Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

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Sunday, January 27, 2019

For Holocaust Remembrance Day


This is a verbatum from a hospital visit when I was in seminary.

C1: Well, what a surprise to see you up here!  My name is George Baum, I’m the chaplain who spoke with you the other day?
S1: Yes, of course.  We remember you.
C2: How is your husband doing now?  Did they the surgery work out okay?
S2: He is doing better.  He is strong.  He worked his whole life very hard, so he is strong.
C3: Is he having much pain?
S3: Not too much.  They took out the epidural and he seems pretty good so far.
C4: And how are you holding up?  [I see the bed]  You've been sleeping here, right?
S4: Yes.  I am doing fine. 
C5: It's nice to have the bed here.
S5: And nice to have this room!  My son, he is a surgeon, he got us this.
C6: Oh?  Where is your son a surgeon?
S6: He works here.  In the hospital.
C7: Oh, at Roosevelt?  I see.  Well that's fantastic.  And your husband is not having pain?
S7: So far, he is good.  But, I think women can -- how can I say it?  -- women can take more pain and tolerate more than men.  [Looking toward husband]  But, he is doing well.
C8: That's good.  And you say you’re okay.  It must be exhausting to be living in the hospital like this.
S8: Yes.  But, you know, men and women see things, are built differently.  I am comfortable wherever I am.  He, you know, he wants his ethnic food.  Cabbage, and herring. 
C9: Ah, probably none of that for a while, huh?
S9: No, and that will make him grumpy.  He wants what he is used to.
C10: And now it’s (I look at the tray) Jell-o instead right?
S10: Yes.  I can eat whatever.  Women . . . well, I just say, "fine, have it your way."  Most things, they are little, and I don't want to bother, since I can take more without getting upset than he can.
C11: But then do you feel like you don't get what you need?
S11: No, if I need something I make sure I get it.  (smiles)  I just mean that women can take more pain and suffering.  It is the way it has been since creation.
C12: Well, I saw my wife give birth to two children, and I know I couldn't tolerate that much pain!
S12: Yes.  That is what I mean.  Men are stronger, physically, but women are stronger in other ways.
C13: Do you have more than the one son?
S13: We also have a daughter, who lives in Staten Island.  That will be out next stop.  To see if he can tolerate living there before we go home.
C14: So you'll live with her for a while.
S14: Yes, and the doctor appointments will be easier to make it to from there.  He said he was tired all the time and felt sick.  I said he should go to a doctor to see.  But he waved me off and said no it is nothing.  Well, in October, we had a wedding in New York to go to and I said, "while we're there, maybe you could see a doctor."  So I set up the appointment.  [I was reminded how Garrison Keilor says Lutherans would only visit Hawaii if they could justify it as a business trip that they were going on anyway.]  Then they found that he was anemic and must be losing blood.  So they ordered more tests and they found he had a mass in his intestines that was bleeding all over the place.
C15: Oh my.
S15: So they decided to operate and then they did.  [She shrugs]  But I am an optimist; he is a pessimist.  I can take a lot and still see the bright side.  Not so much with him.  Do you know of Auschwitz? 
C16: [Feeling shocked]  Yes.  Of course.
S16: When I was 17, they took me there.  I have a number.  [She pulls up her sleeve and shows me.]  This is a tattoo.  [This is the first time I have seen one of these; it says A-52]  They just carve it right into your flesh like this.  [Pulls her sleeve back down]
[I say nothing]
S17: I lost my family.  Well, everyone but my father.  They didn't kill him right away.  But my mother and brothers and sister were all killed very early.
[I find this so deeply horrific that I start to cry, but continue looking directly at her, hoping she'll go on]
S18: Then they put me to work.  Are you familiar with [some company she names], the motorcycles?
[I pretend I am]
S19: Well that's where I worked.  I made motorcycles.  [She smiles, kind of ironically, I think]
C17: You never would have expected that, huh?
S20: No.  To be taken out of your life and treated like dirt, lower than dirt, unless you have been through that, you cannot possibly know.  But I worked right next to the crematorium, where they burned the bodies.  The smell of it, all day long.  The ovens.  And I was 17.
C18: [I am overwhelmed by this all.]  That is horrible!
S21: Yes.  But you do what you have to do.  I was able to just keep going because I didn't know anything else to do.
[I have nothing to say, and am still crying]
S22: But there was always resistance.  The people who worked in the dynamite factory, they would take gunpowder and sew it into the hems of their clothes.  And then when they were killed, well there were people who had to sort the clothes into piles from the bodies.  You know, shoes over here, and shirts over there.  And the ones sorting the clothes would cut open the hems and get the gunpowder.
C19: Uh huh.
S23: And they were saving it for the crematorium.  Do you know what that is?
C20: Yes.  Yes, I do.
S24: Well they were planning to blow that up as an act of you know, rebellion or whatever.
C21: With the gunpowder?
S25: Yes.  So one night.  I worked the night shift.  There was day and night so we worked all the time, and I worked at night.  Well one night they did it and blew the building up.  I heard the explosion because my factory was right next door.
C22: Oh my . . .
S26: Well then we were all very afraid.  And we didn’t go to work.  And the guards, they decided to show us a message and they took dozens of people, Jews, and lined them up to kill them.  And I heard the gunshots.  And, do you know the ???
C23: No, I’m sorry.
S27: Well, that’s the Jewish National Anthem.  And I could hear them singing it while they were being shot.
[I start crying again]
S28: And they kept singing as the others were being shot.  [Now she is crying too.]  And the singing, it went until the very end, getting quieter and quieter, until the last one was dead.
[I am so stunned I cannot speak.  We both have tears on our face, saying nothing.  She wipes her eyes and says,]
S29: So, it was just a small thing.  Some people say insignificant.
C24: No, that is one of the most important stories I have ever heard.  I am so thankful that you told me.
S30: I went to Washington and told my story.  Recorded it there at the . . . .
C25: Holocaust Memorial?
S31: Yes.
C26: Do you tell your stories to others?
S32: Well, my grandchildren, they are too young.  I don’t want to scare them.  But the one, she just turned 18.
C27: About how old you were when you were in Auschwitz.
S33: Yes.
C28: So maybe you can tell her when the time seems right?  It’s important that people can hear what it was like from someone they know and who was there.
S34: There are so few of us left.  And someday when we are gone . . . [she stops]
C29: The stories can go on because you told them to your grandchildren, and people like me.  I will tell your story, believe me.  I mean, if that’s alright with you.
S35: Of course.  But it is just one little story.  One person.
C30: And that’s why it’s important.  Because you are a person.
[She smiles.]
S36: People in Auschwitz, when we see each other, it is like an instant family.
C31: Of course it is!
S37: And we share something that other people cannot understand.
C32: No, I can never really know what you all went through.
S38: We grew up fast.  Very fast.  You had to, to survive.
[A doctor comes in and they talk about the epidural and how the patient will need to get up in a chair today.  I wonder at the irony of two women talking about a man’s epidural.  The doctor leaves.]
S39: So, we thought when the war was over, that we had seen the worst.  But it’s not true.  It is as bad now as it ever was then.  People killing in the name of religion.
C:33: Yes.  The Sudan today, but we have plenty before that too.
S40: People say Stalin killed, what 20 million of his people.  And then Cambodia. 
C34: Yes.  It seems it will never end.
S41: No.  I wonder if, after the Messiah comes, there will be peace.
C35: Well, my religion says the Messiah already came, but still there is no peace.
S42: Oh, I don’t want to talk about religion.  That will just be trouble.
[This strikes me as a very odd thing to say, given the conversation she has been having with the chaplain.]
S43: But the evil that people do.  There is no limit, it seems.
C36: No, there is not.  I wish that Hitler had been the worst possible.  But I’m afraid not.
S44: I cannot understand it.
[A physical therapist enters the room and is putting on gloves.  We both stand up.]
PT1: Hello, how’s he doing?
S45: Good.  They already took the epidural out. 
PT2: No, I am here to get him up.
S46: Oh, to put him in a chair?
PT3: No, we’re going to take a little walk.
C37: Okay, I will leave you be now.  Thank you so much for talking to me.  [I put my hand on her shoulder]
S47: Thank you for your visit.  It was kind of you to listen to me.
C38: Really, it was an honor.  I don’t come back to the hospital until next week.  You said he should get discharged on Sunday?
S48: Yes.
C39: Well, okay.  Then, hopefully I will not be seeing you anymore.
[We both smile]
C40: Thank you Mrs. G.
S49: Thank you George.

In order to avoid the assignment of excessively high numbers from the general series to the large number of Hungarian Jews arriving in 1944, the SS authorities introduced new sequences of numbers in mid-May 1944. This series, prefaced by the letter A, began with “1” and ended at “20,000.” Once the number 20,000 was reached, a new series beginning with “B” series was introduced. Some 15,000 men received “B” series tattoos. For an unknown reason, the “A” series for women did not stop at 20,000 and continued to 30,000.

YEAR C 2019 feast of st. timothy

St. Timothy, 2019
Isaiah 42:5-9
Acts 15:22-26, 30-33, 16:1-5
John 10:1-10
Psalm 112:1-9

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Some people are really into math and science.  And I’m glad we have those people.  But I am not one of those people.  Well, let me clarify—the kind of science I am not interested in is, you know, biology, and physics, and what we call the “natural sciences.”  But around the year 2000 or so,  I stumbled into what is called quantum physics.  And, I have to tell you, it saved my faith in some ways.  Because, whereas the natural sciences sort of pull back the curtain on mystery, showing us that everything has a rational explanation, the world of quantum physics quietly says, “not so fast, buddy.”

One of my favorite books is called Quantum Theology.  I’ve read it twice, and have almost understood it once.  But the thing that draws me into that quantum world is, quite honestly, the poetic symbolism we continue to find there.  Where we once thought atoms were the smallest thing, we now know that there are smaller things called hadrons, and hadrons are made up of even smaller things called quarks.  And—here’s something I love—quarks cannot exist in isolation.  You can never have one quark.  You need three of them.  You need a trinity of quarks to have anything at all.  I know, coincidence, perhaps.  But what it shows us is that the very foundation of everything is built on community.  If there is not community, there is not anything.  Which means, community is built into the fabric of reality.

And there’s this thing called the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which says you can either know the speed of something, or you can know it’s location; but you cannot know both.  One or the other: speed or location.  Which is why when Professor Heisenberg was once pulled over for speeding by the police, the officer asked him, “Do you know how fast you were going?” And Heisenberg responded, “No, but I know where I am.”

But in explaining this Uncertainty Principle, Heisenberg stumbled into something else, which we now call the Observation Effect, or the Observer Bias.  The idea here is that, by observing an experiment, you change the outcome.  You cannot watch something happen objectively because, by the very act of watching it, you change what happens.

When you think about it, this applies to lots of things in life.  You think of reporters with film crews covering a street protest: by being there, they change what happens.  You think of trying to see if your turkey is cooking in the oven; by opening the door, you impact the cooking time.  Or when a credit card company checks your credit score, your credit score goes down.  Being part of an event changes that event.

And closer to home, here we are today, gathered for worship at St. Timothy’s Church in Massillon, celebrating our patron Saint.  We tend to think of a church service as being something that is there, that we occasionally (or regularly) come to and participate in, but happening nonetheless.  Like it’s this giant machine that we enter into.  But, in reality, any time we gather for worship, the worship only happens because you and I are here.  The liturgy cannot happen without people.  AND, by your being here, by you personally individually joining in this worship of God, the worship is changed.  Your presence here changes the worship of God.

I know that seems obvious when I say it, but I think it is too easy for us to forget that.  The fact that you are here changes what happens here.  St. Timothy’s Church is a different place because you are part of it.  Any time you participate in Worship, Hospitality, and Outreach, you impact WHO we are.  Worship, Hospitality, Outreach:  WHO we are.

And who we are today is different from who we were, and from who we will be.  For example, when I first started as your priest, there were some people who were here every week for worship—regularly participating in our events and outreach—who we never see anymore.  For whatever reason, they no longer join with us when we gather, which changes who we are.  And, more happily, there are others who are here this morning whom we hardly know, if at all, and that also changes who we are.  Just like with those little quarks I spoke of, community is built into our life together.  We are not church in isolation; we are only church together.  It matters that you are here today, and we are different because you are here today.

This past week I was reading through our Vestry minutes from 1954, you know, like you do.  I was trying to find out specifically what happened to this particular window that used to be in the parish hall, because I could see from choir photos that in 1955  . . .  Nevermind.  Anyway, it occurred to me in reading those minutes that St. Timothy’s Church in 1954 was not a place I would want to be part of.  Like, these were not my people, for want of a better phrase.  I would not have been comfortable here.  And I know there are other times in our past when I would not have agreed with the majority of the members, or with the specific priest, or some particular Sr. Warden.

But that only reinforces for me the idea that I stumbled into this particular place at exactly the right particular time.  To my mind, there is nowhere else I would rather be.  To use a biblical term, it is the fullness of time—the right moment, right now, whatever the future might bring.  Or, to paraphrase that Heisenberg Principle, we may not know where we are going, but we know where we are.

But, as Jesus said in today’s Gospel reading, “The gatekeeper opens the gate, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.”

You are here today because you have heard the call of Jesus.  You have recognized his voice and he has called you by name.  And when he has brought us all together, he goes on ahead of us, and we follow him because we know his voice.  We may not know where are going, but Jesus does.  And where we are going is different because you are here with us.  By your being here, we are changed.  And changed for the better, because Jesus has called you to be here.

As we gather together on this St. Timothy’s Sunday, we also remember those who have gone before.  The ones whose names we know, and the ones whose names are known to God alone.  All of those people who gathered to pray together, to recite the Creeds together, to sing together.  They gathered to baptize new members, join couples in holy matrimony, and bury loved ones from this church.  They collected donations for the needy, cooked food for the hungry, put on shows, held dances, and listened to presentations in a parish hall filled with cigarette smoke.  They served in congress, acted in movies, and played football; they treated patients, fought for women’s suffrage, and made steel.  They raised children, brought them to church, and taught them the faith.  And week after week, they gathered at this same Altar to worship the God who created and redeemed them.

And—through the mysterious work of God—they are all gathered with us today, and every time we celebrate Communion, along with angels and archangels and the whole host of heaven.  And our worship is changed because they are here.  And our worship is changed because you are here.

May God continue to bless St. Timothy’s Church.  And may we continue to follow the voice of Jesus, who brings us together, and who goes ahead of us.  And may we continue to follow him, because we know his voice.

Amen

Sunday, January 20, 2019

YEAR C 2019 epiphany 2

Epiphany 2, 2019
Isaiah 62:1-5
Psalm 36:5-10
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
John 2:1-11

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

So, as you know, we have four Gospel books in our Bible.  They are Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  The first three (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) are called the Synoptic Gospels, because they sort of line up in details, chronology, emphasis, and language.  (Syn-optic, like “same view.”)  You can find Jesus calming the stormy sea in all three synoptic gospels, but not in John.  You find the raising of Lazarus in John, but not in the synoptics.

John’s gospel is big on symbolism and metaphor, changing the order of events—like the Last Supper—for full symbolic impact.  Whereas Matthew and Luke tell us about the birth of Jesus, and Mark starts at the Baptism of Jesus, John starts before the beginning of the world, saying in the beginning was the Word, and the light shines in the darkness.  You can think of the synoptics as being like biographies of Jesus, and John being like a long-form poem about the meaning of Jesus’ life.  Point being, John’s gospel is packed with symbolism and metaphor, so it is quite different from the others.

Today, we heard a story from John, which we commonly call “The Wedding at Cana.”  And as soon as you hear that title, you probably think, “Oh yeah.  That time Jesus turned water into wine.  Got it.” And then start thinking about something else.  This is always the downside of Bible stories being familiar to us.  Or any stories, for that matter.  We’ve heard it before, we know the main point, let’s move on.  And, whenever we do that, we miss the opportunity of hearing God speak something new to us in the text.  It’s important for us to remember that the Bible is a living text to us, and no story can ever be fully understood.  Especially no story from John!

So, let’s look closer at what we actually heard today, keeping in mind how different John’s gospel is.  Our story opens with “on the third day.”  The third day from what?  We don’t know.  John doesn’t say.  How weird is that?  “And the mother of Jesus was there.”  This is the first time that the mother of Jesus is mentioned in John.  And—get this—John never tells us her name.  Not in all of his writing does he call her Mary.  If it weren’t for the synoptic gospels, we would not even know Mary’s name.  And yet, at the foot of the cross, Jesus tells John to behold his mother, and his mother to behold her son.  So it’s not like Mary isn’t important to John.

And then we get to the section where Jesus and his mother are talking.  Because of the liberties in translation that people have taken over the years, we tend to see this as Mary saying, “Do something!” and then telling the servants to do whatever Jesus tells them.  But the language is a lot more vague than that.  And there are missing verbs and stuff.  It’s more like Mary actually says, “They have no wine,” and Jesus says, “What to me and to you, woman.”  And—lest you worry—calling his mother “woman” is not insulting, as we’re apt to take it.  It sounds rude, but it is not.  You know, different culture, different language.  More concerning is that there is no verb in the sentence, “What to me and to you.”

And then we get Mary saying, "Do whatever he tells you,” which sounds very controlling and like she knows what’s going to happen.  But what she really says is, “That which he might say to you, do.”  Which is more like saying, if he should happen to tell you to do something, go ahead and do it.  And then we get to what you and I always think of as the miracle part of the story.

Jesus tells them to fill the ritual stone jars with water, draw some out, and take it to the banquet manager.  When he tastes it, he is amazed that they saved the good wine for last.  But look at how strange this is in the text.  John never says, “And then by an amazing miracle, the water turned into wine!”  Because that’s not the point of the story.  Even though we think it is the point of the story, it is not.  John adds the transformation into wine as just a little detail along the way.  “When the steward tasted the water that had become wine . . .” which is like saying, "When the steward tasted the water that was in the cup . . .”  The fact that it had become wine is not the point of the story.

We latch onto the transformation into wine because it looks like a magic trick, and we love magic tricks.  But if you look at who knows what in the story, you can see it is not a magic trick, because no one is amazed by the transformation.  The narrator provides the transformation as a little detail.  The boss doesn’t know where the good wine came from, but credits the steward.  The servants know where it came from, but they don’t know that it turned into wine.  The guests know nothing about any of it.  Turning water into wine is not the point of this story.

The point of the story of the wedding at Cana is that the best wine was saved for last.  The time when you would be expecting something mediocre, or worse, that is when Jesus gives us the best.  God never offers just enough, or an adequate amount.  The Psalms and the Prophets’ writings are filled with talk of feasts, and banquets, and ever-flowing streams.  Glimpses of heaven, put into the language of the here and now.  God’s magnanimous generous nature is always to give more than we can ever ask or imagine.  A glimpse of the heavenly banquet and wedding feast, where the best is yet to come.

So, let’s talk about the stone jars.  In Jewish ritual practice, any clay pottery that became defiled had to be smashed, never to be used again.  However, Rabbis had declared that vessels made from carved stone could not be defiled, and so they were used for ritual washing, among other things.  At the wedding at Cana there were six of these jars, each holding 20 to 30 gallons of water.  so, that’s somewhere between 120 and 180 gallons.  Gallons.  With a G.  That’s a lot of wine!  These jars are holding the best wine.

These stone jars are a crucial part of the story, but they don’t do anything.  We think of these jars as a prop, just sitting there, empty and unimportant.  But they are where the miracle takes place!  And, as I’ve said, the miracle is not in the transformation of water into wine.  No, the miracle of this story is that Jesus always gives us more than we can ever ask or imagine.  The chief steward is not amazed that it was wine; he was amazed that it was the best wine.

And since John’s gospel is packed full of symbolism and metaphor, I’m going to take a cue from John and suggest this for us to ponder . . .

Those six stone jars are like our hearts, and maybe our lives.  Not something to be smashed and destroyed when defiled by sin, but definitely in need of refilling, refreshing, and renewing.  There are times in all our lives when we think of ourselves like those jars:  insignificant, empty and unimportant.  And in those times, we should remember God’s unending regard for the least, the little, and the lost.  Like in Mary’s Magnificat, God lifts up the lowly, and gives to those in need.  We should remember those stone jars.

We are transformed by the love of God in the moments when we least expect it.  And when Jesus refills us, when we are filled with the refreshing water of life, we are then poured out for the world, transformed into a generous serving of the best God has to offer the world.  The miracle is not in the transformation that God works in our lives; the miracle is that it is always the best.  Given for everyone, with more than enough for all.

Amen

Sunday, January 13, 2019

YEAR C 2019 the baptism of our lord

The Baptism of Our Lord, 2019
Isaiah 43:1-7
Psalm 29
Acts 8:14-17
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Back in the 1980’s, I went to see Peter Gabriel in concert.  This was his first tour after leaving the band, Genesis, and there was excitement in the air.  Last we all knew, Peter Gabriel was a long-haired theatrical rock star, wowing the masses of prog-rock fans.  At show time, the house lights were still on, and people were still filing into their seats, when down the aisle came a short-haired man carrying a teddy bear.  He made his way past the people, down to the foot of the stage, climbed up, put the bear on the piano, and started singing.  It was Peter Gabriel, moments previous, a guy walking down the aisle; now the man we had come to see.

I am reminded of that experience in reading today’s Gospel text.  John the Rock Star, er, I mean, John the Baptist, has the people in a tizzy.  His baptism is all the rage, and Luke says the people were “filled with expectation.”  The people were gathered around, wondering if John might be, you know, the Messiah—the anointed one from God?  The one all the papers (or scriptures) had been hinting would be coming to town.  (After all, the paintings I’ve seen of John do make him look like some kind of long-haired rocker.)  And, true to rock-star form, the people flocked to him without knowing why.

John grabs the mic, and says “Ladies and gentlemen.  Thanks for coming.  I can see you’re all really thinking this is the big finale of today’s show.  But hold on to your camel skin, cause you ain’t seen nothing yet!  I’m just the opening act!  Following me, there’s a guy who’s going to melt your faces!  I’m not worthy to tune his guitar!  He’s got pyro you won’t believe.  He’s got a winnowing fork in his band, and will play leads that will separate the wheat from the chaff!  And the chaff will burn in the unquenchable fire!”  The crowd roars, and they all jump into the water.

That’s the big intro.  So where’s the flashy entrance?  Where’s the drama?  The lights?  The pyro?  Where’s the mind-blowing stage show?  Well, there isn’t one. 

As Luke says, “when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also was baptized and was praying . . .”  That’s it?  That’s the entrance?  Yep.  Jesus gets baptized right along with everyone else.  Luke doesn’t give us any details of the baptism.  Jesus is just baptized along with everybody else.  Or, as Luke says, right along with “ALL the people.”  All the people were baptized, and Jesus also was baptized.  Kind of an understated entrance for the one for whom John has been stumping, isn’t it?  I mean, the set-up seems a little overblown, doesn’t it?

But, of course, you know what happens next.  Jesus is praying, the heavens open up, the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove, and there is a voice from heaven saying, “You are my son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  Whole theological careers have been built on this sentence.  And mine will not be among them.  There are too many questions about what this means for Jesus’ own sense of his Messianic identity for me to wade into.  But this voice from heaven sounds remarkably similar to what comes just prior to the reading we heard from Isaiah this morning.

In Isaiah 42 we read, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.”  Of course, we might conclude that Luke intends for it to sound remarkably similar, and that’s why it does.  But the echo is certainly there, and it would make the connection clear for anyone familiar with the writings of Isaiah.  You know, like ALL the people who came to be baptized by John.

And just after that prophecy, in today’s reading from Isaiah, we have a series of promises.  I have called you by name and you are mine.  Do not fear; I am with you.  You are precious in my sight.  I am the Lord your God, your Savior.  These are promises to God’s people.  These are promises to you and to me.

And these texts from Isaiah parallel the announcement at Jesus’ baptism along with the people.  ALL the people.  Isaiah 43:2—When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.  Hmmm.   When you pass through the water, God is with you.  You are God’s beloved child.  In you, God is well pleased.  And how do we know God is with us when we pass through the water?

Jesus meets us in the water, and God is well pleased.  Jesus joins each of us in the waters of baptism, just as he meets all of us at this altar in the sacrament of his body and blood.  When Jesus meets us in the water, the water overflows with promise--forgiveness, new life, God calling us by name, God proclaiming us beloved. Like Jesus, we are named precious, honored, and loved. God is with us always; we do not need to be afraid. Jesus is the fulfillment and embodiment of God's promise.

And, after meeting us in the water, Jesus meets us in every circumstance, every season of life, even in the moment of death. From the water, Jesus meets us always in the journey of our lives, ending at the cross, and the empty tomb. Jesus has gone before us, and walks with us.

But there’s a sticky point I kept running into this week, and maybe it’s a thought you’ve had yourself at some point, and it is this:  If Baptism is for the remission of sin, you know, forgiveness of sin, and since Jesus is without sin, then why does Jesus have to be baptized?  Why does Jesus get baptized along with ALL the people?  Well, two thoughts on that . . .

First, we kind of have the shoe on the wrong foot here.  It’s not that Jesus is baptized like us; it’s that we are baptized like Jesus.  Jesus isn’t doing what we do in baptism; rather, in our baptism, we are doing what Jesus does.  We are joining in the baptism of Jesus.

And secondly, baptism is not a requirement; baptism is a gift.  God doesn’t love us because we have been baptized.  Instead, we get to be baptized because God loves us.  And that’s particularly clear when we remember those words from Isaiah.  God says when you pass through the waters I will be with you.  Which is quite different from after you have passed through the waters, I will love you, right?

And as we saw in today’s gospel reading, when ALL the people were baptized, Jesus was with them.  And not just watching them from the shore, nodding in approval.  No, Jesus was baptized right along with them.  Not in some special, private, rock-star baptism, but right along with them.  Like a guy carrying a teddy bear from the crowd going up onto the stage.  Jesus is the one we have come to see, and it turns out he is right here in the midst of us!  Rather than looking up at the spotlights, we should look around the room.  Because that’s where Jesus is.

In our own Baptismal Covenant, we promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves.  We renew that covenant every time we witness a baptism.  Every time we see someone get confirmed.  Every time the Bishop visits.  Every Easter.  And, as with all the promises we make in church, we make the promise along with the phrase, “with God’s help.”  We promise to do the impossible, with God’s help.  To seek and serve Christ in all persons, with God’s help.  Because God is with us.

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.   For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.

Amen.

   

Sunday, January 6, 2019

YEAR C 2019 feast of the epiphany

Feast of the Epiphany, 2018
Isaiah 60:1-6
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12
Psalm 72:1-7,10-14

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  And if that’s true, then it doesn’t matter why you do something; what matters is the outcome.  You might intend to help someone across the street, but if they get hit by a bus . . . Or, you might have intended to make a romantic setting with candles throughout the house, but if the curtains catch fire . . . .  Well, you get the point.  But saying that intentions don’t matter—that results are what count—is a cynical approach to life, a pessimistic view of the world.  It’s a quantitative concept, where what happens is more important than why it happens.  This is how most businesses are run.  Why you do your job is no one’s concern.  The outcome of your efforts, that’s what matters.

So, is the opposite approach therefore also true?  You know, can bad intentions lead to good outcomes?  If we do something for the wrong reason, but the result is ultimately good, isn’t that just putting the shoe on the other foot?  It seems that God works this way all the time.  In fact, the central point of our faith, the resurrection of Jesus, is exactly this kind of thing, isn’t it?  God bringing good results from humanity’s bad intentions?  There is a very important distinction to be made in answering that question, and we’ll get to that in a minute.  But first, let us look east together.

In today’s gospel reading, we have the visitors from the East coming to look for the new king.  The first step for us this morning is to clear away all the baggage that these men have accumulated over the years.  (This will make their journey easier, I think.)  And before we even get to them, I want to take a moment to get everyone in the right gospel book.

The shepherds are in Luke’s Gospel.  The Magi are in Matthew’s Gospel.  These gospels have two very different Christmas stories, and the people in them are there for very different reasons.  In our Christmas decorating, we often put the Magi in the crèche, along with the shepherds and the infant Jesus, and an angel, surrounded by camels and cows and stuff.  And I understand why that is.  The more the merrier, right?  But, honestly, you kind of have to choose which group of visitors you’re going to talk about, because—as I say—they’re there for different reasons.

In Matthew’s account, Mary and Joseph live in Bethlehem.  In a house, no less.  In Luke’s Gospel, they go to Bethlehem to be counted in the big census, and Jesus is born in a stable behind the inn.  In Matthew there’s no journey, and in Luke there’s no home.  So, when we mix it all up into one big story and try to claim that it’s the way it really happened, well, we’re going to get into trouble.  The shepherds are characters in Luke’s version, and the Magi are characters in Matthew’s version.  They are all part of the salvation story, but they are not the point.  The point of this Christmas story is the one who has been born, not the ones who come to visit.

So today we have the Magi coming from the east.  We don’t know how many there are in this group, but in the middle ages the number three came up, since there are three gifts, and then some names got assigned to these three visitors.  Then, at some point, they got promoted to being kings, which has been forever cemented in our minds because of a certain song calling them 3 kings of orient . . . are.  An alternate name for them is wise men, which is how their title typically gets translated, like in the NRSV, the translation we use here in church.

However, these visitors are not kings, and they are not wise men.  The best title for them would be something like astrologers: the kind of people who spend their days writing horoscopes.  They study the stars and planets, and make predictions about the future based on what they see there.  As today’s story goes, they saw the new king’s star rising and have come to pay him homage.  So that song should go, “We indeterminate number of astrologers are.”  Which is more accurate, but not very catchy around the living room piano.

So why am I telling you this . . . Well, because it’s important to Matthew’s Gospel to get these astrologers in the proper role.  They are not kings coming to visit the neighboring country’s new ruler.  They are not wise sages brimming with the wisdom of the ages.  They’re a bunch of guys who sit around looking at the stars, trying to use what they see there for their own personal advantage.  They are coming to pay homage.  Pay their respects.  Make alliances with the future ruler before he grows up and rules the land.  For the Magi to visit Jesus is like the stockbroker getting the inside tip, and sending a fruit basket to the company’s president right before the big public stock offering.  You could say they’re hedging their bets, or making a political contribution during the primary season.  Backing the right horse before the race begins.  They know from the stars that the new king has been born, and they come looking to drop off some Christmas gifts.

And we know they’re not wise men because they go to the current king and ask where they can find his replacement!  Hello!?!  Not exactly the sharpest knives in the drawer here.  Of all the people to stop and ask directions, Herod should be last on the list.  So, they’re not kings, and they’re not wise.  And it is important in Matthew’s gospel to get that point.  There are two kings in Matthew.  One is an evil tyrant who does and will do terrible things.  The other king has just been born.  For Matthew, these two kingdoms are in a battle to the end.  And, in Matthew, foolishness is wisdom.  Children enter the kingdom of heaven.  The wise cannot see the mystery of the kingdom of heaven.  Jesus and Herod are the kings, and the seemingly weak and helpless baby king will eventually conquer the strong and powerful king.

So, back to the indeterminate number of astrologers.  These Magi come in total innocence on the one hand, trusting that Herod will lead them to his own enemy.  And on the other hand, they bring these gifts assumedly in order to win favor with the future king.  It seems to me that they do not have good intentions, and based on what happens after they leave—what Herod does to all the male children—their actions have tragic results.  They have neither pure motives, nor good results.

And yet, they end up at the feet of Jesus.  In spite of the questionable reason for their journey, and in spite of the horrific result of their visit, they end up at the feet of Jesus, offering up the gifts they have.  Bad intentions, and bad outcome, and they still end up at the right place.

I don’t know whether the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  But I do know that the road to heaven is often paved with bad intentions.  You may know this from your own life’s journey.  That in spite of what you have done, or why you have done it, you still end up at the feet of Jesus.  But the really crucial thing is that God brings good results from all our intentions, whether they are good or bad.  Whatever the pavement of the road to hell is made of, whatever our actual intentions have been or will be, it is God who turns all things to work for good, in Jesus.

Whether you’re considered royalty or a servant, you end up laying your gifts before Jesus.  Whether you are wise beyond measure or make all your decisions based on the horoscope, you find your attention drawn to this king of the universe.  No matter how or why you have come, you are in this place today.  You have come to worship the king who brings peace rather than bloodshed.  You have come seeking the wisdom of the ages rather than hedging your bets.  You have been drawn by the one who draws all creation: Jesus the Christ.

We each come here offering our own gold, frankincense, and myrrh in the form of our time, talents, and possessions.  We bring what we have to the feet of Jesus, and through the magnanimous generosity of God, our ordinary gifts are  turned into extraordinary blessings for the world.  And, as we bring our bread and wine to the Altar, God promises to somehow transform it into the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Magi came in confidence that they would find Jesus at the end of their long journey from the East.  And we come in confidence to this Altar today, knowing that we will find Jesus in this place.

You and I have followed a star this morning as well, and it has come to rest over this altar.  The cross is the star that draws us, because the cross is the key to our salvation.  Whatever our intentions, God’s redemption shines by way of the cross.  Today, you and I bring what gifts we have to offer, and we find rest after our long journey, together here at the feet of Jesus, the king of peace, the wisdom of the ages, the Savior of the world.

Amen.