Relating, Creating, Transforming

Archive for January, 2014

Life As Vocation

Matthew 4:12-23

womenFishing

Women fishing in Bangladesh

Here’s how this story goes: Jesus just got tested in the wilderness. He then returns to Galilee after his cousin John is arrested for eating too many locusts; or something like that. Then Jesus finds two willing fishermen and begins an adventurous journey with them.

This story originates in Mark’s Gospel. Matthew mostly copies Mark, but also adds the Isaiah reference and changes what Jesus is quoted as saying, eliminating The time is fulfilled and changing the kingdom of God to the kingdom of heaven. Also, Matthew leaves out the bit about Simon [Peter] and Andrew leaving their hired hands behind along with their dad in the fishing boat.

The story takes place in Capernaum–a major port city. It was a great trading and meeting center. It would have been a great locale in which to spread news or to communicate with a wide variety of people. Capernaum is on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee [actually a lake, as you can see].

capernaum1

But the story also references Naphtali and Zebulon. This is less geographical and more cultural. Naphtali and Zebulon were the names of two tribes of people who lived in the northern region of Israel [also west of the lake of Galilee].

naphtali So consider that while Matthew includes the reference from the prophet Isaiah, it is not about predicting that Jesus would walk from Nazareth to Capernaum. If this were an actual literal prophetic prediction, Matthew would actually look stupid. Why? Because Naphtali and Zebulun were two separate regions. Capernaum was only in Naphtali and not Zebulun. You can see this on this map. Also, look at the actual Isaiah text from which Matthew borrows:

But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.[1]

Isaiah says by way of the sea [meaning the Mediterranean Sea there on the left] while Jesus in Matthew’s story traveled by the Sea [or Lake] of Galilee. Keep in mind that while some love to jump to prophetic conclusions and put two and two together by using OT passages to predict NT Jesus events—this alters the spirit and meaning of the story. Matthew uses the Isaiah reference [and geography and culture] to show that Jesus didn’t just care about the Jewish people, but also about those who were called Gentiles. We are supposed to notice the Zebulun and Naphtali reference and also the phrase repent for the kingdom of heaven is near because John said that earlier in the story in the wilderness of Judah [Jewish land] and now Jesus was saying the same thing in the Northern territories where there were more Gentiles. You see the movement of the story? I hope this helps.

Let’s continue on the journey. Nazareth to Capernaum was about 26 miles, depending on the route one decided to take.

Put it in context. If you traveled from the address of the United Church of Christ in Warminster, PA to where the University of Pennsylvania is in University City, you have just gone from Nazareth to Capernaum. Yes, keep in mind that most of the stories about Jesus take place in a very small geographical area.

So we have journeyed to Capernaum and we’re on the shore of the Lake of Galilee, there is fresh water and lots of fish. The lake is controlled by the wealthy Greeks and Romans and Jewish folk who were in with King Herod. Fishermen worked for them. Yes, that’s right—local fishermen had to buy fishing licenses just so they could fish. It was all regulated and of course, everything, including the fish, was taxed. Much like today, those who worked tirelessly raising crops on land or those who fished the sea–sadly they saw most of their food exported to other lands and they gained very little for their own families. It is to this group of people that Jesus appeals. Keep in mind that in Matthew’s Gospel and the other three, the issue of debt and money comes up a lot. We need to notice this in the story.

But most of the time we’re obsessed with the “fishers of people” idea and kind of end up thinking like Peter in this cartoon:

peter.stupid.fishIt’s true. Recently, a smart little girl inquisitively asked:

Why would they fish for people? And why did the other people go in the water in the first place?

Uh, yeah. This is a weird thing to say: go fish for people.

That’s why I really believe that details in a story are important. You see, we often see this Biblical story of calling disciples as some up-in-the-clouds, impossible tale. And so we are disconnected from it. But like most of the stories about Jesus, this one is quite ordinary and human, and therefore it is a story with which we can identify.

I still have a question, though: why did Peter and Andrew listen to this Jesus of Nazareth, leave behind their fishing equipment, and then follow him on a crazy adventure? Why?

I think most people assume that these two guys just picked up and left their previous lives to make some sort of incredible religious commitment. Many look at any story and assume that anyone who follows Jesus has to drop everything and make an overwhelming pledge to change their lives completely. Perhaps that’s why there are so many people who relate Christianity to fanaticism.

And they would be right, in many cases.

But I’m certainly not criticizing people who really do need to drop everything because they may live destructively and need this type of major change. Certainly, I have known people for whom practicing the Christian faith helped them to overcome addictions or destructive behaviors that kept them from living full lives. I don’t underestimate the joy and healing they discovered. But I think everyone’s experience is different. And I also think that religion itself is so very limited and also created by us, so being “called” or “following” Jesus will look different for every person.

That’s the point.

Your life is a calling.

You don’t have to be a fisherperson, a pastor, overtly religious, or someone who experiences an enlightening moment or a conversion. Your life, from its very beginning, has been and is a calling.

But yes—we are called to live with more imagination. And with more love. And with less hate. And we are called to live with more mercy, forgiveness, and more honesty. And we are called out of comfort and into conflict, recognizing that the conflict leads us to meet new and amazing people who will journey with us. Along the way, we start to realize that comfort is overrated. We can even find strength to leave it behind, as well as all the attachments to material things and prejudices that limit us so much and keep us from living a full life. And yes–we’re called out of fear to love—a very difficult calling, for sure, because we are called to face our fears and to stop ignoring them or  running away from them. And all of this looks so different for each and every person, doesn’t it?

Recently, the Lilly Foundation, an endowment organization that funds religious research, interviewed pastors, seminarians, church and ministry leaders, etc. about their careers. The study found that most of these people felt called to their vocation. Okay, but the problem is that most people don’t feel the same way. They don’t feel called like most pastors do. They hear sermons and read religious stuff but often they don’t think that what they do outside of the church has much to do with some calling worthy of God’s attention. Most people see Peter and Andrew or any of the other 1st or 2nd century disciples as super Jesus followers and faith heroes who they could never measure up to and with whom they cannot identify.

Well, that’s a big problem.

We are missing the whole point, then. I mean, it’s all well and good to interview pastors and seminarians and other professionals, but being a pastor myself, I see great limitations here. Look, personally I do find joy and fulfillment in my work as an ordained minister—both with UCCW and also with the Interfaith Center. But my “calling” [vocation] is not any higher or more worthy of God’s attention than anyone else’s. I don’t think of what I do as more Christian or more faithful to following Jesus.

And no, I did not put down my nets and follow Jesus like Andrew and Peter. I just didn’t.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve tried my best to be myself and to treat people well, and to love fearlessly and to speak and act creatively and compassionately. But that has zero to do with me being a pastor. That’s just my life. And for me, following Jesus’ life and teachings has helped to make me a better person. It has helped me forgive and help and empathize and heal.

Your life and calling is just as special as mine. Look, this Lily Foundation study discovered something much more important than what religious professionals think. They found that all these people had the greatest sense of fulfillment, meaning, and purpose—not because of their religious jobs–but because of their relationships.

Relationships. With people.

In Matthew’s story, Jesus doesn’t call the two fishermen [or any others for that matter] to change jobs. Jesus instead calls them into relationship. They are to be fishers of people. And while this sounds weird to most of us because we are not casting nets, you get the idea. We are called into relationships and we always have been.

And this is creative and not limited. Just like fishing. Check out the creativity of these guys:

creativefishingYour relationship with God, with this, Jesus—should be a good thing. It should add joy, healing, wisdom, wholeness. It should not limit you or take away your playful imagination or your creativity or make you think that you need to change who you are. No way. Likewise with your relationships in this life here on this planet. You should be challenged, uplifted, inspired, strengthened, and fulfilled by your relationships with people. Others should feel the same when they are in relationship with you. And no, you don’t have to have some really religious conversion story or some so-called “higher” calling to do that.

No way. Just be you.

And so, ask yourself:

How will I step out of my comfort zone and be in relationship with others?
How will I be a compassionate friend?
How will I be a loving partner?
How will I be creative, free, and joyful at work and at school and with others?
How will my relationship with God inspire and heal me?
How will this relationship with God move me to healthy relationships with others?

Live the story.


[1] Isaiah 9:1-2, NRSV.

Reconciling Light

John 1:29-42

reconciledWe form memories in our heads of events and people—long after the moment passed or the person passed. These memories, uniquely ours and certainly not entirely accurate—become the reality we place on that event or person.

I can tell you plenty of stories about my childhood and adolescence—even a story from a few weeks ago! My story, my memory of what happened, is a creative weaving of thoughts, feelings, images, sounds, smells, and cognitive processes. But my memory isn’t perfect. Sometimes I put two events together and make them one. I combine sensory experiences with other moments in my life, even though they don’t belong together. I remember eating a goat cheese romaine lettuce salad three months ago and actually, it wasn’t a salad that I ate, but in fact sautéed kale with pine nuts. I tell stories about my high school days and how my friend Derrick did this thing or another thing, but actually it wasn’t Derrick, it was my other friend Ralph.

This doesn’t mean that we all just lose our minds as we get older, because kids do it, too. I was reminding my nephew George the other day of a hilarious thing he said a few months ago. We were talking about candy and George said:

Uncle Josh, we don’t get much candy here…we’re vegetarians.

Of course, when I told George this story, he made a face and pointed at me, saying:

No, Uncle Josh, I didn’t say that…you did!

Only time will tell if George will remember my version of the story, or his own.

Now that isn’t to say that all of our memories are just relativism. Yes, we all have our own memories of people and events, but most of us accept particular, well-known facts about experiences and people. For example, someone dies on a certain day. We typically know and accept the date. Someone graduates from school. We also have a date for that. A person lives in a particular city, speaks a certain number of languages, etc. What matters more than the simple, surface facts is how we organize our memories. Do we remember that there was love in a person’s life? And how do we know that for sure? Was something funny or sad? Do we have regret about something or do we think it was all worth it? Did an experience have a purpose or was it just random?

Today is a good day to explore this because we’re going to talk about Jesus of Nazareth again, and boy do we ever enjoy assigning memories to that guy and the stories about him.
coolJesusOverall we remember Jesus and the stories about him according to how we feel about them, who told us the stories, and what meaning we assign to them.

Enter Sarah Polley, a Canadian actor and director.

storieswetellPolley recently made a documentary called ”Stories We Tell.” The basic premise: Sarah sat down with relatives and friends and interviewed them, asking them to talk about her mother Diane Polley, who died in 1990 when Sarah was eleven years old. Here is a trailer to give you a taste:

It’s a documentary worth checking out. I am intrigued by the questions Polley poses:

Why do we have this need to tell stories? Why is it so essential to us? And why do we have this sort of desperate attachment to our versions of the past? And how do we allow for or do we allow for other versions of that past?

I think that this is particularly important as it pertains to religious stories, because sadly, throughout history, there have been too many people who have tried to say that there is only one version of the stories in our sacred books. And their version is promoted, and pushed on you, and shoved down your throat, and if they are rich and powerful enough, their version of the story becomes the version.

Sadly, such domineering storytelling can also lead to awful behavior. Sometimes the way people tell Bible stories can cause great suffering in people—some interpretations can hurt, push down, marginalize, and even bring about violence.

Appropriate now that we are exploring the Gospel of John of the New Testament of the Christian Bible. This Gospel of John has actually been the basis for the dominant view of the story of Western Christianity, actually. Yes, you may remember such passages like: I am the way, the truth and the life; for God so loved the world that God sent his only begotten son…yep. And I’m sure you have heard of such things as the Trinity [Father, Son, Holy Spirit] and the divinity and sinless nature of Jesus? These ideas come from John.

Yes, this 4th Gospel, written after the other three Gospels and not consistent with the others, is a basis for much of the theological and structural thinking of the modern-day Christian church.

I want us all to remember, though, that all the Gospels are not biographies. They are stories told in a certain way to bring about memories of Jesus in a certain way, and they are all storytelling to a particular audience.

This idea is expanded after years of research on the Gospel of John by author John Shelby Spong, in his recent book The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic.

the4thgospelSpong argues that John should be read as entirely symbolic and is never meant to be taken literally. Spong, along with many other Biblical scholars, state that no one person wrote John’s Gospel [or a disciple as many think], but at least three people wrote it over a period of 25-30 years. Also, the words attributed to Jesus were most likely not actual things he said. This includes all the “I am” statements. Further, the miracles recorded in John were not meant as historical evidence of actual events. Spong continues: likewise, the characters mentioned by name in John were not real people, but characters in the story, never meant to be thought of as actual persons of the 1st Century. In fact, John’s Gospel itself, argues Spong, seems to laugh at any literal interpretation of its own stories.[1]

That view, of course, challenges the view of many who read John so literally and as a historical book. This perspective also contradicts hundreds of years of institutional church teaching that eventually created the Christian creeds and orthodoxy.

But I present to you this view of the story because it is in fact valid.

It has been a silenced view due to the louder voices who have read John as a history book.

Some have argued [and I agree] that right now, in 2014, in spite of having more archeological evidence and textual study that provides evidence that religious stories are meant to be read symbolically—

Many, many people are interpreting religious books more literally than ever before.

The earliest Christian communities did not take these stories literally. It was their tradition, both oral and written, to tell stories and to interpret events differently. How one person told stories about Jesus did not have to match another person’s story.

 Why does this matter?

Because the Gospel of John [and other Bible stories] have been used over time to push people down, to make people feel guilty, to control, manipulate, and sadly, the stories have been used to justify horrific acts of violence, genocide, slavery, and prejudice. That is why you must recognize your freedom as you read the sacred stories. Do not be limited by what I say or write, or what someone else tells you to believe. John’s story was not meant to be read one way.

And we are not meant to see Jesus in the same way, to form the same memories, and to tell exactly the same story.

Instead, we are meant to see, hear, and experience the symbols in the story and to focus on the way Jesus lived.

But there’s still a white elephant in the room.

Actually, it’s a white lamb.

lambWhat do you think of when you hear lamb of God?

We’re conditioned to think that the lamb is sent to slaughter. We are conditioned to think of Jesus in the same way.
I am a sinner, you are a sinner, so Jesus must die.
Blood must be spilled.

But John’s Gospel writers were shaped by entirely Jewish thought and religious practice. There is a special day in the Jewish liturgical calendar, known as Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. [2] During Yom Kippur, you can find the phrases lamb of God, died for our sins, and washed in the blood of the lamb in the religious rites. This idea is Jewish.

But over the centuries, Western Christians applied Yom Kippur symbols to Jesus. This led to the idea that you and I deserve to be punished for our sins. That’s why, some say, that God sent Jesus to take the punishment as the sacrificial lamb.

But Yom Kippur isn’t about this at all. Yom Kippur is about turning around and leaning towards the divine. It is about the human yearning to be one with God, in other words, to discover God’s love fully and honestly, so that this love can live inside you. The John community saw in Jesus a person who fully lived with love and offered love to all people. He was light. This Jesus gave them courage to love God and their neighbor.

This Jesus had shown them that to recognize God in yourself was to recognize your full humanity.

Look, I’ve always been inspired by John’s Gospel, but not because I think the stories are literal. I am inspired by John because Jesus of Nazareth stood with and up for the forgotten, the suffering, the prisoners, the hated, and the pushed down— all those our cultures push to the margins. This Jesus doesn’t make me feel guilty at all, actually, but Jesus’ story moves me to speak up for justice, to walk with someone when no one else will; to never stay silent about injustice, and to love people as they are, above all else.

I am also inspired by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

mlkjrI remember memorizing his speeches in junior high. I remember watching videos of the march and reading his writings from prison. Each year in this country, of course, students and others participate in service projects in observance of MLK day. That’s fine, I guess. But one day out of the year doesn’t tell the story that needs to be told. King’s life and work changed the lives of so many who were suffering horrific discrimination. Violence. Torture. Death. I cannot understand that myself. All I can do is remember something King once said:

But the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. The type of love that I stress here is not eros, a sort of esthetic or romantic love; not philia, a sort of reciprocal love between personal friends; but it is agape which is understanding goodwill for all. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return…this is the love that may well be the salvation of our civilization.[3]

Reconciliation is still needed badly in our world [an understatement, I know]. Beloved community is hard to find. An overflowing love that seeks nothing in return? This is rare! No, racism has not been eliminated. Yes, discrimination is alive and well–even if it takes different forms and is called by different names.

So all of us have work to do, and it will take a LOT longer than one weekend! You see, the legacy of MLK is so much more than famous quotes and speeches, service days, and book reports. His life is meant to inspire us to reconcile the broken relationships and communities in our lives. We ought to be inspired to allow our love to overflow out of our comfort zones and into the lives of people who are different than us. We ought  to build bridges of mutual understanding and trust and stand up against racism, prejudice, and oppression anywhere in the world.

And so it is with this Jesus, friends.

Why would it be any different?

Jesus’ life and work were and are so much more than quotable quotes, or names we attach to him, or church dogmas and doctrines. You see, everyone reads his story a bit differently and that’s okay. But the story of Jesus must move us to compassionate action and reconciling love, regardless of how we interpret the story.

So may the story of Jesus move you to treat everyone in your workplace with dignity, respect, and acceptance. If there is injustice, may the story move you to stand up even if it’s dangerous or unpopular.

At school, students may the story inspire you to never stay silent when a kid is being bullied, pushed down, or made fun of. May the story move you to love freely and to accept everyone as they are.

Don’t put up with racism or any kind of prejudice.
Don’t be silent when injustice is loud.
And in life, may the stories remind us of illuminating light, and of flowing waters of justice, and of beloved community, and of reconciling mercy and love.

And then, the story will not just be told, but it will be lived–again and again.

Amen.

 


[1] John Shelby Spong, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic.

[2] Spong, Jesus for the Non-Religious.

[3] The Role of the Church in Facing the Nation’s Chief Moral Dilemma,” 1957.

Aside

Still Speaking and Water Still Flowing

Matthew 3:13-17

funny-baby-catholic-baptismBaptism stories are always fun to tell because if you think about it, what is stranger, funnier, or more awkward than dressing up someone in white clothes, sprinkling water on his/her head and rubbing it into his/her hair while people stare? Or, if you come from another tradition, what is odder than dunking the person in a religious bathtub, a pond, or some body of water while people stare? Wearing white in this case is also awkward because that means whatever is underneath is of great importance.

Hmmm….do I go with the Steelers jersey underneath the white, see-through robe, or the Led Zeppelin t-shirt?
Whether someone is baptized as an infant or a child, as a teenager or as an adult…we have to admit that this ceremony is a bit weird.

So last Sunday I was asked to lead such a ceremony at a friend’s house. Mom and dad, two honest people, were just not sure what it was…a baptism, a dedication, a christening…what do these things mean and what we were actually going to do?

Really good questions, actually.

What are these things and what are we going to do?

50+ people were staring intently at this baby boy all dressed in white and screaming his eyelids out. He was red in the face; would he ever stop crying? Mom and dad tried to soothe him and so did the two godparents looking on. But he just wailed louder. I finally put the water on his head.

First time [Creator]: kid is still screaming.
Second time [Jesus]: tears rolling down like a waterfall.
Third time will be the charm, right? Spirit: he didn’t like it one bit.

Even his dad was like…geez, this kid is not content right now. So I said the blessing and a benediction—as fast as I could. Poor kid—he probably just wanted to eat; or sleep; or get the diaper changed. And here I was talking about him to all those people and asking his parents questions and then putting water on his head and oh, that white outfit just wasn’t a good look for him. I don’t blame him for crying. Man, these baptism/dedication/christening things are so weird.

I still think that the parent’s questions were right on.

What is this and what are we going to do?

heQiBaptismWhat is this Christian rite of baptism [just another way of saying tradition]? What is this so-called sacrament? There are a hundred different answers and it depends on your tradition. For the sake of time, let’s just say that a sacrament in general terms is a ceremony or ritual that has some sort of religious or spiritual significance. But some people take that much more seriously than others. I would argue, though, that most people take it just about as seriously as my two friends who had their kid screaming through the whole thing. They both wanted to do something to mark the occasion of the birth of their child. They wanted family and friends to be there and experience it. They wanted to celebrate and eat and drink.

But it was less about religious tradition and more about all that other stuff.

For the house was filled with Catholics, all kinds of Protestants, and plenty of agnostics/atheists and non-religious folks.

What is this?

What are we going to do?

The water ceremony—at least for me—is more about identity and community than anything else. I said this to the whole group gathered: it takes a whole village to raise a child. I asked them to agree to be part of that village. I asked mom and dad to agree to give freedom to their kid to explore spirituality and to ask questions. I asked the godparents be honest and to be mentors.

And I reminded everybody that this crying baby was….a baby. All of this won’t be remembered. He will have no recollection of the so-called sacrament. Even one day when he’s older and people show him pictures, he will still not directly connect to that experience.

So what was this?

It was, in all honesty, a moment for the adults—the friends and family—to embrace each other and their commitment to be the village that raises the kid.

And what will they do?

That question is yet to be answered. The kid, as he grows up, will answer with his own life. His family and friends will answer by how they accept and love him, mentor him, and teach him.

Fortunately for him, it’s quite possible that he will never again have some strange guy rub water on his head or say strange words while he’s crying.

You know, Jesus was baptized, too, but it was a lot different. It’s a story told by all 4 Gospels. Jesus wasn’t a baby, but an adult. And there was no ordained clergy to put water on his head in the name of the Trinity or whatever. Jesus’ baptism story must have been strange, because all 4 Gospels tell a very different version of the same event.

Kind of makes we wonder if this cartoon about Jesus’ famous sermon on the mount is right:
funny-pictures-auto-scumbag-jesus-469460Yep. The Gospels of the NT often tell very different versions of the same story. Why? In storytelling, the audience matters. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John’s Gospels were all written for and to different people. So each Gospel tells its own story so as to make sense to the hearers.

Matthew’s version includes a unique dialogue between John and Jesus. John is hesitant to baptize Jesus. “No, Jesus, I should be baptized by you—not the other way around.” It’s almost like a “you first, no you first” kind of kid’s game. Well, that happens until Jesus reassures John that it’s okay for John to be the baptizer. Jesus literally tells John: Release it. Let it go. All the ideas of hierarchical relationships—who should baptize, who should be baptized, religious rites, etc.—let it go. This is a clear attempt by Matthew to address some controversy in the early church. You see, some people were uncomfortable with Jesus being baptized by someone else. That would imply John in the role of priest and Jesus as underneath John. At least, that was their worldview.

But that’s not all. Many wondered: isn’t baptism supposed to be reserved for sinners? So how in the world could Jesus be baptized? Some people believed that Jesus was without sin. So to them, this makes no sense!

Matthew’s Gospel is of course making a point—or at least trying to. Unfortunately, many so-called religious people limit the waters of baptism to a chosen few—people they choose. But Jesus, in Matthew’s story, contradicts that. Water [and baptism] is for everyone. It’s for all who are not perfect.

And that’s everyone.

Jesus is on the same level as us; he is immersed in water just like anybody else; he identifies as real person. The heavens open, but not to prove some sort of religious doctrine or to fit into church hierarchy.

The heavens open to mark the occasion as important, for sure. Pay attention, world. God doesn’t show favoritism. God is pleased because God desires for humans to understand identity. God is not some cold, non-empathetic deity equipped with rotating, exploding judgment lightning bolts, although that might be a cool anime movie.
GodInstead, God understands suffering, and crying, and doubt, and fear, and love, and curiosity, and confusion, and humanity…as it is.

People have tried for so long [and still try] to say that God only loves some people and only cares about my people and not them; and people still say this person who is gay or lesbian or Arab or from another land or speaking a different language or someone who is just plain different is outside of grace and mercy.

What is this?

What are we going to do?

Here’s the thing—if someone is never baptized formally in a church or even in a house—this is not really important.

Now some people will NOT like this on FB or repost this, for sure. But questions are much more important than the ceremony.

And how we treat people is way more important than baptism.

So what is this water?

stillwaterWater itself is a flowing, renewing, refreshing source of life for all living things—including us. When babies are well, babies—they are almost ALL water [75-78%]. That’s why they are so squishy. Water is part of our physical makeup. The rest of us are 50-60% water. We need it in order to survive. When the heavens open, so to speak, water comes down in the form of rain or snow.

So if you need to, forget the word baptism. Forget the word sacrament.

But remember to notice water.

Water is a sign of life. And water is provided for the whole planet.

Water should be available to everybody in the world.

The fact that some people in our world do not have access to water is a sign of our degrading humanity and our need to change. Water itself is essential—not to be a symbol for religions to argue about—but as a physical source of life.

And focus on identity. Because the second question of what will we do is one we must ask every day of our lives. It doesn’t matter if you’re an infant, a kid, a youth, or an adult. I think that God still speaks to anyone and everyone. Yes, we all talk about that differently and that’s fine. But I do think that God is still communicating with us. And I do think that God is pleased with people as they are. There is no hierarchy in humanity. We have created this lie ourselves. No one is more important than another, no one loved more or blessed more. We don’t have to wear white outfits or jump through religious hoops for God to love and accept us.

God is pleased with how you are you.

If you have ever been made to feel or have ever been told that the waters of healing, compassion, and purpose aren’t meant for you, then let the water wash over you. Put those harmful words aside. Let them go. Anyone who excludes certain people is just trying to control the water.

But the water is strong and free to flow and move as it will.

Just as God’s love is free to flow and move as it will.

I was at a Bat Mitzvah yesterday, and the girl chose this poem to be read in her rite of passage ceremony. It is a beautiful way to finish this.

200px-Lucille_cliftonLucille Clifton’s poem, blessing the boats:

 May the tide that is entering
Even now the lip of our understanding
Carry you out beyond the face of fear
May you kiss the wind then turn from it certain
That it will love your back
May you open your eyes to water
Water waving forever
And may you in your innocence sail through this to that

Water you can notice every day. It pours from the sky and comes up from the ground. It is not limited to a sacrament or a building or a church. Water is the still speaking, still flowing creator at work. And so be baptized, sprinkled, immersed, washed, refreshed and renewed by it every day. And be inspired to love, to show compassion to others…and be inspired to forgive. Because we are all filled with and surrounded by water….all of us. May the rivers carry us on our journey and lead us to live with love. May the still speaking and flowing water move through us and be shared with all creation.

 

Light Anytime, Anywhere…in Anybody!

Matthew 2:1-12
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men[a] from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising,[b] and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah[c] was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd[d] my people Israel.’”

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men[e] and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising,[f] until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped,[g] they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Footnotes:

  1. Matthew 2:1 Or astrologers; Gk magi
  2. Matthew 2:2 Or in the East
  3. Matthew 2:4 Or the Christ
  4. Matthew 2:6 Or rule
  5. Matthew 2:7 Or astrologers; Gk magi
  6. Matthew 2:9 Or in the East
  7. Matthew 2:10 Gk saw the star

You just heard a Pale Blue Dot, narrated by Carl Sagan.

The Pale Blue Dot is a photograph of planet Earth taken in 1990 by the Voyager 1 spaceprobe from approximately 6 billion kilometers (3.7 billion miles) from Earth.
Pale_Blue_DotIn the picture [shown here], Earth is shown as a fraction of a pixel (0.12 pixel in size) against the vastness of space. It’s hard to see. Look at the line on the right, a little more than halfway down. You should barely notice the little dot. Here’s the story behind the picture: the Voyager 1 spacecraft, already done with its primary mission and leaving the Solar System, was commanded by NASA to turn its camera around and take a photograph of Earth across a great expanse of space, at Sagan’s request. Carl Sagan was an American astronomer, astrophysicist, cosmologist, author, and science communicator in astronomy and natural sciences. He spent most of his career as a professor of astronomy at Cornell University where he directed the Laboratory for Planetary Studies.

Sagan used this photo for the title of his 1994 book, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space.[1] Some quotes from the book:

A point of pale light. Our planet, a lonely speck in the great, enveloping cosmic dark.
To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish…our big, blue dot. The only home we’ve ever known.

Monday, January 6th is Epiphany, a word in the Koine Greek [ἐπιφάνεια or epiphaneia], that means “manifestation” or “appearance.” In classical Greek it was used to refer to the appearance of the sun rising at dawn, or a manifestation of a deity [a god] to a person. On Monday, January 6th, in most places around the world, various Christians [or those culturally Christian] celebrate. Why? Because Epiphany is a festival about remembering the appearance and manifestation of light in the world, the belief that God has made an appearance to that pale, blue dot.

At this time of year Christians tell the same story.

Appropriately, the story includes some Carl Sagans–some astronomers–people who studied the stars: the Magi.

The short story of these star-gazing astronomers appears only in the Gospel of Matthew. But regardless, throughout the centuries, we have come up with our own twists to the story like the Little Drummer Boy, the Star of Bethlehem, names like Melchior, Balthazar, and Gaspar; camels, the Magi’s specific nationalities or cultural backgrounds; and even a delicious, crown-shaped sweet bread called rosca in Mexico and roscon in Spain or king’s bread in places like New Orleans. Of course, when most Westerners think of the Magi, they see images like this:

736px-Botticelli_085ASandro Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi, 1475.

Or this painting…
witnessing-divine-01Andrea Mantegna’s Adoration of the Magi, 1500.

But what is the real story?

Maybe it’s easier to explore what the story doesn’t say.

First of all, Matthew’s Gospel doesn’t say that there were three Magi. This became a legend because of the three gifts, of course. But even old wall paintings in the Roman catacomb of Domitilla show four magi; another only two. An ancient Syrian document actually names twelve Magi.[2]

And recently, a lost Syriac manuscript called the Revelation of the Magi, was recently found and translated into English by Bible scholar Brent Landau. The manuscript, housed in the Vatican archives, was found in Turkey and written on animal skin. Mr. Landau believes its earlier versions to possibly be the mid-2nd century. That would be less than a hundred years after Matthew’s gospel was written. The Revelation of the Magi narrates the mystical origins of the magi [but does not mention three of them and does not even say that they brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Second, where were the Magi from? We don’t know, and neither did early followers of Jesus. Many said Persia [now Iran]; others said Babylonia or Arabia. In the work I just mentioned, the Revelation of the Magi, they come from Shir, called the eastern edge of the world, maybe China?

But what about the star of Bethlehem? Some thought the star was an angel or a ghost. Others think it was a comet or a supernova. Still others thought the star was the actual appearance of God. And yes, sports fans, there is no actual written evidence of such a star at such a time and in such a place.

And finally, when did the Magi supposedly get to Bethlehem? Let’s take a guess, because lots of others do. If we base it on King Herod’s question to the Magi [when will the star appear?] and then we consider Herod’s command to kill all male infants under the age of two, perhaps it took the Magi 2 years to get to Jesus? But others insist it only took them 12 days, because after all, that makes the song “12 Days of Christmas” much more relevant, don’t you think?

Okay, so obviously, we don’t know much about the Magi or the story, for that matter.

So why does it matter?

Well, it only matters if the story inspires us to hear the message and if the story moves us to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another on this pale, blue dot we call Earth.  

You see, the Magi, in Matthew’s story, are not moved by great rulers or wealth or prophecy or political or religious agendas so much as by the light they see and follow. They just knew the stars, they followed the light, and they were open to a new journey and discovery—even when they needed to take another road home. No, they weren’t kings or rulers or wealthy merchants. No, they do not foretell the death of Jesus on the cross. And no, they do not nor should not inspire gift-giving and buying during Christmas and Epiphany. In fact, the other character in the story, Herod, should be on our minds just as much as the Magi are.

Herod, as opposed to the Magi, saw the light of a star and the path to Bethlehem as a threat, a great fear, and also an opportunity to destroy, manipulate, and control. Have we become Herods, too? Sadly, we’ve twisted this story. It is not so much about noticing light in creation, in ourselves or in other people–but more about the presents, and the status, and the religious importance.

But the Magi story shouldn’t make us feel more important. It shouldn’t inspire us to buy presents either.

The story is about light for in everyone and for everyone. The Magi saw it in the sky. Then they saw light in the world. Then others did, too. And then when Jesus, a light himself, grew up, he told others that light was in them and that light was in everybody. He taught that little children were just as full of light as wise, old priests or kings. Jesus lifted up the light and voices of those who society said were worthless and light-less. And this Jesus encouraged people to go home on a different path, an alternative path. Not the path of destruction, or control, or manipulation, or violence, or fear.

A path led by light.

Here you and I are on this pale, blue dot of a planet. We are responsible for this light speck—its animals, trees, plants…and its people. On our journey we will encounter all sorts of characters.
Will we force names upon them?
Will we try to tell them who they are and what they should do and where they should go?
Will we count them and categorize them?
Will we manipulate and seek to control the living things on the Earth?

Or, will we let them be the lights they are?

Will we realize that in the vastness of the earth and sky, sun and moon, waters, and deserts, we are all very small?

Every day there is an appearance, a manifestation of light—if we care to notice.

This light is in the sky, the creatures around us, in you; and in me; and in others. But the light won’t be controlled or put in a box or shaped to fit your worldview. It will just be light.

What will you do with that light?
Who will you love?
Who will you help?
Who will you walk with on their path?

Friends, we all live on a point of pale light. We walk on a lonely speck in the great, enveloping cosmic dark. So accept the opportunity and the responsibility to be compassionate and kind with all who call this dot home.

Then the story will matter.

Amen.


[1] ^ Sagan, Carl (1994). Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (1st ed.). New York: Random House.

[2] Chronicle of Zuqnin, Syrian. Pseudo John Chrysostom, Opus Imperfectum in Matthaeum, Homily 2.2 (Patrologia Graeca 56:637–638.

The Same Love

Matthew 1:18-25, NRSV
18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah[a] took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,”

which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son;[b] and he named him Jesus.

Footnotes:         a. Matthew 1:18 Or Jesus Christ       b. Matthew 1:25 Other ancient authorities read her firstborn son

That was an older episode of Saturday Night Live with Will Farrell, Chris Kattan, and Tom Hanks. Of course, they were dancing to that infectious tune from the 90’s, Haddaway’s song What is Love?

Indeed!

What is love?

And baby, don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, no more!

Some say that the question what is love is the most searched-for phrase on the internet. Perhaps that’s an exaggeration. Maybe top 10, though. Throughout humanity’s existence, hoards of people have tried to answer this question. Today we are no different, of course. There are many who are trying to define what love is and sadly, along the way, they are defining, according to their worldview, what love is not.

Look, I am just as tired as you are of the bombardment of negative messages and heavy rhetoric out there. There are a lot of hateful things said and done to many people just because of the color of their skin, their sexual preference or orientation, their religious beliefs or lack thereof, or their cultural heritage. Let’s be frank—it is happening.

A lack of love.

Rev. Frank Shaefer, a United Methodist pastor in Central PA, was just defrocked recently. That means the United Methodist Church took away his ability to be an ordained minister. Schaefer has led a congregation in Lebanon, PA for more than 10 years. Earlier this year, a church member filed a complaint because Schaefer performed the 2007 wedding of his gay son in Massachusetts, where same-sex unions are legal. According to the Methodist Board of Ordained Ministry, this violates religious doctrine. This in spite of Rev. Shaefer’s plea that he performed the ceremony as simply as an “act of love.” On the same day that he was defrocked, members of the Board came to Frank and hugged him or shook his hand, saying: We really don’t want to do this, you know that, don’t you?

Also, following the recent memorial service for Nelson Mandela in South Africa, there were a number of inexplicable things said. For example, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a Tea Party Republican, attended Mandela’s funeral. He also posted on his Facebook page:

Nelson Mandela will live in history as an inspiration for defenders of liberty around the globe. He stood firm for decades on the principle that until all South Africans enjoyed equal liberties he would not leave prison himself, declaring in his autobiography, ‘Freedom is indivisible; the chains on any one of my people were the chains on all of them, the chains on all of my people were the chains on me.’ Because of his epic fight against injustice, an entire nation is now free.

Amazingly, Cruz’s condolences and his attendance at Mandela’s funeral were met with incredible backlash and highly-charged, negative comments about how Mandela was a terrorist and not deserving of Cruz’s support.
Sadly, many who commented claimed to be Christians.

And then, we have been bombarded with news and comments about a famous reality TV show personality on a Duck Dynasty, program I do not watch. He made some hateful comments about gay and lesbian people and also said some racist things publicly in GQ magazine. Then a subsequent sermon he preached in PA with similar rhetoric has surfaced, too. The saddest part of all this is that after he was suspended from his TV job [only for a bit], a number of people claiming to be Christians have rushed to his side and have expressed their overwhelming support for him, in spite of his hateful comments.

What is going on here? Did I miss something? What happened to…

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love?

I don’t mean to belabor the point, but during a season in which we promote love incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ, where is the love of Christians?

Don’t worry…this won’t end in a rant, because then…nothing good happens. But we do have a responsibility, I think, to address the hate and to combat it with love. Being silent about all this is not the way to show love.

After all, if I were to answer the question what is love I would most certainly tell you various stories about people in my life who showed me mercy when I didn’t ask for it or who made peace with someone they used to dislike or who accepted someone unconditionally—in spite of differences and even when it was unpopular to do so.

What is love? It is when people act compassionately and truly empathize with others.

That is where I would like to go as we look at the misunderstood story about the birth of Jesus of Nazareth—a story as I have said before—that only appears in Matthew and Luke, and in just a couple paragraphs and no more. As always, I invite you to come to your own conclusion about these stories in scripture. Listen to some interpretation and study and then ask your own questions.

Some context about Mary and Joseph. When two people got “engaged” in their era it was considered to be marriage, though the couple would not yet live together. Engagements lasted as long as it took for the male’s family to come up with a dowry [money, animals, land, etc.] for the female’s family. Also, the male was supposed to come up with some sort of living arrangement. Engagement did not include a trip to buy a ring at Jerod or Helgsburg Diamonds, and then a period of planning for a wedding that could be broken off by the couple at any time without any legal hassle. No, for Mary and Joseph, things were much different. The first step of betrothal was a marriage contract. Family usually made the arrangements. This betrothal could only be broken by divorce, in essence, nullifying the contract.

The second step would include a marriage feast, and the couple would then start their life together in a commonly-shared home.

So…Mary and Joseph had the marriage contract sealed, and amidst the financial and social preparations, Mary gets pregnant.

Oops.

According to Matthew’s story, Joseph had no part of it. This was not his kid.

Double oops.

Matthew describes Joseph as a righteous man—a good dude. So here are the good dude’s two options: public stoning or divorce.
Uh, what?

Joseph dismissed Mary quietly [not subjecting her to public disgrace], meaning that he was breaking the marriage contract. Doesn’t this sound like Joseph was avoiding the more difficult but more merciful choice of staying with Mary?
To me it does.

But Joseph, even if he wanted to stay with Mary, had no choice to do that by law. In fact, if he did not break the marriage contract, Mary would mostly likely stand trial publicly and that would not end well.
Now I don’t like either one of these scenarios. I just wish Joseph would have stood up against the law and stood with Mary.

But then, Joseph had a dream—an angel visited him and reassured him that he did not have to break the marriage contract. This angelic message seemed to comfort Joseph’s fears and he did finally decide to stay with Mary.
Now, what should they name the kid? Yehoshuah [Hebrew], Joshua [English]. But since the NT is written in Greek—the kid is also called Jesous, Jesus [English]. This name means “Yahweh is salvation” or “Yahweh saves.”

The Gospel of Matthew is conveniently connecting all this to Hebrew [OT] prophecy. Matthew quotes part of Isaiah 7:14, albeit the Greek version. Why do I mention that? Oh, because there is that little, polarizing word virgin in there. This word virgin in Greek is parthenos. But the actual Hebrew word in Isaiah’s original text is ‘almah which simply means a young woman.

I told you I would leave you to work out your own thoughts about this, so I won’t dwell here too long. My worldview tells me, after studying these texts, that the Isaiah prophecy has nothing to do with the New Testament story. So is Matthew’s Gospel trying to trick us by connecting current events to very old prophecies? Let’s try to empathize with Matthew’s worldview.

Matthew’s community was made up of people who were waiting for help. In the 1st and 2nd century, people were trying to make sense of what Jesus of Nazareth had taught and lived. People were unsure. So Matthew’s connection to the old prophecies was an encouragement to people that God had not given up on humanity.

Isaiah 7:14, Matthew knew, was about King Ahaz of Judah. It was around 735-732 B.C.E. Syria and Israel were attacking the land of Judah. Isaiah speaks words of encouragement to King Ahaz and to Judah’s people, saying that God will give the king a sign. A baby will be born and before this kid is a teenager, Jerusalem will no longer be torn apart by war.

This ancient promise is seen by Matthew as a present-day promise.

Isaiah thought that Immanuel, God with us, would come in the future; peace and fulfillment would follow. Matthew thought that this Jesus of Nazareth was with the people like an Immanuel, and wanted to bring peace and fulfillment, like Isaiah said, but not just to Judah. Jesus’ message and life, according to Matthew, was for all people.

Both Isaiah and Matthew were talking about the idea of incarnation—that God could be present [incarnate] in the world. The message, though told in different ways across many centuries, is the same:

God is with us.

As this idea developed, God with us became real in the life of Jesus of Nazareth and in all those who shared love and mercy with others.

What is love? God. What is God? Love.
What does God incarnate mean? God is in us.
So love is in us.

Okay, I get it–the story of Jesus’ birth is very ambiguous and a bit confusing. I have many more questions than answers. But that’s okay, because Jesus actually grew up and the Gospels say a lot more about that. Yehoshuah personified love, acted compassionately and also said that we could and should too. If we look at the grown-up Jesus, what is love is an ongoing question with many active answers.

Love speaks out for justice. Love does not withhold itself when it doesn’t get what it wants. Love is not conditional, but unconditional. Love cares about what happens to people all around the world because love knows that we are all interconnected.

Love is naturally compassionate and empathetic.

Love knows that someone else is also you.

I have to share this song with you. Have you heard Same Love, written and performed by Macklemore, Ryan Lewis, and Mary Lambert? Hear it now:

Macklemore raps:
Playing God, aw nah here we go
America the brave still fears what we don’t know
And God loves all his children, is somehow forgotten
But we paraphrase a book written thirty-five-hundred years ago
I don’t know

When I was at church they taught me something else
If you preach hate at the service those words aren’t anointed
That holy water that you soak in has been poisoned
When everyone else is more comfortable remaining voiceless
Rather than fighting for humans that have had their rights stolen

Whatever God you believe in
We come from the same one
Strip away the fear
Underneath it’s all the same love
About time that we raised up

Love is patient
Love is kind
(not crying on Sundays)

Yes, I agree. It’s about time that we raised up…in love. Jesus did.

But we ought to love people with the same love.
It doesn’t matter if they are gay, lesbian, bi, transgender; black, white, yellow, red, green; religious or not; materially wealthy or materially poor; it doesn’t matter if they are family or not, or if they claim a different culture, nationality, or worldview. It’s the SAME Love that we extend, because that is what love is. Love is NOT conditional; love is free of categories and names and circumstances. Love is the opposite of fear. Love is the great bridge-builder and the patient and kind healer.

So this season and every season of your lives, love people with the SAME LOVE. May that same love [incarnate] live in you.

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