Sermon: The Heavens Torn Apart

Sunday 11 January 2015
Baptism of the Lord Sunday

Mark 1:4-11 — Acts 19:1-7

The Gospel of Mark is the earliest gospel written, the very first narrative written of the life of Jesus the Christ. And what is the very first event that Mark records about Jesus’s life? It’s not his birth. There are no angels or shepherds or wise men. No, the very first thing that happens in Mark’s gospel is Jesus’ baptism by John. Jesus comes down from Nazareth, we don’t know why. He comes out to the wilderness where that crazy preacher has been dipping people in the river, telling everyone about someone more powerful who is coming soon. And Jesus gets in line with everyone else, wades out into the water, and is plunged under by John, to emerge a few seconds later.

When he does, something amazing happens. Jesus has a vision. The technical term that we use is theophany; it’s a revelation, an appearance of God. As Jesus comes out of the water, he looks up, and he can see the heavens being torn apart, being drawn back like a curtain to reveal the divine realm. Then he sees a vision of a dove coming down out of heaven, and it lands on him. Just then, Jesus hears a voice coming from heaven, telling him, “You are my son, the beloved, and I am pleased with you.”  According to Mark, no one else sees anything, no one else hears anything. Just Jesus.  He has a mystical experience that is directly triggered by being baptized.

A generation later Paul comes across some believers in Ephesus who have been baptized either by John or by one of John’s disciples, but they had not received the Holy Spirit. In fact, they had never even heard of the Spirit. Paul takes this as an occasion to baptize them again, and they have mystical experiences in which they begin to speak in tongues and prophesy.

So what does that say about baptism? What is the purpose of baptism? How do we know whether a particular baptism is valid or not? What changes after someone has been baptized? And what is the connection between baptism and the coming of the Holy Spirit?

Jesus was baptized by John. Some of Jesus’s disciples had probably been baptized by John as well, but as far as we know from Mark, none of the twelve apostles were.  And Jesus never baptized anyone. Matthew tells us, though, that Jesus commanded the disciples to baptize new believers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

So what was it about the baptism of those disciples in Ephesus that didn’t seem quite right to Paul? They had apparently been baptized in the same way that Jesus had been baptized. But they hadn’t had an experience of the Holy Spirit like Jesus did when he was baptized. Is that what made the difference? And if that’s the case, what does that say about us? I’m guessing there aren’t very many of us who heard a voice from heaven or started speaking in tongues immediately after we were baptized? Does that mean that our baptisms are somehow invalid or need to be repeated? It seems that even in bible times there were differing opinions about what baptism was and how it should be carried out.

In today’s world, we still have disagreements about what baptism is and how it should be done. Should it be only for adults, or is it alright to baptize children? Should we do baptism by sprinkling, by pouring, or by full immersion? Should baptism be done only once, or are there times that baptism should be repeated?

Christians don’t agree about the answers to any of these questions. This congregation is connected to two different denominations: the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, or ELCA, and The United Methodist Church, or UMC. Our two denominations don’t agree on everything. But one thing we do agree on almost completely is baptism. We use slightly different language in our baptismal rituals, but our theology of baptism is almost exactly the same.

In fact, when our two denominations first started talking with each, the first thing we did was a joint study on baptism. It happened before I was born, 1977-1979. Baptism is the first thing the Lutherans and Methodists agreed to agree about.

The current document of agreement between the UMC and the ELCA is called Confessing Our Faith Together, and it outlines seven points on which our denominations agree on baptism. It does give even one point on which we disagree.

The first point is this: “Both the ELCA and the UMC accept as valid all acts of Baptism in the name of the Trinity using water according to Christ’s command and promise.” If you’ve been baptized in the name of the Trinity, it doesn’t matter where it was done, when it was done, how it was done, who did it, or what has happened to you since then, you do not have to be baptized again.

Which leads to the second point: “Baptism is the sacrament of entrance into the holy catholic Church, not simply a rite of entrance into a particular denomination.” We are not baptized into the Lutheran Church or baptized into the United Methodist church; we are baptized into Christ’s church. “Baptism is therefore a sacrament that proclaims the profound unity of the church.” Every time we celebrate baptism, we declare that there is only one church of Christ, that every baptized Christian is one in Christ, regardless of creed or denomination. We are all one in baptism. That’s part of the reason that our partnership here is so important. By being church together, we are living into the common identity that we proclaim in baptism. Let me say it another way. Whether we have a joint ministry here or not, we are one church. The fact that we do have a partnership is simply a statement of what God already knows: in baptism we are one in Christ.

The third point: “Baptism is intended for all persons, including infants. No person should be excluded from Baptism for reasons of age or mental capacity.” It’s convenient for us that both of our denominations believe in infant baptism, but there is something deeper behind this point. The grace offered in baptism should not be denied to anyone. Every person is equally a person and has equal access to God’s kingdom.

Point four. This is kind of a long one: “God gives the Holy Spirit in Baptism to unite us with Jesus Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection; to effect new birth, new creation, and newness of life; to offer, give, and assure us of the forgiveness of sins in both cleansing and life-giving aspects; to enable our continual repentance, daily reception of forgiveness, and our growing in grace; to create unity and equality in Christ; to make us participants in the new age initiated by the saving act of God in Jesus Christ; and to place us into the Body of Christ where the benefits of the Holy Spirit are shared within a visible community of faith.” Okay, there’s a lot going in this statement. Whether or not we have a mystical experience during baptism, we believe that the Holy Spirit is active in baptism. We think that something actually happens when we are baptized. It’s not just a remembrance and it’s not an empty ritual. It marks a person’s adoption into God’s family. It serves to graft us into the Body of Christ, to make us members of Christ. In baptism, we are symbolically submerged under the water, we symbolically drown and die to our old selves, and we are then brought back to a new life in Jesus Christ.  Baptism marks us as God’s own and begins our journey of discipleship, a journey that we share with our fellow disciples.

The fifth point: “In Baptism, God enables the Christian to rely upon this gift, promise, and assurance throughout all of life. Such faithful reliance is necessary and sufficient for the reception of the benefits of Baptism.” In other words, the power of baptism lasts our whole lives. It doesn’t wear out. But, in order to receive the full benefit of baptism, we have to rely on it. If we recognize the worth of our baptism, we will receive more benefit from it than if we don’t recognize its worth.

Point six: “Baptism embraces both the prior gift of God’ s grace and the believer’ s life of faith . . . In faith and obedience, the baptized live for the sake of Christ, the church, and the world that Christ loves. In Baptism, the church witnesses to the faith and proclaims to the world the Lordship of Jesus Christ.” In other words, baptism does not just have a momentary effect on our lives. It draws on what has come before it, and it anticipates the future. Baptism is a way of realizing God’s kingdom.

The seventh and final point that the UMC and ELCA declare together is this: “Baptism has practical ramifications for the Christian life. Through the Holy Spirit Baptism gives us our true identity. People struggle with that most central of questions in life: Who am I? The church proclaims boldly in Baptism that we become forgiven children of God and members one of another. In Baptism we are reminded of who we are and to whom we belong in life and in death. By welcoming us freely into the Body of Christ, the Sacrament also points to the central commitments in the Christian life, including the mandate of the family of God to make disciples of Jesus Christ. Every celebration of Baptism is a reminder of our responsibility to one another. Baptism is connected intrinsically to mission. The Sacrament not only proclaims who we are, it frees us for our primary vocation in life, to love God and neighbor as agents of God’s reign of peace, justice, and abundant life for all.”

And so, as we celebrate our identity in baptism, as we declare our unity in baptism, as we live into our vocation in baptism, let us together, as one church, reaffirm our baptismal covenant.

Notes-N-News

Good afternoon! We have a sidewalk in back again. It’s not ready to walk on yet; probably late Thursday.

++           This Sunday is our Annual Meeting at 11:45. Please bring a potluck item for sharing after the meeting.

++           Adult Sunday lesson will begin again this Sunday the 11th at 8am.

++           All women are invited to the WELCA general  meeting this Saturday 10th from 10 to Noon. Light refreshments will be served.

++           Bell Choir meets this afternoon at 4:45pm.

++           Our ELCA “Good Gifts” piggy bank fundraiser raised $206.45 for an animal(s) to give to a family/individuals.

++           Youth group Shebang forms are due this Sunday at the 6:30pm meeting. Shebang is Feb 13-16 in Tigard, OR.  SHEBANG! is an awesome annual retreat for youth grades 6-12, sponsored by the SHEBANG Ministry Team, as a ministry of the Oregon-Idaho United Methodist Church.  It is a fun-filled weekend of skits, learning about God, fun, music, sharing your faith, worshiping God, and more fun!

Blessings!
Jennifer Fowler

Sermon: His Star at Its Rising

Sunday 4 January 2015
The Feast of the Epiphany

Matthew 2:1-12

The story that we celebrate today, the Epiphany, has the interesting distinction of being both very familiar and very strange. On the one hand, this is a story that most of us have heard many, many times. We know about the three wise men. We know about the star that led them to Bethlehem. We know about the gifts they brought: gold frankincense, and myrrh. It is all so familiar. We have heard it in songs like “We Three Kings” and “As with Gladness Men of Old.” We have seen it performed by children wearing their fathers’ bathrobes. It is all so familiar.

And yet, it is all so foreign. Magi—what are they? We don’t even have an English word for them that is any more descriptive than “wise men.” None of us have ever met a magus. It’s foreign.

And what about those gifts? Sure, gold is familiar enough. But frankincense and myrrh? Who has ever heard of those outside of church?  It’s not as if you can go down to Rosauer’s and pick up some myrrh. Safeway never has a sale on frankincense. It’s foreign.

And that star. That star of wonders. The magi saw it in the sky, and somehow they knew it meant that a new king had been born in Judea. They are so convinced, in fact, that they pack up and leave for what must have been at least a one-thousand-mile journey. When they get to Jerusalem, they don’t know where this new king is. They have to ask for directions from King Herod. But as they approach Bethlehem, they see that star again, going before them, leading the way. And then it stops over the place where Jesus was, marking the spot.

Who has ever heard of such a thing. And when you think about it, how could a star that is millions of miles away, no matter how miraculous that star might be, how could it possibly mark a specific location on the earth? If I look up in the night sky and see a star directly overhead, and if I walk down the road twenty miles, that star is still going to be directly overhead. How could it possibly point the way to something as small as a house? Who ever heard of such a star?

And who ever heard of a star appearing at the time of someone’s birth? Why would anyone even be looking for that? There’s a article in Universe Today that says the dark nebula Barnard 68 is about to collapse and create a brand new star. But nowhere in that article was anyone predicting that a new star in the sky would somehow mark the birth of some important person. That would be absurd, wouldn’t it? It’s completely foreign.

This particular story, the story of the wise men, is very familiar. But almost every detail in the story is out of a completely different world. It’s hard to relate to, and it’s hard to make sense of. Traveling astrologers, wayward stars, and exotic tree resins are not exactly the types of things we usually read about in the newspaper.

And yet, these things would have been quite familiar to Matthew’s original audience. In fact, everything about Matthew’s presentation would have seemed familiar to the readers of his time. That’s part of the reason it was so convincing.

I’m not really old enough to have grown with Dick and Jane. But for a certain generation, learning to read was nearly synonymous with Dick and Jane. Every school child grew up with the familiar charters from Scott Foresman’s basal readers. And even those of us who haven’t read Dick and Jane are familiar with it’s concepts because it has become a part of our culture.

Why do I bring up Dick and Jane now? Because in the world of Jesus’ time they had textbooks too. And anyone who wanted to learn to write would have studied from a Greek textbook known as progymnasmata. They taught students to become familiar with all of the major forms of Greek rhetoric. These were the basal readers of their day. And one of the forms that they always taught was the encomium, a type of rhetoric used to praise someone.

I won’t bore you with all the details, but Matthew’s account of Jesus’s birth matches exactly with the traditional form of the encomium. Any ancient Greek reader would have noticed it right away. It would have been like reading Dick and Jane.

And what are some of the things you’re supposed to do in a traditional encomium? Tell about the person’s birth, their race, their city. Tell about any marvelous things that happened at the birth, dreams, or signs. Tell about any prophesies that might have foretold the birth. Matthew does all of these things.

And so we start to see a story that is not as strange as we first thought. You see, Matthew’s readers expected to hear about Jesus’s extraordinary birth, because all important people had extraordinary births. They expected to hear about prophesies of his coming and significance, because the births of all important Greek people were foretold by prophesies. And they even expected to hear about a new star marking the birth of a new king, because Jesus was not the first king whose birth had been predicted by a rising star.

The third century Egyptian theologian, Origen, commented that the star of Bethlehem might have been a comet because, “It has been observed that, on the occurrence of great events, and of mighty changes in terrestrial things, such stars are wont to appear, indicating either the removal of dynasties or the breaking out of wars, or the happening of such circumstances as may cause commotions upon the earth.”

When major things were happening in the world, when significant persons were coming on the scene, the heavens would foretell them. In that sense, Jesus was not unique. He was a significant person, and his birth would change the world, and so it was not unexpected that a star would tell his story. It was not crazy to think that people like the magi would be looking for those kinds of signs in the heavens. It was not hard to imagine why Herod would feel threatened when even the heavens were foretelling the birth of a rival to his throne. None of that is surprising.

But what they found beneath that star, that is the surprise.  They were looking for the King of Judea, the successor of mighty David. They found a little child, born to a poor family. He had no birthright. He didn’t have any wealth—his parents must have been amazed to see such lavish gifts. He was not a mighty warrior. He did not command any armies. He was not a politician. He had no influence with the powers-that-be. He was not an insurrectionist. He made no move to claim Herod’s throne for himself. He seemed to show no political ambition whatsoever. He didn’t do anything but heal a few sick people, tell some good stories, and get himself killed.

And yet, and yet for those who can see it, for those who are actually looking, he is the king of the universe. And he is leading a revolution, not in the halls of power, but within human hearts. For those who can see, he is shining a light, saying, “Come and find me.”  For those who can see it, his star is still shining, still illuminating the way, still guiding us forward, still calling us to follow. Come and follow the newborn king, and he will teach you a new way. Come and follow the newborn king. His name is Jesus, and he is Christ, the Lord.

Sermon: My Eyes Have Seen Your Salvation

Sunday 28 December 2014
The Fourth Day of Christmas

Luke 2:22-40

Eight days after Jesus was born, in accordance with the religious laws set forth in Leviticus, Jesus was circumcised and named. Then, thirty-three days after Jesus was born, in accordance with the religious laws set forth in Leviticus, the family went to the Temple in Jerusalem to perform the rituals necessary to purify Mary from the impurity she had contracted during childbirth. In order to cleanse herself, after a thirty-three day waiting period, she was required to bring two animals for offering; the first one was for a burnt offering and the second was for a sin offering. The prescribed offering was a one-year-old lamb for the burnt offering and pigeon or turtledove for the sin offering. You may have noticed, though, that’s not what Mary actually brings for her offering. She brings two birds. You see, Leviticus makes an exception to the requirement of sacrificing a lamb and a bird. Leviticus 12:8 states: “If she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering, and the priest shall make atonement on her behalf, and she shall be clean.”

These details from the Gospel of Luke tell us something about Jesus’s family. First, it tells us that they were observant of the Law of Moses. They were Torah-followers.  Today, we would probably say that they were Jews, though for various reasons, that term is a bit confusing when we try to apply it to the ancient world. The second thing that it tells us about Jesus’s family is that they were poor. They couldn’t afford to purchase the required lamb for the sacrifice, nor did they own the land necessary to raise one of their own. Jesus comes from a religiously observant, poor family.

As they enter the temple grounds, they encounter two people. The first is a holy man named Simeon. He isn’t a priest. He isn’t a scribe. He isn’t a religious authority. His position is not what distinguishes him, because he has no position. But there are three things that do distinguish him.

First, he is described as righteous and devout. Or put in other words, he is just, and he is observant. He is both religious and ethical.

Second, he eagerly anticipates the restoration of Israel. What is the restoration of Israel? First, it was political. The restoration of Israel meant political independence for the peculiar people that had for so long been under the domination of one empire or another, right now the Roman Empire. It meant political freedom under a just, righteous king, a king appointed not by the Roman bureaucracy, but by God. Second, it was spiritual. The restoration of Israel was a spiritual return of all the people to God. It meant not just political revolution, but also spiritual revolution, a collective return to the ways and principles of God. This is the restoration that Simeon anticipates, a political and spiritual renewal.

The third thing that distinguishes Simeon is that he has received the Holy Spirit. That means that he is a prophet. And the prophetic gift that the Holy Spirit has given him is a promise that he will not die before he has seen the Messiah of God. The Messiah, after all, is the one who is going to bring about the restoration of Israel. The Messiah is the anointed one of God who is going to make everything right again, who is going to lead God’s people to liberation and freedom. Simeon has been promised that he will see the promised anointed one before he dies.

The second person that Jesus’s parents encounter is a holy woman named Anna. Luke describes her as a prophet. She is also a widow. Her husband died young, when they had been married only seven years. But she had refrained from remarrying and is now eighty-four years old. That means she had likely been a widow for somewhere in the neighborhood of sixth years. It also meant, that by definition, she was poor. In a world without social security, being a widow was synonymous with being poor. She spent all of her time in the temple fasting and praying. In other words, she was homeless. She probably lived on the charity of the people coming to the temple to worship.

Both Simeon and Anna are examples of what we call the righteous poor. Neither of them have any official position. Neither of them are well off. They are simple, humble people who, through their poverty, are closer to God. They are more faithful, more in tune with the Holy Spirit, than are the religious authorities.

Both Simeon and Anna have something to say to the couple and their infant child. Unfortunately, Luke does not give us a quotation of Anna’s words. We know only that she was praising God and preaching about Jesus to everyone who was looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. She knows that Jesus is the one who going to bring about renewal. She knows that he will bring about a revolution. She knows that he is the Messiah.

Simeon knows the same thing. When he takes the child into his arms, he breaks into song and begins to praise God. He declares that he is now ready to die, because he has seen what he has been promised; he has seen God’s salvation. The salvation he sees has two parts. First, it is the glory of Israel. It is the exaltation of God’s chosen people. Second, it is a light to enlighten the Gentiles. The import of Jesus’s mission will not end with his kinsmen, though it will start there. No, Jesus’ message will spread far beyond what anyone could initially have imagined. It will become a light to the Gentiles. It will be spread to people of all nations. Ethnicity will not limit its reach. A light of revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of your people Israel. My eyes have seen your salvation.

Here these five people stand in the grounds of the temple: Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Simeon and Anna. Among all of them, not one of them is wealthy. Jesus was born in a stable. Mary and Joseph can’t afford a lamb for the sacrifice. Anna has to beg for food. Simeon has no real money. Not one of them has any position. None of them are priests, or scribes, or royals, or administrators, or soldiers, or bureaucrats. They are all peasants. Not one of them has a significant pedigree. Joseph may have come from the family of King David, but that’s about as significant as if I were to say that I was from the family of William the Conquerer. It might be true, but it has precious little significance now. Anna’s father and tribe are given to us, but they are of no particular account. Standing in the presence of the massive, imposing, gilded temple are five simple people. No one would have paid attention to any of them.

And yet, these five simple people share something that no one else has. King Herod doesn’t get it. The Emperor Augustus doesn’t get it. The priests and the scribes and the Pharisees don’t get it. Even Jesus’ own disciples won’t get it. But a poor widow, an old man, and a couple that can’t afford a lamb for the sacrifice: they all get it. They all understand. This poor child, born in a stable, laid in manger, hailed by shepherds, from the insignificant town of Nazareth in the backwater province of Galilee, this poor child is the King of kings, the Lord of lords. This poor child is the anointed one, the Messiah, the Christ. This poor child is the salvation of God, a light to enlighten the Gentiles, and the glory of God’s chosen people. This poor child is Jesus Christ the Lord.

Sermon: Magnify

Sunday 21 December 2014
The Fourth Sunday of Advent

Luke 1:26-38, 46-55

A young girl named Mariam, from a town called Nazareth, in the northern province of Galilee. That’s about all we know about her, except that she was engaged to a man named Joseph, who was a distant descendant of King David, and she was some relation to a woman named Elizabeth, who was the mother of John the Baptist. Other than that, though, we don’t know anything about her family, who her parents were. We don’t know how she grew up. We don’t know how she met Joseph, or how their relationship was. But we are told that this young girl had a vision of a heavenly messenger, an angel, named Gabriel, who told her she would be the mother of a holy boy whom she was to name Yeshua, Jesus, which means, “God saves.” And, as Luke tells it, after accepting this God-given commission from Gabriel, she travelled to visit her older relative, Elizabeth, and, being overcome by the Holy Spirit, she broke into song.

It may not be obvious at first glance, but the whole first part of Luke reads a bit like a cheesy Hollywood musical. People are constantly breaking into song for no apparent reason. When we read Psalms and Canticles together each Sunday morning, we usually just speak them. But in truth they are songs, pieces of ancient poetry that are meant to be sung, though the original tunes and music have long since been forgotten. The song that Mary sings, the Canticle of Mary, sometimes called the Magnificat after its first word in the latin translation, tells the story of God’s redemption of the people of Israel, of the fulfillment of God’s promises of long ago.

“My soul magnifies the Lord,” she sings, “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”  And why?  Why does Mary rejoice in God?  Because God has turned the tables. God has upset the social order. God has caused a great reversal of fortune. God has chosen her, a young girl of humble means, now bound to be the object of whispers and rumors from her neighbors, to be the mother of the Messiah, to be the Mother of God.

After all, who is she? Just a unimportant peasant woman from an unimportant town in an unimportant territory in an unimportant province on the edge of the civilized world. She was engaged to an unimportant laborer from a family whose glory had faded centuries before. And now she was going to be an unwed mother, a fate that carried far more social stigma in her day than it does in ours. It would have been in Joseph’s legal right to stone her to death. But somehow, she, over all others in the world, was chosen to be the mother of the savior of the world. She, a nobody, was going to be the Mother of God.

And that’s not all. Mary continues to prophesy about God’s liberating action in Jesus Christ. God is not just lifting up one lowly girl to a place of prominence. God is turning everything upside-down and downside-up. “God drags the powerful off their thrones and raises up the humble,” she proclaims. “The Lord fills the starving and lets the rich go hungry.”

Now, these are hard words for many of us, who are used to living relatively comfortable lives, who enjoy the power and the privilege we have inherited. Life has been pretty good up until now. Sure, we may face our own troubles and burdens. We may have challenges to deal with.  But compared to the majority of people in the world, we have things pretty good. We have safe places to live. We have shelter from the weather. We have plenty of food to eat. We may be in the bottom 99% here in America, but if God turns the whole world upside down, we might just find ourselves in that upper crust that God is about to tear down. And that is something we would likely rather avoid. Mary’s prophesy about God’s justice might sound more like a threat to our ears than it sounds like good news.

But these are wonderful words of salvation for those on the underside of society. These are words of liberation for the oppressed, words of hope for the beleaguered, words of promise for the destitute. This is food for the hungry, jobs for the unemployed, sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed, release for the captives, justice for the targeted. God is the champion of the poor and needy, the benefactor of those who suffer, the healer of those who are diseased, the comforter of those who weep. For the Ebola orphan in Africa, for the starving widow in India, for the dispossessed native in the Amazon, for the poor youth in the urban ghetto, for anyone who has been pushed aside or profiled or counted out, this is good news. This is gospel.

And this is the good news that Mary sings. She sings a song of liberation. She sings a song of mercy. She sings a song of justice. Justice for all those who have failed to receive justice at the hands of our human society. This is not the kind of justice that is meted out down the barrel of a gun or by a remote-controlled drone or a laser-guided bomb. It is not the kind of justice that is executed in an electric chair or a jail cell or an interrogation room.

No, God’s justice is something else entirely. God’s justice makes things right, it does not stop simply at punishing those who have done wrong. God’s justice gives power to the powerless. It cannot be bought, nor can it be bribed. God’s justice sees to the heart of things. It does not let something pass simply because the only people being hurt are people who have not been granted a voice to air their grievances. As Mary so boldly proclaims:

God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
God has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

To Mary’s mind, God is a powerful warrior, a mighty champion, who fights on the side of the poor and lowly. God is like a sort of divine Robin Hood, who sets right the things that powerful people have set wrong. That is the God to whom Mary sings her praise, a God who has chosen humble little her over so many other more prominent choices.

And when it comes right down to it, what greater love can we sing than of an Almighty God who humbly takes on human form, of a God who cares the most for those who have the least. That truly is good news. That truly is gospel.

Notes-N-News

Good afternoon !

++           A speed bump was installed today across the parking entrance. We can’t drive across it for about 24 hours. Bell ringers: use the far west dirt drive and park west or turn into the lot and park there. Please don’t drive in or out the main entrance.                 – Craig Terry

++           The “sidewalk” in the back of the church once again has wood planks for “cleaner” and safer walking to the office. The two parking spaces at the office are now available for use. Please be aware of any construction workers or equipment that may be nearby.

++           Bell Choir practice tonight at 4:45pm.

++           Celebration Planning meets tomorrow, Thursday at 1:00pm.

++           Men’s breakfast is Sat Dec 20th, 8am at Charburger.

++           FISH Duty is on Mon Dec 22nd and Friday Dec 26th. No FISH on Wed Dec 24th.

++           Thank you to everyone for participating in the dedicated offering for FISH Operations (food). We received $600 from Thrivent and were able to send a check from Asbury Our Redeemer Partnership to the FISH Operations for $1890 from us and Thrivent.

Bette Lou Yenne
Treasurer-Columbia Gorge Chapter of Thrivent

 

Blessings!
Jennifer Fowler

Sermon: Who Are You?

Sunday 14 December 2014
The Third Sunday of Advent

John 1:6-8, 19-28

“Who are you?” they ask John. If we were asked that question today, it might go something like this: “My name is David. I’m a pastor at the Asbury Our Redeemer Partnership. I’m a PhD student in New Testament at the Iliff School of Theology and the University of Denver. I play piano. I enjoy hiking, bike riding, and video games. My favorite color is gray. My favorite food is hungry man casserole.” But if we were asking someone in the ancient world, it would go more like this: “I am David, of the King Family, son of Horace, son of Ralph, from the town of Salem in Oregon.” So why is there such a difference between those two, and what significance does it have for understanding today’s scripture lesson?

Social scientists tell us that there are three kinds of self identification. There is the private self: who I think I am internally. There is the public self: who others think I am. And there is the communal self: who my family or close associates think I am.

In our modern, western culture, we think of identity mostly in terms of private self and reject the communal self altogether. We define ourselves by our internal life. What I do, my likes and dislikes, my personality, my personal achievements—those are the things that define who I am. And if I’m going to be an authentic, honest person, then my private self has to match my public self, the way society sees me, otherwise I will be thought of as a hypocrite. That’s what get’s so many politicians into trouble: their private self doesn’t match their public self. But we don’t bother very much with the communal self—it doesn’t matter if my father thought I should be an engineer, so long as I am who I say I am.

In the ancient world it was a whole different story. For them, there was no such thing as the private self. If I have any hopes or dreams or likes or dislikes, they are irrelevant. The most important thing to know about me is who my family is, my communal self. If my father is a carpenter, then I am a carpenter. If my father is a landholder, then I am a landholder. If my father is honorable, then I am honorable. And if I am going to be an authentic, honest person, then my communal self, my family identity, has to match up with my public self, how society sees me. If they don’t match, then I’ll be considered a deviant or a dishonor to my family.

So if that’s the way identity works in the ancient world, based on your family and heritage and not on your own thoughts and desires, then a character like John the Baptist is a real problem. You see, John’s father was not a baptizer. John did not come from a family of wilderness dwellers. He didn’t even come from a town that was known for producing fire-and-brimstone preachers. So what on earth is he doing out in the wilderness, wearing camel hair and eating grasshoppers and honey, preaching about repentance and the end of the world, and baptizing people in the Jordan River? There clearly isn’t any ordinary reason he would be doing those things, so maybe there is some sort of extraordinary reason. That’s why they go out to ask John who he is. They can’t figure out why he’s behaving the way he is.

And the first thing he says is, “I’m not the anointed one, I’m not the Messiah, I’m not the Christ.” Well that’s too bad. It would have explained a lot of things. We’re not sure exactly how the Messiah will act, but he might use the same kind of revolutionary language that John does.

So they think among themselves, “Hmm, he wears camel hair and a leather belt. That sounds an awful lot like someone else we’ve read about in the bible.” “Are you Elijah?” they ask. “I am not.” he responds. Drat. He’s not Elijah, either.

Then who? I know, he’s out in the desert preaching about the coming of God’s Kingdom. “Are you a prophet?” they ask him. And John says simply, “No.”

Well then who could he be if he’s not the Messiah, and he’s not Elijah, and he’s not a prophet? What other possible explanation could there be for someone living like a hermit and baptizing people? Exasperated, they finally ask him, “Well then who are you? We give up. What do you have to say for yourself?”

It’s hard for us to understand, because our culture is so individualistic. We’re encouraged to become our own men and women. We are not expected to follow in the footsteps of our ancestors. In theory, the whole world of possibilities is open to each and every one of us, and we can become whatever it is that we want to be. We don’t have to behave the way our family expects us to behave. We don’t have behave the way our social class expects us to behave. We can feel free to loosen those ties and strike out on our own, to make a new identity for ourselves. I am not defined primarily by being a member of the King family or by being from Salem, Oregon. Those are only mildly important details of my life.

But I wonder if losing that sense of communal identity in our lives hasn’t caused us to lose something important. It may not be that important that I’m a member of the King family, but what does it mean for my identity that I am Christian? What does it mean that I am a member of God’s family? Does that play a part in defining the person that I am?

In days gone by, I would have been expected to behave the way my father would behave, to live my life according to my father’s ideals and the traditions of my family. But if we claim God as the head of our family, if we claim Christ as the head of our church, then shouldn’t we be expected to behave in the way Christ would behave, to live our lives according to God’s ideals? When we live our lives in the world, how are we reflecting on our family, God’s family? Do we bring honor to God with our actions, or do we bring shame? When people watch our behavior, do they see something authentic and honest, or do they just see a bunch of hypocrites?

Or, more to the point, does our identity as Christians make any difference in the way we live our lives at all? Do we act any differently than we would if we were not a part of Christ’s family? Do we live by Christ’s ideals—feed the hungry, comfort the oppressed, release the captives, heal the broken? Do we love our neighbors, and even love our enemies? Do we turn the other cheek when we are attacked? Are we peacemakers? Do we stand up for the cause of the lowly? Do we ever do anything radical enough, anything strange enough, anything that is different enough from the world around us that it causes people to stop and ask, “Who are you? Why are you behaving this way?” Do we ever do anything that makes people say, “This is not normal behavior. Who do you think you are?” anything that begs us finally to answer, “I am a child of God and a follower of Jesus Christ. That is who I am.”

Sermon: A Voice Crying Out

Sunday 7 December 2014
The Second Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 40:3-5

Mark 1:1-8

It was over 2500 years ago. The Northern Kingdom of Israel and its capital, Samaria, have already been conquered by the Assyrian Empire. The Southern Kingdom of Judah and its capital, Jerusalem, have already been conquered by the Babylonian Empire. All of the elites in society, the politicians and priests and scholars and aristocrats, have been hauled off in a forced migration to Babylon, not far from modern Baghdad. The temple has been destroyed. But now, King Cyrus and the mighty Persian Empire have risen up out of modern Iran and is on the gates of Babylon. After 40 long years of captivity, a Hebrew prophet declares: “A voice cries out, ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’”

The Hebrew people had been in exile. When the temple had been destroyed, many were afraid that the God who lived in that temple had been destroyed as well. Others were concerned that the God of Israel could not be with them in a foreign land. Everything they understood about God, everything they knew about religion, had been turned upside-down and inside-out.

Eventually, some of the exiles started to find new meaning and significance in the writings of their faith, scriptures that up until then had only been secondary to their experience of God. They found that in the reading and study of scripture, they could find God, even though they no longer had the temple and they were not in the land of their ancestors. Eventually they came to believe that the Spirit of God, the Shekhinah, that had once lived in the temple, had traveled with the exiles to Babylon after the temple had been destroyed.

But now things had changed. A liberator had come to set them free. King Cyrus of the Persians. Some thought he was the anointed one of God, the Mashiach, the Messiah. He had come from the east to set the prisoners free and rebuild the Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem.

And now God’s Spirit would be able to return from exile along with God’s people. The Spirit of the Lord would travel back to its home on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. “A voice cries out, ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’”

More than half a millennium later, the people of Israel were in crisis again. The temple had been destroyed yet again, this time by the Roman Empire. Once again there were questions about whether God was still with the people if the temple was not there. Had God deserted the chosen people? Or worse, had God been defeated by the gods of the Romans? This time, the people were exiles even in their own land.

And once again, they turned to the scriptures to try to make sense of the situation. As some of them read the writings from 500 years before, they found new meaning in those words, “A voice cries out, ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” Perhaps now they had a new Messiah, a new liberator. Perhaps this Jesus of Nazareth, the traveling preacher who had been executed by the Romans, but who some said had been raised from the dead, had a new authority to bring meaning to their lives. Perhaps he represented a new way to reach God.

And if he did, then that John the baptizer character must have been the voice crying out in the wilderness, prepare the way of the lord. John preached a message of repentance, of turning away from sin and turning toward God. And John pointed to one who would come after who would be even greater than he was. Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Christians looked to the scriptures and they found a new meaning for their day. Isaiah had been talking about God returning over a very literal desert from Babylon back to the land of Israel. It was about the people returning from a very real exile.

But those words took on new meaning for a new day. Now believers had to return from a spiritual exile. Now God’s path through the desert had to be cleared of the obstacles of the human heart. It was not sage brush and sand dunes that cluttered God’s way, it was sin and malice. It was hatred and greed and division. “A voice cries out, ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’”

So what are the things that stand between us and God today? What stands between us and the fulfillment of full discipleship? Which roads do we need to make straight? Which paths do we need to clear? How is it that we need to be prepare the way of the Lord? What is it that stands between us and the realization of God’s Kingdom?

It’s no accident that all this preparation happens in the wilderness. We know the stories of the Hebrew’s wandering in the wilderness while they sorted out their relationship with God. We know how Jesus was pushed out into the wilderness while he struggled with what it meant to be the Son of God. It is often in the wilderness that we make our most profound spiritual growth. It is in the wilderness where we see things more clearly, where we shed our distractions, where we struggle with our demons.

Of course, when we talk about the wilderness, we aren’t just talking about the outdoors. The wilderness we face isn’t just the arid desert or the threatening woods. Some of the most treacherous wilderness journeys we face lead us through the depths of our own hearts.

Some of us walk the wilderness of addiction. We have been led along false paths which go only in circles until we no longer know where we are are where we are headed. But God stands ready to take our hand and lead us, if we can give over our will and seek help.

Some of us walk the wilderness of depression and anxiety. We have begun to become comfortable with the loneliness, with the self-doubt. We no longer want to move, and when we do, we only want to move deeper into the darkness. But God stands ready to provide a light, to point us in the right direction, to bring us companions to help us find the way.

Some of us walk the wilderness of pride. We have become lost because we are unwilling to ask anyone for directions. We just forge boldly on, headless of the signs, harming not only ourselves, but others. But God stands ready to open our ears, to soften our hearts, and bring us home.

Some of us walk the wilderness of grief. The faster we try to get through it, the more treacherous the way becomes. But God is ready to take the slow and steady walk with us.

We walk together through a wilderness of inequality, prejudice, and violence. And sometimes we are discouraged when, despite all our efforts, we seem to keep stumbling down the same paths and getting caught in the same snares. We are shocked by our human capacity to harm one another. We still have a long way to go. But Christ walks with us. Wherever we struggle for justice and peace, Christ walks with us.

A voice cries out, ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD.” Now is the time to do it. Now is the time to remove the obstacles. Now is the time to knock down the barriers. Now is the time to make a path for Christ to enter into our world, into our church, into our hearts. “A voice cries out, ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’”

Notes-N-News

Good afternoon!

++           Decorating of the Sanctuary and Christmas tree will be this Saturday 13th at 10am.

++           Women’s Spirituality meets this Saturday 9am at church.

++           Bell Choir will now be meeting on Wednesdays at 4:45

++           Board meeting this Sunday 14th at 11:45

++           WELCA bible study will be Tuesday Dec 30th from 2-4pm

NEWSLETTER CORRECTIONS:

++The Annual Meeting will be at 11:45  (not 10:45) on Sunday January 11th. Sorry for any confusion.

++Photo bottom left from Christmas Bazaar was of Pat Crompton, not Ila Mae Schneeberg.

 

Blessings!
Jennifer Fowler

Sermon: Talents

Sunday 16 November 2014
The Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, Ordinary 33A

Matthew 25:14-30

The parable of the talents is a fairly familiar one.  In fact, it’s been popular enough over the years that it has actually changed the English language.  The English word talent, coming originally from the Greek word τάλαντον, is in fact a unit of mass measurement, equalling somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 pounds.  In the sense it’s used in this parable, it means about 75 pounds of either gold or silver.  If you were to take a talent of silver to the metal dealer today, it would be worth about $12,000, and a talent of gold about $800,000.  But if you try to translate the value of a talent based on wages then and now, a talent of silver would be worth about $300,000, and a talent of gold worth about $3,000,000.  That makes the 5 talents received by the first slave worth around $15,000,000.  So we’re talking about a lot of money.

If you look up the word talent in a modern English dictionary, down at the bottom of the entry you’ll find something talking about weights and measures: the original meaning.  And you’ll also find a note saying that all the other definitions — skills, gifts, abilities — are figurative and are based on the interpretation of Matthew 25:14-30, the scripture we read this morning.  That means that pastors and priests, preaching from time to time on this passage over the years actually managed to completely change the word, so that instead of thinking of 75 pounds, when we hear the word talent we think of a skill or ability.  Now that’s the power of preaching.

That traditional interpretation that managed to change our language identifies God with the absent master and identifies us with the slaves who have been entrusted with talents.  We are instructed to use our talents to make more.  And if we squander them, they will be taken away.  Those who have will be given more, and those with nothing, even what they have will be taken away.

A more modern variation on that same theme leaves all the characters the same but chooses to talk explicitly about money, rather than speaking figuratively about skills and abilities.  In this interpretation, Jesus preaches a sort of homespun capitalism, encouraging his disciples to put their money to work to make more, telling us that God helps those who help themselves.  Those who have will be given more.

But you know, there’s something a bit unsatisfying about these readings.  There’s something that just doesn’t seem quite right.  The master in the story is an absentee landlord, a ruthless, shameless businessman who gathers where he hasn’t sown seed.  This is a harsh and cruel man, a thief.  And he rewards only those who are as cruel and ruthless as he is.  If we are going to accept this interpretation, then we have to accept that that’s who God is: a cruel and ruthless master.

An ancient middle eastern peasant like one of Jesus’ first disciples would probably understand this parable quite differently.  For them, the hero of the story is not the absentee master.  It’s not the slave who made ten talents out of five talents.  It’s not the slave who made four talents out of two.  No, the hero of the story is the third slave, the one who buried his master’s talent in the ground.

Now, I realize that may be hard to believe.  After all, we’ve been taught to vilify that supposedly wicked and lazy slave.  But for the ancient peasant audience, this slave is the only one in the story who behaved with any honor whatsoever.

Ancient peasants didn’t believe in capitalism, and they didn’t believe that wealth could grow.  The ancients believed that there was a finite amount of resources in the world and that those finite resources had already been distributed.  If one person were to gain more, it meant that someone else was losing.  Consequently, anyone who gained wealth was universally considered to be a thief.  The proper and honorable thing to do was to maintain the same amount of wealth you had always had and that your father and his father had always had.

By this standard, the master in the story is a shameless, dishonorable man who will do anything to cheat people and gain more wealth.  In fact, he even admits to being dishonorable.  One of the reasons that he entrusts money to his slaves to invest is that he knows this sort of gain is against God’s law and very shameful.  If he does it himself, then he will publicly lose honor.  But his slaves have no honor to lose.  If they behave dishonorably by exploiting others to gain more wealth, it won’t hurt their standing in the community, because they have no standing.  So their behavior is dishonorable, but understandable.

But there is one person who behaves honorably: it’s the third slave.  He refuses to participate in the dirty schemes of his master.  He refuses to use his master’s wealth as a means of squeezing wealth out of others.  He does the right thing, keeps his master’s money safe, but he doesn’t exploit it.

And when his master finds out, the slave is punished, just as we would expect from a cruel and ruthless man.  And then the peasants hear the words that they know to be a painful truism: “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”  The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.  It is simply the way of things.

Now, that is a much more difficult reading.  It challenges the ways that we have always thought about this parable.  But it also explains many of the details that have never made much sense before, and it seems to be more consistent with who we know Jesus to be.  At the very least, we have to allow that this parable is not about Jesus preaching a gospel of wealth and prosperity.  But it may not simply be a fatalistic story about class warfare either.

Perhaps Jesus is using a very unusual example to teach us a core truth of the Kingdom of God.  God’ Empire is not about acquiring wealth, it’s not about making money work for you, it’s not about gathering where you didn’t scatter seed.  But it does have one thing in common.

The Kingdom of God is about putting God’s resources to work.  God’s bounty is not meant to be hidden away in a hole.  It’s not meant to be confined within the four walls of the church.  Instead, we should take a risk with God’s riches.  We should be bold enough to put God’s grace and love to work in the world.  We should be bold enough to share.  Because unlike money, there is always enough of God’s love to go around.  There is always more of God’s grace.  So we shouldn’t be stingy with it.  We shouldn’t hide it away, afraid that no one else would be interested, afraid that we might lose it if we let it be seen outside.  Instead, let us share the bounty of God’s kingdom.  Let us put God’s gifts to work in the world, confident that by sharing them, they can only grow more abundant.  Let us not be afraid of God’s message, but be bold to share it, to invest it in our lives and invest our lives in it, and to let it grow.  To the glory of our God of abundant love, Amen.