Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Water and Fire, Wheat and Chaff

Water and Fire, Wheat and Chaff 
A Sermon for Baptism of Christ Sunday
Offered at First Congregational Church, Rochester, Michigan 
January 10, 2016

Luke 3:15-22

15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 18So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. 19But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, 20added to them all by shutting up John in prison.
21Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 

As many of you know, Jeannene and I have a new little baby, Elijah, in our household. He didn’t get out much before he had his first round of shots, but we did take him to the Christmas tree farm with us. There, a somewhat astonishing thing happened. One of the owners, who looked a great deal like the real Santa Claus to me, greeted us and admired Elijah. He talked to us about giving Elijah lots of love and thereby changing the world. The not-the-real Santa who was there also talked to us about how love, joy, and security, given to our baby, would give him the tools to change the world---the messages were very strong and beautiful that day.

Just before we left, the maybe-the-real Santa called us over for a hug. We talked more about Elijah and he introduced himself as Frank, Francisco, and said he was from Sicily and has traveled all over the world. Perhaps because I am a fan of the Latin American literary genre of Magical Realism or because I read too many fantasy novels, I actually pondered whether he could be St. Francis in disguise, even though Assisi is actually in Emilia-Romagna & not Sicily and, well, Francis is long-dead. Yes, silly, I know. But even if he was simply Frank, the tree farmer, his words of wisdom were taken to heart, as was his next action. This lovely man asked if it would be okay for him to bless Elijah with some water he brought home from a pilgrimage that included a visit to the River Jordan.

Well, who am I to refuse a blessing? We waited while Frank ducked inside to get his Jordan River water. Upon his return, he very gently and kindly anointed Elijah’s forehead and said a prayer of blessing over him. The end of the prayer touched my heart most deeply, as he asked that God make Elijah an instrument of God’s peace, a phrase from my beloved grandmom’s favorite prayer, the Prayer of St. Francis. We drove home with an extraordinarily beautiful Christmas tree and hearts full of gratitude for the kindness of this disciple of Christ.

Of course, when I started thinking about today’s story of Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan, by his cousin John, the Jordan water blessing given to Elijah immediately came to mind. It wasn’t a baptism, but a simple blessing, asking that God use our wee boy to be a disciple, too. He’ll be baptized later this winter, but we already know that the Holy Spirit is with him and that he is God’s beloved child. The baptism will be our human recognition of the work the Holy Spirit is doing in Elijah. It will be our welcome to the community of the church and our promise to help him grow in his faith and learn to walk the path assigned by Jesus. It will be our recognition of him as a disciple.

You see, the term “disciple” doesn’t refer simply to the Twelve who walked with Jesus in his earthly ministry. It means, “one sent” and all of us who are baptized in Christ are sent to spread God’s message of love for the world. We’re all disciples, all God’s beloved children.  Some of us are lucky enough to have been given the gift of affirmation by our earthly parents. Others have never been affirmed by earthly parents. Know this: whatever you have heard or not heard in the way of affirmation from your earthly parents, you are beloved of and affirmed by God, just as you are.

Baptism, then, isn’t fire insurance. Baptism is a recognition of the working of the Holy Spirit that is already going on in each of us. It’s also initiation into the community of Christ followers seeking to do justice, love neighbor, be kind, live in humility. Look at the promises parents, godparents, and congregations make when an infant is baptized. Show love & justice, encourage her or him to renounce the powers of greed, hatred, selfishness, and oppression, receiving new freedom in the life of Jesus.

Baptism means we aim to live into God’s audacious vision of the world as it could be, rather than cower in fear at the world as it currently is. We are not only baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, but into his way of being human, a way that defies cultural expectations and norms, a way gracious and loving to those on the margins, a way that basically turns things as we know them on their heads.

While the world around us sensationalizes all the things we have to fear, all the things that are wrong today, Christ would remind us that, as Tod O.L. Mundo states on his “Saturday Night Theologian” blog, because “God is seated on the throne, bringing order to the world, we do have hope, and we can share our hope with those who view the world as meaningless. In the midst of a world of poverty, war, terror, AIDS, unemployment, and hunger, followers of God must bring a message of hope to those who are suffering. Though things look chaotic now, and life seems to have no meaning, God is in control. In the name of God, let us proclaim a message of hope and make it our purpose in life to demonstrate that life has meaning for every inhabitant of the planet.”

If we, like Herod in the Epiphany text, are listening too closely to the voice of our fear, we can miss God’s still, small voice reminding us of all that love given to us, all the work to which we are called for the benefit of the kingdom of heaven. If we are looking too hard for danger and threats, we can miss the shining stars God places to light our paths. Our baptism calls us to tune out from fear and tune in to God’s voice.

Now, I’m not even going to pretend this is easy. It isn’t. Not at all. But it is necessary. Just as the fire of turmoil appears to be necessary. In today’s scripture, John the Baptizer speaks of Jesus as one who comes with a winnowing fork. He speaks of wheat being separated from chaff and Jesus’ flame ready to burn the chaff into nothingness. This passage is used by a lot of hellfire and damnation preachers as a warning to those of us who, in their eyes, need to straighten up and fly right, for fear of being burned when we are discovered not to be wheat, but only chaff, after all. For them, the burning is the deepest fires of hell (they must not have read Dante, who envisions the deepest circle of hell as frozen. He must have lived in Michigan in January and February) and God is sending all the unworthy there.

The God I know through the life of Jesus, though, is infinitely merciful and wise, so I don’t really believe that’s the intention of the burning of the chaff. Further, I did some research on the threshing process. First, the wheat heads are beaten to remove the grain from the stalk and to loosen the hard, dry protective shell from the outside of the grain. Then, they are (or were, back in Jesus’ time) tossed in the air with the winnowing fork to allow the wind to blow the chaff off the grain heads. The chaff was often burned, as the most expedient way to deal with it, since it isn’t digestible by humans. However, it is digestible by livestock, so it was sometimes added to their feed. It was also sometimes ploughed into the ground to enrich the soil. So, chaff isn’t even all bad. It can be useful.

My theory is that the chaff is the parts of ourselves and our lives which no longer serve us well and which hinder our participation in the work of discipleship. Sometimes, we need that hard shell of protection to keep us safe. Sometimes fear, to name just one characteristic that can be helpful or hindering, keeps us from doing something dangerous. Other times, fear can paralyze us or even spur us into taking harmful actions our rational brain wouldn’t take. When we have matured enough, like wheat grain, and grown out of the need for a particular fear, having Jesus winnow it out of our lives is a pretty great thing. It’s not a thing to be feared or a sign that God disapproves of us. Quite the opposite. God sees the potential we could reach, if the things that are not serving us well were removed. God loves us and loves the world, so we are given opportunities to grow and shed our chaff.

Another example comes from my blacksmith mama’s forge. Steel must be heated in order to make it hard enough that it doesn’t simply wear down quickly with use. However, when it’s not properly tempered, going through only one heat and then cooled rapidly by a plunge in the slack tub (a pretty gnarly tub of water kept in blacksmith shops for the purpose of cooling metal), it will be plenty hard, but too brittle. It won’t wear down from use, but it will break easily. Steel, heated twice and allowed to cool slowly and naturally on the anvil, becomes softer and stronger.

Think of that! Softer means stronger for metal. I think it’s the same for us humans. We need to have some hardening so we won’t just wear down---crisis, hard times, and tragedy are pretty good for hardening us, as are repeated news stories about horrible realities. I don’t for a moment believe that God creates these things to temper us, but they are a reality of life in our imperfect world, with all its free will. So, if we are able to take our time and fully recover from trauma and grief, rather than forcing ourselves---or being forced by society---to “get over it” more quickly than is natural, we become stronger.

However, if we are simply hard and not at all resilient, we become brittle and can break too easily. In order to be good, strong, durable tools employed by God in working for the kingdom of heaven here on earth, we have to also lose some of that hardness and allow some softness and vulnerability. Jesus, by asking to be baptized, is continuing to make himself vulnerable, as he did with his willingness to experience incarnation as a human baby. His baptism is another immersion into openness, into making himself one with us humans, into vulnerability. Jesus’ entire ministry, indeed, is built on vulnerability. Talk about turning the ways of society on their heads! To submit to baptism is to begin to live quite dangerously, to shed some of the protections of defensiveness and to live with open hearts.

Something else magical happens in the fire of the forge and under the hammer of the smith. Even in today’s world of steel that has supposedly had the impurities worked out of it before it hits the blacksmith’s door, some (as my mom says) “pretty wonky” steel, rife with impurities, comes through the blacksmith’s shop. However, forging forces the impurities out and, in my mom’s words, “they go zizzing out, as the hammer is striking, as miniature fiery comets.” As alarming as I find the prospect of metaphorically being put in the fire, then pounded between the steel of the hammer head and the steel of the anvil, I love the image of all my impurities being forced out and flying into the air as tiny comets, all ablaze. Perhaps I am, after all, okay with a certain level of trial by fire. Not so much it destroys me. Just enough to make me strong, soft, and resilient.


Jesus didn’t live a safe life, did he, avoiding conflict and following the rules? He didn’t keep his heart and his person armored so he would never come to harm. We don’t get that luxury, either, not if we are to follow him truly. So, in remembering and affirming our baptisms, we are reminded that, as Christians, we are called to act against injustice, strive for peaceful hearts and loving interactions with all (this takes practice!), and work to end oppression wherever we see it. A tall order, but one for which we are created, stronger than we realize, softer than we might be comfortable being, resilient enough to make a difference.

Friday, September 11, 2015

With Ears to Hear and Hearts Wide-Open

I guest preached last Sunday---and joked with Jeannene as I was writing my sermon that I could see why our pastor would have avoided the text! It's a difficult one, indeed. Jesus not only gets it wrong, but does so while uttering a racial slur, getting it really wrong. The text is Mark 7:24-37:

24From there Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

31Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

After the service, I had one guy tell me he really needed to hear my message and said he got tears in his eyes. Another woman said she hopes I'm saving these so I can collect them in a book. So, I thought I'd share this, in case any of you needs to hear it: 

Any Wonder Woman fans in the congregation? Anyone else a bit disappointed that she doesn’t have her own movie coming out next year, but is instead relegated to being part of Batman Vs. Superman? (Take heart, I hear the Wonder Woman movie is in pre-production!) I have loved Wonder Woman since I was a little girl. She is just so cool, with her invisible jet & her Lasso of Truth. Yep, she could make anybody tell the truth when she twirled the rope and lassoed them. Definitely awesome.

I’ve been kind of immersed in superhero stuff lately (big nerd), so when I read today’s passage from Mark this time around, the Syro-Phoenician woman reminded me of Wonder Woman. Usually, in stories about Jesus, Jesus is pretty much guaranteed to be the hero. In this story, well, he doesn’t look so heroic. We don’t really feel comfortable with a Jesus who comes across as less than heroic. We’re good with it if the heroism isn’t the kind of dashing, riding in on a white stallion and taking over sort of heroism first century Jews were expecting. We totally get that sometimes heroism looks meeker than we expect, gentler, milder. We’re cool with that.

What we aren’t so comfortable accepting is a Jesus who’s outright mean, even prejudiced. Wow. What in the world do we do with that? Did Jesus really just basically call that woman and her daughter dogs? Yup. He sure did. Doesn’t sound much like our Jesus, does it? Believers look for ways to make this ethnic slur, very common at that time among Jews, not really mean what it meant. The suggestion that maybe Jesus just messed up, that he was, in addition to the “fully divine” part, also fully human and, therefore, to some degree, a product of his culture, though, makes people pretty uncomfortable. In this culture, both women and foreigners were seen as pretty dang low, in fact, unclean. Touching or associating with them could spell trouble. So, Jesus was working with a common cultural assumption of his time. But declaring that Jesus was wrong? That can be a tough sell. My dear UCC seminary buddy, Adam, posted the following words to Facebook as he prepared his sermon for today: “This Sunday, come watch me tap-dance through a field of heresy and come out smelling like orthodoxy, with a message entitled: ‘When Jesus Got it Wrong...and Other Phrases that Will Get Your Minister Fired...’ (This event is BYOP -bring your own pitchfork- torches, tar, and feathers to be provided...)”

While I’m not very interested in a BYOP event with my immolation as the featured entertainment, I’m not your pastor, so I will just say it. Jesus was wrong. He was a product of his culture, so it’s not 100% his fault. We can’t expect the “fully divine” part to kick in all the time, if he’s also to be seen as “fully human,” can we? To take a step further in his defense, sort of, Jesus had just traveled to Tyre for, basically, a vacation. Immediately prior to this trip to what is now Lebanon, Jesus managed to completely shock and outrage the establishment by declaring all foods clean. He proclaimed that it isn’t what goes into our mouths that defiles us, but what comes out. This totally, completely flew in the face of everything that had been established, practiced, long believed in his culture.

So, he has withdrawn to recharge, regroup, maybe even to consider the response of his people to his teachings. He’s looking forward to a few days among foreigners who won’t be pestering him for miracles or castigating him for, basically, heresy. He’s been under a lot of stress and all he really wants to do is sit on the beach under a palm tree, piƱa colada in hand, and let the ocean do its healing thing. He has a little time off, a little time to breathe, and then along comes this woman who knows of him and his miraculous works. She has actually had the audacity to come into the house where he has been trying to keep a low profile and not have to deal with people. And she wants him to do more work. And when he does that work, he just knows, more people will come and demand his energy, his time, his attention. And, suddenly, there goes his much-needed vacation. Really, what would you do? Especially if you happened to be not only exhausted, but maybe a little hangry?

We may think Jesus’ response was harsh, but don’t we all know about faithful Christians who still today think certain people or classes of people are unclean or unworthy? Aren’t there plenty of Christians now who see outsiders as undeserving of even our crumbs? Friends, there are still churches in our lovely, open-minded UCC---I imagine even in our conference---that would never tolerate a woman pastor, places where a woman may as well not even submit her profile to the search committee. Or where a person with brown skin will hear that churches “have other candidates that are a better match for our church” after submitting a ministerial profile. This in the UCC. And don’t we ourownselves sometimes think people are unworthy?

So, when the very common, but very unpleasant, racial slur pops out of his mouth and he refuses to help her, it is clearly not his finest moment. Now, here’s an ugly story about me. At my last church, there was a really lovely woman, an artist, whose husband and son had died. So, she was quite lonely and had developed the habit of, if she saw I was free, coming into my office and talking for 45 minutes at a time. I really loved talking with her. That is, when I had the time. When I was frantically trying to pull together a confirmation pilgrimage, though, or hard at work on a sermon, or girding my loins for a contentious Council meeting, my heart sank when I heard her voice in the main office. Now, no slurs about her person came immediately to mind, but I’m pretty sure some salty language did. And I was often tempted to hide under my desk or pretend to be on the phone. And this was a woman I really liked and respected a whole lot. It was nothing at all to do with her and everything to do with my stress level and my lack of time. 

So, I can see why an exhausted, agitated Jesus might respond automatically and unkindly to this woman, this foreigner, this person who should never have had the temerity to approach him, since his ministry has heretofore been specifically for Jews. But here’s where the story gets really interesting. The woman, rather than showing that she was offended or just giving up, stands her ground and speaks her mind. Desperate to gain a cure for her daughter, whom no doctor could help, she likely would have done anything to restore the girl. Who cares what Jesus thinks of her, as long as her daughter is back to her normal self soon? Wouldn’t you parents do the same for your kids?

So, rather than insisting that they are not dogs at all, as she may have wished to do, she calmly and quietly, using her love for her daughter as her source of strength, uses a logical argument in an attempt to persuade Jesus that they deserve his help. Using her words, her steady gaze, her best manners, and all the dignity she can muster as a kind of Lasso of Truth, she captures Jesus with her argument. She owns the dog label, if it’ll get her what she wants. I mean, you never see Wonder Woman arguing that she’s not whatever the villain chooses to call her. She knows who she is, no matter what anyone says. She simply works toward her objective.

So, too, this Syro-Phoenician woman. As Harvard professor and historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich famously said, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” Making history, this woman is most definitely not well-behaved. She speaks up and her words convict Jesus. He sees her clearly, his own ears are opened by her words, and he is forced to speak the truth, that, yes, even the dogs do get to eat the crumbs. So, why not expend the smidge of energy, no more than crumbs of his power, to give this woman what she has requested? He changes his mind, heals the daughter, and, in that one act, that one piece of willingness to listen and change, his whole ministry is changed. Can you imagine her joy, as she returned home to find her darling, precious daughter restored? Jesus said yes to her and her whole life changed. It reminds me of a poem by Kaylin Haught:

I asked God if it was okay to be melodramatic
and she said yes
I asked her if it was okay to be short
and she said it sure is
I asked her if I could wear nail polish
or not wear nail polish
and she said honey
she calls me that sometimes
she said you can do just exactly
what you want to
Thanks God I said
And is it even okay if I don’t paragraph
my letters
Sweetcakes, God said
who knows where she picked that up
what I’m telling you is
Yes Yes Yes

Jesus said yes. Then, when Jesus returns to Galilee by way of the Decapolis, a Greco-Roman area in what is now Jordan, Syria, and Israel, his ministry opens up and he begins to work with and heal Gentiles, as well as Jews. With her courage, born of desperation, the Syro-Phoenician woman brought great benefit not only to her daughter and family, but to many. Jesus may have been saying to her, “No” or he may have been saying, “Not yet.” Either way, her refusal to take no for an answer, her persistence, created an earlier onset of Jesus’ ministry to a broader audience. In that way, really, we here in this sanctuary today may very well have the unnamed Syro-Phoenician woman to thank for our own relationships with Jesus. How about that? I think maybe she needs her own movie. And isn’t it marvelous that even God’s crumbs are more than ample to feed all God’s children?

I find it interesting, too, that the first healing miracle he performs after this is to open the ears and release the tongue of a man who is both deaf and mute. Yes, this was of great benefit, I am sure, to that man. But the symbolism of opening ears and loosening tongues? Well, my friends, that is one of the greatest gifts we have to gain by being in relationship with Christ. We have ears to hear---and we’re called to hear the cries of the needy, the chains of the oppressed. We have tongues to speak, to refuse society’s no to cries for justice, and to demand a better world for us and for our children, indeed for all God’s children. These loosened tongues, by the way, are excellent for speaking love and reconciliation to one another, as well.

So, what does it look like for a congregation to have ears to hear, tongues to speak, and hearts open wide? Well, God’s realm breaks down barriers & invites us to do the same. How do we embody our faith both within the church and beyond? We are challenged to leave our comfort zones, as both Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician woman did, not only beyond the church walls, but also our comfort zones within the church. Sometimes, that will be messy and uncomfortable. It might mean adapting to worship practices we might be leery about, like doing communion by intinction rather than tray. It could mean not looking askance at a teen who doesn’t fit traditional gender norms or not wrinkling our noses if the person in the pew next to us really needs some deodorant---or if the pastor wears jeans and a Wonder Woman t-shirt, like I almost did today. One of my favorite pastors, Nadia Bolz-Weber of House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, is tattoo-covered, leather-clad, and completely unconventional---and her words are life-changing, in a very good way. You should Google her, if you are not familiar with her work. Whip out your smart phone now, if you want. I won’t be offended. Nadia rocks.

Strangers and those who are different from us can teach us a whole lot---can even change our lives for the better---but only if we have ears to hear. And mostly, they’re not going to approach us from the margins, so we have to reach out and ask to hear their stories. In the line at the grocery, while serving dinner at The Ruth Ellis Center, at a cocktail party, heck, how about during coffee hour, instead of sitting with our friends? Who can we, as a congregation, identify as people who are perhaps not being heard or included and make sure they are listened to & included? And, for those who feel like they’re not being heard or included, remember the power of the Syro-Phoenician woman standing up, speaking out, and not only asking Jesus for help, but challenging him when he said no.

How willing are we to be open and expectant and flexible? If we congregations are willing to do that, Luther Seminary New Testament professor Matt Skinner reminds us, it may pay off in the discovery of grace flowing in new directions this Autumn here at FCC and in our own personal lives. I encourage us all to flex, and stretch, and grow, even when it’s scary or stressful. Even when we don’t wanna. Let’s take up our Lassos of Truth and use them wisely, with ears to hear the truths of others, and hearts wide open to receive them with love. Amen.