Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Test of Faith

Jesus said to his disciples, "But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." Matthew 16:15-16

Today, the Church remembers St. Peter’s confession of faith, a momentous occasion in Matthew’s Gospel as Peter is the first person to identify Jesus as the Christ. It is serendipitous that this commemoration happens between the Sunday Lectionary cycle of the calling of the first disciples, last week from John’s Gospel and this week from Matthew.  In John, Peter’s brother, Andrew, testifies that they have found the Messiah before Peter ever meets Jesus.  In Matthew, it takes 12 chapters between being called to follow Jesus and Peter’s confession – but he still chose to follow.

We could focus on how the details of the various Gospel’s are inconsistent of who did what when, however that is not a helpful enterprise since the intention is the same – belief in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son sent from God.

The crux of Peter’s confession is his faith and trust in Jesus in that moment. Regardless of what others are saying who Jesus is or isn’t, Peter knows him to be the Messiah.  This is the same confession we make when we say the Nicene Creed – a confession of faith – during our worship services.  It is making a public statement that we believe in God’s actions and interactions in the world in order to save us.  Offering these words makes us a “Confessional Church,” one that boldly proclaims God’s existence and presence in the world.

Jesus’ question to his disciples is essentially what is asked of people making their Confirmation, the rite of offering an adult profession of faith. For those baptized too young to make their own confession, parents and godparents offer it on behalf of the child, with the expectation that at some point that child, being raised as a Christian, will take on that identity for him or herself and be able to answer, “But who do you say that I am?” with authenticity.

We, however, are not limited to rites and liturgies to confess our faith.  Anytime we question what is happening in the world and God’s presence in the midst of time, we should stop for a moment and ask ourselves if we really believe Jesus is the Messiah, not only for ourselves, but for the whole world – including those we disagree with and even our enemies.

It is important to remember that even Peter had a difficult time understanding and accepting what Jesus being the Messiah really meant.  In just 7 verses following his confession, Peter is called “Satan” by Jesus for denying that Jesus had to be killed.  It is one thing to proclaim belief in an identity.  It is another to accept what the identity entails.

Similarly, we can say a confession over and over without faith or belief. Until we allow the words to transform our hearts, minds and souls, nothing changes. Transformation is chaotic, uncomfortable and scary, which is why many avoid it.  But we are called to be brave and bold before God, trusting that the living God is loving and supporting us, especially when things seem the bleakest.  Even death could not stop God from acting, redeeming us all, including Peter.

I believe that nothing and no one can inhibit the Messiah, who came to take away the sin of the world. That work has already been accomplished.  It is up to each one of us to choose to believe that reality and live into it, no matter the circumstances.  That is the true test of faith.

In Christ,

Rev. Valerie+

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Jesus' Baptism, Take Two

The baptism of Jesus is so important, it gets two Sundays in our Lectionary, from different points of view.  This week we hear John’s version, which is much different from the other Gospels as it emphasizes Jesus’ being baptized with the Holy Spirit rather than with water.  This follows the way the Holy Spirit worked prior to the event of Pentecost, when it was given to particular people at particular times for particular reasons.  In Jesus’ case, it was to embody “the Lamb of God.”
As we begin our calendar year, the focus on baptism in helpful and important.  Last Sunday we reaffirmed our Baptismal Covenant as a way to rededicate ourselves of how to live out our Christian identity in the world.  We will repent, we will pray, we will worship, we will love, we will respect.  These are no small tasks and we need God’s help, as well as our community, in order to fulfill our sacred vows. Secluar society will do all it can to distract us for these core values, but we are called and empowered by the Holy Spirit to recognize injustice and cruelty for what it is – ways to divide and separate us from each other and God.
Bishop Tracie Bartholomew of the ECLA Synod of New Jersey, said “Baptism is the -ism that supercedes and erases all the -isms that divide us.” Baptism literally washes away the numerous ways we humans have chosen to categorize the “other” to dehumanizing them.  Baptism is the great equalizer because it offers us the new identity as “child of God.” As such, the social constructs of status and power due to color, age, gender, national origin, etc., are negated – or at least they should be.
Of course, some will claim that since Christians practice baptism, we are the only true believers.  The irony is almost palpable as the rite of baptism should not be about claiming a status but offering ourselves in service to God.  Baptism is about letting go of ego rather than adding another weapon to one’s arsenal of superiority. Unfortunately, not all Christians adhere to this understanding of baptism, and we are lesser for it.
This weekend is the 88th anniversary of the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr., a man dedicated to teaching all people about God’s vast love.  As a Baptist minister, who know knew the power and importance of baptism to claim the rights and privileges as a child of God – one who is no better AND no worse than other.  King’s legacy is how the Holy Spirit enabled him to claim and proclaim those rights and privileges in a society that systematically denied them. The truth will set us free – both the heinous truth of racism in the United States and God’s love for ALL.
We who have been baptized have the same spirit in us that was in King and in Jesus.  That may seem intimidating, but it is the truth.  It is our inheritance to offer ourselves in service to God by being bold in the Spirit, allowing the Spirit to work in and through us, especially when we see any -ism at work.
If you are not sure how to do this, I invite you participate in the Lenten series “Set Our Hearts on Fire,” an opportunity to explore God’s reaching out to us and us reaching back whole-heartedly. I want everyone to consider making the commitment to attend all 5 sessions. There is a big heart on the bulletin board in Hubbard Hall and there are “flames” for us to write our names on them to show our commitment to full participation in the program.  It will be on Wednesday nights from 6:30 PM (dinner) 7:00 – 8:30 PM (program). 
Baptism is our entrance rite into the Church – the Body of Christ.  Now, as Christ’s hands and feet in the world, let us wipe away every -ism boldly!
In Christ,

Rev. Valerie+

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Happy Twelfth Night

After all the planning and preparation, I usually have a sense of ennui following the Christmas excitement.  I know I am not alone in this as the tradition of “Twelfth Night” attests.  In the long, dark days and nights of Elizabethan England, any reason for celebration seemed to be a good idea, and since there is a (seemingly) religious context – the end of the Christmas season – all the better.

Of course, the first time I remember hearing the term “Twelfth Night” it was in reference to William Shakespeare’s play, which has nothing to do with a religious holiday.  It was called “Twelfth Night” as that was the occasion for which he wrote the play, not about its subject or content.  The first production of “Twelfth Night” that I saw was in the middle of summer and the characters in the play were allusions to characters from “Gilligan’s Island” (strange, but it worked!).

Shakespeare’s play is full of hijinks, mistaken identity, gender bending and sexual tension – the perfect recipe to overcome the winter doldrums.  It does not have anything, really, to do with celebrating the Incarnation or the Epiphany, other than the joy it is to laugh at ourselves, a truly human quality.

This night does allow us to pause for a moment (before taking down and putting away all those Christmas decorations) to reflect if we made the most of this season – that we found a way to birth Christ into the world in some way, to celebrate truly the awesome gift we have been given by God to know we are not alone, no matter how we feel.

Thank you to all who so generously supported the Christmas families and the Mitten Tree.  These ministries are ways which we as a community show and share Christ’s love and caring for the world.  These activities are good, but we cannot rest on our laurels until next Christmas but be inspired by them and find another way to express Christ’s presence in our lives.

We are re-inaugurating Peanut Butter Sunday on January 15th so bring some jars of peanut butter (or sun butter for those who might be allergic) with you to church. This is an important staple for food pantries, especially during the time after the holidays when the selves become bear.

I also want to challenge the members of St. Barnabas as disciples of Christ to seek ways to develop our spiritual selves.  Outreach activities are wonderful and important, but we also need to nurture our souls by deepening our relationship with God.

We will be having a great Lenten Program call “Set Our Hearts on Fire.” I am mentioning this now because I want everyone to consider making the commitment to attend all 5 sessions in which we will explore God’s reaching out to us and us reaching back wholeheartedly. There is a big heart on the bulletin board in Hubbard Hall and there are “flames” for us to write our names on them to show our commitment to full participation in the program.  It will be on Wednesday nights from 6:30 PM (dinner) 7:00 – 8:30 PM (program). 

On this Twelfth Night, we can take a moment to reflect, but we must also look to the future and make a commitment for this to be the best year ever at St. Barnabas, where we strengthen our commitment to Christ by knowing our stories and living them boldly.  Come and set all of our hearts on FIRE!

In Christ,

Rev. Valerie+

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Merry Feast of St. Thomas

Lest we move too quickly to the NEXT season of the Church (which is still 4 days away!), we are given a wonderful opportunity in this last week of Advent to remember the apostle Thomas.  Unfortunately, he will be forever chained to the moniker “doubting,” which is true in so far as it goes, but doesn’t tell the entire story.

Thomas only makes a name for himself in the Gospel of John.  He is mentioned in the other Gospels, but only in the list of disciples called by Jesus.  However, in John’s Gospel, he is the curious one, asking the questions no one else is brave enough to ask.  When Jesus is explaining to the disciples of what will happen after his death, and offhandedly states, “And you know the way to the place where I am going” (John 14:4), it is Thomas who confesses, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (John 14:5). 

I think that everyone in the room, except for Jesus, had the same question, but it was only Thomas who asked.  Jesus, I am sure like many teachers, thought his students understood all that he had been telling them, but this one inquiry let him know he needed to be clearer in his message.  “I AM the Way, the Truth and the Life.” (John 14:6) The Church has benefited from Thomas’ willingness to own his ignorance, look like a fool to his friends, and take a chance by asking a question.  The question could have come from a place of doubt, but probably more in himself than in Jesus.

The story most people connect Thomas with doubting is after Jesus’ resurrection, when Thomas refuses to accept his friends’ testimonies of seeing the Risen Christ unless he sees and touches Jesus for himself.  Jesus obliges Thomas’ request the next time he shows up, asking Thomas to put his fingers in Jesus’ wounds as he wanted.  However, Thomas does not touch Jesus before he proclaims, “My Lord and my God.” (John 20:28) This confession of faith is usually dampened because of Thomas’ earlier demand for proof, but it is important to note NO ONE ELSE made such a proclamation even after seeing Jesus!  Even with all his doubts, Thomas is one of the most faithful disciples –more than Peter – because of his confession of faith.  It takes Thomas, the least likely candidate, to proclaim Jesus as his God in John’s Gospel. 

We have much to learn from Thomas’ honesty, openness and doubts.  Rather than suffer in silence, he asks questions of Jesus, seeks answers to what might seem obvious, and meets God on his journey.   Many of us, including me, struggle with our faith, especially at this time of year.  We see conflict and confusion, tears and terror in our world.  We have difficulties in our personal lives, work, and/or medical issues.  We miss loved ones who have died or are estranged or live far away.  Our hope and faith can easily wane under the burden of all of this pain and suffering.

The most challenging times is when remembering Thomas and his story is important, to recognize the truth of our struggle and believe that God IS in the midst of it.  Faith does not remove difficulty or doubt, but it does help us by reminding us we are not alone.  Our questions are real and OK.  It is only if we stop asking questions that doubt overcomes faith. 

So let us keep asking questions, being curious and even doubtful.  That is the best way to birth Jesus into our lives on Christmas and every day.

Everliving God, who strengthened your apostle Thomas with firm and certain faith in your Son's resurrection: Grant us so perfectly and without doubt to believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God, that our faith may never be found wanting in your sight; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

In Christ,
Rev. Valerie+

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Great Expectations

It is right to conclude my musings about South Africa (at least for now) with the completely touristy game drives we did.  I will admit that when I learned that going on safari was part of this trip, I was thrilled.  Of course, I had somewhat of a stereotypical picture in my mind – pith helmet included – than what happened.  First of all, our accommodations were top-rate at a resort about 3 hours northeast of Johannesburg. Lush and modern, it had every amenity one could want, including a spa (which I did not use, but several of our group did).  It also had a “hide” build into a hill by the watering hole, which was also monitored by closed-circuit cameras and available to be view 24 hours a day on the TV in our rooms. I saw zebra, elephants and lots of birds enjoying the water.

Back to my expectations of the safari.  I have a deep love for lions and I wanted to see a male lion in the wild.  I figured during the total of almost 8 hours we would be out, that would be an easy request.  Never mind I knew I was referring to a WILD animal that didn’t sign an appearance contract, but I figured at least one would be accommodating.  Not to spoil the ending, but I did not see a male lion.  One made an appearance, but the only person in our group to see the lion had a very high powered telephoto lens on his camera.  He hasn’t shared the picture yet.

I came away a bit disappointed – and annoyed at myself for feeling that way because we did see a lot of wild life, just not what I wanted to see.  It has been a bit humbling to take stock of my reaction and truly appreciate what I did see and experience.  And, oddly enough, two of the major events happened within the first 15 minutes of the first drive.
Meet Amarula.  He is a very famous – or, more accurately, infamous – 55 or so year old male African elephant.  He is notoriously bad tempered and is known for flipping vehicles, especially smaller ones.  He lost his tail at some point, probably during a fight.  We encountered this grumpy old man even before we officially entered the Pilanesburg Game Reserve.  Fortunately, it was either too early in the morning (about 5:45) or he simply wasn’t in the mood to mess with us.  However, I didn’t appreciate enough that we had just met a legend (and Internet star!).

Within a few minutes of entering the park, our guide got all excited by the pack of wild dogs, also called painted wolves.  To be honest, I like dogs, but I am a cat person so “dogs” don’t really impress me.  What I didn’t appreciate until later is that there are only 3000 of these animals left in the wild and they are RARELY seen. They are beautiful animals and work incredibly well as a pack with a 95% kill rate. They take care of their young and old faithfully.  It is not clear why there are so few of them left.  It was a real treat to see this pack be on the hunt for their next meal – actually working and teaching their young to survive.  If I had seen a male lion, more than likely he would have just been sitting there looking pretty and being lazy, as cats are want to be.

There was impala, springbok, wildebeest, giraffe, rhino, female lions and many birds throughout the day, but the two above were the highlights for me. It wasn’t what I expected, but it was awesome, and reminded me to be careful about my expectations. 

Israel expected the Messiah to be a mighty king come to save them from the tyranny of an oppressor.  And Jesus was all that, but what Israel really expected a war hero to execute a regime change, not an itinerant preacher that said transformation comes from within, and then instructed us to love those who we don’t believe worthy of love. 

Expectations can get us into real trouble because they cause us not to see and appreciate what is before us.  It impedes the blessing and joy present to us and leaves us empty rather than filled. Not seeing a male lion was probably the best part of the entire trip, because it made me recognize the blessings I have for all I did see. 

With Advent Blessings,

Rev. Valerie+

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Tourist and Pilgrim

South Africa is an amazing country with such diversity in people, language and culture.  It is hard to know where to begin.  Our trip really began on Thursday, when our group were tourists.  We were supposed to start on Table Mountain (see previous post) but the wind was so bad at the top of the mountain that the cable cars were not running.  So instead we went to see Seal Island and the Cape of Good Hope (obligatory photo on Facebook), and the African penguins at Boulders.  

On Friday, we were both tourist and pilgrim as we started our day learning more about the reality of apartheid and how it effected the citizens of all races, particularly the Blacks and Colours (usually those not native Africans or of mixed heritage).  We went to the District 6 Museum, and infamous area in Cape Town where the white government forcibly removed the Black residents and moved them to a different location far away from their homes without any remuneration for their property. This happened in 1946 (I believe), and it just got worse from there.  Men were required to carry pass books (like the Jews did in Germany), and were arrested if they did not have them when stopped by the police.  It was a sobering look at the history of this country and the deep wounds that were created by one race exercising extreme power and control over all others. 

We then toured a community called Lango that has many "informal" houses - what we would call shacks - many only 80 sq. ft.  Bathroom facilitates are communal.  Schools are available, but not all children are encouraged to go by their families.  We stopped at a cultural center that encourages   artists in the area to make and sell their works as well as teach business and entrepreneurial skills.  It was strange to see such poverty and feel like a tourist, flying in for a moment and then moving on while this is many people's lives.  

We then made our way over to Robben Island, a former leper colony, which houses the maximum security prison where many political prisoners were incarcerated.  Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 28 years in prison on that island, most of it in a single cell and forced to do hard labor in the rock quarry. Our guide for the prison, Sipho, was also a political prisoner, but he was in a general public section, living with up to 40 other men.  He was repeatedly tortured for information about the actions of the African National Congress (ANC), twice with acid dripped on his head.  Gut wrenching. 

We finally got to the top of Table Mountain after that.  The views were breath taking!  Mountains and ocean are an obvious attraction to Cape Town. 

Saturday had us up at 5 am to catch a 7 am flight back to Johannesburg, or Jo-burg as the locals call it. We were blessed to have the O.R. Thembo Memorial Center open up just for us (it is good to have connections with a local Bishop!), to learn his story.  Thembo was once a law partner with Nelson Mandela, but he was also a political activist with the ANC. In fact, he was exiled from South Africa for 30 years because of his political views.  That was both a blessing and a curse - to be so far away from his home and people suffering under the terrible oppression of apartheid, but he and his wife worked tirelessly to bring international attention to the plight of apartheid and encourage condemnation from countries and corporations alike.  The UN did liken apartheid to the Holocaust in 1973, but it still look several decades for apartheid to end in South Africa. 

We then when to the Hector Pieterson Museum.  That is a name you may not be familiar with - I wasn't, but I did remembering seeing the picture above at some point.  Hector is the child being carried.  His sister is running next to the young man carrying his dead body.  He was shot by the police on June 16, 1976, when students in Soweto organized a peaceful march from their schools to the Orlando Stadium in protest to being taught in Afrikaans rather than English.  It was the decision of the Secretary of Education that all upper level instruction would only be taught in a language not only that none of them knew, but all represented the oppressors power.  

Unfortunately the march got violent.  One theory is that the police had dogs that were brought in to keep the protesters in line, and one of the dogs was killed.  Eventually the police started firing into the crowd and Hector was hit in the head.  The picture was taken when they were  trying to find Hector help, but he died before they did.  Over 600 students were killed and 1000 wounded on that day.  It also sparked a riot that lasted days where many government offices and private property was burned.  

We ended our day with a tour of Nelson Mandela's home in Sewato - just up the street where Bishop Desmond Tutu and his family have a house (although he prefers to live in Cape Town). It is a humble abode with 3 rooms and much sorrow, as Nelson and his 2nd wife, Winnie, both spend time away from it in jail.  During Nelson's incarceration, Winnie, was constantly harassed by the police.  There are bullet holes visible on the house as well as scorching from being fire bombed at least twice.  

I have barely scratched the surface of sorting out my feelings of being a pilgrim tourist, but one thing is certain - we cannot forget.  Forgetting the difficult past will not change it, but it will almost guarantee that it will be repeated.  We must learn from the hard lessons taught us by Thembo, Mandela and Pieterson.  We owe it to their memories as well as our own survival as human beings to change how we choose to treat others, especially those very different from ourselves.  

I pray we will learn our lessons well.  The future is depending upon it. 

In Christ,
Rev. Valerie+

Wednesday, November 30, 2016


After many hours in transit, I am happy to report that 17 of us from the Diocese of New Jersey have safely arrived in Cape Town, South Africa.  And, even after all of those hours, that is about as much as I have to report!  Fortunately our travel was fairly smooth, even with a rather close connecting flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town.

I did learn that the word "sawubona" is Zulu for "I see you."  It is also the title of the in-flight magazine for South African Airways, as well as a traditional greeting.  It reminds me of the greeting used in the movie "Avatar." I wouldn't be surprised if James Cameron used this melodious language as as inspiration for the Na'vi. It is quite a powerful connection to be seen by someone - just like God sees us in our perfectly imperfect forms and loves us anyway!

The picture above is of Table Mountain, which we will visit tomorrow.  I am sure our hotel (which is very nice!) is somewhere in this picture, but I am not exactly sure where. I cannot see the water from my window, but it is right down the street from the hotel - the South Atlantic Ocean!

I'll be reflecting on our pilgrimage in the coming days as often as possible. So check back soon!

In Christ,
Rev. Valerie+