Sunday, January 7, 2018

Sermon for Baptism of Our Lord

Acts 19:1-7/Mark 1:4-11

“Life Survival Kit”

            All of the reports of the cold weather all over the country are bringing me back to my days as a pastor in rural South Dakota – and the Sunday morning one winter day that one of my parish members handed me a box. 
            It was a gift, she said, and this particular gift was useful – it was a winter survival kit.  I’m from the Midwest, you know, but I had never had a winter survival kit. 
            So I looked inside to see what was in it.
            The box had a flashlight, candles, a bar of Hershey chocolate, matches, a coffee can, and a roll of toilet paper.  I thought it was very interesting.  I put it in the trunk of my car. 
            Truthfully, I did not now what any of it was for, or how it might help me if I was stranded on the road on a winter day. 

            For the next few years that winter survival kit stayed in the trunk of my car.  I never used it. 
            I didn’t know what it was for.  Well, that’s not exactly true.  I had a couple of ideas. 
            I had for example, an idea about the chocolate bar, and I was pretty sure about what the matches were for.  I also thought I knew what the toilet paper was for – but I was wrong….. 
            What I didn’t know was that I really had everything I needed in that box, everything I needed to survive in a blizzard.
             But I didn’t know how to use it.

            Everything I needed – maybe we don’t think of it this way, but when we are baptized we receive everything we need for the life of faith.  We receive the Holy Spirit.   
            It goes all the way back to John the Baptist in the wilderness.
             He was pretty clear when he was baptizing people…. “I have baptized you with water… but the one who is coming after me?  HE will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  
            Not that the water is unimportant – but there is something more going on when we are baptized – the point is the water AND the Spirit.     And, you may not remember it, but when we are baptized, no matter what age that is – whether we are 2 months or 2 years or 20 or 80 – when we are baptized – we also receive the Holy Spirit.
            “Pour out your Holy Spirit on Tori  -- or Dennis – or Henry – or Yvonne --we pray….  The spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in your presence…”  
            Everything we need.   For the life of faith.

            That is what we get when we receive the Holy Spirit.  And we receive the Holy Spirit when we are baptized.  
             That’s the way it is supposed to be. 
            That’s behind this story from Acts 19 that we read today.  Paul comes across some believers and asks them if they received the Holy Spirit when they believed. 
            And they said – they haven’t even heard of the Holy Spirit.  They had only received John’s baptism. 
            So he baptizes them and they do receive the Holy Spirit.  And they receive gifts – strange gifts it might seem to us, but gifts. 
            Everything they need for the life of faith. 

            I can’t help thinking though that even though we have heard of the Holy Spirit,
             that the Spirit’s gifts to us are sort of like that “Winter Survival Kit” I received – they are sitting in the equivalent in the trunks of our cars. 
            Because maybe we don’t have any idea what they are for.  How does the Holy Spirit help us in the life of faith? 
             What do we receive and how do we use it?  Maybe we should ask.  Maybe we should be curious, and take a look and….

            Wait a minute… what do I have here?  There’s a box here, and it says, “Life survival kit.”  Do you think I should open it?   Let’s see what is inside.

            1.  The first thing I’m seeing is a slingshot. 
            You know what this slingshot reminds me of?  It reminds me of that story in the old Testament about David and Goliath. 
            And how Goliath was someone to be afraid of, a bully, and how David was young, and everyone thought it was foolish of him to stand up to the giant, but he did. 
            And all he had was this slingshot.  He didn’t have a sword, and he didn’t have any TNT and he didn’t have any nuclear weapons. 
            All he had was a slingshot.  But that’s what the strength of God is like. 
            We’re promised the might of God, but it’s not like the might of the world.
             We’re not promised that God will make us into giants, but that God will give us what we need.   A different kind of strength.
              Remember also that David used the slingshot against Goliath, but he also used it to protect the sheep. 
            The strength we get from God is to help those who need protection – the poor and the vulnerable and the weak.

            2.  What’s this?  Here are some ear buds.
            One of the things that the Holy Spirit helps us do is hear God’s voice. 
            There are a lot of voices in the world, and not all of them belong to God. 
            Some of them are telling us to be afraid, and some of us are telling us to be selfish and some of us are telling us that God is not around. 
            But the Holy Spirit helps us to hear and recognize God’s voice, God’s word, in the Scripture, and in our lives. 
            The Holy Spirit helps us to hear that God is with us, and helps us to know what God wants us to do and who wants us to be in the world right now. 
            Sometimes God shouts and sometimes God whispers, but God is always speaking to us….

            3.  Here’s something else  (big glasses!)  The Holy Spirit gives us a way to see what God is doing in the world – that God really is active in the world.  And in our lives.
             Sometimes the Holy Spirit helps us know where to look – because it’s not often we see what God is doing when we look in the obvious places – the places where the powerful people are – and where important things happen
            – but God is working in small ways and through ordinary people and we need these new eyes to see it.  Through us! 
            Through family Promise!  Through the pre-school – and the children –

            4.  And here’s something else we receive (a microphone).  This reminds me that one of the things that God gives us is a voice. 
            God wants us to speak up. 
            And that can be scary.  But God gives us a voice and will give us courage when we need it – to speak up –
             to speak up with words of love for our enemies – to speak up with words of mercy for those who are down
            – to speak up for words of truth for the powerful –   oh, and I see that there are some bandaids here too
            – because it’s not just about words, right?  But actions are important too…

            5.  There’s one more thing in here – and it’s a passport.  Huh. 
            It has my name on it.  I can carry it with me anywhere, so that if anyone asks me who I am – I can tell them that I am a child of God.           When Jesus was baptized, that’s what the Holy Spirit told him, and that’s the most important thing – because there were plenty of people who did not believe him. 
            But he kept on his mission:  loving people and forgiving people and healing people – anyway. 
            And that is so important for us as well – to remember who we are.  To remember our mission. 
            Because there will be plenty of people who will encourage us to doubt it. 
            And there will be times when we will doubt it, because of things that happen to us. 
            Martin Luther said that when he felt beset by adversity, he would say to himself, ‘I am baptized!”  A passport reminding us of who we are – and what our mission is. 

            The Holy Spirit.  Everything we need. 
            For the life of faith. 
            Everything we need to – not to survive – but to live.  Wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, fear of the Lord,  joy in your presence.  Joy. 




Saturday, January 6, 2018

Saturday Night Stream of Conscious

It's Saturday night.  Sermon is about ready for preaching.  I've been looking up verses for a Bible study which begins tomorrow.  Actually, it's not so much a Bible study as it is a Study of the Christian Faith.  We will be studying theology.  So I've been thinking about theology this evening, both the basics that I've learned, and the experiences and questions that I've had.   I've got the movie "2001: a Space Odyssey" on in the background.

May I say it?  I have never understood this movie.  I don't remember seeing in the theatre because I was only about 9 or 10 years old when it came out.  But I remember my dad and my uncle having a conversation about the movie, and what they thought it meant.  It was a theological conversation, that's all I remember.  They were talking about things that were beyond me, but I was curious.

My uncle died just after Christmas, so he's been on my mind.  I've got "2001" on in the background, and I'm still not sure what it means, and I'm thinking about my uncle, and theology.  It's that part at the end of the movie, where the old man becomes a baby, that I think my uncle and my dad were talking about.

It's funny what you remember, on a Saturday night

My uncle was one of the forming influences on my life.  I thought he was a smart adult, and I always got the impression that he thought I was smart too, and that made a difference.  He was interested in a lot of things, and one of those things was theology.  He talked about Bonhoeffer, Niebuhr, Barth.  He knew about the historical critical reading of the Bible.  He was passionate about grace, I think because he knew he needed it.

So, tomorrow I'll be starting this study of Theology.  A lot of people think that theology is boring.  I think theology has to do with everything in life.  So if you do it right, it can't be boring.  Ordinary life and extra-ordinary life,  questions and certainties, whoops and joy and sobs of sorrow, everything goes into the theological mix.

I couldn't go to my uncle's funeral this week.  I have been thinking about that too.

Tomorrow morning, when we introduce the study of theology, perhaps the music of the movie "2001" will be playing in the background of my mind.  And maybe the music of my uncle's life.

And then we'll go to worship, and we'll remember the baptism of Jesus, and dip our fingers in the water, and remember our own baptism too.  We'll dip our fingers in the water and maybe we'll remember the other times we dipped our fingers in the water, or how we never learned to swim, or how we were scared of the water or how we loved the feeling of it.  We'll dip our fingers in the water and wonder what it means to be children of God.

Tonight I'm thinking about my uncle, and theology, and "2001" and the water.  And theology.

It's funny what you think about, on a Saturday night.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The Twelve Books of Christmas, January 3

For the 10th Day of Christmas, I have chosen one of my favorite Christmas stories:  "Christmas Moccasins" written and illustrated by Ray Buckley.  It is a Christmas story in that the gift given is on Christmas Eve.  but it is also a story of being wronged and forgiving; it is a story of extravagance; it is a story of our baptismal vocation, and how difficult and necessary it is.

It is also a story told from a Native American perspective.  The grandmother in the story is both steeped in the Christian faith, and also in the traditions of her community.  The story speaks about the particular way the grandmother prays, and also the value of the beautiful beaded moccasins she makes.

The story begins one winter as the grandmother and the boy are beat up by two teenagers as they walk in the woods.  The youths steal their coats and grandmother's moccasins.  The grandmother lost two toes to frostbite, walking home.

What will be their response?  What will they do?

This book is a Christmas book, but it's about more than Christmas.  It is about how faith can inhabit our whole lives, from one degree of glory to another.

The illustrations are also as gorgeous as the story.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The Twelve Books of Christmas, January 2

I thought for a long time before deciding on the book for today.  It is not a picture book, but a compilation of short stories for children, called "A Newbery Christmas."
 The stories in this book are by Newbery award winning authors like Madeline L'Engle, Lois Lenski, Katherine Paterson (my favorite), Eleanor Estes, and Rachel field.  Some are excerpts from longer books, such as Eleanor Estes book, "The Hundred Dresses", a story about a little Polish girl who is poor and made fun of and claims she has one hundred dresses in her closet.  It is a story not entirely about Christmas -- but it is a story about gifts in all of their varieties.

I first encountered Elizabeth Yates' lovely story, "Once in the Year" in this book, and then I found the original version.  Katherine Paterson has a story from one of her two (now out of print) books of Christmas stories.  Ms. Paterson originally wrote these stories for her husband, a Presbyterian minister, to read on Christmas eve.  The story in this collection is "Woodrow Kennington Works Practically a Miracle", about a boy having trouble with his little sister on Christmas Eve, and how exasperated he gets, and how mean he is to her, and how he breaks the TV set, and fixes it again and, well... I guess you just have to read it so see how Woodrow practically works a miracle on Christmas eve.

A Newbery Christmas is out of print, and it's a pity.  But the book is still available if you have a mind to look for it.  There are plenty of stories, and authors, to discover.  It is a book to read and savor over many days of Christmas, and many Christmases.

Some of the stories are overtly religious, (Paterson's) and some evoke memories of Santa and family celebrations.  Some bring us back to Christmases past.

P.S. this book does not have illustrations.

Monday, January 1, 2018

The Twelve Books of Christmas, January 1

For this 8th day of Christmas, I recommend a very simple Christmas book:  "The Nativity", with pictures by Julie Vivas.  It is simple because the text is the Christmas story from Luke.  It is unusual because the pictures are so bright and whimsical.  We don't often associate the word "Christmas" with "whimsy."  There is also a sort of ordinary-ness to the pictures.  The shepherds look unkempt.  The baby looks joyful, full of surprise at being born.  Mary and Joseph look like peasants, wearing ragged clothes.  There is a wonderful series of pictures near the beginning of Joseph trying to lift a very pregnant Mary onto a donkey.

Bethlehem looks over-crowded.  The shepherds who peer over the baby's crib look filled with wonder.

I can well imagine that some would prefer a more dignified and obviously reverent book about the nativity.  There is a place for the books where Mary and Joseph and Jesus are all wearing haloes, reminding us of their holiness.  But this book reminds us of their humanity.  Their ordinariness.

This is New Year's Day, as well as the 8th Day of Christmas.  This book invites me to see the grace of God in unexpected ways and unexpected places -- and unexpected people -- in the new year.

Today the year is new-born, filled with wonder and possibility.  Today look again into the eyes of the new-born Jesus, and be born into his life.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Twelve Books of Christmas, December 31

On this 7th day of Christmas, I'm recommending a book called "The Miracle of Saint Nicholas" by Gloria Whelan, and illustrated by Judith Brown.  It is a story that takes place in post-Soviet Russia at Christmas-time.  A little boy named Alexi walks past the Church of St. Nicholas in in small village of Zeema.  He asks his babushka about the church, and she tells him stories about what Christmas was like when she was a little girl, before the soldiers came and closed the church.  Alexi has many questions for his babushka, including "What is an icon?"  "Why is the church closed?"  "Why can't we have Christmas in our church again?"

Babushka told Alexi that the church has been empty for 60 years.   The church has an empty altar now.  There is no cross, there are no candles, no bread and wine, no icon of St. Nicholas -- and no priest.  There were mice living in the church.  "It would take a miracle to open our church", she said.

But Alexi dreamed of Christmas at St. Nicholas.  And he worked hard to make it possible.  He swept and he cleaned and he made the church ready just in case the people would come, and just in case there could be worship on Christmas.

I will let you read the rest of the story yourself.  Gloria Wheelman's prose is evocative and poetic.  Judith Brown's detailed pastel illustrations help us enter the Orthodox culture of Russia.  This picture book is accessible to small children in its basic story, but its depth makes it compelling to readers of all ages.

I love to find books to give another's culture's experiences of the meaning of Christmas.  This book helps me understand the depth of the incarnation, in a country where faith was suppressed for a time, but did not ever die.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Twelve Books of Christmas, December 30

Today is the 6th Day of Christmas.  Today's Christmas book is one that just came out this year.  It is called "Nativity", by Cynthia Rylant.  I saw it in an airport bookstore, and resisted temptation, but then decided that I just had to have it.

There are Christmas books that are unusual because they tell more of the Christmas story than you expect.  For example, I have an old book illustrated by Maud and Miska Petersham, called "The Christ Child."  This book tells the Christmas story but it does not end when I think:  the book continues with the flight into Egypt and return afterwards.  These episodes are not usually featured in a Christmas book.  Usually you just get the manger and the baby, the shepherds and angels, and perhaps the wise men.

Nativity is unusual because of what it includes as well as what it leaves out.  The story is elliptical.  It begins, not with the manger, but with the shepherds and the angels who hear the good news, and come to visit the baby.  And after telling this portion of the Christmas story, Rylant shifts to one scene from Jesus' adult ministry:  portions of the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount.

"Blessed are the poor," Jesus says, "for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
"Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth."
"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted."
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God."

That's all.  Just those two scenes from Jesus' life.

The humble birth -- and the one who preaches humility.
The meekness and poverty of the nativity  -- and the meek shall inherit the earth.

And as for being pure in heart -- have we, like the shepherds, been to the manger, and seen the baby?

Have we seen God?

Like I said, it is a very unusual Christmas book.