivein two parts:

First list five things that you remember/ treasure from 2008

Then list five things that you are looking forward to in 2009"

2008
1. Being a driving force in getting our session committed to helping a homeless single mom on her feet. There's the busy December. We got her out of the shelter, into a rented home, a donated car with repairs, new tags, insurance, on the road to getting her GED with test registration, study materials, and tutors, and now we're working on financial management and planning. It's just one mom and 3 girls in a sea of people in the same situation, but we're doing what we can. It made 2008 ROCK there at the end.

2. Simple, but oh so wonderful in my family life - - getting the 3 year old potty-trained!

3. My first year as a solo pastor.

4. The sense of fulfillment of my call (not complete, but at least for now) in ministering to a member, her family, and much of the community as a whole when she was diagnosed with, treated for, and eventually died from leukemia, all from January-May.

5. Feeling my family gel as we made our first move away from where my husband and I met and married.


2009
1. The next ages and stages of my kids (girl turns 4 in May, boy turns 2 in June) - not to hurry them along, but just to see what comes next.

2. 10 year college reunion

3. Seeing where we are led next as a congregation.

4. Picking up my story-telling of Scripture in worship again. I learned it and tried it at the end of the summer/beginning of fall, but then just fell out of the practice. I loved it, but it required more time and different energy that I didn't think I could give. I miss it already, though, so I'm going to have to try to figure out how to fit that back in.

5. Deepening life of prayer.