Sunday, January 30, 2011

Blessed Are You...

Sheepscott Community Church January 30, 2011

Micah 6: 1-8

1 Cor, 1: 18-31

Matthew 5: 1-12

Blessed Are You...

You may recall that during the administration of George H.W. Bush, he called for people to volunteer in their communities and thereby be as a thousand points of light. That noble theme was actually spoken and outlined 2000 years earlier in a concrete way by Jesus, who illuminated his nine points of light, the beatitudes, and practiced what he preached––the kingdom of God come into the world.

The proclamation of the beatitudes as presented in today’s gospel of Matthew is written as though the Sermon on the Mount were a single unique event. In fact there were probably several such events and the sayings of Jesus would have been gathered up into this one event, which the gospel writer lays out. The probability of the beatitudes having been preached on several occasions rather than on one as presented shouldn’t distract us from their importance. If anything the writer wants to call attention to these important foundational teachings of Christianity laid out by Jesus, and so he takes the literary liberty of gathering them up into this one signal event.

The mountain from which Jesus speaks is an indication of the loftiness of the material he is propounding and recalls for us the Mount of Transfiguration or Mount Sinai, where Moses received the Ten Commandments. In an earlier translation than ours, Jesus “opened his mouth and taught them.” The use of the term “opened his mouth” is an indication of the utterance of solemn truth. That he sat down to teach was an appropriate posture for a Jewish teacher, and fitting for so important a discourse.

So we note three things: Jesus goes up to the mountain, he opens his mouth, and he sits to teach, all signals from the writer of the gospel of Matthew that there is something very important about to be spoken and we would do well to pay close attention. The location of this discourse, at the front of the Gospel of Matthew, is also an indicator of its importance. The content of Jesus’s sermon on the mount is nothing less than the statement––a new statement––of what righteousness is, especially that righteousness that characterizes the kingdom of God.

Far from being a passive or mild restatement of religious truths, Jesus in essence threw down the gauntlet before the world’s accepted standards of the time. We can see this more clearly when we set the beatitudes over against their opposites. For example, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” would be opposed to the proud in spirit. We’ve see that beatitude dramatized in the parable of the publican and the pharisee, haven’t we? The pharisee stands at the front of the Temple thanking God that he is not like other men––robbers, evildoers, adulterers. He fasts twice a week and gives a tenth of all he has. Meanwhile, the publican or tax collector stands in the back and would not even look up to heaven, but instead beats his breast and says, “God have mercy on me, a sinner.” Jesus tells his listeners––and us––that that man in the back, rather than the one in the front, went home justified before God. Blessed are the poor in spirit, as opposed to the proud in spirit.

Given the constraints of time, I’ll focus only on a few of the beatitudes, first expanding a bit more on that first beatitude, because in essence it incorporates all the others. “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” In the gospel of Matthew, the gloss “in spirit” is added because poverty in and of itself is not a blessed state. In fact it can embitter a person’s spirit. A gloss is an added interpretation of the text, and if we will accept Matthew’s gloss of “in spirit,” we can say that that word poor covers all who would learn, who would come like children to the great book of life. It covers those who are satisfied with the simple things of life and not consumed with acquisition. It covers all those who are the spiritual descendants of those who were in Jesus’s time the peasants of Galilee, the ones who hungered and thirsted after Jesus’s words. His words were matched by his acts of healing, which the poor couldn’t have paid for and which in fact had no price. Healings were freely dispensed out of the compassionate well of Christ’s being.

These peasants were the despised “folk of the soil,” the anawim as they were called in Jesus’s time, but it was just those despised ones whom Jesus called blessed. Something to ponder. If pride is the root of all sin, and it is, then poverty of spirit is the root of all virtue. Those who are blessed because of poverty of spirit are humble before God and never presume. They have a spiritually healthy sense of their own emptiness before God, which God can fill with that One’s self, and whereby the kingdom comes. The person does not cease to be but indeed becomes his true self, which is always hidden in God and waiting to be revealed.

Let’s consider the second beatitude for a few minutes. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” That seems at best a paradox. How can those who mourn be blessed? First of all, in order to mourn, we have to care about something or someone outside of ourselves. And I expect we have all mourned at one time or another, because we have cared for someone and have lost that someone to death. It doesn’t feel like a time of blessing, does it?. Maybe we need to adjust our own understanding of what the word “Blessed” means and of what mourning can encompass.

Jesus knew very well that grief in itself, like poverty in itself is not blessed state, but there it is, only second in the lineup of beatitudes. What kind of mourning can be a blessed state? Blessed are those who accept their own sorrow with a resolve to learn from it. These are they who cannot conceive that life is given only for their comfort. Darkness may reveal stars, which the daytime’s sun can only conceal. Just so, they confront the fact of death and accept the pain that goes with it, in such a way, that they offer hospitality to a strange guest––and I do mean death itself––and perhaps thereby entertain angels unawares.

Those who mourn include those who don’t turn away from the world’s misery. They voluntarily share their neighbor’s pain. They are the ones who come to visit when there is a death in the house; who visit those in prison, aware that those in prison are not so different from themselves. Those who mourn are those who agonize over injustices, from homelessness, to concern for those who have no health insurance and remain untreated, to the countenancing and so tacit acceptance of domestic violence. The list of society’s wrongs is not quite endless, but close, and those who mourn with those who suffer because of those wrongs are the compassionate of the earth, and God knows it. Blessed are they.

And blessed are those who mourn for their own sins, and indeed for those of their neighbors. It is elect souls who mourn thus, counting themselves guilty in the common guilt. There is a companionship with Moses across the millennia, who in Exodus said to God, “Blot me out of thy book yet forgive their sin.” Better known, Jesus’s own prayer from the cross, “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.” Two who associated themselves with sinful human beings: Moses and Jesus. And with all those who mourn. They are the conscience of their age, not as acid reformers, but as the heart of love that changes the world. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

I was hard pressed whether to choose the fifth beatitude––Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy––or the seventh––Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God. So I’m going to touch on both; I can’t let one or the other go.

When Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful,” he was once again going against the ethical grain of his time. The Romans despised pity; the Stoics might offer help, but they looked askance at compassion. And the pharisees, so uptight in their self-righteousness showed little mercy. In fact, suffering at that time was generally viewed as deserved punishment for sin. So, you can see the revolutionary nature of Jesus blessing those who showed mercy, as he himself did and illustrated again and again. His parable of the Good Samaritan, the only person who showed mercy to the man set upon by robbers, is a good example. This was a new kind of teaching. It seems somewhat commonplace to us but that’s only because we’ve been hearing it much of our lives, as part and parcel of the religion of Christianity.

Mercy lays claim on us wherever and whenever there is suffering, and not just the suffering of human beings but of all creatures. Mere feeling or sentiment in the direction of suffering is not enough. Mercy needs to become translated into action or it becomes maudlin. What I admire and like about the merciful is that they are aware enough of their own sins not to judge anyone else for theirs. There is an awareness of the common ground, of the human condition.

And the seventh beatitude? Blessed are the peacemakers. The work of the peacemaker is reconciliation between groups and human beings at odds with each other. To expect peace to just happen spontaneously is fatuous.The peacemaker, whose most important work is the practice of the presence of God, can give peace from the overflow of his or her own peaceful heart. The work of making peace keeps the love of God at the center, because as long as persons are at odds with God, they are at odds with themselves and with their neighbors.

Think of the Truth and Justice Commission established by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa, following the dismantling of apartheid. People had a chance to speak about their experience under that oppressive system and to be heard. That opportunity for injustice to be exposed for what it was and is and consequent suffering to be acknowledged is one element on the road to establishing peace. That Desmond Tutu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize was entirely fitting, as was the awarding of that prize to former President Jimmy Carter who has spent his post-presidency years as an ambassador of peace and justice around the world, traveling when and where he is invited to oversee elections in potentially inflammatory situations and places, being a visible working supporter of Habitat for Humanity, and working for the complete elimination of guinea worm in sub-Saharan Africa..

Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are they who mourn. They are all poor in spirit, which is to say, humble before God, listening to and watching for the guidance of the Spirit of God about how to go forward in service. The world needs all of us, for we are what the world has to embody the kingdom come. We can be conduits for God’s compassion, mercy and peace, if we are poor in spirit, not thinking so highly of ourselves that God can’t get through the noise of pride around us.

Jan read the often quoted admonition from Micah, “He has showed you, O man, what is good./ And what does the Lord require of you?/ To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” I recommend committing that to memory. It will bring to mind the beatitudes and maybe bring you back to study and think about them. Amen.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

We Are the Light of the World

Sheepscott Community Church January 23, 2011

Isaiah 9: 1-4

1 Cor, 1: 10-18

Matthew 4: 12-23

We Are the Light of the World

In this morning’s first reading from Isaiah, there is an unmistakable yearning for the arrival of a time of deliverance from the oppressor, for the arrival of a Messiah-King. Scholars disagree about whether the reading is a reference to a contemporary king of the time or whether it was indeed, as the writer of the gospel of Matthew purports, a prophecy of the Messiah King, realized in the person of Jesus.

Perhaps it doesn’t have to be an either or situation, but that both could be true. There could have been a contemporary king––Hezekiah is the one usually cited––and the passage could have foretold the effect of the coming of the Messianic King. There is something heroic in the historical unwillingness of the Jewish people to surrender that hope for the ideal king who would finally come at the behest of God to rule his people.

Every time a new king was crowned in those days, hope stirred again in loyal hearts and people would ask,”Is he the God-anointed one? Is this the Messiah? And though no prince of the House of David ever fulfilled that hope, and king after king brutally disillusioned the believing people, still they continued to hope, pray and trust that he would come, if not that day, then some other day. You have to marvel at that kind of faith, that kind of hope, that continues even now among observant Jews, and that, in these days, these years that follow the unthinkable Holocaust. Still they hope and wait on God.

What I want to focus on today, however, is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. For the purposes of this message, I call our attention to the response of the Christian community from time immemorial to that reading from Isaiah, which you may recognize as one of the readings for Advent, in anticipation of Christmas. We hear it every year, and we, along with the larger Christian community, rejoice in the gift of God’s love in Jesus Christ, the long-awaited Messiah, the light that shone. It is his song––”The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. On those living in the land in the shadow of death, a light has dawned.” That is his song and we sing it in our own hearts in thanksgiving for the fulfillment of that hope, which burned in the human heart through centuries of darkness and pain.

The hope had always been that God would yet visit and redeem his people. For us that hope has been fulfilled, has been reallized in Jesus. The people walking in darkness have seen a great light. We have lived Christmas. We are living Christmas. Originally spoken to a handful of despairing Jews more than 2500 years ago, it gives voice to the thanksgiving of all people for a great deliverance and a divine Savior. The song is timeless and universal and perfectly mirrors the hopes of human beings.

Every detail of the song fits our case and meets our needs. What is our case? And what are our needs? Our case today is simply the occasion of the Annual Meeting. We have this opportunity to discuss the business and future of the Sheepscott Community Church. Our need is to have a spirit of love manifested in cooperation so that the business of God can go forward in this place at this time.

Paul’s words to the Corinthians in this morning’s epistle could not be more timely or appropriate. “I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.” He further asks: “Is Christ divided?” The state of no divisions and perfect unity does not happen spontaneously, and you have to wonder if such a thing can happen with a group of people of such divergent interests and opinions as out membership. If we think of unity as consensus, however, people can continue to retain differing opinions, but have consensus on the common ground of recognizing the value of having this community church and the need to work out compromises that will make the continuation of this church possible

From another angle, you may question the likelihood of a seamless garment of cooperation, knowing your own limitations and more likely knowing with greater certainty the limitations of others, but I would encourage all of us to think of ourselves in terms of the men Jesus called in this morning’s gospel to follow him, to be his disciples. These were the most ordinary of people, average guys, these fishermen. The Joe Six-Packs of their time, if you will; four of them: Peter, Andrew, James and John. They were not men of scholarship, influence, wealth or social background. They weren’t poor; they were simply working stiffs with no great background, and certainly, anyone would have said, with no great future.

What Jesus needed was ordinary folk who would give of themselves. He can do anything with people like that, and that was the kind of people the apostles were. And that is the kind of people we are: ordinary people who are willing to give of ourselves. Jan, Clara, Tony, giving of themselves, with a little help from their friends, month after month at the community supper. They, and Joan and Curt, and Fran, providing us with music week after week, making it easier to lift out hearts and spirits to God. Cindy and Chrissy teaching Sunday School with patience and good humor, and lessons that everyone can be part of. Cindy acting as chair of the Board from time immemorial, and all those who serve on the Board: Chrissy and C.J., Cyndi Brinkler, Bill Thompson, Donna Krah, Karen Mook, Bill Robb, who has also been our Treasurer for the past three years. Jon Robbins, undertaking the weekly coffee hour for almost a year now, with recent, welcome relief from Chrissy. Sonnie and Karen Mook overseeing the lawn sale. Virginia Carol Shorey being our weekly greeter. I could go on.

The point is these are ordinary people, who will give of themselves, and it is just that attitude that enables God to carry out his work in the world, specifically in this church. I am appealing to those of you who think it takes special talent or way more time than you have to consider committing yourself to the work of the church. Believe me, there’s no one among those I mentioned who has more time than anyone else. Everyone has the same 24 hours a day. The question is what do you do with it? With twelve well-disposed people, Jesus changed the world. We have more than that here every Sunday. What might God do with us when we are willing to make ourselves available?

We are all part of the body of God, of Christ, and it behooves us to be conscious of that as we strive to work together, respecting the Christ in each other for the sake of the gospel. We don’t have to wait any longer for the Messiah to appear. For us in these latter days, Isaiah’s song is one of thanksgiving rather than longing after. The light that shone in the darkness is already here––Christ. And in him we have everything we need to serve and every reason to serve. Just ask Peter, Andrew, James and John, or Clara, Fran, Tony, Jan, Joan, Curt, Carol, Jon, Cindy, Chrissy, Brie, etcetera.

Let us speak our concerns and listen to those of others with an eye towards community at our meeting this morning. Let us be open to the light of love that is Jesus Christ, so recently born again in our midst. Amen.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Tucson Massacre

Sheepscott Community Church January 16, 2011

Isaiah 49: 1-7

1 Corinthians 1: 1-9

John 1: 29-42

The Tucson Massacre

You have heard me read the gospel this morning from John, and the very beginning of that gospel read: “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” That is John speaking to his followers when Jesus was walking toward them.

Excuse me? If that Lamb of God came to take away the sin of the world, where was he a week ago Saturday when Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, Federal Judge John Roll, 9-year-old Christina Taylor-Green and four others were gunned down, everyone except the Congresswoman dead. Twenty others were wounded. Where was the Lamb of God in that tragic melee? How could that happen if he had taken away the sin of the world?

Easy enough to answer that by saying, well, Jesus, the Lamb of God, comes and comes again into the world, as each of us welcomes him, or not, as each of us chooses to reject him or not. Let’s build on that a little bit. None of us has the privilege that Andrew and John, who were followers of John the Baptist had. They saw the one John i.d.’ed as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world with human eyes, and probably did whatever was comparable in that time and place to shaking hands with him. That was how they met the one the Baptist called the Son of God––up close and personal.

They were impressed enough that each went to his brother––Andrew to Simon Peter, and the unnamed John to his brother James––to announce that they had found the Messiah, the Christ. This event, which preceded the account in Matthew 4 of the calling of those first disciples, who were out in their fishing boats, makes more understandable the report that they dropped everything when Jesus called out to them, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” They had already been prepared, having met him in the company of the Baptist.

So this is how the two sets of brothers came to find Jesus, the Messiah. At least two of them had already been looking for him, or they wouldn’t have been hanging around with the Baptist. Some others search and don’t find, but there is blessing even in the seeking. As Oliver Cromwell once wrote to his daughter, “To be a seeker is to be of the best sect next to a finder; and such a one shall every humble seeker be at the end. Happy seeker, happy finder!”

There are different ways we come to Christ. Some are brought to Christ like Simon Peter, and some are found by Christ in what might be called a divinely interventionary way. It is important to remember that knowing Christ is not simply election to privilege but more importantly, election to service. We are the body of Christ, his feet that must run for him, his hands that must carry for him, his body through which his blessed will gets itself done. If Christ is all we say he is, we cannot keep him to ourselves but must share him with others.

And let me tell you, we don’t have to understand how the whole thing works in order to share Christ with others. We just share our own little portion of what God has done in our lives. For instance, I started off this message with a note about Gabrielle Giffords and all those killed or wounded last Saturday. I troubled about how that event could line up with the quotation from John the Baptist in this morning’s gospel: “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” If the current state of the world is one in which sin has been taken away, what would our world be like without any activity of God? The answer to that question depends on us and our willingness to say yes to God in any given moment, as this taking away the sin of the world seems to be a process, doesn’t it?

To be sure, the business of the Lamb of God taking away the sin of the world is a slow business at best, if we look at the world around us, and specifically this week at the tragedy in Tucson. But we needn’t even go that far afield. We need only look within to see what a slow business taking away the sin of the world is. How long does it take us to follow through with our own resolutions to do better, to be better, to change? I remind you of the beautifully restored house on the corner of Winter Street in Augusta, which I talked about last week. It shines with its candles in the windows as a beacon of hope and beauty in a neighborhood definitely run-down at the heels.

If you recall, I made a parallel between that house and Jesus, the way he rises beautiful in our own private neighborhoods of discouragement and sin and loneliness. And he stays. He is fixed permanently among us no less than that house is on its granite foundation in that neighborhood. He sees us as we are––simple people who, in spite of our shortcomings, are trying for the most part to live the best life we can with some consistency––he sees us as we are and he loves us. Simple as that. Who deserves it? Nobody. But Jesus doesn’t relate in terms of who deserves what; he simply loves, which is how he teaches us to live––by love and not judgment, day by day in every choice we make.

Something I never noticed before in the gospel reading was John giving testimony, “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him.” He later refers to the one who sent him––whom he doesn’t identify, by the way, but who is presumed to be the Spirit of God––who told John, “The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.” What struck me was that the Spirit remained, did not return from whence it came. And even though that Spirit was utterly with Jesus, even so, he went through the ignominious suffering and death that he did. If you remember nothing else from this message, remember this, the last line of the gospel of Matthew: “Know that I am with you always, until the end of the world,” as the Spirit was with Jesus. He was not alone, even on the cross. You are not alone, I am not alone, we are not alone.

The Spirit of God remains in the world now. Even so, there are horrors such as the carnage in Tucson last week; the tsunami-like flooding in Queensland, Australia, the mudslides in Brazil; the unfaithfulness to God and human beings in the hearts of individual people. Every week it’s something else. All of this goes on and on, and yet the Spirit remains, smack dab in the middle of all our personal neighborhoods. You would only have to heard Suki Flanagan’s harp on Christmas Eve to know that the hearts of men and women and children can still be turned by grace more fully toward the light through what seemed the music of the spheres. You would know that the Spirit remains. You would only have to have seen Carol Shorey’s palpable delight in three-week-old Mary last Sunday to know that in spite of everything, the Spirit of God remains in the world.

This weekend we mark the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., whose prophetic life was stopped by an assassin’s bullet in Memphis, TN, on April 4, 1968. The business of the Lamb of God taking away the sin of the world is a slow business. In addition to Martin Luther King, witness Ghandi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Robert Kennedy, Jean Donovan and the nun martyrs in the El Salvador of the 1980’s, all stopped by violent acts. And yet, the Spirit remained in and with all of them.

I would like to conclude on a note of hope delivered in a speech at King’s rally on April 3, the night before he was assassinated. I think it contains and continues a true prophetic word for all of us.

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop . And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”


Sunday, January 9, 2011

To Fulfill All Righteousness

Sheepscott Community Church January 9, 2011

Isaiah 42: 1-9

Acts 10: 34-43

Matthew 3: 13-17

To Fulfill All Righteousness

I was in Augusta shopping last week and took a short cut over to Barnes & Noble from Western Ave., over Sewall Street, across Winthrop to Winter Street, where the Unitarian Universalist Church is located on the corner. I had the happy surprise as I passed their side door of seeing a banner draped over the entrance that read: “We come down on the side of Love.” It made me smile to see that bold red banner there, and I thought, How could that ever be a bad thing?

Further down, on the corner of the next T intersection, I came across another surprise. In a less than––shall-we-say––nice neighborhood, there was a perfectly restored and landscaped early 19th-century house, breathtakingly beautiful, especially among the surroundings of unrestored and unlandscaped buildings and lots. Almost across the street is the now vacant lot where Pomerleau’s furniture warehouse used to be. The owner of the restored house was obviously not discouraged or brought down by the surroundings, but called forth something beautiful in the midst of them, and continues to maintain that something beautiful.

That image of the house, following on the message of the banner at the UU Church––We come down on the side of love–– struck me as a parallel to today’s readings. Not to leave you in the dark or guessing about this, I tell you straight out that the house on Winter Street in Augusta is like the life of Jesus lived out among ordinary people, people who were sinners, and the banner at the other end of the street at the UU church is how he managed to do it, viz., by coming down on the side of love.

If that seems a bit of a stretch, let’s look more closely at the gospel. A question that is rightly asked in relation to this gospel is why did Jesus, the so-called sinless one, came forward for John’s baptism, which is for repentance for sin? There are at least three possible answers for that. The first is that he was not coming forward out of guiltiness for sin, but in his coming forward, he was publicly and somewhat formally renouncing what his life had been up to that point. He was leaving behind home and family to go out on his own, to indeed become a homeless wandering preacher/teacher, and as it turned out healer and raiser-up from the dead as well. He said of himself, “Foxes have holes, birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

His itinerant preaching and teaching was not unusual for a person like him with a prophetic calling. Jesus was hardly the only teacher wandering that countryside at that time teaching. What was more unusual was him being recognized as taking on himself the common sin when he, the sinless One, stepped forward for John’s baptism. Although they were cousins, it’s possible that John and Jesus were meeting for the first time that day, largely because John lived in Judea, while Jesus lived in Galilee. Nevertheless, John recognized instinctively the holiness of Christ, which is why he said to him, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

But Jesus neither flaunted his sinlessness nor stood apart from the world’s sin. Sinlessness can never become a negative scrupulousness; it must be a holy and an outgoing love because righteousness without love ceases to be righteous. Jesus at his baptism did not become a party to sin, but he did share the shame and blame of sin by identifying with human beings and thus absorbing their sin into his own love. That was a redemptive act.

He repented with human beings as a human being himself, in order to redeem human beings in God and for God. I repeat that sinlessness can’t change anything if it simply exists as a sterile idea. Sinlessness must be active as a holy and outgoing love, as it was with Jesus. Like that house on the corner of Winter Street in Augusta, Jesus’s love is so beautiful and awe-inspiring in our own very personal neighborhoods of shortcomings, vices, or sin, call it what you want. But see? He doesn’t remove himself to a nicer neighborhood. It is as if he is fixed on a granite foundation, like that house, there with us for the duration. And...and, he comes down on the side of love.

Love, as I have said to you over the last two weeks, is a gift freely given, and so does Jesus give the gift of his love, which is his life, fully and freely. There is no coercion. He does not impose his will or manner of life on others, unlike some who claim to speak for him. His way of love freely given, without coercion, or coming down on the side of love as the banner proclaims, appreciates the pathos of our existence as human beings. His approach is not censorious or punitive; it is sympathetic.

So, that’s two reasons why Jesus came forward for the baptism: first, to mark the dividing line between his life as it had been in Nazareth and as the new life he was taking on as itinerant preacher and teacher; and the second, to identify with the sinfulness of human beings and to be the love offering that could make them whole, could bring them to the One he called Father.

Now, a third reason he came forward for John’s baptism was that in a deepening sense of the call on his own life, he knew that God had some commission to lay upon him. Just as John with prophetic insight and humility instinctively recognized the holiness of Jesus, Jesus believed that the voice of God might come through the ministry of his brave cousin, who was so disciplined in righteousness. He trusted himself, his cousin John, and God enough to step up to the plate. As we heard in the gospel, because John did recognize who Jesus was, he tried to prevent Jesus from undergoing this baptism of repentance meant for sinners.

What Jesus wants, contradicts John’s fiery apocalyptic images of final judgment that are connected with his baptism. The One John was prophesying about––Jesus, who would baptize with fire and whose sandals John was not worthy to carry––this One turns out to be a fairly ordinary man who humbly and voluntarily associates himself with sinners. John objects to the reversal of the proper roles and order of salvation history as he has understood them, but he finally acquiesces to Jesus’s objection to his objection, accepting Jesus’s call to “fulfill all righteousness” and baptize him.

To expand on that third reason of Jesus’s growing sense of his own destiny, it is not irreverent to assume an ongoing clarification in Jesus’s own mind about who he was. During his years at Nazareth, his awareness that God had for him a task that would be the making of his destiny, that awareness deepened. Viewing Jesus’s growth in understanding is neither a false nor sacrilegious assumption. Rather, it is the reverent acknowledgment of Christ’s humanness. We can only guess at what Jesus’s growing understanding was like, knowing that he was to walk a dreadful path that was singular in human history. Perhaps as he stepped forward for baptism he was finally sure that the parting-of-the-waters moment was at hand.

When Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens opened and the Spirit in the form of a dove descended upon him, and a voice, mysterious yet personal, was heard to say, “This is my Son, whom I love, with him I am well pleased.” Now the seal is set on his forehead. Christ is ordained in that moment by the laying on of God’s own hands, as it were.

I would note that in Matthew’s account of the baptism, which I read today, there is a clear and significant contrast with Mark’s account. In the latter account, only Jesus hears the voice speaking to him, addressing him in the second person: “You are my Son whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” It was a private experience. Matthew makes it a public experience by having the voice speak in the third person to those assembled there: “This is my Son whom I love, with whom I am well pleased.”

That Son of righteousness is among us still, standing beautiful, as does that house on a strong foundation, having chosen us by having chosen to come down on the side of love. Such a poet Jesus was, with his hardscrabble cousin John––truly a unique pairing in religious history. But they were both prophets and deeply understood the activity of God that undergirded and fashioned their lives for great purpose.

In rapid succession we have prepared for the feast of Christmas during Advent. We have celebrated Christmas with joy and been repelled by Herod’s slaughter of the innocent boys under two years of age in Bethlehem. We have come with the Three Wise Men to the crib on Epiphany and left our gifts there at the crib, and only we and God know what those gifts are. Now today, the first Sunday after Epiphany, we are on the bank of the Jordan, where Jesus is baptized at the beginning of his more public life. That life will end three years later in a horrific death and a headline-making resurrection. For us those three years are telescoped into the next three months.

We can follow Christ’s example and submit to a prayerfully private repentance and re-baptism, and then follow him through the weeks learning from him, and being changed, converted by association with him and with those who acknowledge his way of suffering love. We can enter into that house, that beautiful, house on the corner of Winter Street in Augusta, and sit at supper with him who is both structure and foundation built of love. Let us as a congregation come down on the side of love. Amen.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Panis Angelicus

Sheepscott Community Church January 2, 2010 Epiphany

Isaiah 60: 1-6

Matthew 2: 1-12

Panis Angelicus

I entitled today’s message “Panis Angelicus,” the name of a Latin hymn and a phrase that means “bread of the angels.” And what is the bread of the angels? Christ. But not only bread of the angels, but bread of the shepherds, of the Magi, and finally our bread, our staff of life, which fully enables us to live our lives. If we feed on this bread, the very life of God will nourish us. A note of interest is that the name of the town, “Bethlehem,” where Christ was born, means “house of bread,” or, the village in the grainfields. The meaning is of course deepened by Christ, who is, again, the bread of life.

Let’s dwell for just a bit on the idea of Jesus as the panis angelicus, the bread of the angels, the bread of life, who was also the bread of the Magi, whose coming we mark on this Sunday, this feast of Epiphany, which happily is our Communion Sunday. The word epiphany signifies a manifestation or appearance of a divine or superhuman being. The meaning was early appropriated by the church to mean the festival commemorating the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles––i.e., non-Jews, which was and is observed January 6, the twelfth day after Christmas.

The traditional understanding of Epiphany connected with the visit of the three kings, or astrologers, Magi or Wise Men––they are called by all of these names––the traditional understanding is that the infant Jesus was being revealed to those legendary men from the East were not Jews but Gentiles, possibly members of the Zoroastrian priestly caste, in any case, members of one of the religious cults of the East whose followers studied the movements of the stars.

I would remind you at this juncture that a secondary lesson from this feast of Epiphany is that God can make Godself known and available in the language and through the beliefs, acts and customs of any group. It was when they were busy about the task of their own science of astrology that the Magi discovered this new star, which they were led to follow. God leaves no person without a sign of himself, for only God knows the desires of the individual heart, its longing and ambitions and most secret thoughts, and can enable epiphany in that utterly personal space. God can enable a revelation of himself in language and setting that the host can understand as divine visitation or manifestation. In the case of the Magi, as the story goes, the unusual star led the three astrologers to the place where Jesus lay.

Notable is that Jesus was not born in the town where the Magi lived. No, this is a story of their seeking after. There is purpose in the journey itself. God safeguards our freedom, but he also gives the sign, and we decide whether we stay where we are or journey forward. to the unknown, following the sign we have been given.

When the Magi found the child with his mother, they acknowledged his kingship on bended knee proffering gifts fit for a king: gold, frankincense and myrrh.

What did he offer in return to the visiting kings? Nothing less than the bread of the angels, panis angelicus, come under the guise of flesh, born of woman in the humblest of situations––a stable or a cave where animals were kept. If you recall from the gospel a few weeks ago, Jesus asked those assembled around him what they had gone out to see when they went to hear John the Baptist preach and experience his baptism. “Did you go out to see a man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear expensive clothes and indulge in luxury are in palaces. But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.” Jesus could have been speaking about himself as well. If John was in the desert preparing for the One to come, dressed in camel skins and living on locusts and honey, his cousin Jesus ‘s beginnings were comparably inauspicious in the worldly sense. Born in a cave. How low can you go? Humble beginnings for sure, and no fancy clothes as they wore in palaces, but a swaddling wrap.

Again, I ask you, what did he have to offer to the special guests who came, the Three Wise Men, the shepherds, others, us? He offers himself, all that he is, the bread of the angels, panis angelicus.

I wonder how much of a leap of faith that is for you to take? That Jesus can really offer himself to them then, and to us now in such a way. Do you think it’s possible to believe that in this sacrament we will share today, one of the two named sacraments of this church, baptism and communion, do you think he offers himself to us under the form or guise of bread and grape juice, the way he offered himself to the Magi? To all of us under the guise of the flesh and blood of a real person––Jesus––born of a human mother into history? Do you think that’s possible in the realm of faith? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that were true? I believe it is.

Something I have never lost from my old life as a Roman Catholic is a sense of the importance of this bread of the angels, this panis angelicus, which we will share this morning and which I think Jesus offers all of us when we approach him. He offers the bread of himself in any number of ways, including sacramentally. No less does he offer himself in fellowship and the community meal cooked and shared at the Second Congregational Church, which we will be doing a week from Wednesday. If anyone would like to try that particular form of communion, of sharing in the life and body of God, let Jan Kilburn or Clara Fagan know.

We began this service by opening Addie’s beautifully wrapped gift to the church, which she brought us on the Third Sunday of Advent. It seemed an appropriate thing to do on this day of the gifts of the Magi brought to the Christ child. We didn’t know what was going to be in the little square, but what we did know was that it was a gift of love freely given and therefore of infinite value, whatever it turned out to be. Opening it was something of a minor epiphany, if you think of her love as a manifestation of divine love.

We began with love, and we will end with love, as we are about to share a love feast, the communion, that can also be Epiphany. The two are inseparable. We know God in the breaking of the bread; we know God in each other, when we share a meal, which in itself is a sacred act. Epiphany and the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Epiphany as I said earlier, a manifestation or appearance of a divine or superhuman being, the meaning was appropriated by the church for this feast we are observing today, commemorating the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.

Everything is possible for us today. All we need is faith, a free gift of God for the asking. Ask and you will receive. I was remembering out loud to Cyndi when we were praying last Sunday in the sanctuary after the service one of the gems of advice that Rev. Mary Harrington gave to me in the summer of her sickness and my learning, and that advice went like this. Paraphrase: Don’t be stingy with your prayers. Ask for everything you want. Don’t cut corners. Let the prayers overflow, believing that you will have what you ask for. And this is a Unitarian giving me this advice. She was absolutely right, and now I pass on that advice to you, especially in relation to asking for faith––the twelfth step––pass it on––for the twelfth day of Christmas. Amen.