Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Need For Titles

I was in seeing a cardiologist this morning and as I was putting my shirt back on after having an EKG done I was looking at the poster on the wall of the heart. It had drawings of all the chambers and shots of the heart from different angles and with different cut aways so you could see different things. Then at the bottom was all the copyright information.

What struck me was that there were two artists who did the drawings in consultation with someone at some university listed. The scientist had PhD listed after his name, but the artists had MFA listed after their names. Was that necessary? Why was that there? Did it make a difference that the artists had a master in fine arts? Would a bachelor's degree not have been enough? Was it their decision to have it included, or did the publisher put it on there in order to give them more importance and weight? Would it have been strange if they were listed without anything, but the other name still had Ph.D. after the name?

I know some clergy who list M.Div. after their names. In my experience this has appeared to be done for one of two reasons. The first is that they are young clergy and so they hope that by listing the degree it will give them some degree of status and acceptability they might not otherwise have. The second is that it is done by people in denominations who do not require an advanced degree and so they want people to know that they do indeed have a degree in theology. Both sort of have at the core the need for respect that such a degree entails.

I am not immune to this desire. I hang my diplomas on the wall in my office so that people will see them. I put Rev. in front of my name, which in many ways does the same thing as putting something after my name. It is a title that brings with it, or at least used to, a degree of respect and respectability.

Would I respect the other person involved in the poster as someone who can seriously add something if they did not have a Ph.D.? I honestly have to say no, that in that case I want to see an advanced degree. So why not then give the same respect to the artists, who also have advanced degrees? Is art somehow less than medicine or science? The need for titles or at least respectability is inherent in us I think, but all titles are certainly not the same as society goes. I could have M.A., M.Div, Th.M., after my name but it will never get the same respect as if I simply had MD, or Ph.D. The same as my degree from Harvard gains more respect than my degree from Boston University, which has more respect than someone who attends a smaller, unknown school.

Do people seeing this poster trust it more or does it make them more sure of its accuracy because they are MFAs? Or does it give them a level or professionalism we, and maybe others in the medical community, need in order to give them the respect they deserve as masters of their craft and as people who know what they are doing?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012


Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Romans 7:13-25a:

Hi. My name is John and I’m a sinner. (You’ve obviously not spent a lot of time around 12 step programs, because the answer to that is you saying “Hi john.”) Today we continue in our sermon series on what Christians believe, and as you might guess from the passage we just heard from Paul’s letter to the Romans, it is about sin. We spent the first two weeks looking at the sacraments of the church, and of the two protestant sacraments, which are baptism and communion; sin obviously plays a role in them.

One of the things that happens in baptism is that we are washed clean of our sins, and in communion normally before we enter into the main liturgy, called the great thanksgiving, we pray a prayer of confession and then during the liturgy we raise up the cup we remember Jesus as he said “this is the blood of the new covenant, poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.” The first words that Jesus utters to begin his ministry, after John the Baptist has been arrested, is “repent for the kingdom of God has come near.” Sin plays a role in what we believe as Christians, but we in the mainline churches tend to shy away for the topic.

Scott Sharp, who is the minister at Central United Methodist in Albuquerque recounts growing up in a very small, very conservative rural church in Oklahoma. He said that they didn’t receive communion very often, but when they did it was always memorable. First the bread would be passed out, but rather than being a nice soft loaf like we use, it would instead be a hard bread that could crack.

After everyone had received the bread, the minister would have everyone raise the bread up over their heads and he would say “this is Christ’s body which was broken” and then he would proceed to break his piece of bread with a loud crack, and then he would tell everyone to break their bread, and then he would say “that is Christ’s body breaking for your sin, you are responsible for Christ being broken on the cross, it is your fault.” As you might imagine this would indeed be very powerful for a young child with the loud breaking of the bread and then being told he was responsible for Christ’s death. Then the cups with juice would be passed out, and once again everyone would raise the cup up over their heads, and the minister would say, “This is Christ’s blood which was poured out. You caused him to bleed, it is because of your sins that he had to died, you put him up on the cross.” Now that is an emphasis on sin.

I know that some of you probably grew up in traditions that are like that, that were heavy on the sin, heavy on the fire and brimstone preaching, and maybe heavy on the confessing as well, although strangely those don’t always go together. Some of you have told me that one of the things you like about the Methodist church is that we don’t do that, and it’s certainly one of the things I like too. I would not be a good fire and brimstone preacher. But we also tend to ignore the idea of sin. It is not something we really want to talk about, to some degree this is because we want to be different from churches that place a heavy emphasis on sin, but also because we’re not quite sure what to do about it.

I once had someone tell me that he didn’t like praying the prayer of confession before communion because he didn’t feel that he had done any of those things, and therefore there were things being put into his mouth. The prayer of confession is pretty broad, if you don’t remember what it says, it can be found on page 12 in the hymnal, but we ask for forgiveness because we have not loved God with our whole heart, and we haven’t followed God in everything, and we have not loved our neighbors. Now this man was a good guy, but I can assure you he was not perfect as none of us are perfect. But sin had been so deemphasized that he couldn’t find areas of sin in his life. So then the questions becomes can we deal with sin and yet also deal with it and look at it differently than just fire and brimstone? The answer, as you can probably guess, is of course yes.

I’m sure that most of us can identify things as sins, or have been told not to do something because it’s a sin, but what exactly does that mean? For those who tend to be the ones who emphasize sin, it tends to be based on emphasizing right and wrong behavior based on a set of rules that we are supposed to obey. Do this, and you are a sinner. Do that and you are okay. The problem with this emphasis, for me at least, is that it can quickly turn into a pharisaic practice, pharisaic righteousness, in which we can say we are okay because we’re not explicitly doing the things that are forbidden.

But Jesus deals with this as well when he says that it’s not just enough to say you have not literally committed adultery, for example, but instead, he says, if you have looked at someone with lust then you have committed adultery. It takes the law and elevates it to a new level, which then makes it nearly impossible to live into, which to some degree is the point. There are two types of sin covered in scripture. The first is the one that most people think of, and the ones we were just talking about, which is individual sin. When we talk about repenting and receiving forgiveness it is almost always about individual sin.

In its most basic definition, to sin is to break relationship with God. To repent means to turn away or to turn around, to stop going down the path that we were taking and instead to take another path, to realign ourselves with God. I believe that sometimes we believe that repentance and asking for forgiveness are exactly the same thing, but they aren’t always the same. I used to have a teacher who whenever someone apologized for something would say, “are you sorry you did it, or are you sorry you got caught?” Repentance is not just about forgiveness it is also about restoration of relationship, in this case with God, and we have the perfect example of this in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son.

Some of you may remember the story. The younger son one day goes to his father and asks for his share of his inheritance, which the father requests, and then the son leaves the household and goes off and squanders his inheritance in profligate living. After everything is gone he finds himself destitute, doing work which requires him to work with pigs, something which is a sin, for Jews. Seeing how low he has fallen, he decides he is going to go back home, apologize to his father and offer to be a servant in his father’s household, and he even composes his speech of forgiveness, and so he heads home. But does he ever actually apologize to his father? No instead his father sees him coming down the road and he runs out to meet him and welcomes him home with a celebration.

In this sense the prodigal son has actually repented, he has gone down a different path. The son could have sent a letter to his father seeking forgiveness and probably would have received it, but even though he was forgiven he would still be in a foreign land, separated from his father. Instead it is in changing his path, of going back home, that relationship is restored, which is what his father wanted all along. Does forgiveness play a role? Of course it does, but the son was forgiven as soon as he realized the errors of his ways, of how broken he was, and made the decision to change paths and to go home, and then the relationship was restored. That is what repentance entails; it is not only seeking forgiveness, but stopping whatever path we are going down and returning to God.

The most un-ethical person I have ever met was someone I worked with. Most of the people in the company earned their money on straight commissions, and she would do whatever she thought necessary to get a sale, including routinely stealing them from others. When I called her on this at one point, and said that I knew how important her faith was and didn’t she see any conflict there, she told me that she confessed her sins each night and asked for forgiveness so she had nothing to worry about. Of course the next day she was right back at it again. That’s not what forgiveness of sins is about because it had nothing to do with repentance, of changing the path we were on, changing what we were doing, or restoration of relationship with God.

So one type of sin is individual, but there is also corporate, systemic or societal sin, which we also ask forgiveness for at communion. In Micah, the sin of the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel is identified as Samaria and Jerusalem, the capital cities. Sin is identified as the city. Now we might talk about Las Vegas as being sin city, but that’s because of what takes place there, the sin does not necessarily rest in the city itself, but what Micah is pointing out is that the elites had created structures and systems that benefit them and hurt many others. So the system itself is sinful. Do the people who set up these structures need to repent and receive forgiveness, yes, but that is not enough, because the system also needs to be changed.

In his pastoral letter this month, Rev. Michael Brunk, from First UMC in Portales, wrote about growing up in segregated Virginia and he how and his family viewed Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights workers. He says that they just knew that they were better than blacks, just as they knew they were better than Jews and Catholics as well. Sure there was their maid Elizabeth, but she wasn’t like the others, she was, as he says a “good (insert appropriate word).” He continues, “I have to believe that the African-Americans that grew up in my neck of the woods understood that something was very wrong… but we didn’t… we really didn’t. And that is what truly disturbs me.” Systems had been established so that those who had one color of skin were given preference over those of another type. That is systemic sin.

What corporate sin also shows us is the inherent danger when we only emphasize the idea of sin in relation to Jesus Christ. African-Americans did not need to repent for the sins of society, because they were the victims of that sin, what they needed was liberation and healing, not forgiveness. Now this does not mean that they did not also need personal forgiveness, but to make that claim as the lead argument is to ignore the reality of their situation. In fact it would a sort of slap in the face that tries to apply some blame for their situation on them, as if to say, if only you were not a sinner then everything would be better, which of course often happened as well.

But that is not the witness we get in scripture. When people came to Jesus to be healed, he does not first say to them “Have you repented of your sins?” and if they had not refuse to heal them. Instead he provides them with what they need which is healing. It is the healing that begins the path to bringing them back into relationship with God. Sometimes, as with lepers and others who were considered unclean, they had been totally excluded from the community, and through their understanding of this their relationship with God, until Jesus heals them. When Jesus encounters a man who was born blind, the disciples ask Jesus if the blindness for the sins of the man or his parents, and Jesus says no and then heals him. Again, he does not say, what this man needs is forgiveness, or even that he needs to repent, what he needs is to be able to see. The issue of sin does play a part in this story, but it is people questioning Jesus and proclaiming him a sinner.

Sin is an important metaphor and issue in the bible, and it is one that we believe is important, but it is not the only or even the most important metaphor used. When the Israelites are enslaved in Egypt they do not need forgiveness, they need to be freed of their bondage. After the exile into Babylon, the people do not need forgiveness to save them, they need to be brought back home. When the blind man approaches Jesus, he does not need to be told he is a sinner, he needs healing, he needs his sight. When the prodigal son comes home he needs more than just forgiveness, he needs restoration of his relationship with his father. Those who are battling illness and disease, their brokenness is not sin, but health and they need healing to restore relationship.

Now there are people who say that they don’t want to have anything to do with the church because it’s full of hypocrites, and I always want to say, “of course it’s full of hypocrites. We all want to be better than we are, but we are not there. No one in the church is perfect and so yes, we are all hypocrites.” Of course what they really mean is that the church is full of people who are self-righteous, and on that I would agree with them, because there are people who feel that because of baptism that they are washed of their sins and therefore they are sort of in the free and clear about their actions, and feel the right to look down their noses at others, to feel better than them, and who because of this sense of self-righteousness cannot stand up and say “Hi. My name is _____ and I’m a sinner.”

Who did Jesus eat with and spend all his time with? It wasn’t the righteous, and certainly not the self-righteous, it was with sinners, those who were broken, who knew they were broken, and longed for something more, something different, who longed for restoration. In the words of Marcus Borg, “Sin matters. But,” he says, “ when it and the need for forgiveness become the dominant issue in our life with God, it reduces and impoverishes the wisdom and passion of the Bible and the Christian tradition.”

Paul says “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” Paul is making a claim, just as John Wesley also claimed, that sin is “an infirmity of our” nature. By saying that he wants to do something other than what he does, Paul is not making excuses. He is not making the famous claim now among fallen politicians and preachers that the devil made me do. Instead he is claiming that without Christ, without working on moving towards God, that we will always be lacking and it is not simply that all we need is a little more self-will. If that was all that sin was then we would just need to put a little more effort into things, or maybe get a good life coach to push us to do things. But that’s not what it’s like. Sin is a brokenness that is in us as humans, it is why we cannot rescue ourselves from sin but instead need God to do it for us. We need God’s amazing grace to do it for us.

In the Methodist church, following Wesley’s teachings, we believe that when you accept Christ into your life, when you accept God’s grace for yourself, that you are in Christian language justified, and that you begin the process of forgiveness and we begin to live each day more and more like Christ. But that does not mean that we are always on the right path, because one of the things that separates Methodism from others is that we believe that faith is sort of a sliding scale, we are not always saved, this is called the preservation of the saints, once saved always saved, we do not believe that. Today we might take two steps forward, but tomorrow we take one step back, and in fact might even take three steps back.

It is a process, a journey we are undertaking, some days are better than others. Forgiveness is not what does away with sin, instead it is centering ourselves in God, putting our allegiance in Jesus Christ, and living into the command that we love the lord our God with all our hearts and all our strength and all our soul and all our mind. When we do that then we are on the path to a time when our hearts might become so full of God’s love that we can no longer willfully sin, and we are perfected in Christ, we reach entire sanctification.

When I say that we are Methodists are moving on to perfection, this is what I am talking about. Being perfect does not mean that we therefore don’t make any mistakes, or we spell every word correctly, that is not what it means to be perfected in Christ. But instead that for a moment of time we are in complete alignment with God’s will for our lives, our brokenness is put aside and we are in harmony with God. But, it is only for a moment. It is not a permanent state of being because, again, sin, or brokenness is part of who we are. We are broken people who live in a broken world, and Christ did not come in spite of that, but he came because of that.

Our lives are often ones distorted from a proper relationship with God, but God is still there, extending God’s grace to us, God’s amazing grace, and waiting for us to come home, to seek relationship, to seek restoration. We are offered forgiveness, just as we are offered healing, and freedom, and salvation, and relationship. This passage from Paul does not end on a bleak note on sin, but instead ends with a reminder that it is through Jesus Christ that we are saved. It is through God’s grace and mercy that we were once blind but now see, were once lost but now are found. We live lives of brokenness, brokenness with each other and brokenness with God.

None of us live into who or what we want to be. But through Jesus Christ we are offered restoration, we are the prodigal child whose father is waiting for us to return, waiting by watching the road, waiting for us to come home with joy and celebration, waiting to be in relationship with us once again. We believe in sin, but it need not be the metaphor that dominates our relationship with God, because everything, forgiveness and healing, restoration and wholeness, leads us back home, back into relationship with God and away from brokenness. May it be so my sisters and brothers. Amen.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Say It Aint So Joe - Post 300

This is my 300th post on this blog. As the title says, I wanted a space to write "random thoughts on life, religion and sports," and so maybe appropriately this 300th post is on Joe Paterno and a subject that sort of encapsulates all those things.

Joe died on Sunday morning and I can't really say anything that hasn't already been said, but like a good preacher I'm going to anyways. At the time the scandal broke and Joe was fired I said that I did not expect him to live much longer, and certainly probably not make it to the trial. Now I am not very prescient on that, it was simply being aware of the situation, and that was before it came out that he had cancer.

He was an 85-year-old man who was experiencing probably the most stressful thing that had ever happened in his life. He was losing the only thing he did, he was losing his identity, and as is common once that was gone he didn't know what else to do. Being a coach was who he was, he didn't know how to be anything else. This is certainly not unique to him, it is very very common for men, especially those of an older generation, but it is not limited to them. I've certainly known my share of women who stayed home to raise children who have gone into a tailspin when their children left home because now they had to create a new identity. But they typically don't have to do that when they are 85.

There are plenty of people today who are claiming that Joe died of a broken heart, that the institution he created turned his back on him. Now should the university have handled it differently? Maybe, but their response should not have come as a shock. If this had come out in 1980, it would have been different, but we are in a very different place today, and Joe of all people should have known that, or at least the University should have made that clear to everyone.

As a minister I would certainly expect to be fired if I knew about sexual abuse taking place and it did not get reported. It would be automatic. Paterno was in a position to do something and he didn't do it, and as further reports are coming out he clearly held lots of power in the university, and he knew he held this power. Just the fact that he could tell the trustees during all this that they had more important things to worry about then his job, tells you what he thought.

Joe understood the classics, he could appreciate Greek tragedy, and this has all the makings of a tragedy, just one fatal flaw brings down the whole thing. Joe was clearly elevated to a status that brought with it blind allegiance, and a hubris. Whether Joe bought into all that or not I cannot say, but anytime we elevate people to incredible heights they will always be brought back down somehow and people's views of them will be shattered.

We cannot forget the incredible things that Joe did for Penn State. How many other schools have a library named for the football coach? He clearly helped people in need (great story by Rick Reilly). He stressed academics and pushed for excellence. But he clearly did not do enough in this situation, which then makes people wonder what else he might have turned his back on. You cannot separate the good from the bad, they will forever be a part of his legacy. Nor can we instantly say what we would have done in that situation, because until we are there we simply don't know, but we can say that something more should have been done.

Paul Simon famously wrote, "where have you gone Joe DiMaggio, our nation turns it's lonely eyes to you." JoePa certainly made us want to harken back to a better time, a time that was more pure (even though it wasn't) and better (even though it wasn't). But it is probably a quote about another famous baseball player that better sums up the whole situation (although it is probably apocryphal). When Shoeless Joe Jackson was on trail for reportedly helping to throw the 1919 World Series, reportedly a young boy approached him and said, "Say it aint so Joe. Say it aint so." In response Joe simply walked away, not saying a thing.

I know that in five to ten years that Joe's memory will be less tarnished then it is right now, and that is for the good, but we also cannot forget what happened lest we get complacent and allow it to happen again.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Roe v. Wade at 39

Yesterday was the 39th anniversary of the Supreme Courts decision of Roe v. Wade making abortion legal in the United States, a decision whose future is uncertain, although I suspect it will only be further scaled back not overturned. A little known fact which greatly impacted the decision and the way it was written was that Harry Blackmun, who wrote the decision, was former legal counsel to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, and he consulted his former physician friends about the medical pieces of the case.

I like the stance of the United Methodist Church (which you will find below) in regards to abortion. One of the reasons I like it is because it think it well encapsulates the difficulties faced in this troublesome issue. I am opposed to abortion in many cases, but certainly do not want to see it made illegal, because as the statement says there can sometimes be a "tragic conflict of life with life."

My mother was an OB/GYN nurse for most of her career and worked for a doctor who did not perform abortions, and even left a practice over this issue. But one of the stories she tells is of a woman who was severely injured in an accident and as a result had a large number of x-rays performed, but she did not know at the time that she was pregnant. As this became clear and it also became clear that as a result of her exposure to x-rays that the baby would be severely disabled, if it survived the pregnancy at all, the doctor counseled her that abortion might be the best option. He was opposed to abortion but recognized the tragic consequences for all involved. These are the realities that face women every single day, and they are the realities that people who want to make absolute stands either don't understand or with which they simply don't want to deal.

Now the fundamentalist opposition in America to abortion is fairly recent. It really came from the influence of Francis Schaeffer, who was pushed in that direction by his son Frank. Frank has now come out in opposition to that stance. It is not that he does not oppose abortion, because he does, but instead that he thinks they have taken the issue way too far and had become way too fanatical. (see his book Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back.)

Up until the Schaeffers made an issue of it, abortion had been seen as a Roman Catholic concern, and the fundamentalists did not want anything to do with them. But even the Roman Catholic position, especially the idea that life began at conception, was fairly new. Even though laws against abortion go all the way back to Hammurabi, it was usually allowed up to the time of quickening (when the baby first kicks). Quickening was said to be the time in which the soul entered the fetus, which is why it now kicked, and therefore considerations to protect the soul of the child from eternal damnation now needed to be considered. That is why early creeds said that Jesus shall come to judge the "quick and the dead." Those have now been changed to say the "living and the dead."

In America laws against abortion began to become standard in the late 1800s, and they were pushed not by religious groups, but instead by the newly formed American Medical Association and women's rights groups. The AMA wanted the laws passed because most abortions were not being performed by doctors, and so they saw this as an infringement on their territory. They wanted all medical procedures done by doctors, and so a way to allow this was to make those procedures commonly done by others illegal.

Women's rights group wanted to make abortions illegal because they had concerns about women being forced to have abortions by the father of the child, and so in order to give women greater control over their bodies and reproductive rights that wanted to make sure this was not really an option any more. Sort of ironic.

What most people also don't understand about Roe v. Wade was that it was not just some random decision, but was based strongly on other cases taking place at the time including Griswold V. Connecticut (1965), which struck down laws outlawing contraception, Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972), which allowed for non-married persons to posses contraception, and Loving v. Virginia (1967), which allowed for inter-racial marriage. These are not cases I hear most people seeking to overturn. Now I will leave it to others to argue about whether Blackmun wrote a good decision, or if he should have done things differently, but we have to understand that it was not created in a vacuum.

Abortion is one of those things that many people feel very deeply about, on both sides, but I truly suspect that most people, like me, are somewhere in the middle. I always have problems with absolutes, which is what people on both sides want. This is just an issue on which there are too many greys.

Here is the position of the United Methodist Church on abortion from the Social Principles (¶ 161.J):

The beginning of life and the ending of life are the God-given boundaries of human existence. While individuals have always had some degree of control over when they would die, they now have the awesome power to determine when and even whether new individuals will be born. Our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life makes us reluctant to approve abortion.

But we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother, for whom devastating damage may result from an unacceptable pregnancy.

We recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion, and in such cases we support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures. We support parental, guardian and other responsible adult notification and consent before abortions can be performed on girls who have not yet reached the age of legal adulthood. We cannot affirm abortion as an acceptable means of birth control, and we unconditionally reject it as a means of gender selection.

We oppose the use of late-term abortion known as dilation and extraction (partial-birth abortion) and call for the end of this practice except when the physical life of the mother is in danger and no other medical procedure is available, or in the case of severe fetal anomalies incompatible with life.

We call all Christians to a searching and prayerful inquiry into the sorts of conditions that may cause they to consider abortion.

The Church shall offer ministries to reduce unintended pregnancies. We commit our Church to continue to provide nurturing ministries to those who terminate a pregnancy, to those in the midst of a crisis pregnancy, and to those who give birth.

We particularly encourage the Church, the government, and social service agencies to support and facilitate the option of adoption. (See ¶ 161.K.) We affirm and encourage the Church to assist the ministry of crisis pregnancy centers and pregnancy resource centers that compassionately help women find feasible alternatives to abortion.

Governmental laws and regulations do not provide all the guidance required by the informed Christian conscience. Therefore, a decision concerning abortion should be made only after thoughtful and prayerful consideration by the parties involved, with medical, pastoral, and other appropriate counsel.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Seeking a Better Job

Recently ESPN football analyst Craig James left his position at ESPN in order to pursue the Senate seat in Texas. Prior to the presidential primaries FOX News told their pundits that if they were going to run for president that they would have to resign their positions. Now the reason that they are all supposed to leave their positions is because their time on television would give them unfair exposure if they were to remain (although since Congress abolished the fair-time rule I'm not sure what difference it would make). But the long and the short, if they want to get a better job in politics then they have to quit their jobs.

Which brings me to the current pool of candidates. Why are they not required to leave their jobs in order to run? Why is Ron Paul allowed to continue as a sitting member of the House, when he is clearly not able to do his job, in order to pursue another job? Why is Rick Perry allowed to continue to be governor, and bill the state for many of his expenses, when he clearly cannot be doing his job, in order to pursue another job?

Of course it is not just them. President Obama did not leave his Senate seat to run for president, not did Hillary Clinton, or most other candidates. And it's governors running for Senate, and representatives running for Senate, and mayors running for governor. If you want to run for another position please do, but you should be required to quit your other position first.

Would any other employer allow this? Would you or I be allowed to go off for several months on end to seek a better job and still be able to collect a paycheck and benefits that come from our current position? Of course not, because our employers would recognize that while we might still be able to do some of our jobs, we could not do everything that we were being paid for. Plus, they might reason, why should they support us when we don't want to be there, why should they allow this to be our back-up position, our safety net. They would probably say "If you want another job, then quit this one and move on."

But, we are the employers of those who hold public office, who are not doing the jobs they were elected to, and yet are being paid to do those jobs while seeking another position. When are we going to step up and say that this is ridiculous? If you want to seek another job then you need to give up the job you currently have.

There should be laws against this, but the problem is except for states with referendums, it would have to be passed by the very same politicians it would hurt, so you can be sure it will never make it through.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

One Month Warning

In just one month pitchers and catchers report for spring training. (I know some teams report on the 18th, but we're only concerned about the Yankees here).

Rogers Hornsby was once asked what he did during the winter and he said "I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring."

The Tears of Culpability

The following was written by Rev. Michael Brunk for his church newsletter. I received permission to share it here:

When I was ten years old Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his "I have a dream" speech... and when I was fifteen years old James Earl Ray struck down the dreamer with a rifle shot. The Virginia public schools where I grew up were still segregated... as were the restrooms, drinking fountains, restaurants, buses and of course... churches.

Whatever I heard about King in my childhood was usually in the context of a racial joke: He and Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali) always seemed to produce the desired snickers from my white relatives. It was all mirth to us; the very notion that "those people" would ever be our equals; ridiculous.

We had a maid then. Her name was Elizabeth. Not Mrs. whatever... I was never taught her last name... just Elizabeth. And, of course, though we never paid her the deserved respect of her age, Elizabeth was different. She wasn't LIKE those trouble-makers raising a fuss, marching through the streets, "rioting" (that's what white people called a lawful demonstration then, a "riot") She was a "good... (supply the word)."

And it never occurred to us that we were bad people. We were GOOD people... patriotic, moral, church-going... and better than blacks... but also better than Jews, Catholics and what we called "white trash." I still don't think we were bad people, but we did bad things in the name of something good.

When Dr. King was murdered, I remember my father triumphantly running a confederate flag up our flagpole that day. What had we won? It was never explained to me... just more jokes and people saying "It's about time!"

Cruelty creeps up on us like cancer. We don't see it, we don't feel it, not at first. Yet it is eating away at us, at the tender part of our soul, until there is nothing left but an open sore and scar tissue. And it often starts when we are very young. Racism is birthed in the nursery; hatred around the family table. That is why the language of cruelty comes so naturally to those who use it... it came to them in the womb, in their mother's milk... mixed with vital piety and love of country... until it is all so convoluted it can no longer be separated.

I have to believe the African-Americans that grew up in my neck of the woods understood that something was very wrong... but we didn't... we really didn't. And that is what TRULY disturbs me. How can something SO WRONG feel so right? What is it about the human condition that can so easily and so fluidly deceive us?

In the same year Dr. King said "I have a dream," he spent some time in the Birmingham Jail. Sympathetic clergy wrote him there, supporting his vision of equality, but criticizing his sense of timing. "Be patient!" they counseled him... "You're moving too fast!"

I think Martin found the reproof from his white clergy brethren stinging and disappointing. So, he responded with some essays that later became his book Why We Can't Wait. That book was placed in my hands fourteen years later as a new seminary student. It was required reading in my first class in Christian ethics. I still have it, and the pages are tear-stained.

The tears are the tears of culpability, crusted over from the long sleep of an up-bringing that didn't know better.. and yet, it did. We knew... somewhere, deep down, we knew.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Breaking Bread

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The passage was 1 Corinthians 11:23-26:

One day a four year old girl accompanied her aunt to visit her church, and received communion. Now in this particular congregation, when young children received the elements, the minister said “God be with you.” Apparently this made quite an impression on the girl, and when she was eating her lunch, her mom asked her what she thought about church and what she had learned, and so she told her mom to cup her hands, and the girl tore a small piece of bread from her sandwich and as she placed it in her mother’s hands, she said, in her most angelic voice, “mom, God will get you.”

Today we continue with our sermon series on what Christians believe with the second part of our set on the sacraments. For those who were not here last week, or who might not remember, a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace. That is sacraments are vehicles in which God conveys God’s love to us. The grace happens inside of us, but we have accompanying outward signs which mark this grace.

In baptism we are reborn into Christ, given eternal life, forgiven our sins, given the Holy Spirit, that is the inward and invisible grace we receive, and the outward sign of that is the water. In the protestant tradition we have two sacraments, baptism and communion. For those who might have been raised Roman Catholic, or who are familiar with their practices, you might be aware that they have seven sacraments, so what’s the difference?

In the 13th century the church said that a sacrament was something that conveyed God’s grace and had been instituted or commanded by Jesus and they came up with a list of seven sacraments, baptism, communion, marriage, ordination, penance, confirmation, and extreme unction, or what is commonly referred to know as last rights.

At the time of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther said that if a sacrament was something which was instituted and commanded by Jesus, then he could only find two in scripture, baptism and communion, and so Luther removed the other five. It is not that protestants do not practice the other five, nor is it that we don’t also think that they can convey God’s grace. The difference is that Jesus did not command that we do them as he did for Baptism, he tells us to go baptize all the nations, and communion, which he tells us to do in remembrance of him.

As Protestants, communion is the only sacrament that we can participate in on a continual basis. Baptism is a one-time event. But, like baptism, communion is rooted in ancient Jewish practice. The passage that we heard this morning from Exodus tells of the creation of and reason for the Passover meal, which is what, according to the synoptic gospels, Jesus is celebrating with his disciples when he institutes communion.

The Passover meal was a celebration of God’s redeeming actions for the people, and it was remembered not as a thing of the past but as a present tense event. The Passover meal also had eschatological dimensions to it. Now eschatology is one of those big words that deals with end of time events. For Jews, the Passover meal brings with it the expectation of the coming of the messiah redeeming the Jews not just from the slavery of Egypt, but from the bondage of the world and returning Israel to the preeminent place in the world as God’s chosen people.

But Jesus radically changes the Passover meal, because now it is no longer about the expectation of the coming of the messiah, because Jesus is the messiah, but it still has eschatological expectations as we say each time during the liturgy “Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again.” That is an eschatological claim. Jesus also changes the nature of the covenant by taking the cup and saying “this is the blood of the new covenant.” This too taps into ancient Jewish understanding.

After the exodus from Egypt and the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai, Moses calls the people of Israel together for a meal, and he takes the blood of the lamb and sprinkles it over the people and says “this is the blood of the covenant.” Jesus takes the Jewish story, traditions and their covenants, and he changes them to a new reality, a reality that recognizes that the messiah has come, that God has come in the person of Christ. There is a new covenant with the people.

What we learn from Paul’s writings is that in the early church when people came together they would celebrate a communal meal including more than just the sharing of the bread and the cup, but instead of bringing people together it was instead dividing them because of the difference between what the better off and the poor could bring to eat and drink. It was incidents like this that caused these two meals to separate and for communion to become a meal separate and different from any other meal the community shared together. But the breaking of the bread, were extremely important from the earliest days. In Luke’s story of Emmaus, one of the first interactions that some of Jesus’ followers have with the risen Christ is when they recognize him only after they break bread together.

There are lots of terms used for this meal. Communion, which means sharing, is one. It is a reminder that this is a communal event, in which we all come together as the body of Christ. Eucharist, which means thanksgiving, is another. In a reminder of this meaning, the liturgy we use is actually called the Great Thanksgiving. It is also called the Lord’s Supper, which reminds us that Christ is the host and the inviter, and that Christ owns the table. In Roman Catholic churches it is called Mass, which comes from the Latin word for “sending forth,” indicating that the service is coming to a close and the people are being sent out with God’s blessing. So technically, mass has nothing to do with the rest of the worship service, but only with the sacrament. In the Orthodox Church it is called The Divine Liturgy. Occasionally you might also hear it called the last supper, which reminds us that it was, again according to the synoptic gospels, part of the passion story, but that term is actually an incorrect one, because that limits it in its scope and time.

There are many ways in which communion can be received and served. In the Methodist church we use grape juice instead of wine because of the church’s historic position against the use of alcohol. It was Dr. Thomas Welch, who was communion steward at his Methodist church in New Jersey, who first pasteurized grape juice so that the church would not have to use wine at communion. You can receive the juice or win in little cups, but you can also receive by dipping the bread in the cup, which is called intinction, or you can also receive by drinking directly from the cup. We can receive by coming forward, or we can also receive by remaining in our seats and having each element passed. We can receive kneeling or standing, and lots of different types of bread can be used, including using wafers which sometimes are hard to believe are bread at all. All of these are accepted ways of serving and receiving communion.

Now that’s all the easy things that can be said about communion, but its other issues that people tend to fight over. The first issue is who is welcome to receive. By the beginning of the first century, it had become standard that only baptized members were welcome to receive. This did include infants and children. The worship service would actually stop and those who were not yet baptized would leave and only those who were baptized could remain not only to receive communion but even to hear the words of the liturgy.

As Christianity became the standard religion, and nearly everyone in western society was baptized this became less and less of a big deal, until the protestant reformation. Then the issue of how you were baptized and who baptized you became very important for whether you could receive communion or not. Of course in Roman Catholic churches, non Catholics are not welcome to receive, although how stringently this is enforced now has a lot to do with who is presiding. But Roman Catholics are not the only ones to limit access to the table, because plenty of Protestant churches also practice a closed table.

Now in the United Methodist church we practice an open communion table. That means that everyone is welcome, because we believe that Christ is the host and the one who makes the invitation, not us. In intra-denominational dialogue this has often become an obstacle because we are the only denomination that I am aware of that welcomes even those who are not baptized to partake, and we do so for one simple reason: John Wesley believed that communion could be a converting sacrament. That is, in receiving the bread and the cup, you could be moved to accept Jesus Christ as your savior, and Wesley did not want to try and place any limits on how God could or could not work in the world. In addition, Wesley had been denied communion by other groups at several points in his life, and did not believe that God’s grace could be limited or controlled by us.

One of the other things that is argued over is what, if anything, happens to the bread and the wine when the words of institution are said, that is when the priest says “may these be the body and blood of Christ.” At the fourth Lateran council in 1215, the church said that during the liturgy that the elements literally become the body and blood of Jesus Christ, and although they still appeared to be bread and wine, this was merely an accident of appearance. This is called transubstantiation. At the beginning of the Protestant reformation, one of the things that the reformers wanted to do was to change the theology of the Eucharist. Martin Luther rejected the idea of transubstantiation, and instead said that the elements were both body and blood of Christ and also bread and wine. This is commonly referred to as consubstantiation. Another reformer at the same time, whom you have probably never heard of, was Ulrich Zwingli, who said that communion was only a remembrance of Christ’s actions on our behalf, and he rejected both transubstantiation and consubstantiation. But the reformers also wanted people to receive communion much more often, and reintroduced weekly communion.

Now the official position of the United Methodist Church is closer to that of Zwingli, which is that it is a meal we celebrate in remembrance, then it is to the other positions. Wesley believed that in trying to say what happened to the elements was to try and quantify the mystery of communion, which couldn’t be done, and he also believed that emphasizing the elements was to place the emphasis on the bread and the wine, rather than on God’s transforming power. That does not mean that Christ is not present for us, because he is. Wesley’s position has been called “receptionist,” Christ is present for us in communion, not through the elements, but through the act of joining together as the body of Christ and participating in an act which conveys “pardoning and transforming benefits.” We receive Christ simply through the partaking of communion in its entirety.

Zig Zigler tells a story about early in his career when he when a ham in a sales contest and brought it home to his new wife. She promptly cut off the end of the ham and threw it in the pan to fry it. He asked her what she was doing and she told him that before you cooked a ham you cut the end off. He told her that in fact that was not how you cooked a ham, and she said, “well that’s the way my mother did it.” so they call her mother to find out why she cooked it that way, and she was told, well that’s how my mother did it, and so they get on a conference call with the grandmother, and told her that they cut off the end of the ham before they cooked it, just like she did, and wondered why she did it. And she said, “Well, I don’t know why you’re doing it, but I did it because my pan wasn’t big enough.”

Sometimes things that we do or don’t do, have nothing to do with the proper way to do things but are simply accidents of history, accommodations that have been made, and that’s the way it is with communion. John Wesley commanded that Methodists communion as often as they could and even wrote a sermon entitled, The Duty of Constant Communion. John and Charles also published a hymnal which contained nothing but communion hymns. In England receiving communion at least once a week was easy to do since there were so many parish churches, but on the frontier of America that wasn’t possible because of the reality that there were not enough clergy, and so it became the practice to receive it whenever the clergy were in town. That might be monthly, or it might be quarterly, or even less often, and so the practice of the church became something less than what was ideal not because it was what was preferred, but because of simple practicality, and then the practice became institutionalized, like cutting the end off the ham, and everyone assumed this was the way it was supposed to be.

Now I often hear from people say that taking communion more often would make it less special. While I understand that statement on its face, when you go a little deeper it doesn’t really make much sense to me because would we apply that to anything else in our lives? Would we say, we shouldn’t read scripture or pray daily, or weekly, or even monthly, because that would make it less special? Would we say to our loved ones, don’t tell me that you love me very often because that would make it less special. Or would we say to our spouse, let’s have marital relations only once every quarter so that way it will be really special? But we do want to say to God, don’t remind my how much you love me and the fact that I am forgiven very often, because that would make it less special.

There is a scene in the movie Phenomenon, in which John Travolta’s character has an apple and he is explaining how when you eat an apple that it becomes a part of you, that in taking it into ourselves we are combined. Jesus says, “Abide in me as I abide in you.” That is what communion does for us, every time we eat the bread and take the cup, we allow Christ to enter into our lives, to abide in us as we abide in Christ.

Communion is a remembrance of what Christ offered for us. One of Charles Wesley’s most famous hymns is called Come Sinners to the Gospel Feast. It is the celebration of the new covenant of the forgiveness of sin given to us, poured out for us. It is our sign that God is more willing to forgive than we are ready to ask. This meal is a remembrance of that. It is God’s offer to us to partake of God’s grace, this is not something which we should be saying once a month is too much, it should be something about which we are saying, once a month is too little. That we want to be partaking and remembering Christ’s gift for us all the time.

This is our altar call. This is the time in which we say, “Yes Jesus, I want to follow you.” It is the time in which we say “Thank you God for your grace and your mercy.” It is the time in which we say “Jesus, please come into my life, I need you and I want you in my life.” And it is the time in which God again says to us “You belong to me. I love you. You are mine. You are my child. Let me abide in you and you in me.” Communion is a time in which we again reaffirm our baptismal vows, it is the time in which we offer ourselves to Christ and remember Christ’s action on our behalf, and it is the time in which we are re-membered with all the saints of God, for we don’t just partake with those around us, but we also partake with all those who have gone before us.

We not only remember what Christ has done, but we are re-membered as the body of Christ. There might be times in which communion is not as meaningful, just as there are times in which worship is not as meaningful, but I would say that the answer is not to take it less often, but instead to take steps to help us to refocus our hearts each time we receive in order to remember, to receive Christ’s forgiveness and God’s love into our lives. We come to the table “out of our hunger to receive God’s gracious love, [and] to receive forgiveness and healing,” and this is the meal which “sustains and nourishes us in our journey of salvation.” (This Holy Mystery).

In the year 225 Hippolytus, wrote a document and he said “this is the prayer we use before we have communion,” and so I invite you to take out your hymnals and turn to page 9 where you will find this prayer preserved. For more than 1800 years this prayer has been offered by the church. Millions of people will pray this prayer today in thousands of languages all around the world as they call Christ to be a part of their lives. They will be praying it just as we are praying it, and when we pray this prayer together our voices join with theirs and with all the saints who have gone before us as we pray The lord be with you…

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Lift Every Voice and Sing

Last night to honor Martin Luther King, Jr., there was a musical special at the White House, which was very well done. But at the end of the show, President Obama came to the stage to introduce the song that everyone was to sing together, James Weldon Johnson's great hymn, and the song known as the Black National Anthem, Lift Every Voice and Sing.

The problem was a large number of the artists who were there clearly did not know the lyrics. Smokey Robinson was standing front and center, and at the beginning he was trying to pretend he knew the lyrics and mumbling words, but then gave up and just smiled and swayed. He was not the only one who clearly didn't know the words.

Either the people setting this up did not tell the artists that they were going to have to sing this, or assumed they would all know it, which is always the wrong assumption to make, and they messed up and made everyone look bad. Or the artists knew they were going to have to sing and simply didn't learn the lyrics, maybe assuming they would be able to hide and not be caught, and they were wrong. But either way it was not a good ending to an otherwise great show.

Lift Every Voice and Sing
Words by James Weldon Johnson and music by John Rosamond Johnson.

Lift every voice and sing, till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise, high as the list’ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith
that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope
that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.

Stony the road we trod, bitter the chast’ning rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat, have not our weary feet,
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way
that with tears has been watered.
We have come, treading our path
thro’ the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from a gloomy past, till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam
of our bright star is cast.

God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast by thy might, led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places
Our God where we met Thee,
Lest our hearts drunk with the wine of the world
we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand
May we forever stand,
True to our God,
True to our native land.

Friday, January 13, 2012

First Ladying While Black

This has been out for a few days now, but apparently Michelle Obama is being portrayed as "an angry black woman" in a new book on the Obamas. This rhetoric must be viewed in light of Melissa Harris-Perry's new book on stereotypes of black women (Sister Citizen). One of them is, of course, that of the angry black woman. Another is that of the black woman as mammy, which is being well displayed in The Help.

As we enter the weekend in which we celebrate the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King, Jr. it is rather shocking and sad that we still haven't come farther than we are. Even though the Obamas are now at the top they are still constantly subject to racial stereotyping, as are minorities in general. And we even still have signs being put up that claim "white only" and the person who did it thinks it was reasonable. It's even worse that the sign is from Selma, Alabama and was made in 1931.

This just continues to show that Obama becoming president did not represent the beginning of a post-racial America, but instead was simply another step in that direction and we still have a long way to go. The promised land is out there, but we still have a long way to go.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Down To The River

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Mark 1:4-11:

One day a man is stumbling through the woods, totally drunk, when he comes upon a preacher baptizing people in the river. He proceeds to walk into the water to see what’s going on. The preacher turns around and is almost overcome by the smell of alcohol, but asks the man, "Are you ready to find Jesus?" The drunk answers, "Yes, I am." So the preacher grabs him and dunks him in the water. He pulls him up and asks him, "Brother have you found Jesus?" The drunk replies, "No." The preacher shocked at the answer, dunks him into the water again for a little longer. He again pulls him out of the water and asks again, "Have you found Jesus my brother?" The man again answers, "No,” By this time the preacher is at his wits end and dunks the drunk in the water again -- - but this time holds him down until the man begins flailing his arms and legs, and then the preacher pulls him up and again asks, "For the love of God have you found Jesus?" The drunk wipes his eyes and catches his breath and says to the preacher, "No, are you sure this is where he fell in?"

Today we begin a new sermon series on what Christians believe and we start with a two-part set on the sacraments, which in the Protestant tradition are baptism and communion. Now we begin with the sacraments not because these are the two most important beliefs, although they are certainly important. But the real reason is a little more practical, and that is because on the first Sunday after Epiphany every year we read about Jesus’ baptism, and so in keeping with that tradition we will start there today. Now we could spend weeks covering each of these topics and still not get to the bottom of everything and so what I hope to do is to teach you more about baptism then you’ve ever known, and maybe more than you’ve ever wanted to know, in order to try and deepen our understanding of these issues so that they might begin to make more sense and give more meaning to us.

But before we dig into what baptism means, let’s take a look at what a sacrament is. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, said that a sacrament was, in the words of his Anglican tradition, “an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace”. This is a definition accepted by the Roman Catholic Church as well. A sacrament is a means of grace, a way that God offers and gives God’s love to us, which is inward and invisible, and which have accompanying sign-acts, or outward and visible sign which accompany them. The term sacrament was first used by Tertullian, one of the church fathers, in the third century.

Before entering the military Roman soldiers took an oath of allegiance and then after the oath was taken they were given a tattoo as a reminder of that oath. This oath was called a sacramentum. In observing this, Tertullian said it was similar to what occurred in Baptism, and so he began calling baptism a sacrament. Over time that term began to be applied to everything that could be used to convey God’s grace, but this began to cause more problems for the church. In the 13th century the church began to establish some rules for what was and was not a sacrament. What they decided was that a sacrament must be something that was specifically instituted by Jesus, and they came up with seven that seemed to meet this standard, namely baptism and communion, confirmation, marriage, ordination, penance and extreme unction, which is now sometimes referred to as last rites, but was really about anointing with oil for healing.

At the time of the Protestant reformation in the 16th century, Martin Luther and other reformers began to judge everything that the church did against scripture, and if it wasn’t in scripture, then it would be removed. In looking at the sacraments, Luther said that if something had to be instituted and commanded by Christ, then he could only find two sacraments in the Bible, baptism and communion, and so they the other five were removed and that is why we only have two sacraments while the Roman Catholics have seven.

So where did baptism come from and where did it begin? Most people’s answer is that it begins with John the Baptizer, as we have in today’s scripture. John is calling people out to the Jordan River to be baptized in repentance of their sins, but baptism, or at least a similar practice, is older than John. In last week’s passage we heard that following the birth of Jesus Mary was going to the temple for purification as required by Jewish law. One of the steps would be for her to enter a ceremonially bath, which are called mikveh, and be bathed in order to be purified. There were several different reasons and acts which would require people, both men and women, to enter mikveh in order to be ritually cleansed. In addition, some Jewish sects required that gentile converts not only be circumcised, but that they must also take a ritual bath in order to be cleansed and die to who they were and be reborn into something new. Orthodox Judaism still requires this for converts. So Baptism was not something with which Jesus and his followers would have been unfamiliar.

In addition, they would have also understood having an initiation rite as a means for entering a covenantal relationship with God and for having an accompanying outward sign of that covenant. In Genesis 17, God commands Abraham and all of his descendants be circumcised as a mark of the covenant that they have entered into with God, and this was to be done on the 8th day for infants. Jews become people of the covenant through circumcision. Now ladies, there is no outward and visible sign for you of entering the covenant, because under Jewish law women were incorporated into the covenant through their male relations, which we will come back to.

In Colossians, Paul writes, “In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ; when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.” (2:11-13) Now what is Paul saying in this incredibly dense passage? Well he is saying that baptism is to Christians what circumcision was to the Jewish, it is the initiation rite, it is the means by which we begin to participate in the new covenant, but in addition, he is highlighting the first of the things that baptism does for us which is the cleansing of our sins.

In baptism, we are cleansed of our sins, but not just the sins we have already committed, but, and this is important, we are also forgiven for sins we have yet to commit. In the early church, some people believed that they should wait until their death beds to be baptized so that they would then be forgiven for all their sins. But, this is not a covenant of the past and present, but of the future as well. In taking the water of baptism we are cleansed of our sins, those we have committed and those we have yet to commit. God promises us forgiveness with repentance. That is one thing that baptism does. But, as the reading from Acts this morning indicates, baptism is much more than that. John was doing a baptism of repentance, but being baptized into Christ gives us more than just forgiveness.

The second thing that happens is that through baptism we are adopted as children of God. We die to who we were and are reborn into Christ. After Jesus’ baptism, what does God say, “You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.” When we are baptized, God says the same thing to and about us. We become children of God, different than the way that Jesus is the son, but we become adopted children of God. We were born into the world through the water of the womb, and through the water of baptism we are also reborn, God claims us as his own. We die to who we were and are reborn as children of God. Some early baptismal fonts recognize this reality through their design, which often took the shape of a sarcophagus, or coffin, and later were made in the shape of the cross. We issue baptismal certificates, just like your birth certificate, and if you have ever done genealogy research you know how important these records are. It is because of this understanding of adoption that we don’t rebaptize. Like the prodigal son, “we may live in neglect or defiance of the covenant, but we cannot destroy God’s love for us. When we repent and return to God, the covenant does not need to be remade, because God has always remained faithful to it. What is needed is renewal of our commitment and reaffirmation of our side of the covenant.” (By Water and the Spirit)

So through baptism we are cleansed of our sins, we are reborn and become children of God, and we are also given eternal life. When Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman at a well and he asks her for a drink, she is astonished that a Jew would ask a Samaritan for something, but Jesus tells her that if she knew who he was she would be asking him for a drink because he gives “living water… and everyone who drinks from… this water will never be thirsty. The water that [Jesus gives] will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” This is the water we receive. Jesus says that he came that we might have life and have it abundantly. God gives us unconditional grace which extends for all time.

The final gift we receive through baptism is the gift of the Holy Spirit. Immediately following Jesus’ baptism, the Holy Spirit, in the shape of a dove descends upon him. On the day of Pentecost, people ask Peter what they need to do to receive Christ, and Peter tells them “repent, and be baptized every one of you so that your sins may be forgiven and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” After we baptize, we lay hands on the person and pray for the Holy Spirit to work within them, that having been born by water and the spirit, they may live as a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. The Spirit is God’s gift to us through our baptism.

Through baptism we are forgiven our sins, we are reborn and made children of God, we are given living water which gives us eternal life and we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit. The final thing baptism does is to incorporate us into the body of Christ. We do not believe that baptism is an individual thing. Except for extreme circumstances, baptism is a communal activity. We not only enter into a covenantal relationship with God, but we also enter into a covenantal relationship with each other. The church in its simplest definition is a body of the baptized. This is not just some cute ceremony to make everyone feel good about church, or to appease grandparents, this is a significant covenant which we are entering in which God pledges allegiance to us and we in turn pledge allegiance to God, and it is something that we should remember every day of our lives

We will conclude our look at baptism with the issue that those who asked about baptism the most, which is about infant baptism versus adult baptism, and sprinkling versus full immersion. We’ll start with the one that’s a little easier, and that is conducting baptisms that are not full immersion. In the United Methodist church we practice sprinkling, pouring and full immersion, although certainly sprinkling and pouring are more prevalent. The argument that is made is that unless the baptism is full immersion, then it’s not a legitimate baptism, but let me provide a little background. Baptists, and other groups that practice only adult baptism, come out of a group that formed after the protestant reformation called the Anabaptists. The prefix ana coming from the Greek ava meaning to do again, but originally Anabaptists did not require full immersion instead they did it through pouring. The idea of full immersion as necessary for proper administration did not come until later.

Now there are some who argue that not only is full immersion required, but that you must be baptized in living water, that is water that is moving. So some say that if you get full immersion in your Jacuzzi tub at the local Baptist church then it doesn’t count either because it’s not living water, and the arguments continue to become even more obscure, but here is an argument that I think is better. This is a work called the Didache, or The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles. Scholars estimate that it was written somewhere between 60 and 110, that’s not 1860, but the year 60. If it was indeed written in the year 60 then it predates some of the books we have in the New Testament, and there were some early church fathers who argued that it should be included in the New Testament, but here is what the Didache has to say: “Regarding baptism. Baptize as follows: baptize in the name of the father, and of the son, and of the Holy Spirit, in running water. But if you have no running water, baptize in other water; and if you cannot in cold, then in warm. But if you have neither, pour water on the head three times in the name of the father, and of the son and of the Holy Spirit.”

So as early as 30 years after Jesus death, the church was saying that while full immersion was preferable it was not necessary. And why were they saying that? Because they understood the imagery in being washed clean and in dyeing and being reborn is better when using full immersion, but they also understood that the water was not the acting agent. The amount of water doesn’t matter. It would be like saying that if you are baptized in the ocean then you are more baptized then if it’s done in a pool. The early church understood that baptisms that were not done full immersion were okay, and that has been the practice for nearly 2000 years, and we understand that the quantity of the water does not make a difference because the water is merely a symbol, it is not what actually cleanses people, that work is done by God not by the water. So that leads us to the issue of infant baptism.

The people who argue against infant baptism tend to be the same ones who argue for full-immersion, and the reasons typically given are because an infant cannot consent to the baptism, and therefore it has no meaning, and they also tend to argue that there is no scriptural witness for children being baptized. But, if baptism is a sign of the covenant, if it is the initiation rite in which people enter into the body of Christ then where do children who are not baptized belong? Under circumcision, women were incorporated into the covenant through their male relatives, but baptism doesn’t work that way. My daughters are not incorporated into the baptismal covenant because I am baptized, they too must participate in the covenant.

Circumcision was the outward sign of the covenant of God and it took place eight days after birth. Now did these children consent to being circumcised? Did they say, “I’ve read the law, I understand the story of the people, and I consent to undergo circumcision to become a part of the covenant people?” Of course they didn’t, they were circumcised as a symbol that they were God’s, and with the understanding of their parents that they would raise the child up in the faith, and would tell them the stories, and would train them up in the way so that when they were older they would not stray. They understood that it was a process, the same way that we understand that becoming a Christian is a process, it does not happen immediately whether you were baptized as a child or as an adult, we all grow into our faith.

God commanded infants to undergo the initiation to become people of the covenant, but somehow that commandment doesn’t apply to us because I guess maybe God changed God’s mind about the logic of having children participate in the covenant. In addition, you might remember that the disciples get upset at one point because people are bringing their children to Jesus to be blessed, and the disciples tell the people to take the kids away, and what does Jesus do? He rebukes them and says, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs,” and then later Jesus says that we must become like children if we want to inherit the kingdom. Clearly children had a special place in Jesus ministry and understanding of the world, so why should they be excluded from the covenant?

Now one of the other arguments made is that in the baptisms in the New Testament there is no direct mention of children being baptized, that instead its adults and since it’s not in the Bible it shouldn’t be done. But the answer to that is sort of evident on its face because there were no children being born into these churches in order to be baptized, because there was as yet no church. But what we do have is three occasions in which we are told that someone is baptized and their entire household is baptized along with them. We can find two of these stories in Acts chapter 16 in which Paul baptizes Lydia and her household and also the jailer and his household. Now the word for household used here usually included children, but that of course does not mean that it included infants, but it does not say that Paul baptized the household except for those who were under the age of 10.

For those churches that practice only believer’s baptism, as it is called, most do a dedication of their children when they are infants and then work to prepare them to make a profession of faith and be baptized when they are 8, or 10 or some other age. They don’t baptize infants because they don’t think it’s scriptural, but they undertake a practice which cannot be found anywhere in scripture either. But my final point is from the practices and statements of the church.

In the second century, in opposition to those who opposed infant baptism, Origen said that infant baptism had been practiced by the apostles. In 254 the Council of Carthage said that infant baptism went back to the apostles. Augustine, who is foundational for much of church theology, including those who oppose infant baptism, supported infant baptism and said that it was practiced by the apostles. At the time of the protestant reformation, both Martin Luther and John Calvin said that they were going to remove any practice which did not meet scriptural witness, and they removed a lot, but they practiced infant baptism. John Wesley said that he too would remove anything which did not match scripture, and he practiced infant baptism. When Wesley was asked how God’s grace worked through baptism in infants, he said that he could not comprehend it, but “neither can we comprehend how it is wrought in a person of riper years.” Today more than 80 percent of the church, Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants practice infant baptism.

For those who still may have a problem with infant baptism, or with sprinkling, that’s fine, I merely want you to understand that we do not practice these things because we don’t know what we are talking about or have no theologically basis for doing so, and for those who do support them I hope you now have a better understanding of them and why we do them so that you can better engage in conversation with those who question you about the process. The water does not convey God’s grace. The person performing the sacrament does not convey God’s grace. The age of the person receiving baptism does not convey God’s grace. When we begin focusing on those things as being important than we move the action away from God and say that the power of baptism is found in the things of baptism. God is the actor and we are the recipients.

In By Water and the Spirit, which is the official position on Baptism according to the United Methodist Church, it says that “Baptism involves dying to sin, newness of life, union with Christ, receiving the Holy Spirit, and incorporation into Christ’s church.” Baptism is a gift from God which is freely given by God to us. God’s grace is always available even before we need it, and is always with us. Even when we may go astray God remains ever faithful and waits for us to return. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians he says “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God,” notice that he doesn’t say and all this is done in one hour, which today it won’t, but through the one baptism we are all united for we are baptized, born anew into the body of Christ which does not know denominational boundaries, we are claimed by God who says “this is my child in whom I am well pleased.” Amen.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Every Game Matters, Except When It Doesn't

Last night we witnessed the end of the college football season with a dud of a game, not that it should have really surprised anyone because the first game was not all that exciting either. I am sure that, as predicted, last night's ratings will be the lowest ever. In fact I don't know a single person who was really looking forward to last night's game.

I don't mind games that are 7-3 as long as they were well played, but last night's game was not. LSU looked lost from the beginning with weak and ineffective play calling. It was certainly not the same LSU team we watched all year long. The Rose Bowl and the Fiesta Bowl were both far superior games, and not simply because they involved some offense. But, maybe that's because LSU had thirty-five days off between their last game. Alabama had more than forty days, and they too certainly did not rise up to their level of play.

What other sport would allow its teams to take more than a month off between the last game played and the championship game. Can you imagine if this happened in the NBA, NFL or MLB, or even in college basketball or baseball? People would say how ridiculous it was, but yet every year we do this in college football, and the time is getting even longer.

One of the reasons the BCS says they couldn't have a playoff is because it would take too long and go on too long, but we already have the championship game not taking place until the middle of January. The second reason is that if they started earlier that it would interfere with finals. But I was watching the volleyball championships during finals week so what is the difference?

Finally, this match-up was ridiculous from the start. We have now crowned a champion that not only did not win their conference championship but didn't even play in the game because they lost to LSU when it is supposed to matter, in the regular season. One of the great things about college football is that every game is supposed to matter and to mean something, that is even what the BCS pushes.

But clearly that's not the case, because Alabama lost to LSU and then beat LSU and they are now "champions." As far as I'm concerned they are simply both now 1-1 and should be co-champions, or even better let's admit that this game should have never been played at all. I would much rather have seen LSU play Oklahoma State, who I think should have a part of the title, or to see Alabama play Oklahoma State now.

Instead what we ended up with was a final game that few people outside of LSU and Alabama wanted to see and it lived up to every low expectation that we had of it. The pairing of this match-up, and the way it was decided, was as ridiculous as if the MLB had said, "we would much rather see the Yankee play the Rangers in the ALCS and so it doesn't matter that the Tigers beat the Yankees, we are just going to make it work for us, and if you don't like it that's just tough."

We would not tolerate this in any other sport and yet this is what happens every year with the BCS. This season showed yet once again how broken the BCS is and how it needs to be replaced by something else. Every game in the regular season is supposed to count, except when they don't, just ask LSU.

Friday, January 6, 2012

A Prayer for Epiphany

May this holy season be for each of us
A time of moving beyond what is “reasonable”
And toward the star of wonder;
Moving beyond grasping tight to what we have
To unclenching our hands and letting go,
Following the Light where it leads;
Moving beyond competition toward cooperation,
Seeing that all humans are sisters and brothers.
Moving beyond the anxiety of small concerns
Towards the joys of justice and peace.
May the transforming acceptance of Mary and Joseph,
The imagination of the shepherds,
And the persistence of the wise men
Guide us as we seek the Truth,
Always moving toward the Divine promise.
Always aware God can be hidden in the frailest among us,
Always open to the unexpected flash of Grace,
To the showing forth of that Love that embraces us all.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Borrowing From Other Preachers

As Christmas was approaching, Adam Hamilton posted on Facebook a reminder about their upcoming Christmas Eve eve service and then said "Pastors, if you're stuck as you are working on your Christmas sermon tonight's 7 p.m. service will be online - feel free to borrow anything from the sermon that would be helpful."

Adam Hamilton is usually very forward and open about telling people to take things that they find that might be useful to their churches and to use them. (Of course he also publishes lots of things which have to be paid for as well, so both sides are sort of being covered). But I wonder what other preachers think about this call to borrow as necessary?

I post all of my sermons on this blog for several reasons. One is so that people who missed my sermon on Sunday, or those who were there but wanted to revisit something, can have access to it. (They can also get a recording but we must remember that not everyone learns through hearing things). Second, I post them so that others who know me and do not attend my church can read them. But the final reason I post them is to give access to others to read.

While I certainly claim that I wrote them, I hope that at the same time I was a vehicle through which the Holy Spirit worked in proclaiming the word. Sometimes I can feel that directly, and other times not so much. But I can say that often I will think a sermon is not very good, but people will tell me how much it meant to them, that it spoke to them. That through my sermon they were able to hear what God needed them to hear that day. That happened to me just last weekend as a matter of fact.

I know other preachers who do not want their materials available. One minister who shall remain nameless, although some who read this blog will know exactly who it is, did not like to give out paper copies of his sermons because he thought that the Spirit moved through the preaching and it might not be found on paper.

That is, on its face, a reasonable answer except that I hope that the Spirit is also found in the words, and I have even felt sometimes that it was in what was written but not in what was preached. That is, it was a great sermon on paper, not so good in delivery. The opposite is also sometimes the case.

The other reason this minister said that he did not want to give out his sermons was so that his sermons would not be plagiarized by other preachers.

I have been a professional writer in the past, not that I am also not being paid to write now, and so I am very aware of the need to protect intellectual property. I was also wrongly accused of plagiarism in seminary (long story) and so know what it is like to be on the other side of the issue. I have certainly used other preachers' ideas to help me write some of my own sermons, or to give me new insights, and I hope I have given proper credit where it has been due. But where does intellectual property end and the movement of the Spirit, and therefore something I can't control or own, begin?

While I certainly want people to give me credit if they use my ideas in their own sermons or writings, I also hope that if they are so unable to write their own ideas about some piece of scripture that in using my words the Spirit can speak to those they are trying to address. I don't want people "stealing" from me, but if my words can be used by others to convey God's message to people who are hungry for that word, then use my words appropriately.

I'm wondering what others think of this issue? Do you make your sermons available to others? Where does borrowing cross a line that you don't want crossed? Where do our words end and the words of the Spirit begin? Is this preaching thing different than other issues surrounding plagiarism?

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

It's About Time

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Luke 2:22-40:

Today’s passage from Luke, although little known or covered, is actually the conclusion to Luke’s birth narrative, but I am pretty sure that you cannot find figures of Simeon and Anna anywhere to add to your nativity display, even though these events probably take place much earlier than the visit of the magi as reported by Matthew, which may not have taken place for up to two years after Jesus’ birth. These are the sorts of problems we run into when we try and combine stories out of different gospels as if they all tell us the same thing. But the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke are really two different stories, with two different meanings. Matthew begins emphasizing Jesus’ importance to gentiles, as represented by the Magi, but tells it through a decidedly Jewish lens, and Luke begins with Jesus’ importance to the Jews and emphasizing the righteousness and devoutness of Jesus’ parents and family.

After his brief introduction telling us why he is writing down his Gospel, Luke’s story begins in the Temple in Jerusalem with the announcement to Zechariah, a priest, that he and his wife Elizabeth are to have a son, who is John the Baptist, even though they are both advanced in years. The angel tells Zechariah that this child is in answer to his prayers, although it is not clear how long he, and presumably his wife, have been praying for a child. But, Zechariah does not believe the pronouncement made by the angel, does not believe that what he has been told will actually come true, his is struck mute until after John’s birth when he is filled with the spirit and given a prophecy typically referred to as the Benedictus. The story of Zechariah and Elizabeth is then sort of mirrored and interspersed with the announcement to Mary, including Mary’s song, called the Magnificat, with a significant difference being that Mary believes what the angel tells her.

Then, of course we have the birth story, the announcement to the shepherds, which is also similar in construction to what has already taken place, and then today’s passage, which is preceded in verse 21 by the announcement that on the 8th day, according to Jewish law, the baby is circumcised and named Jesus, which means God’s saves, as the angel had decreed. I remind us all of this so that we can understand in greater detail what is going on in today’s passage, because not only is this the closing of Luke’s birth narrative, but it forms a book end with how the story begins.
We again find ourselves in the Temple, encountering an old man, who like Zechariah we are told is righteous and devout. Luke only applies the term righteous to four people in his Gospel, Zechariah and Elizabeth, Simeon and Joseph of Arimathea, who provides the tomb for Jesus, four older people are those who we are told are righteous.

In the second century a tradition arises that Simeon is 112 years old at the time he encounters Jesus. There is no basis to this in scripture, but I think the purpose behind the tradition is to help illustrate his age. We are told that he has been looking forward to and praying for the consolation of Israel. This phrase harkens back to a passage from Isaiah which says, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God, speak tenderly to Jerusalem.” Simeon is looking forward to the coming of the promised messiah, and he has been praying for it for a long time. But, let’s say that he is not in fact 112, but that instead he’s only 80, then he has already seen a lot in his life.

The best guess is that Jesus is born somewhere between 6 and 4 BCE. I know that our calendars are supposed to start at year 1 with Jesus’ birth, but is looking back to recreate a calendar starting at Jesus’ birth, the church missed one of the Roman emperors, which is excusable because there were a lot of them and they couldn’t exactly just go to Wikipedia to make sure they were all included. But we know that Herod the Great dies in the year 4 BCE, and so if Jesus was born during the reign of Herod, then the latest he could have been born was around 4, but most scholars believe it was earlier than that. But for argument and simplicities sake, let’s say that today’s passage takes place in the year 5 BCE.

58 years earlier, in 63 BCE, a 22-year-old Simeon would have witnessed the end of the last Israelite independence when the Romans took Palestine from the Hasmoneans, the last Jewish ruling family, which began the prayers for the consolation of Israel, to return Israel to Jewish rule, to throw off the foreign oppressors, which is what the messiah was supposed to do. For 58 years Simeon had been praying for just one thing. How many of us have prayed for one thing continuously for 58 years? Normally if we’ve prayed for something for a week, or a month, or at most a year and it hasn’t happened then we give up, or figure the answer is no, or maybe begin to believe that prayer doesn’t in fact work, but Simeon has been praying for the same thing for 58 years.

We are told that the Spirit told him that he would not die before he saw the Messiah, but again we don’t know when this was. Was it early on in his life or much later? Is it easier to pray for the same thing for 58 years knowing that it will happen, or is it easier to pray when you simply hope it will happen? I believe that it has to be easier to pray for something you simply hope for, because knowing that it will happen and yet year after year it doesn’t happen can lead to disappointment and disbelief. But Simeon keeps believing and keeps praying. He is the ideal of faith as represented for us in Hebrews 11 which says that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” And then finally Simeon gets to meet Jesus, but not before he shows his faith one more time.

Simeon woke up that morning, said his morning prayers, probably once again prayed for the consolation of Israel, and then the Spirit tells him that he needs to go to the Temple. Does he hesitate or think, “Really? Today? I don’t feel like going to the Temple today.” Getting to the Temple was a major exercise; it wasn’t just something you did just because. But Simeon doesn’t stay at home in bed, instead he listens to the Spirit and goes to the Temple, and when he does he encounters Jesus and his parents, who have come there for several purposes. The first is that according to Leviticus, a mother was considered ceremonially unclean for forty days following the birth of a male child, and for 80 days following a female child, so Mary is coming for purification. As part of that she is to make an offering.

One of the reasons we know that Mary and Joseph are poor is because of this offering. The offering called for in Leviticus 12 is for a lamb and a dove or pigeon, but if someone can’t afford a lamb then two doves or two pigeons can be offered instead, and this is what Mary and Joseph bring. In addition, as a reminder of the Exodus, the first born male is to be consecrated to God, and so they are also at the Temple to accomplish this task as well, and that is when Simeon encounters them, takes the child and then gives a blessing, a song, just like Mary and Zechariah, traditionally called the Nunc Dimittis. Normally this has been seen as Simeon basically saying, “Okay, I have seen the Messiah, I can die now,” but it need not be interpreted that way. It can also be interpreted as simply saying that Simeon is being dismissed from his post of watching, and can now move on to something else. That is, simply because he is an old man and has seen what was promised, does not mean that his life is over that he has nothing else to live for because he gets to live for God, which is what Anna has also been doing.

The translation we read this morning says that Anna was married for 7 years, and then lived as a widow until the age of 84. But, the Greek is not entirely clear here. It can also be translated that she lived for 84 years as a widow. Which if she was married at age 13, which would not have been unusual at all, and we even have records of girls being married as young as 8 or 9, but if she was married at 13, widowed at 20, and then lived as a widow for 84 years, she could potentially be 104. But, like with Simeon, I don’t think her actual age is truly important for understanding what is taking place, as we can safely say she was someone who was advanced in years. But there are some unusual factors with Anna.

The first is that she is named. Women being named in the Bible are not as unusual and some people would have us believe, but it is also not as prevalent as it probably should be, but having her named as a prophet certainly is unusual. She is not the only female prophet named in scripture, there are in fact 10, but this title gives her a position of prominence and importance in her proclamation. In addition, we are told that she is from the tribe of Asher, which was one of the Northern tribes which were destroyed by the Assyrians in 720 BCE, so her proclamation encompasses all of Israel, not just that of Judea. This is a savior for all of the tribes, including the lost ten tribes. We are also told that Anna is living in the Temple, a decidedly male sphere, spending all of her time in prayer, presumably, like Simeon, praying for the consolation of Israel, and when she spots the family she too begins praising God and telling everyone about who Jesus was, she simply cannot contain herself. Once she identifies Jesus, she has to tell everyone who is there who Jesus is.

Joseph and Mary go to the Temple because they are devout Jews who are following the law. Simeon is at the Temple because he has been bidden by the Spirit to be there, and Anna is at the Temple because she is always there as a prophet, an agent of God. But what strikes me every time I read or hear this story is not just the fact that Simeon and Anna identify Jesus, but do so in a way that is very different from anyone else. There is no angel telling them what has happened and where to go, nor is there any star guiding them on the way.

Simeon is guided to be in the Temple that day, but there is no indication that the Spirit guides him to Jesus. Anna is a prophet, and therefore someone who speaks for God, but there is no indication that God tells her who Jesus is. Instead it appears, at least to me, that they identify Jesus, his meaning and the role he is to play, all by themselves. They do not need special oracles or unnatural phenomenon to guide them to the child. They make the identification by themselves, and that marks them as different, and I can’t help but believe that the reason they are able to do this is because of the reasons that is emphasized about them, their age.

Scripture tells us that we should honor and respect the elders amongst us. One of the interpreted reasons is sort of self preservation. If I respect the elders today then I have established a pattern so that I will be respected when I am that age. But I think there is something more to that as well. The great actor Ossie Davis once said, “Age is that point of elevation form which it is easier to see who you are… age makes knowledge, tempers knowledge with experience and out of that comes the possibility of wisdom.” We are to respect those who are older because of the wisdom and the life experience they can bring to us. Simeon and Anna are old enough and wise enough to recognize the Christ child without having anyone else tell them who he is. They appear to be the only ones for whom that is true.

Later is Jesus’ life other identify Jesus as the messiah, but that is after they have heard or seen him miracles and teachings, after they have things to guide them to him, but all Anna and Simeon see is a baby in his parents arms and they know immediately who he is. And this is not just some quaint scene where Mary and Joseph were the only family around. The Temple was a huge complex, and there would have probably been thousands of people around, including maybe a hundred children or more, and yet they find and identify Jesus.

During one chapel service while I was in seminary, one of the doctoral students delivered a sermon on the grey haired church ladies with whom we would all work, and how important it was to cultivate them, use them and understand them, because without them, he said, no church could be successful. Our society values the young and the new, and wants to discard those things that are not, especially people, but we do so to our own peril because when we do so we lose a lot of collected wisdom that might keep us from going down the wrong path.

Now I know that for many of you I am preaching to the choir, because you are that group. But let me temper this just a bit, by noting that Simeon and Anna, the wise elders, identified God in a child, which is not often the way it happens in church. Often children are seen as distractions to what is going on. We want to have them around, as long as they are under control and not being loud. But Simeon and Anna see God in the baby, in the child, and there is great wisdom in that.

The church today is the last truly intergenerational organization we have left in society. It is just about the only place in this country where children and senior citizens who are non family members can and do interact with each other in meaningful ways. When done correctly it can be one of the greatest strengths the church offers. For families who are spread all over the country, children can become surrogate grandchildren, and elders can become surrogate grandparents. But when done incorrectly, when both parties are not honored and celebrated, then intergenerational discord can ensue in which arguments and dissensions are created in battles over what are viewed as scarce resources. Elders are not respected for the wisdom, experience and resources they make available to the church, and the young are not respected for the life, vitality and energy they can bring to the church.

But, when we all see God in each other, when we see Anna as a prophet, and Simeon as someone upon whom the Spirit rests, and we see God in the child, when we all respect and honor what we all bring to the table, then we begin to be Christ to each other and to the world and begin to live into the gospel message. The elders amongst us, and the elders that many of you are, have a lot to teach us by leading us and guiding us, and giving us your collective wisdom, but we must also all be willing to listen to the will of the Spirit and to recognize God in the child as well.

When we break bread together this morning let us remember that it is the family table, it is God’s table, a table in which the elders are respected and the table at which the young are welcomed. It is the table in which we, though many, become one for we all partake of the one loaf, the one loaf made possible for us in the person of Christ, who came to the world as an infant and who was recognized by Anna and Simeon as the consolation for Israel, as salvation for the world, as Jesus, God saves, as the messiah, as Emmanuel, God with us. May we be wise enough to do the same. Amen.