Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Blinded by the Light

It starts in Advent when we hear the prophesy of the “people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”  Christ’s birth is heralded by both the shining Star of Bethlehem and the glory of the heavenly hosts. Then throughout the season of Epiphany, the metaphor of light is used to talk about Jesus and his ministry is anything but subtle as all that has been promised is fulfilled.  Jesus is the “light to the nations,” as well as the lamp not hidden under the bushel basket. The climax and culmination of this season is the story of the Transfiguration, which we hear each year on the Last Sunday of Epiphany, when Jesus is transformed before three of his disciples and “his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” (Matthew 17:2) It is an awesome and profound event which leaves Peter, James and John a bit stunned.

I was intrigued to learn that some celebrities and other notables wear sunglasses not only because they look “cool,” but also to protect their eyes from the spotlights on stage and paparazzi camera flashes. While most of us don’t have the problem of celebrity, we can attest to the annoying feeling of seeing too many camera flashes when spots appear before our eyes.  It is distracting at best and physically painful at worst.  I can’t imagine what my eyes would have felt like attempting to look at the transfigured Christ.  I can believe that it could have caused at least momentary physical blindness, as well as a bit of spiritual blindness.  By that I mean that the event would have been so awe-some that it would not have made sense in that moment. In fact, the Transfiguration doesn’t make much sense to the disciples, nor do they have much time to process it.  They are immediately told that they are not to tell anyone about what they just witnessed until after the Resurrection. 

We are blest with almost 2000 years of hindsight to comprehend and interpret this story that the disciples did not have.  I am sure the Transfiguration made a lot more sense to them after the Resurrection, but they didn’t have the knowledge while it was happening.  Perhaps it was because of their lack of understanding that Jesus didn’t want them to talk about it because they really couldn’t understand it in that moment.

Have you ever had an experience that you needed time to really comprehend what happened?  It could be a positive event, like a birth or an achievement, or a difficult one, like a death or accident. Regardless, while our minds capture the details of what happened, it takes a while for it all to coalesce into a meaningful experience.  And sometimes it takes another event for the first experience to be truly understood.  For me, this is true about the death of my parents.  Each experience was blinding in the moment, but slowly they have taught me lessons of love and forgiveness.

It takes time to be “enlightened.” It is interesting that in the Buddhist tradition, enlightenment is the ultimate goal.  I believe, however, that God reveals God’s self (the Light) to us in wonderful and awesome ways throughout our lives, and our faith enables us to begin to make sense of how it all comes together.  It is a reflective process, not a goal; a way of life rather than a destination.

As we come to the end of this “Season of Light,” take a moment to consider the flashes of light in your life.  When were they?  Did you learn something from them? How have they impacted your faith journey? Is there a lesson that you need to take with you into the season of Lent and its opportunity of reflection? Identifying these moments are just as important as making the time to learn from them.  It also helps us to be more aware of them the next time they happen.

May you always know and feel the Light of Christ guiding you on your journey.

In Christ,

Rev. Valerie+

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Top 10 Ways to Live a Holy Life

Supposedly it is part of human nature that when one is told NOT to do something, the desire to do the forbidden thing is heightened. While it might be more expedient to state what behavior is not wanted, the relationship then seems to then be framed in punitive terms rather than permissive.  That might be why so many people find the “10 Commandments” a bit authoritarian, even over-bearing.  

I find that the re-framing of the 10 Commandments offered in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer (p. 847-848) is more conducive to the expansive and intimate relationship God desires to have with us and we yearn to have with God.  The intention of the Commandments is the same, however they focus on what we should be doing that then on what we shouldn’t:
  1. To love and obey God and to bring others to know God
  2. To put nothing in the place of God;
  3.  To show God respect in thought, word, and deed;
  4.  And to set aside regular times for worship, prayer, and the study of God’s ways.
  5.  To love, honor, and help our parents and family; to honor those in authority, and to meet their just demands;
  6. To show respect for the life God has given us; to work and pray for peace; to bear no malice, prejudice, or hatred in our hearts; and to be kind to all the creatures of God;
  7. To use all our bodily desires as God intended;
  8. To be honest and fair in our dealings; to seek justice, freedom, and the necessities of life for all people; and to use our talents and possessions as ones who must answer for them to God;
  9. To speak the truth, and not to mislead others by our silence;
  10. To resist temptations to envy, greed, and jealousy; to rejoice in other people’s gifts and graces; and to do our duty for the love of God, who has called us into fellowship with Godself.
The purpose of the Commandments is to offer God’s people – God’s children – a framework of how to be in right relationship. We note that the first four Commandments are how we are to be in relationship with God and the other six are how we are to be in relationship with each other.  If we love God, we must love our neighbor; if we love our neighbor, we are showing God love as well.

Just like all rules, unless they are followed, they don’t do anyone much good.  These rules enable us to develop our relationship with God by not having sin in the way. “Sin” is anything that comes between ourselves and God.  When the Commandments are followed, nothing gets in between us and God, so we feel more connected and better able to recognize God’s presence in our life. 

Rather than getting caught up in the “naughty” or “taboo,” the BCP list of Commandments invites us into a deeper understanding of how to live a faithful life.  For example, for many people, Sunday morning many not be able to be set aside for worship.  That does not abdicate our responsibility to find another time to worship God and offer prayer. Similarly, churches need to help support those whose work or other activities make Sunday morning a challenge and offer alternative times for worship and prayer.

I also like that this list reminds us that doing nothing can be as bad if not worse than doing something – specifically remaining silent rather than speaking up in the face of injustice.  We are called to an active faith, not passive submission.  We need to argue and disagree in order to come to a place of understanding and knowledge.  Passivity will get us nowhere.  God needs us to be at work in the world, showing all God’s children just how much they are loved, not because they SHALL NOT do something, but because they choose to live abundantly in God’s full favor.

Take some time to reflect on these Commandments.  Do they help your understanding of your relationship with God?  Are they helpful in defining the parameters of our relationships with both God and our neighbor?  Do any of them change your perspective of how to live a faithful life? 
By examining the Commandments, we see where we need to work on our relationships.  Joyfully, God is working with us to be in those relationships, so as long as we are diligent and faithful, we benefit completely.

In Christ,

Rev. Valerie+

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Happy Feast of the Presentation

A colleague of mine sent out an email on February 2nd wishing everyone, “Happy Groundhog Day! Happy National Heavenly Hash Day! Happy Sunny Thursday! Happy National Wear Red Day Eve!”  This was somewhat amusing, but he also forgot a significant feast of the Church (which I am not sure his tradition recognizes, so he is forgiven.  Unfortunately, I also forgot about it last week when I wrote my blog, so I must correct that oversight this week in order to retain my liturgical cred.

The Feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple (a.k.a. Candlemas) gets over looked by most Americans because of the tradition of Groundhog’s Day.  It is (or was) a major feast of the Church. It is 40 days after we celebrate Christ’s birth, and is the usually time when a Jewish family would bring their firstborn son to the temple to present him for service or pay a “redemption” in order to keep him.  This is an old Jewish custom called pidyon haben, in which families had to offer 5 silver coins to a member of the family of Aaron (the priestly Jewish family).  If the family could not afford the coins, they could offer two turtle doves (cue the 12-days of Christmas).  Since it is recorded in the Gospel of Luke that Mary and Joseph offer the doves, it suggests that they were poor.  However, Joseph was a master craftsman and would have made a decent living, so it is probably more accurate that offer was done to be in solidarity with the poor and to whom Jesus would minister. 

The Church also remember this day as the Purification of Mary, which is another ancient custom that women who had given birth were considered ritually unclean until they were declared clean by the priest.  I suspect, although I have no proof, that this is when Roman Catholics believe that Mary’s virginity was reinstated.  This is not my preferred remembrance of the day since I don’t view childbirth as being something that makes a woman “unclean,” but it is part of church history.

In the Anglican tradition, this day is referred to as “Candlemas” because that was the day all the candles for the year used in the church were blessed by the priest.  It is a way to have an outward sign of St. Simeon’s words, “Lord, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.’ [Luke 2:29-32]

Often, I hear people lament that we don’t have more stories of Jesus’s early life. We don’t know much about Jesus’s childhood because it was ordinary!  We do have this one, and unfortunately, when it falls on a weekday, it goes by unnoticed or uncelebrated. While it may seem arcane, it is also a wonderful acknowledgement of the faithfulness of Mary and Joseph, to follow their customs for their extraordinary child. 

As we enjoy this period between the busyness of Christmas and the starkness of Lent, it is a joyous opportunity to celebrate the light.  As our days lengthen and the earth begins to stir (or at least before the snow falls!), we should stand with Simeon and see the light of Christ burning in our hearts, minds and spirits.  If it isn’t burning, what can we do to set it on fire again?  In a world enamored by darkness and despair, how can we share Christ’s light with all the world?

Collect for the Presentation at the Temple
Almighty and everliving God, we humbly pray that, as your only-begotten Son was this day presented in the temple, so we may be presented to you with pure and clean hearts by Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

In Christ,

Rev. Valerie+

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Salt

My father loved salt.  He used to put salt on regular Triscuits.  A friend once gave him a salt lick for his birthday.  While he had lots of medical issues, salt did not cause a one of them (and it is not really salt that is the issue, but sodium; however, I digress).  I can’t say for sure, but I believe my father’s love affair with salt harkens back to his childhood, to food that was rather bland.  He said his mother considered ketchup “spicy.” 

For centuries, salt has not been considered exotic – it is just a basic table condiment that many reach for automatically, sometimes before even tasting the food! Salt is so ubiquitous that it is used to make sure the poor of the world receive enough iodine in their diet to prevent other illnesses.  Yet we also know (many of us through unfortunately experience) that too much salt is awful.  It can make food inedible, corrode metal and sting if it meets an open wound or eye.

All of our experience with salt – good and bad – effects how we interact with it.  Our familiarity with it may make salt seem passé and an odd thing for Jesus to talk about.  However, more people have experience with salt than with fishing or even farming.  So when Jesus says to his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth,” (Matt 5:13) it should pique our interest.

This saying of Jesus’ appears in all three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) using similar words.  When that happens, it is something to pay attention to!  Salt was a bit more exotic during biblical times, but common enough that people would understand Jesus’ metaphor.  There is nothing quite like salt, and while salt can be used for many things, its primary purpose is to enhance the senses, invite people into a different experience, hopefully a better one.  If salt does not do its job, it is considered worthless and thrown away.  That only happens if the mixture is corrupted by something else (like another element or mineral) which dilutes its potency.

Jesus’ instruction to his disciples, his students wanting to learn all they could from Jesus, is about faith.  Faith makes life better.  It enhances our experience and invigorates our senses; but if we are not careful, it can become diluted with cares, worries and fears, to the point where it does us no good. 

This can beg the question of if it is possible to have too much faith, since having too much salt is not good.  I offer that faith that is an end in itself, where one’s faith does not inspire one to act in response to God’s call to love, does not do much good.  That response isn’t necessarily harmful, but it doesn’t reach beyond itself to have a transformative experience that just the right amount of salt (or faithfulness) can have.

It can be a bit intimidating to be called “the salt of the earth” because it calls us to be more than we might want to be – more faithful, more present, more ready to respond by offering ourselves in service to God.  That is what being a disciple is all about – learning how to be “salt” with authenticity and joy, even in difficult times.  Through study and prayer, worship and fellowship, we discover how to offer just the right amount of salt – which might be more than we first thought, kind of like my father’s Triscuits!

We need to make time to discover our saltiness.  Once again, I invite you to participate in the Lenten program “Set our hearts on Fire!”  to learn more about our relationship with God and what might prevent us for fulfilling our salty potential.  Come and learn to be more spicy! J

In Christ,

Rev. Valerie+

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

People don’t change – until they do.

Today the Church remembers the Conversion of St. Paul, perhaps one of the most vividly described events in the Book of Acts. In Chapter 9, we meet Saul, “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” (9:1)  This is the Saul that held the coats of those that stoned Stephen to death.  He did everything he could to crush the fledgling religious movement of the Way, but it still kept growing.  No one meeting Saul would have ever thought he would become Jesus’ greatest advocate.

But he did.

The Risen Christ literally stopped Saul in his tracks on his way to Damascus and asked, “Why do you persecute me?”  Saul was struck blind and must be helped to bed in the aftermath of this dramatic encounter.  Only when Ananias – a faithful disciple yet still full of trepidation to meet the sworn enemy of the Jews – lays hands on Saul and prays for him to be filled with the Holy Spirit does Saul transform into Paul, a fierce defender of Christ.

It is hard for me to imagine such a dramatic change in life.  I can only liken it to those who have left cults or recognized an addiction and entered recovery.  It is a complete change in how one approaches and lives life. Even when the transformation is positive and healthy, it is still challenging.  What is important to recognize is that real change can happen, but usually only with the presence and power of God in the midst of it.

We respond to our Baptismal Covenant vows with, “I will, with God’s help” and not simply, “I will.”  There is a recognition that what we are being asked to do is not easy and it will not be accomplished without the help and invoked presence of God in our lives. We need the Spirit to guide us, teach us, and even surprise us.  Those words cannot just be rote if we truly want to be transformed like Paul.

Imagine what God could accomplish if we all offered ourselves in service with the passion of Paul. I actually find it hard to imagine, perhaps because of the single-minded nature of his ministry.  We are all so busy with so many parts of our lives that our faith seems to recede on our “To-Do List.”  But if we change our thinking into seeing that all we do, we do for God, then our faith in not relegated to a specific time on a specific day – it is all the time.  Every encounter, meeting, class, car ride offers us the opportunity to be open to the Spirit working through us, inviting us into proclaiming the Realm of God. 

To do this with integrity, we need to start by claiming our own conversion story.  How did you become a Christian?  When did you decide to live by Christ’s example? How do you see God at work in your life?  The answers will probably not be as dramatic as Paul’s conversion, but they are our own, and from which we can share God’s presence in our lives, which might help someone else begin a conversion of their own. That is how we bring about the Realm of God.

If this seems a bit daunting, come to the Lenten series “Set Our Hearts on Fire,” to learn more about how God is calling out to us in big and small ways.  We can be open to what the Spirit is up to in this world, we just need practice at doing it!

Paul’s story has much to teach us, not the least of which is that we cannot give up on people because God doesn’t.  That doesn’t mean we enable bad behavior, but we can pray for the Holy Spirit to come inspire them to want to be transformed.  In fact, that is my prayer for all of us.

In Christ,

Rev. Valerie+

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+