26 January 2014

Reformed and Always Being Reformed

2 Corinthians 4: 1-15

Third Sunday after Epiphany
26th January 2014

Sacrament of Baptism

This is a good Sunday, the day of our Annual Congregational Meeting, to remind ourselves that the ministry of a particular church does not belong to the members of that church; it does not belong to the people who gather for worship in that particular community of faith; nor does it belong to its pastors.  It’s true that the church is not a building; it’s technically not an institution.  The church is a people.  You might recall the Avery and Marsh Sunday School song from the 1970s: “I am the church!  You are the church!  We are the church together! …The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is a people!”[1]  It’s true.  The church is a people.  

            But it doesn’t end there.  The church is a people who belong to God.  People, who have been loved, forgiven, blessed, called, claimed, and sent by God.  As the apostle Paul knew first-hand, to be in Christ, to bear the name of Christ, to be a follower of Christ, means, in part, that we do not belong to ourselves.  For whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s (Romans 14:8), which means we do not belong to ourselves.  Our lives are not our own. 

            The church is a people who belong to God, which means that the church as community, as institution (with a very small “i”) does not belong to the people.  It’s not the possession of the gathered community. It belongs to God.  God called the church into being.  God still calls it into being. Forms it. Shapes it. Supports it. Cherishes it. Loves it. Forgives it. Puts up with it (!). And sends it on a mission to be an agent of grace, a vessel of grace poured out upon the world. 

            Ministry, the work of the church, is about service: serving the ongoing mission of God in the world, extending the work of Jesus Christ to more and more people.  We are called to embody God’s mercy and grace in a world that’s desperate to hear good news.
And ministry is about grace.  We are called, as Paul put it so beautifully, “so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God” (2 Cor. 4:15).  That’s the goal, that’s the mission, that’s our calling.  

            God is involved in all of this, but don’t expect it to be easy.  It’s not.  It’s difficult.  Very difficult.  It might actually look and feel like crucifixion at times.  It’s not always going to feel good.  What we’re up against “out there” in the world is formidable.  What we’re up against “in here” within ourselves is formidable.  That’s why we need to remember that it’s not about us, it’s not about what we can achieve or accomplish or will into existence.  It’s only by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this work, therefore we must not lose heart or become discouraged or fall into despair.  If we think it’s about us it’s easy to get caught up in our own personal agendas for the church, what we want for the church, what makes us happy, what serves our needs, what reinforces our worldview or ideology or values.  But it’s not about you and me.  Thank God for that.

            However, don’t be mistaken, God needs you and me. We’re partners in this ministry.  We’re all in this together. There’s no doubt about that.  You and I have been claimed and called—every one of us—by virtue of our baptisms.  We exist because we have a calling, a purpose to fulfill for the sake of the ever-unfolding drama of God’s grace.  You and I exist—right now—in order for the light of the gospel to shine, brightly, more brightly, through our dark lives.  As Paul said, “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).

            That light shines within us.  That light, the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, shines, is trying to shine, within us, through us, in order to bring light to the dark places of the world.  This extraordinary, priceless treasure dwells within our hearts.  It’s there.  I believe it’s there; I know it is.  Within us, fragile though we may be, it’s there nevertheless.  Remarkably, God has entrusted us with this treasure, in us, in the weakness of our bodies.  We are jars of clay.  And yet God has placed this treasure in us.  Entrusted it to us. Clay jars.  Easy to crack.  Yet, in love, God risks the treasure by giving it to us, placing it within us.  And, so, we have the privilege of being the steward’s of God’s gifts.

            For, “we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us” (2 Cor. 4:7).  Power.  Dunamis, in Greek, as in “dynamite” and “dynamic.”  Same root.  What is placed within us, this treasure, has power, extraordinary power.  And when it’s used, it’s empowering.  This, too, is a remarkable claim here.  Just think about this.  By virtue of God’s grace, both individually and together, we have more power available to us than we think we do.  God’s power is available to us. If this sounds scary to consider—it is!  It might be easier, safer, and simpler to think that we’re not all that powerful, then we don’t have to take responsibility for it.  But that’s not what Scripture tells us.  God places this power in us in order for us to use it. We are the conduits, we are called to let it pour through us and when this happens we discover what the power of God’s grace is trying to do with our lives, through our lives, for our lives, and the lives of God’s people in the world. 

            And when we realize this, claim this, remember this, then God can really do something with us.  When we get out of the way, set our egos to the side, remember it’s not about us, God can really begin to work in us and through us—as individuals and as a community.  Then the church is really acting like a church. Then we discover who we really are and what we’re capable of achieving, what we’re capable of accomplishing, even the hardships we’re able to face and endure all because we know there’s a deeper power at work within us, working for us and our salvation, a power that is on our side—with us and for us, continually claiming us and calling us and sending us to extend grace to more and more people, so that thanksgiving and praise might increase to the glory of God.  This is why it’s an extraordinary privilege to be engaged in the work of the church.  There’s no place like it. There’s nothing like it.

            This is what it means to be a people reformed and always reforming according to the power of grace within us.[2]  Grace is more than a theological idea or concept, it’s the power of God and this power is real and redemptive.  It’s this power at work within us and through us in the church which God continues to use for the reformation of God’s people, for the reformation of the world.

            Several years ago one of our young, budding theologians asked her mother, “Mommy, what is the church for?”  This is what a church is for: the ongoing reformation of God’s people and the world.  And it’s this power at work in us that allows a church to be dynamic, like the Spirit’s power; never static. It’s why any church exists.

            It’s why this church exists. You can see it reflected in the annual reports.  Look around and witness it here in worship.  See it in mission and fellowship and education and advocacy.  To be baptized means we have been incorporated into God’s plan for creation, it means that all of, together, have been empowered to be agents of grace, you and me, individually and together.  It’s not an option. You can’t opt out of this.  It comes with the territory.  It’s what comes after we say, “I believe….”

            God isn’t finished with us. There’s plenty of work for us to do.  We’re still being loved and forgiven and claimed and called and sent to love and forgive and claim and call and send, extending grace, shining our light in the dark places of the world.  To be part of this work, to do this ministry, to be part of the church, to be in this ministry together—Thank you.  Thank you, God!  Thank you.  Thank you.  Thank you.

[1] “We Are the Church” (1972), written by Richard K. Avery & Donald S. Marsh, set to the tune: PORT JERVIS.
[2]Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda.  “The Church reformed and always being reformed” is a motto of the Reformed theological tradition and a core conviction of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

12 January 2014

When New Life Springs Forth

Isaiah 42: 1-9 & Matthew 3: 1-13

Baptism of the Lord/ 12th January 2014

The reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546) believed that baptism is an once-in-a-lifetime experience that takes a lifetime to fulfill. 

My guess is that many think it happens once, is experienced once, and that’s it.  It’s true that we Protestants baptize a child or adult only once.  If you were baptized in the Roman Catholic Church, for example, we did not baptize you again when you became a Presbyterian.  Still, it’s easy to think of baptism as a singular event, a specific act, and that once it’s “done” you’re “in” and then “home free;” when the time comes for you to die you’ll go straight to heaven without any detours.  This thinking is so prevalent in the Church, Protestant and Catholic alike, which makes it difficult to fathom what Luther was getting act. 

            For example. True story.  Years ago, serving the First Presbyterian Church in Mendham, New Jersey, I was asked to do a funeral for a person I didn’t know.  The local funeral director needed a Protestant pastor to conduct the service.  When the service in the funeral home was over, family and friends were dismissed in order to prepare the casket for burial.  As I was leaving the room the nephew of the deceased came up to me, just as the casket was about to be closed, and said with a troubled voice, “I don’t think my uncle was baptized.  Could you baptize him now?”  I was a little shocked to hear that—actually, more than a little.  I didn’t know what to do.  It caught me off-guard.  This scenario was never covered at Princeton Seminar (!).  So I kicked into action and did what a lot of pastors do: one part of my brain was trying to process all the assumptions the nephew was making about the meaning of baptism; one part of my brain was trying to assess my pastoral responsibilities to the grieving nephew; and another part of my brain was wrestling with the dozen or so theological issues, including several heresies, contained in his question.  All this was happening at the same time.  I don’t exactly remember what I said; I eventually mumbled out something that probably wasn’t all that helpful. I basically assured him that it wasn’t going to mean a lot to your uncle now.  (This scenario was later used as an exam question for a Presbyterian polity course taught at the Theological School at Drew University in Madison, NJ.)   

You see, baptism is a once-in-a lifetime experience that takes an entire lifetime to fulfill.  Gregory of Nyssa (335-394) speaking on the mystery contained here said that baptism is “a slight thing but the source of great possessions.”[1]  What’s promised and affirmed in baptism, either for us by our parents and/or by us as adults, takes a lifetime to fathom and to live out.  We don’t understand it or embrace it overnight, even after years of church school and confirmation.  The meaning and implications of baptism doesn’t really come into focus until one matures in the faith.

Why does it take so much time to fulfill, to live into what is affirmed and promised in this rite?  One reason, I think, is because baptism is ultimately about identity: who we are and whose we are.  And, as we know, identity takes time to form.

Consider Jesus’ baptism.  He allowed himself to undergo the same process that all the others called out to the River Jordan experienced, he identified with those who are separated from God, in need of washing, in need of being cleansed.  When Jesus came up out of the water something new was offered.  The Spirit of God descended upon him and then he heard the voice:  “This is my Son, the Beloved; with who I am well pleased.”  What springs forth from the waters is Jesus with a new, fuller sense of who he is, his core identity.  He hears who he is, he knows his connection with his Father; he knows who he is and we know too.  Here is the Beloved of God—in the flesh. This experience then shapes the rest of Jesus’ life and ministry as she struggled to be faithful to his identity and his calling.

This must mean, then, that all those who follow this Jesus are baptized into him, into his life.  This means that somehow, some way we share this same identity with Christ, or, better said: when we are in Christ we discover who we really are.  In fact, at the risk of sounding blasphemous, I believe there is room in our theology to hear God saying to us in our own baptism: “You are my son.  You are my daughter, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

What’s declared in our baptism is our true identity:  Child of God.  Beloved.  Well-pleasing to God.  This is who we are.  That’s what Jesus was born to show us.  So then the shape of the Christian life becomes the journey of living into this identity, living into this reality, this life, this identification, getting comfortable with these names.

            But is this how you see yourself, really?  When you look in the mirror in the morning, is this how you feel about yourself?  Child of God?  Beloved of God?  Well-pleasing to God? 

If yes, then, give praise and thanks to God, because you’re farther along the journey than most. 

If not,…then can you see why it takes a lifetime to live into what God is already claiming for us in the waters of baptism? 

So, how do we get there?  We don’t earn our way there through acts of charity or goodwill or simply being nice.  And it’s not a matter of willpower, of willing our way into believing this; neither is it an issue for psychotherapy—as beneficial as all of these are.  Instead, it’s a matter of becoming who you are—already.  It’s about coming to see ourselves the way God already sees us, now: as God’s children, beloved, worthy of love, pleasing to God. Arriving at an accurate self-image doesn’t happen in a moment (although it could), but it takes a lifetime of walking with Christ and praying in and with and through Christ, and discovering through the power and presence of the Spirit, that we are infinitely more than we think we are, sinners that we are—yes—yet precious in the eyes of God.

            There’s something to be said for the fact that Jesus was baptized in a flowing river.  Not in a lake or a pool or in stagnant water, but in flowing water.  Baptism is a way of saying that when we are in Christ our lives are being caught up in the free-flowing current of God’s grace carrying us along to where we need to go.  To be baptized, like Jesus, means we have jumped into the flow of God’s grace. And out of the depths of the water we surge forth into a new life.  We might say that baptism is a rite of passage.  Presbyterians generally don’t refer to it as a rite; we call it a sacrament, a visible sign of an invisible grace, as Augustine (354-430) said.  But it is a religious ritual.  As ritual there are at least two ways to view it: either something done by rote, with little thought, something that’s done simply because everyone is doing it or something that is sacramental, that is holy.  When a ritual is approached correctly it becomes an entrĂ©e into something truly profound.  Through ritual, David Tacey suggests, “we enter into the flow of the universe and something ancient is released in us."[2] The word ritual comes from the Latin “ritus” meaning “to flow”; the word river has the same root. A ritual symbolizes that we are participants in a divine drama, each with significant parts in a cosmic play of redemption.

            To be baptized in Christ means we have jumped into the ongoing flow of God’s grace.  We are moving, flowing toward our true identity—getting to know the person we already are by grace—growing ever deeper into our knowledge of God. This means our lives as Christians can never, ever be static. Grace calls us to flow.  It’s a process.  We are slowly discovering who we are and whose we are.  New life surges within us. As this happens we gradually discover that we do not belong to ourselves but to God.  We steadily live into and from an image of ourselves given by Christ: Child of God.  Beloved of God.  Well-pleasing to God.

            And we discover these things together.  We can’t get there on our own.  We need community.  In fact, this is one essential aspect of the church’s ministry and we promise it to everyone baptized here: We will remind you who you are and whose you are. 

But it’s so easy to forget these things.  Right?  There are so many voices and experiences that are trying to tell us we’re someone else, that we don’t matter, that we are not who we know we are by God’s grace. Against the many competing voices telling us otherwise we need to hear the voice of truth, the only voice that matters, and to hear it again and again. That’s why we need reminders, people who remind you who you are.  On good days, that’s what the church is supposed to do and does.  When the church fails to do this, then who offers that reminder to you?  Who reminds you that right now you are already connected with Christ?  You are my Son, with you I am well-pleased. You are my daughter, the Beloved.  That’s what we need to hear whispered into our ears whenever we approach a baptismal font, whether here or elsewhere.

            When St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) had a vision of Christ and heard a call to enter a world of poverty and to care for the poor, his father, Pietro, a wealthy man and leading figure in Assisi, was furious.  His father shamed Francis in the town square because Francis shamed his father.  Undeterred from his calling, Francis lived in a small hut in the plains below the town.  Whenever Francis had to walk up the hill to town he was deeply fearful of meeting his father in the streets. Pietro would often hurls curses at Francis and reject him again as his son.  Francis carried a lot of guilt about this and the relationship with his father remained broken for the rest of his life.  One day Francis had to go up to into town and, feeling fearful, invited a beggar from the streets to join him, to walk by his side and protect him.  Francis instructed him, “When my father hurls curses and abuses at me, I will hear them painfully in one ear, but I ask you to walk on my other side, and whisper God’s favor into my other ear, [saying,] ‘Francis, you are my beloved son.  You are a son of heaven and a son of God.’ Just keep repeating it until I can believe it again.”

As we approach the baptismal font this morning, reaffirming our baptismal vows, claiming a shell from the font as a reminder of our baptism, perhaps we can hear that voice whispering in our ears.  The voice we need to hear again and again.  You are my beloved.  We need to hear it not once, but for a lifetime, until we believe it and trust it.  When that happens, whenever it happens, we will be free to go where God’s voice wants to send us, caught up in the ongoing flow of God’s grace.   

[Later in the service the members of the congregation reaffirmed their baptismal vows.  Individuals made their way down the center aisle to the font, but were asked to first pause to allow the person standing behind them to whisper in an ear:  You are a beloved son/daughter of God. Then they proceeded to the font full of water to choose a shell.]

[1]Gregory of Nyssa, Catechesis Magna, 36, cited in Hugo Rahner, Greek Myths and Christian Mystery (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), 73.
[2]David Tacey, How to Read Jung (New York: W. W. Norton & Co), 91.

05 January 2014

Whose Star Do You Follow?

Three Kings (6th century), Basilica Sant'Appollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy.
Isaiah 60: 1-6 & Matthew 2:1-12

Epiphany of the Lord/5th January 2014/ Sacrament of Holy Communion

In Charles Dickens’ (1812-1870) A Christmas Carol (1843), old Jacob Marley says to Scrooge on the night of his visitation, “At this time of the rolling year, I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode? Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!” The visit of Jacob Marley is a fitting character when considering this text in Matthew 2, for it, like Marley, is burdened by a “ponderous chain”  that the Church has forged “link by link, and yard by yard;”[1] it’s the ponderous chain of tradition linked to tradition that encumbers this text, making it almost impossible to hear and to bear. Buried somewhere at the bottom is the real story of the star and the identity of these foreigners with gifts and why Matthew includes it as integral to the good news of Jesus.

So let’s unlink the chain, perhaps releasing the story out from under the tradition. Who were these guys?

Let’s just call them guests or visitors for the moment. As we know, the text doesn’t say there were three. Some Eastern traditions claim there were twelve or thirteen. By the fifth century the number is fixed at three and they’re given names—Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. By the sixth century they took on symbolic meaning, representing three ages: youth, middle age, and old age. Around the same time, through a reading of Isaiah 60, “the wealth of the nations shall come to you,” (Is. 60:5), the three came to represent the races of the known world: Europe, Africa, and Asia.

In the fourth century the Spanish poet Prudentius (348-405/413) identified the three as “kings,” although Matthew never gives them that title. Prudentius’s poem evolved through the Middle Ages and eventually become our carol, “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” In a text from the twelfth century, the biography of the bishop of Milan, St. Eustorgius, who died in 350 AD, tells how Emperor Constantine’s mother, Helen (c.250 – c.330), discovered the tombs of the three guests in the East.[2] She had their bodies transferred to the Church of St. Sofia in Constantinople. When Eustorgius became bishop of Milan the Emperor authorized the remains to be transferred there. And they remained in Milan until their journey continued  onward, when Frederick Barbarossa (1122-1190), the Holy Roman Emperor, moved them to Cologne, Germany, in 1164. These guys have always been on the move; they can’t seem to rest anywhere! Today their remains are in a golden shrine in the massive cathedral in Cologne. Well, at least someone’s remains have been moved all over the place for centuries.

I say “someone’s” because Marco Polo (1254-1324) tells us in his journey across modern-day Iran in the 1270s, he was shown three tombs, one for each of the guests[3],who were not kings, according to Matthew, and not really wise men either (as most Bibles tell us), but magoi, plural of magos, a Greek derivative of a very old Persian word Magupati, which refers to one thing: the priestly caste within Zoroastrianism—one of the oldest religions of the ancient world, which influenced both Greek and Roman philosophy, thus bridging the religions of the East and West.  It’s still practiced today in Iran and India.[4] The magoi or magi as Zoroastrian priests paid close attention to the stars; they were early astronomers. The magi were the scientists of their day, even advancing the field of mathematics. They were also astrologers, which explains why the term magi has been applied to the occult in general and, in English, the root of our word magic. Think: Harry Potter. In order to avoid any reference to magic, the King James Version called them “wise men” instead of “magicians”.

And what about those gifts? There are many different theories. Gold, frankincense, myrrh—gifts fit for a king, a prophet, and a priest? Were they tools of the magoi trade that the magi now give up because they have found the knowledge of the universe in the face of Jesus? But what would a poor craftsman family do with these exotic gifts any way? The English deist, Thomas Woolston (1668-1733) once quipped, “If they had brought sugar, soap, and candles they would have acted like wise men.” Maybe the gifts were pawned in order to afford the exorbitantly expensive trip to Egypt. There’s no mention of the gifts anywhere else in scripture. Although, there are monks in the monastery of St. Paul on Mount Athos in Greece who have a gold case they claim contains all three of the gifts.

In Matthew’s version the magi were not present on the night Jesus was born. They arrived at a house (not a manger), to see a child (not an infant). But when they do see him, Matthew tells us, “They knelt down and paid him homage.” It’s easy to overlook this description—of course that’s what they did. We know the carols; we’ve seen countless Christmas pageants.  Of course they knelt before Jesus.  However, we need to pay close attention to this gesture.

The Greek here means “to kneel,” but it also means to fall prostrate, with your face to the ground in deference. In the Persian world this was a gesture of utmost respect and honor. But in the Roman and Jewish world, kneeling and prostrating were considered undignified. However, it was reserved in the Jewish tradition for only one thing, for epiphanies—for revelation, a manifestation of the Holy, for the appearance of God.  Here in Matthew we have an epiphany so incredible, so amazing that the wisest of the world, the scientists of his age, kneel before it, the knowledge of God revealed in this birth.

Matthew tells us that this was an epiphany so astonishing, so astounding for Matthew that even Gentiles, foreigners, people unlike him, could recognize in Jesus’ birth the dawning of a new day for all the nations of the world. A new light breaks forth, not from a star, but from his luminous face—so that in his light we see light (Ps. 36:9) and in his truth find freedom. His light leads us through a threshold into a new day, a new way to live and to die, a new way to embrace God and be embraced by God, a new way that prevents us from going back to the old ways, a new way that never quite leaves us feeling, thinking, or believing the same way. Pope Gregory the Great (540-604) once said, “Having come to know Jesus we are forbidden to return by the way we came.”

When the magi knelt before Jesus one journey came to an end. But they didn’t stay there. When they got up on their feet a new journey began.  They went on their way by another road. Jesus’ birth attracts us, calls us to journey toward him; but there’s also another journey, a journey from him, that he sends us on, into new possibilities, new adventures, through new thresholds of faithful risk and service that we would probably never think to venture toward but for having encountered him. That’s what epiphanies do—they change everything and send us through new thresholds, down different roads.

There’s a custom in some European countries that on Epiphany people (sometimes children) go from door to door and write with chalk over the threshold of a house: C+M+B and then the year. The letters stand for: Christus mansionem benedicat. The letters are also the initials of the magi—Caspar, Melchior, Balthazar. Christus mansionem benedicat—Christ bless this house.

As the light of Christ sends us across the threshold into a New Year may our homes and this household of faith know in new ways the blessings of Christ. We will be embarking upon new adventures as a church this year where we will be asked to take faithful risks, travel in new directions, down new roads, and asked to continue the journey of the Spirit who longs to take us where we need to go. That’s what epiphanies do.  And here, at this Table, as always, is bread for the journey, the journey of faith as we continue to follow his star.
Discovered on the Church House after worship.

[1] Charles Dickens, The Christmas Books:Volume I – A Christmas Carol/The Chimes (New York: Penguin Books, 1981), 61.
[2] The twelfth century text is the Vita Eustorgii.
[3] Marco Polo, The Book of the Million, Book 1. “In Persia is the city of Saba, from which the Three Magi set out and in this city they are buried, in three very large and beautiful monuments, side by side. Above them there is a square building, beautifully kept. The bodies are still entire, with hair and beard remaining.”
[4] The religion of Zoroaster emerges in the 9th/10th century BC. It enters recorded history in the mid-5th century BC in The Histories (completed c. 440 BC), written by the Greek historian Herodotus’ (c.484-c.425 BC), known as “the Father of History.”