Archive for January, 2019

Hope is the Negation of Negation

Sunday, January 27th, 2019

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Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a 

Luke 4:14-21

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We are living through a negative time.

Before dawn, aroused by a dream, you awake, it may be.   In the mind clutter of the dream you stand in community listening for a holy word, it may be.  Or you walk mesmerized by the beauty of a beach or a mountain vista, it may be. Or, otherwise, you sense the tug of a common good, a common desire, it may be.  In the mind clutter of the dream, too, you may wait to hear something, it may be.  Before dawn, in the moonlight.  Drowsiness returns, and you return to the arms of Morpheus, God of sleep.  But the time to rise comes along soon enough, and you take stock again, and you realize what time it is, again.

We are living through a negative time. 

For some, the negation is a chosen, intentional negation of inherited forms of public speech, of national discourse, of governmental responsibility, of encroaching overweening statism, of political correctness, of international order and regular borders—a time to pluck up, a time to pluck up what is planted.   Or so one supposes.

For others, many others, the negation is a consequence of all this and more, and amounts to a frightening, even terrifying daily rending of the garment of national life, of the rending of the garment of civil society, of the rending of the garment of compassionate care for the young, the poor, the sick and the old, of the steady destruction of treaties, alliances and agreements welling up from a steady disdain for treaties, alliances and agreements, a rending of the garments of courtesies developed over longtime to shelter ourselves from our worst selves,  the standard (if sometimes honored in the breach) shared, common rejection of misogyny, racism, sexism, xenophobia, greed, pride, sloth, and falsehood. And in their place another kind of clothing,  a laughing joy in and willingness to slaughter the truth by fulsome mendacity in the small and in the large.

Whether with some you celebrate such, or whether with many you abhor it, now over the last few years, it is clear, we are living through a time of negation.

You arise in the morning, in a wonderment, a dark wonder.  Will someone be given the nuclear car-keys with which to incinerate another land? Will the government return again to potential ‘fire and fury’ against a foreign people?  Will the lax tax on the rich bankrupt government protections of the poor?  Will the clearly emerging authoritarianism become patent and fulsome on the strength of a manufactured crisis at a border, or far away, or most possibly in cyber gear?

You brush your teeth, pour your coffee, turn on the news, and, amid a wonderment, a dark wonder, you do wonder:  Did I ever think I would live to see the day that my beloved country to which I have pledged allegiance since kindergarten, for which I acquired a selective service card, to which I have paid taxes now grudgingly now willingly over many decades, on whose account I have voted every years since the years of the silent majority and that Methodist minister’s son from North Dakota, land where my father has died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, be held hostage, like a 13 year old girl in Wisconsin, like her the whole country bound, gagged, hidden under the single bed and held hostage to the megalomania of an imperial, increasingly authoritarian, government, to a complicit citizenry which cannot yet fully reckon, neither to reject nor recant the 2016 tragedy, to a Senate whose every murmur now carries the middle name Faust, for its deal with the devil in aid of paternalistic judges and capitalism gone wild, and a willful blindness to the roaring, rising tide of exclusion, falsehood, selfishness, incivility, unkindness and greed. 

Each morning brings a darker wonder and you wonder how this can ever have anything other than the bleakest outcome.  We are living through a negative time.  In our time, we are hostages to negativity, living through a most perilously negative time, with no exit readily or easily in sight. Some of us may realize that we will be dead, even long dead, before the blood is fully spilled and washed, before the dawn comes, before a return to the country’s rightful mind.  We are living through a time of negation.

For a post-Christian culture and society, the next question, then, is not what it is right now and right here in Christian worship, the question of the possibility of preaching, not what it is right now and right here in the spirit of Christian community, not what it is in this venerable pulpit and other siblings to it across the land.  As a whole, as a culture, we are no longer rooted in or grounded by hope, if we ever fully were, no longer grounded by the promise of the Gospel, if we ever were, so, for society as a whole, the basic question of this moment, the preaching moment, is not, for the culture, a big or even serious question at all.   The symbols of faith have grown cold in a culture, in a land that is God-forsaken, or, better put, simply, forsaken.  So, our problem, or mine in this moment, the prospect of preaching, the problem of the possibility of preaching, the problem of how to sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land, the problem of how  to preach a word of faith in a pastoral voice toward a common hope, the problem of hope itself, in its realest, truest form, faith working through love– is not that of our culture.  The radio program ‘wait wait don’t tell me’ is not waiting for the telling of a true hope. It is not perseverating about whether there can or will be any preaching worthy of the name in our time, let alone who on earth will deign to try to do it, Sunday by Sunday.  No, only the bitter biblical herb of ‘hope deferred that maketh the heart sick’ has any natural or easy purchase in our non-religious age.  Yes, we are living through a negative time.

In our time, hope, if it has any hope in it, is itself—negation.  A cheery, light, pseudo inner life, a false gaiety, a ‘que sera, sera’, is not hope.  It is false hope.  Some listening today will find the depiction of negation offered this morning as too negative.  You may be people my age and older.   Some though listening today will find the depiction of negation as not negative enough. You may be people my children’s age, now some 35% of whom identify, or non-identify, as ‘nones’ those of no religion at all, but one whose watch much of the mess of these years will have to be cleaned up.  No. Hope that is seen is not hope. That is in the Bible.  Who hopes for what he sees?  That too is in the Bible.  We hope for what we do not see (the key for once is in the adverb, NOT). That is in the Bible too.  In our time, hope, if it has any hope in it, is itself pure negation. 

(Pause).

And in that negation, it may be, is the lone location just now for preaching.  Hope is the negation—of negation.  Hope is the negation—of negation.

Hope is the negation of prideful over-confidence in our national or personal histories.  One lasting good in a negative time is that it leaves little space for high horses ridden and deadly assumptions hugged.  Authoritarianism can evolve, right here, just now, all the glories of the freedom trail notwithstanding (repeat). 

So D Bonhoeffer: Godwould have us know that we must live as (men and women) who manage our lives without (God).  The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us.  Before God and with God we live without God. 

Hope is the negation of our lazy, slothful spirituality—what a strange, odd, unbiblical word.  Hope is the negation of our lazy, slothful unwillingness to be politically involved—to go to meetings, to go to meetings, to go to meetings—on the left, and our refusal, now that the evidence is in, to recant what for whatever reason we chose to do three years ago—on the right, that negation comes to gruesome light, even in a twilight hope. 

Hope is the negation of our falsehood, our capacity somehow to look past or forgive or minimize the lying, the mendacity, the screaming falsehood of our naively authoritarian leadership.  Hope is the negation of the dark wonder, that which makes things clear, or clearer, at dawn.  In the light of hope.

Let us boil this down to daily life, if we may. It is almost inevitable, you human being you, that in the age of negativity, in the maelstrom of unlimited negative informational bombardment, and of wind swept rain soaking every daily pore, it is inevitable that you will now and then be depressed.  You will be.  That you now and then will be worried.  You will be. That you now and then will be haunted by bad memories and dark dreams.  You will be.  You cannot avoid it.  Forgive yourself.  Forgive yourself.  Forgive yourself.  There. That feels good or at least better. Hope walks by faith not by sight.  Faith is a walk in the dark.  Faith is the power to withstand what we cannot understand, to embrace hope that negates what it cannot eliminate.  What you can do is this.  Listen to the gospel, which is the negation of negation by hope, the negation of acedia by hope, the negation of depression and worry and anxiety by hope.  Not the elimination.  No.  The negation. Hope will give you a breakfast ounce of courage.  Hope will give you a noonday morsel of anger.  Hope will give you a twilight flicker of faith.  Because hope stands as the very negation of negation.  It is not something, hope, that you or I can concoct or control or conjure.  Hope stands in the pulpit, say, and speaks to us, say, and does so without fear or favor, without quiver or conceit, say, and utters a word of faith (take heart) in a pastoral voice (I am with you) toward a common hope (you are a child of God).

Hope, a sense that things are wrong and can be right-wised, is what gives us the angry courage, the courageous anger, to rise up, to resist out a tradition of principled resistance dating back to Amos of Tekoa, in the 8thcentury bce, to struggle, to lose, to be defeated, and to get up again.  Hope is the raising of the dead.

Jurgen Moltmann:  To recognize the event of the resurrection of Christ is therefore to have a hopeful and expectant knowledge of this event.  It means recognizing in this even the latency of that eternal life which in the praise of God arises from the negation of the negative, from the raising of the one who was crucified and the exaltation of the one who was forsaken.  It means assenting to the tendency towards resurrection of the dead in this event of the raising of the  one.  It means following the intention of God by entering into the dialectic of suffering and dying in expectation of eternal life and resurrection (211).  Thus the Spirit is the power to suffer in participation in the mission and the love of Jesus Christ, and is, in this suffering, the passion for what is possible, for what is coming and promised in the future of life, of freedom and of resurrection (212).  In all our acts we are sowing in hope (213).

 Before dawn, aroused by a dream, you awake, it may be.   In the mind clutter of the dream you stand in community listening for a holy word, it may be.  This is the gospel of Nehemiah, that there is a Holy Scripture, strange yet audible. Or you walk mesmerized by the beauty of a beach or a mountain vista, it may be.  This is the gospel of the Psalmist, in the most beautiful of all 150 psalms, all nature sings and round us rings, the glory of the creation.  Or, otherwise, you sense the tug of a common good, a common desire, it may be.  This is the gospel of the Epistle, Spirit known for what it does for the common good. In the mind clutter of the dream, too, you may wait to hear something, it may be. This is, here in Luke, Jesus, preaching, at home but not welcomed, preaching the divine favor for the poor not just the poor in spirit, for the oppressed not just the figuratively oppressed, for the captive not just the philosophically captive.  Before dawn, in the moonlight. 

Hope negates what it cannot eliminate.  Hope is the negation of negation.  Said Paul, Behold I tell you a mystery.  Said John, Where I am you may be also.  Said Paul, The trumpet shall sound.  Said John, You know the way where I am going. Said Paul, the dead, the dead, shall be raised.  Said John, I am the way, the truth, the life.  Said Paul, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.

He opened the book and found the place where it was written

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me

 Because he has anointed me to PREACH good news to the poor

 He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

And recovering of sight to the blind

 To set at liberty those who are oppressed

 To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord

And he closed  the book… and said to them, TODAY this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

God Can’t Forget You

Sunday, January 20th, 2019

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Isaiah 62:1-5

1 Corinthians 12:1-11

John 2:1-11

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Let us pray:

Almighty God, by the hand of Moses your servant you led your people out of slavery, and made them free at last: Grant that your Church, following the example of your prophet The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., may resist oppression in the name of your love, and may secure for all your children the blessed liberty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen. (Holy Men, Holy Women, page 161)

Growing up in Detroit I always relished the stories of the accomplishments of my parents and their friends.  It took a lot of perseverance in the face of racism and discrimination for them to get to the table yet alone have a seat at the table.  

I remember one story in particular of the late Wade H. McCree Jr. distinguished judge, Solicitor General, and professor.  Quoting from his obituary from the New York Times:

Judge McCree was appointed by President Kennedy as a judge on the First District Court in Detroit in 1961.  Five years later, President Johnson promoted him to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit which served Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee.  As a judge, he won wide praise in legal circles for intelligence and judgement.  And as Solicitor General, he enjoyed great good will from the Supreme Court justices who respected his character and legal achievements.

The story I heard growing up was: Judge McCree grew up in Boston, graduated from Harvard’s Law School, was offered and accepted at a prestigious law firm in Boston where when the partners found out he was African American immediately rescinded the offer.

When I was writing this sermon I called his son, my childhood friend and lawyer Wade III for clarification.  The corrected story goes like this:

Judge McCree did indeed grow up in Boston and attended the prestigious Boston Latin School.  He is the only African American to have his name inscribed on the famous frieze of the school which also include the names of Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock and Ralph Waldo Emerson. He did indeed attend and graduate from Harvard’s Law School after taking a leave to serve in World War II.  So here is where the story changes.  Judge McCree was recruited by the prestigious law firm Miller Canfield, not in Boston, but in Detroit. Judge McCree arrives for his first day on the job and is asked to wait in the lobby. Time passes and no one is coming out to welcome him on his first day on the job.  He finds out later that phone calls were being made to Harvard’s law school to verify that he was a graduate and not an African American man pretending to be a lawyer.  The managing partner finally comes out to say that the firm’s white clientele would be comfortable with an African American lawyer. Judge McCree would then find immediate employment at the African American Law Firm of Harold E. Bledsoe and Hobart Taylor.  I wonder what he must have been thinking as he sat in the lobby of Miller Canfield law firm. What was the first sign that he had that the situation may not go as expected? What was plan B?  When did he know that his life’s work would be one to champion for social and economic justice from the judicial bench no less.

Daily we all observe signs to one extent or another and most of us have attended a wedding or two in our lives.  What makes these seemingly ordinary experiences, extraordinary in the life of Jesus.

Here we are on this second Sunday after the Epiphany as we read John’s gospel about Jesus’ first sign at the Wedding in Cana and the signs of God’s grace.

This passage has something important to tell us.  First it tells us who Jesus is.  Second it gives us information about God’s grace.  Third it shows us what God has in store for us.  

For the community that the writer of John was addressing we must understand two key points.  As Dean Hill points out in his book “The Courageous Gospel” the “Jesus Movement” was quote moving away from Judaism end quote”.  Dean Hill further points out the despair and disappointment in the delay of Christ’s return. What is a community of believers supposed to believe?  What is a community believers charged with doing?  How do they and we continue to live as loving and caring people of faith? What are the signs?

Signs are very important.  They give us information.  They give us a sense of direction.

I remember when I first moved to Boston.  I had been in the city of Boston proper many times for work, conferences and the annual trek with Decatur Street friends from Brooklyn to visit the original Filene’s Basement.  I was always able to navigate Boston by the T and perhaps a short walk.  When I moved to Cambridge to attend graduate school I felt confident that my navigation of Boston and surrounding areas would not be difficult.  After all I learned my way around all five boroughs of New York City, I learned my way around the greater Los Angeles area. I can hear you chuckling now.  I have never gotten so lost in my entire life. No one tells you that I-95 turns into 128.  It was counter intuitive when I was working in Randolph which is south but you have to head north toward Boston instead of going south to Canton. And if that wasn’t bad enough, nothing in my driver’s education training prepared me for navigating a traffic circle.  To this day I still cannot grasp the unwritten rules of exiting the Massachusetts Turnpike at the Alston/Brighton tolls.

In this passage, Jesus and his followers, including his mother, are attending a wedding. The wine for the wedding is running out the steward is concerned. The steward is like the caterer at today’s wedding. He would make sure there was plenty of food and refreshments on the tables as provided by the wedding party. If the food or drink got low it was the wedding party’s responsibility to procure more or basically end the party. Somehow, Mary found out about the predicament. She wants Jesus to fix the problem. Evidently, Jesus’ identity is no secret to her. Jesus’ response clues us in on Jesus’ identity. Jesus is looking ahead to what he is to do. His hour has not come.

The word hour in John’s Gospel always points to fulfillment of the end times. Jesus is the One who has come to fulfill the Word of God, to usher in the Reign of God. At the right time, the right hour, Jesus will bring in the fulfillment of the Reign of God. In just a few short verses we find out Jesus’ identity as the Son of God. We haven’t even seen the sign yet.

While Jesus’ response to Mary is a harsh rebuke but, he does what she says.  The servants fill six stone jars with water. These are large jars and we are talking about a lot of water. After they fill the jars the servants draw out the contents and instead of water it is wine. The wine is excellent. The steward is surprised by the quality of the wine. He knows nothing about Jesus’ intervention. He believes the groom has pulled a fast one. At a wedding the best wine was always served first. Then after everyone had plenty, the wine of lesser quality was served. The quality of the wine now presented to the steward is better than the wine he served at first.

It is important for us to understand the “sign” that the wine is making in this narrative.  To paraphrase the New Testament scholar Allan Dwight Callahan:

In Judean apocalyptic literature, wine is a symbol of the coming messianic age of peace and righteousness. Enoch 10:19 looks forward to the vine yielding wine in abundance, and in 2 Baruch 29:5 each vine shall have one thousand branches and each branch one thousand clusters.  The abundant wine suddenly flowing at the wedding in Cana is a sign has come.

The amount of water turned into wine is a sign for us of the abundance of God’s grace. If we stop to figure it out Jesus turned 120 to 180 gallons of water into wine. I don’t believe the wedding party was that large but God’s grace is abundant. God’s desire is for us to receive that grace. The guests received the wine even though they had no idea where it originated. We receive God’s grace daily. We open our eyes to a new day that is God’s grace. We see people we love and for whom we care. That is God’s grace. We have food to eat and a comfortable place to sleep. That is God’s grace. We know what Christ did for us on the cross and that we have a place in God’s Reign. That is God’s grace.

Not only do we see the abundance of God’s grace, we see the quality of God’s grace. We see what God has in store for us. The wine is excellent. It is the best wine. God intends the best for us. God’s desire is for us to receive the excellence of his grace and respond to the best of our ability. We receive God’s excellent grace freely. It is up to us to respond. First, we receive it and then we share it. We share the love God has given us one to another. We share the richness of what he has given us one to another. We take care of one another and support one another. We share the story of Jesus to others. We have just defined stewardship. Good stewardship is in response to recognizing God’s grace for us. Let me say that once more, Good stewardship is in response to recognizing God’s grace for us.

We can take the time on this snowy weekend to honor not only the life and legacy of Dr. King by meditating on ways that our lives have been influenced by the people who have champions of social and economic justice in our lives.  Who led and lead ordinary lives that impacted us in extraordinary ways.

As a child Judge McCree and his late wife Dores were known to me as friends of my parents.  The McCree Family along with the Bell’s, the Bledsoe-Ford’s, the Reid’s, the Holloway’s, the Hylton’s, the Lowery’s and other families who were part of a Detroit who broke racial and societal barriers during the time of Dr. King

These individuals also need to be raised up in celebration this weekend.  These men and women laid the foundation that opened the doors for their children and others.  They made sure that we were not excluded from the table. It is my duty as it is our collective duty to make sure that no one is ever excluded from the table.

On this weekend where we celebrate the life of Rev. Dr. King let us recall the part of his acceptance speech on the occasion of the award of the Nobel Peace Prize on December 10, 1964.

I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the “is-ness” of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal “oughtness” that forever confronts him. I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsom and jetsom in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.

This first sign to us is of God’s incredible grace through Jesus. Do we see the sign for what it is? Are we willing to accept the sign and follow Jesus? Are we willing to trust that God only wants the best for us? We have the choice. We can accept God’s grace or we can turn away. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Karen Coleman

Living Our Baptism

Sunday, January 13th, 2019

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Isaiah 43:1-7

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Good morning! What a pleasure it is to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with you on this first Sunday after the Epiphany! Now, I know that as we emerge from our holiday season and back into the reality of our everyday lives, the transition can be a rough one. Last Sunday, we heard the story of the Wise Men’s arrival at the manger, and Rev. Gaskell’s explanation of the subject of hospitality. However, there was also something else that happened on the “epiphany” that gave it its name. Namely, the wise men shared in a moment of joy when they reached the manger indicated by a star overhead. This was the wise men’s epiphany – the “aha” moment that helped them realize the presence of God in Jesus’ birth. In the church, the season of Epiphany contains scripture readings from the beginning of Jesus’ life and ministry. In everyday use, an epiphany usually refers to that “aha” moment when we realize something, or make a connection, that we hadn’t before. Similarly, in the church, throughout these weeks following the wise men’s own “aha” moment, we continue to explore what Jesus’ ministry means to the world and what affect it has on our own understandings of what it means to be Christian.

Today we celebrate Jesus’ baptism and the ritual of baptism as a sacrament of our church. Our Gospel reading today places us in a scene of John the Baptist explaining that he is not the Messiah, and that his acts of baptism are insignificant in comparison with the Messiah’s baptism. Jesus then comes to be baptized along with others in the Jordan. There is no mention that John is the one who actually performs the baptism. In fact, in the verses left out of our gospel reading today, John is actually imprisoned by Herod. The baptism of the others and of Jesus are just said to have happened.  The focus in Jesus’ baptism is on God’s actions and words after the baptism. In Jesus’ baptism, we see a sign of God’s presence through the descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove and God naming Jesus as the beloved, with whom God is well pleased. Talk about an “aha” moment – the voice of God speaking to those gathered and the figure of a dove descending from the sky must have been a sight to see! The act of submersion in the water and God’s declaration and presence makes Jesus’ baptism an act of significance. It affirms that Jesus is the one that John has been telling the people about. Jesus is the one who comes to baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

Martin Luther wrote that “It is of the greatest importance that we regard baptism as excellent, glorious, and exalted…To be baptized in God’s name is to be baptized not by human beings but by God himself.” Baptism reinforces the relationship that God shares with God’s people. It is an indication of the unconditional love and grace that God extends. However, we must understand that this external act only represents what is eternal in God. It is important for baptism, this ritual, to be performed in a physical way because it helps us understand through our senses what God offers to us in a relationship of faith. Luther, again, writes in the Large Catechism that the act of “[baptism] must be external so that it can be perceived and grasped by the senses and thus brought into the heart.” Baptism helps us to further understand the grace of God in ways that we can touch, see, and hear.

I bet most of us did not have the same baptismal moment as Jesus. I bet many of us do not even remember our baptisms, as we may have been infants or small children at the time. I don’t remember the actual day of my baptism, some almost 36 years ago in my father’s church in Pennsylvania. Sure, I have tokens of remembrance from the day – in fact my mom just sent me some pictures of the baptismal candle they lit that day, a white taper candle with a silver “A” for Alpha near the top, and a blue triangle of wax with a white dove super-imposed on it. Having grown up in the church as a Pastor’s kid, I remember many infant baptisms. Beyond the act of the baptism itself, it served as a way for the congregation to welcome a new member into the community. In particular, what sticks out in my mind is the presentation of the newly baptized babies to the congregation. I can remember my father (my pastor) addressing the congregation by saying “I present to you, your new brother or sister in Christ…” and the child’s name. My dad would walk up and down the aisles of the church with the little ones in tow, so that the congregation members could see and greet their new family member in the body of Christ. While I can’t remember this from my own baptism, being reminded of what probably happened at my baptism through observing others gave me a sense of how I also belonged to the community. We also might have photos, a baptismal certificate, or even just stories of the day we were baptized that remind us it happened if we were too young to remember. Beyond that day, those who sponsored us, or our parents, made promises to remind us of our baptism and what it means to be entered into the community of Christians.

Baptism comes in many different shapes and forms depending on the traditions we come from. As I already mentioned, some churches believe in infant baptism; that small children should be baptized and welcomed into the Christian community based on their parents’ or other adult sponsors promises to guide and involve them in the Church. Others of us may have come from traditions that wait for children to be older or even adults before they are able to make the choice to be baptized. Some of us may have been completely immersed in water, while others just had a sprinkling of a trickle of water placed on our forehead. Our baptism may have taken place inside, at a font or in a baptistry, or outside, in a body of water like a river or a lake (or in the case of Marsh Chapel, in an inflatable children’s pool behind the building!).

Despite the many forms of Christianity that exist, we all share in the importance of baptism as an act which brings members into our communities. In an ecumenical setting, such as our interdenominational worship here at Marsh Chapel, baptism serves as a way of binding us together in our faith. The things that mattered most about all of our baptisms, despite how they were performed, was the presence of water and the words spoken, baptizing us in the name of the triune God. It is the combination of these – the water and the words – that make baptism an act which differs from regular washing.  As Luther writes in response to the question “what is baptism?” in the Large Catechism “it is not simply plain water, but water placed in the setting of God’s Word and commandment and made holy by them.” It is out of the baptismal waters that we emerge as new people who belong to God.

We tend to think of baptism as a one-time event. In a way, it is. For most mainline Protestant denominations, only one baptism is acknowledged. Some traditions, like Methodism, Lutheranism, and Anglicanism, recognize baptism as a sacrament, a means of God’s grace. The other sacrament that these traditions acknowledge is that of holy communion or the lord’s supper. These two acts remind us of the relationship and connection we have with God. However, the act of baptism only needs to occur once because we live into the relationship we name with God throughout our lives. We might be reminded of our baptism when we worship, or even reaffirm our baptism later in life, but the covenant established with God through our baptism only needs to happen once for it to extend through our whole lives. God’s grace knows no bounds. Even if we rebel and reject God, God continues to extend grace to each of us. Through faith we acknowledge this connection. Our baptism as an act need only occur once in a lifetime, but our lives are forever formed and informed by our baptism.

Baptism affords us the opportunity to be welcomed into the community of Christians who profess the same faith as us through this ritual act. The sacraments of baptism and eucharist give us tangible sign of God’s presence in the world that we can hold on to and cling to in our moments of doubt and from which our faith can grow. It causes us to come together as a community to learn and grow with one another in our individual callings as children of God and as a community of faith. We may ask, what happens if we are baptized but do not have faith in God? Our Baptism is not depended on how well we live in to our faith, the only thing that baptism is dependent upon is the Word of God. This means that if we falter, if we turn away from God, if we fail to live out our callings as Christians, God is still there for us and loves us. Human beings have no control over the extension of God’s grace to us. Our relationship with God through our baptism is eternal; the grace of God is unearned and freely given.

So what does our baptism mean for us beyond the act of baptism itself? How do we live out our baptism in our lives every day? Remember how I said that the definition of epiphany is often referred to as an “aha” moment? What if we looked at the start of this new calendar year as an “aha” moment for what our baptism means in our lives? If we took the time to really think about what it means to be in relationship with God and how we can express that in our daily lives? Do you think we may come across some “aha” moments then?

To be honest, I did not come up with connecting the “aha-ness” of epiphany with how we live out our baptism. In fact, my church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America connected the act of baptism to this time of year in a quest to better understand the forms of discipleship we are called to undertake as Christians. They connect discipleship with the words used in the affirmation of baptism found in our worship liturgy. The following question is asked of those reaffirming their commitment through their baptism:

Do you intend to continue in the covenant made with you in holy baptism:

To live among God’s faithful people

To hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper

To proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed

To serve all people, following the example of Jesus,

And to strive for justice and peace in all the Earth?

Those reaffirming their baptism respond with “I do, and I ask God to help and guide me.”

 

Now, I may be biased (or more accurately, I am biased), but these statements of faith lay out ways in which we can hold ourselves responsible to the promises made in our covenant. To live, to hear, to proclaim, to serve, and to strive.

In thinking about the ways we live among God’s people, we may immediately turn to our worshipping community. Here at Marsh Chapel we are afforded with the opportunity to not only learn from members of our congregation in a shared denominational identity, but to learn from other members of our Christian community who may not come from our same tradition. Living among God’s people can also be understood as others we encounter who have come to help shape our faith or our understanding of God. We may recall a time when we felt inspired by another’s commitment to their faith, or encouragement in our own faith by a person or people within our faith community. Perhaps we find this connection through an invitation to participate in a worship service, or sing in the choir, or having a conversation after worship which leads to new ideas or new ways of thinking about the world. Living among God’s people continues to shape and form our lives in seeking out ways to deepen and enact our faith in the world.

We hear the word of God most often in a worship setting. Each week we listen as the readings and Gospel are read, and then interpreted for our lives by the preacher. We may be most acutely aware of our connection with the divine when we come together in worship, through hearing the scriptures, singing hymns, and praying together for the good of the whole world and our community. We also celebrate the Lord’s supper together as a community during worship. As I mentioned earlier, the sacrament of holy communion is another way we experience God’s grace with our senses – through hearing the Words of Institution, seeing the bread and the wine, touching and tasting it, we are reminded of God’s presence with us. Without this grounding connection, it may become easier for us to forget what our relationship with God really means to us. By worshipping with others we further the bonds of our community and come to understand the ways the scripture can shape our lives. We are fortified with the means of grace offered to us through communing with one another.

We also bring our faith outside of our worshipping community into the fullness of our lives. In proclaiming the good news of God in Christ, both in word and in deed, we demonstrate what it means to be a Christian. We might find this to be a harder facet of discipleship to take on because it requires us to be vulnerable in a larger society which may or may not share our values. It means saying things like, “As a Christian, I believe…” or “Jesus teaches us…” These may not be phrases we’re used to or comfortable with. But proclaiming our faith helps us to elucidate or explain who we are in relationship with God, which then deepens our faith. What does it mean to be a proclaimer of God’s faith in both word and deed for you? How can you share that information with others in a way that will inspire them to understand what your life of faith is like?

Being in service to others, as Jesus was in service to others, naturally evolves out of the proclamation of the good news of God in Christ because our actions in the world stem out of our faith in God. There are times, however, when this call to service creates problems for us. We are called to serve all others as Jesus exemplified for us. This means serving those who we may not agree with, those who we’d rather not acknowledge, those who are outside of our comfort zones. We must remember, though that serving others connects us with the divine through sharing God’s love explained through the gospel and shown in our actions. In service to others, we develop relationships that help strengthen our communities and create opportunities for learning and growing individually and as a community.

Finally, the last form of discipleship mentioned in the affirmation of baptism is to strive for justice and peace in all the earth. This may feel like a tall order. What does it mean to strive for justice and peace, and how can we hope to accomplish such lofty goals at a personal or even communal level? A good place to begin is in recognizing the injustices which exist in the world around us and the parts we might play, either directly or indirectly, in perpetuating them. We should also name injustices when we see them occurring and look for ways that we can prevent them from continuing. Injustice can happen at any scale, from local to global, and can affect individual people, whole communities, and even the entire Earth. We hear a lot about injustice in the world today and we may feel helpless in trying to address what seem like unsolvable problems. However, through finding our grounding in God and in our community and faith, we can find the hope that overcomes fear and let it guide us in our care and concern for the world.

Live, hear, proclaim, serve, and strive. These are all parts of our faith, grounded in our baptism, which can guide us forward in living out what it means to be a Christian in the world. In discussing baptism in the Large Catechism, Luther writes “Therefore let all Christians regard their baptism as the daily garment that they are to wear all the time…If we want to be Christians, we must practice the work that makes us Christian…” Luther reminds us that living our lives through our baptism cultivates our faith in God and recognizes the important relationship we share with God and the world. In this time after the epiphany, I invite you to share in examining what your baptism means to you and how you can more fully live it out. Ask God to help and guide you through this process. Perhaps you will surprise yourself with an “aha” moment.

–Dr. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

The Hospitality of Strangers

Sunday, January 6th, 2019

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Isaiah 60:1-6

Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14

Ephesians 3:1-12

Matthew 2:1-12.

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Happy New Year!  We’re six days in.  And apart from anything else going on, today, January 6, 2019, has much significance in the Christian calendar.  In some Christian traditions, it is Old Christmas, a Christmas Day from the Julian calendar that preceded our current Gregorian calendar.  In some traditions, it is Three Kings Day, when gifts are exchanged, either between family and friends, or by the three kings themselves to children, in commemoration of their visit to the baby Jesus.  And here, for us today, it is the Feast of the Epiphany,of the appearance, of the revelation, of the manifestation. Today, it is the manifestation of Christ, and today especially, to the Gentiles. That would be us.

Epiphany this year is a ten-week liturgical season.  The people who created the lectionary cycle have picked scriptures of majesty and drama for today, to start the season off.

Isaiah describes the restoration of Israel.  They are released from captivity in Babylon, and restored to right relationship with God.  They will see and be radiant, their hearts will thrill and rejoice, because they shine like a beacon in the dark with the glory of God.  They are a beacon that draws their own sons and daughters back from far away. The brightness of their light even draws nations and rulers to come to them.  They bring to Israel the abundance of the sea, the wealth of nations, multitudes of camels, gold and frankincense, all to praise the God of Israel and God’s glory that shines upon and through this restored people.

The Psalmist describes the just and righteous ruler who does the work of God for the people, who delivers the needy and the poor and those who have no helper, who saves their lives from oppression and violence.  Because of this, and because this ruler is also human and needs God’s help, the Psalmist calls down blessings on their reign: long life, effectiveness, peace, and the respect, tribute, and service of other rulers and nations as allies.

The author of Ephesians, writing as Paul, describes the revelation that had been given to him and the other apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This is the grace of his commission to the Gentiles, and in this letter, to the church at Ephesus.  His is the shock and understanding of the mystery of Christ, in which the formerly Gentile strangers have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus, through the gospel. It is this gospel of Christ that Paul proclaims to the Ephesians, in accordance with the eternal purposes of God in Christ Jesus, in whom all Christians, including the Ephesians, have access to God in boldness and confidence through their faith in Christ.

Matthew’s Gospel recounts the drama of the three exotic astrologers from the East, who come to Jerusalem to find the King of the Jews because they have seen the rising of his star. This is an unmistakable sign that an important ruler has been born.  Their arrival, at the current King Herod’s court, throws Herod, the court, and the entire city into fear and confusion. Herod consults with his advisors, who tell him that the true King of the Jews, the Messiah, is to be born in Bethlehem. Herod then meets secretly with the Eastern strangers, and charges them to find the child and tell him, Herod, where the child is, because he wants to pledge homage to this new king.  So the three strangers follow the star to where the child and his mother are, and with joy they pay him homage and give rich gifts. Then they are warned in a dream not to return to Herod, and they take another way home.

These scriptures are full of pomp and circumstance, majesty and prophecy fulfilled, restoration and mystery and even intrigue, rich and shiny treasure – and let’s not forget those camels. Yet four verses stand out – no prophecy, no pomp, no explication.  Except for the rich and shiny gifts and the moving star, just a simple story: three strangers, a baby, and a mother. “When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.  When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 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. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”

Three strangers, who after a long journey of faith rejoice in their journey’s end.  They recognize a child for who he is and who he will become. They welcome him with treasure, to recognize his importance to be sure, but also treasure that is easily hidden and carried, easily sold and bartered, for a young family soon to be on the run for their lives from that same Herod, who wanted to know where the child was, and maybe not to pay him homage.  The three wise ones are warned against him, after all – if they were not already suspicious with all the upset and secrecy at his court. So they take another road home to protect Jesus and his mother Mary, in a time and place where roads were hard to come by, and may just as well lead to other dangers as to joy. If their visit to the baby Jesus is the manifestation of God’s presence to them as Gentiles, then in these four verses, beyond all the pomp and circumstance and shiny drama, it is strangers who show hospitality to the child, the manifestation of God.  They show the hospitality of recognition, welcome, provision for his needs, and protection.

We ourselves have just come through the holiday season, a time when many of us have either extended or received hospitality of various kinds:  usually welcome, shelter, and food, if not necessarily protection. The word “hospitality” comes from the Latin “hospes”, and means the generous and friendly welcome of guests and the offer of a pleasant or sustaining environment.  The Latin word “hospes”, the root of our word hospitality, means “host”, “guest” or “stranger” – all three, the distinction depending on the situation.

That is interesting, because there is a great deal of talk in our air now about strangers, people from far away or who are different from us or who we don’t know, and who may be a danger to us just because they are strangers.  And there is a great deal of concern in our air now about whether or not we in our group – ethnicity, community, city, nation, church – should show hospitality to strangers. And if we should, how much and what kind of hospitality it should be.  There is even concern as to if it should be hospitality we show at all, in the sense of our engagement with strangers being one of welcome and friendliness, pleasantness, or sustenance.

So the Latin word “hospes”, the root of our word hospitality, is interesting because if it means all three – host, guest, and stranger – it also suggests that these roles are interchangeable in the larger practice of hospitality, and that hospitality itself is a function of each role.

We usually assume that a host extends hospitality, and the guest or a stranger receive it.  But the word “hospes” suggests that hosts, guests, and even strangers, not only receive hospitality but also extend it.

If strangers in particular not only receive hospitality but also extend it, that expands the notion of hospitality considerably.

Now I am the last person to suggest that one should not be careful around strangers, and around hosts and guests for that matter.  All kinds of strangers came up and talked to my parents about pleasantries and directions, and my parents themselves talked with all kinds of strangers about pleasantries and directions.  Pleasantries and directions with whoever showed up. This has turned out to be part of my life too, and now apparently is part of our children’s lives as well. And, it has always been very clear through three generations that one does not get into cars or go off willy-nilly with people one does not know, especially if one is alone or if one’s hair at the back of the neck stands up.  Then it doesn’t matter at all if they are not from far away and look just like us. But while not every stranger is a friend we haven’t met yet, a generous, friendly, pleasant, even sustaining welcome, in attitude and perhaps conversation, couldn’t hurt the prospects for friendship, at the very least until we know there are actual grounds for suspicion.

Because it may be that it is the stranger next to us or in our midst that will be the one to extend hospitality to us, instead of the other way around.  Like the three wise men from far away did with the baby Jesus, they may recognize us for who we are as having the image of God within. They may welcome us with respect and may offer us treasures of friendship or knowledge, skill or humor.  They may even be a source of protection or help. The question is, can we recognize and accept the hospitality of strangers?

The writer of Ephesians reminds us that in one sense we already have.  Through our ancestors in the faith we have accepted the hospitality of strangers in the work of Paul.  He certainly started out as a stranger – a person of another faith and a Roman citizen who persecuted the members of the early church.  He then claimed a rather spectacular conversion experience on the Damascus road that made him not only a member of the Jesus movement but also an apostle.  As an apostle, he was sent to share the Gospel of Christ with Gentiles, who also were strangers, and sometime hostile, to the members of the Jesus movement.  And yet, as a stranger to everyone, his generous welcome and gifts for organization supported new Christians and churches in a number of multi-cultural locations in the Roman world.  Without the work of the stranger Paul, and the acceptance of his hospitable invitation by the early church and by subsequent generations, we would not be here this morning, or at least we would not be here in the same way.

We are also reminded, by the story of the three strangers who extended hospitality to the baby Jesus, that strangers often come to us because they are led to us by God.  While to accept the hospitality of strangers may not always entertain angels unaware, it may very well do. And if it is “just” a generous and pleasant experience, that is all to the good too.  Like many of you, I have had a number of instances of my acceptance of the hospitality of strangers in my life – all of them ended well, and in some cases – not always the most pleasant initially – I consider them a direct manifestation of God’s provision for my life.

All hospitality – a generous and friendly welcome and a pleasant and sustaining environment – has something of God in it.  And in some ways, God is a stranger to us too. God is different from us, never completely known, even as God is God-with-us in Jesus.  God sometimes seems far away, as we are separated from God by sin. God even sometimes seems dangerous, in the invitations to change, to accept the strange, to stretch our comfort zones.  And yet, the first Sunday of every month, and Wednesday evenings, and other times too, here at Marsh the table is set with the tasty sweetness of grain and grape. The invitations to transform are extended:  to be nourished; to love God and self and neighbor; to recognize each other as companions with God and with each other in the adventures of our lives; to have the image of God restored in us. The hospitality of God, the generous and loving welcome, the sustenance of God’s empowerment, nourishment and companionship, it never fails, it never ends.  God the stranger becomes the one in whom we live and move and have our being, in ourselves and with each other.

It is when we accept the hospitality of God that we can most recognize and accept the hospitality of strangers.  So on this feast day of Epiphany, of appearance, of revelation, of manifestation, who is the stranger whose hospitality we might accept?  Is it someone here, sharing grain and grape with us in communion? Is it someone at work or in class or on our block? Is it someone from far away, or who is different from us, or who we do not yet know?  Who may be trying to reach out to us in welcome, with gifts?

With this, as we consider the hospitality of strangers, there is also a question that turns it back to us.  Who might we be strangers to, who might be persons to whom, as strangers to them, we might offer a generous and friendly welcome or a pleasant and sustaining environment?  Who may think that we are from a place far removed from theirs, or think we are different from them, or that they do not and cannot know us? Who might accept our hospitality of strangers, as we have accepted the hospitality of strangers ourselves?  Like the baby Jesus and Mary, there are many people in the world, both near and far, who might accept, might even be desperate for, a generous and friendly welcome, recognition for who they really are, a pleasant and sustaining environment, or even protection and help, even from a stranger.  What guidance from God, in a star or a dream or deep compassion or an experience, might guide us to them?

A host is a host, and a guest is a guest, and a stranger is a stranger.  And, depending on the situation, a person might be any of these. And, in any given situation, a host is primarily a host, and a guest is primarily a guest, and a host is a little bit guest and a guest is a little bit host.  But a stranger can be both completely a stranger and a host, or both completely a stranger and a guest. Let us then be glad of the hospitality of strangers, that we can receive it and also provide it, in the great and unending hospitality of God.  Amen.

–Rev. Victoria Hart Gaskell, Minister for Visitation{victoria gaskell}