Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Body of Christ--A Spiritual Exercise

A reflection based on 1 Corinthians 12:12-31.

Do me a favor—raise your right hand right now. Look at it for a second and imagine rejecting it. Declaring that it’s not part of you. Then imagine your right hand agreeing, and having it act independently from you. You don’t control it, it’s not part of your body. Your right hand is not part of your body.
Ridiculous, right? Flex your fingers for a second. Make a fist and relax it. Of course it’s part of your body. It couldn’t not be. Actually, if it wasn’t, the rest of you would really have to work to make up for it.
Paul’s letter to the Corinthians points out that this is exactly how it works in the Body of Christ as well. We’re all part of it, and whatever part we play is beyond just important—it’s the only way it works.
Every time I read this passage, I’ve tried to think about what part of the body I am. Now that I’ve said that, some of you might be thinking about what part you are, too. That’s good. It’s a good way to start getting into that self-awareness about our faith lives.
Actually, if you haven’t been thinking about it, do that now.
What part of the body of Christ might you be?
Some of us might be eyes and ears that gather information and transmit it to the rest of the body. Some of us might be the legs or feet that propel the body where it needs to go. Some might be the stomach or lungs—hidden parts that supply the body with what sustains it. Some might be the hands arms that reach out to serve.
Some might feel like the foot that fell asleep. I admit, the last time I read through this letter to the Corinthians, I sort of felt like that foot. Anyone ever have that happen? A foot fall asleep? At the time, I thought that what I needed was for the rest of the body to shake me awake. At that time, it is what I needed, but what I didn’t ask was why the body had sat still long enough for a foot to fall asleep.
That’s the question I should’ve asked. Why was the body so still, so complacent, so sedentary, as to let a foot fall asleep? More to the point, why was I so complacent and still as to do that?
If you’ve ever had a foot completely asleep, you know two things:

1. It will hurt a little to wake up.

2. You’re likely to fall flat on your face until it does.

We’re part of the body of Christ. This is a body of mutual care between all the parts. When we remain still, complacent, not using ourselves for what we’re supposed to, we hurt ourselves and endanger the body. We’re responsible to ourselves and to one another. When we try to destroy or undermine a part, we do the same thing.
If the muscles didn’t work with the eyes, we’d run ourselves into walls. If the nerves didn’t work with the limbs, we’d do all sorts of damage to ourselves.
So we kind of get what happens when we’re destructive to ourselves, what happens when we try to lift each other up? Just reverse all of that. When the muscles work with the eyes, the limbs, the nerves, the ears, we can really go places. We can run races, we can climb mountains, we can cook and serve amazing meals, we can put together furniture, we can smell spring flowers, we can create, go and do.
Seems like a pretty common sense analogy. When we work together, we can do more. When we as a group listen to all the parts, we’ll go further. If we try to disconnect ourselves from the body, we destroy ourselves even as we hurt the body. Remember your hand? A hand without an arm, nervous system, muscles, bones, can’t do much. An eye without an optical nerve and body to communicate with is pretty useless, too. A body without an eye will have to compensate to survive, and won’t have the same capacity it did with the eye.
We need all the parts of our body. Each one enriches the whole and enables something that wouldn’t be as possible without it.
The catch is, when we think of our own body, it’s automatic. Breathing, getting from here to there, sitting down, standing up, watching a sunset, all that just happens and we can scarcely imagine it any other way.
When we think of the body of Christ, it’s not automatic. When the different parts are different people, things get trickier to envision. All of us here, part of the body of Christ. All of the people out there—worshipping elsewhere this morning, sitting at home, wherever—part of the body of Christ. Dividing ourselves into us and them doesn’t change the reality that we are all one. Inextricably tied to one another, tied into a need to mutually care for one another. To play our part as part of the whole.
That takes a little thinking—it’s tough to see that the person in front of or behind me or the one who brings my breakfast at the diner is inextricably tied to me, and I am to them. That diversity enriches the body, and oversimilarity hinders it. That’s probably part of Paul’s point—it’s not automatic, and it should be. It should be automatic, but we don’t see it. There’s a gap in what the body of Christ actually is (a whole), and what we think it is.
And it can’t just end there—in a mental exercise. If this faith life thing is important, and we'll guess it is or we wouldn’t be here, since this is important, we don’t just say so and do nothing about it.
If a foot falls asleep we wake it up—which might be painful for us and the foot. If we are that foot, we have to be prepared to wake up, which might be painful. We don’t sit still, either, doing nothing or just doing the same thing over and over. We move together, work together, and try new ways to reach the world together. We rejoice in the accomplishments and contributions of one another. If there’s something to do, we do it—hands and feet and eyes and ears.
What we do matters. In a few minutes, we will have the opportunity to meet as one group and hear from one another—to get a picture of the whole from all of the parts. It matters if we stay or go; it matters if we work together or try to dislocate ourselves or try to strengthen one another.
Where is the good news in this? Right now it sounds like a lot of work, I suppose. It is. The good news is in the potential. Look again at your hand. Rather than imagine it being removed from the body, look at it as it is—as a part of the body. Notice the wrist, which allows movement for better function, the arm that connects it to the torso, the muscles that allow it to lift heavy objects.
Now see the hand as the person next to you. Remember what part you were.
What’s your job in this Body of Christ? How does it connect to theirs?

Monday, January 14, 2013

Baptism Of Jesus

This sermon is based on the Baptism of Jesus as recorded in Luke 3:15-22.

There is a lot going on in today’s gospel reading. We have we have John and Jesus, mistaken identity, the Baptism of our Lord, what we are celebrating today, promises fulfilled, heavens open, and a new era beginning.
At the beginning of our reading, people are excited. I invite you to imagine the scene. It’s a warm, dusty day. A rusty, orange-brown color sort of swirls around clusters of people at the edge of a village. The buzz of conversation reaches a new level. If we walk up and stand near one of these clusters, the talk becomes a little clearer. We hear the name Messiah, and our own pulse skips a beat. The Son of God? The one we’ve been waiting centuries for? The one the prophets spoke about? Messiah. We listen a little longer, and hear a little clearer. The Messiah is coming. Now is the time. He’s been in the wilderness. His name is John, isn’t it? John the Messiah.
The people are excited. They’ve been waiting centuries—hundreds of years—for this person, and they finally have a lead. John, the one in the wilderness, the one who provides the cleansing ritual of baptism for the forgiveness of sins. Could he be the Messiah? Could this be real?
John says no. John himself comes on the scene and answers the crowds for himself. He is not the one they are looking for. The one they are looking for will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. The one they are looking for will be able to separate the wheat from the chaff, the good from the evil, the necessary needed harvest from the empty straw that gets in the way.
That’s the one we’re looking for. That’s the promised Messiah.
Hmmm. Okay, so not John. Again we go back to the scene. Maybe we sit down, just a little deflated from our disappointment on the river banks and watch those getting baptized. Time goes by, maybe a few hours, maybe a few weeks. We go back, but we don’t know why.
Suddenly, one day as we’re sitting there, something happens. The sky looks…different somehow. The heavens are, could we say, opening? Pulling apart.
Pause for a second—THE HEAVENS ARE PULLING APART. The sky is falling, the heavens opening. Something like a bird comes down, and a voice that seems to come from every angle swallows up the world as it speaks.
There’s a lot going on in the reading today because this is a HUGE event.
Jesus has been baptized, and we now know who it is that has been promised is here. Jesus’ birth is told in two of the gospels. His lineage is recorded in two of them as well. This story is recorded in all four gospels. Every one of them. The one God is present throughout the Bible. This story has the three distinct persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—there in specific distinction. The voice of God the Father, who names Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit that descends in bodily form like a dove—you can see the Holy Spirit.
This is a HUGE event.
Jesus has been baptized. His divinity is clearly established. It’s right there for people to see or hear.
And guess what? His humanity is now unquestionable, too. Jesus has been baptized as all the people—all the humans—were baptized. Jesus is one with humanity in this act. Fully human, fully divine. He now comes with the authority and ability to understand humanity and save it.
Okay, that’s big in and of itself, but what does it mean for us?
Over the past year, this congregation celebrated 12 baptisms. Many of us may have also received this sacrament. In baptism, we are united to Jesus Christ as well. Through him, with the power of the Holy Spirit, we are made children of God. We are given the promises of forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life.
Like I said, HUGE event.
And it changes us. We are united with Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and that makes things different for us. We get to act like people who have been saved and forgiven, because that’s who we are. In response to this gift of grace God gives us, we PROMISES OF BAPTISM. Essentially, we try to follow and live like the one we are united to in baptism—Jesus Christ.
We can never be Jesus, however. That’s important to remember, too. Think of John—oh yeah, remember him? Who was he, anyway? Not Jesus, but the one who pointed to Jesus. One who looked for the Messiah and knew that the Messiah would come, but John was not him. John was a human and not divine.
John is a great example to us. Like John, We are human and not divine—we are united to God through Jesus, though, and God is the one who does that. We don’t—we can’t—do the uniting, but we are united to Christ and one another through God’s work in us. 
How that changes us and what we do in response, that part is for us to worry about.
We are saved, and we get to act like it.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Christmas Eve

A Christmas Eve Reflection based largely on the First Reading, Isaiah 9:2-7

Two years ago, I attended a choir concert given by St. Olaf College. They were on their tour in Nebraska, and I couldn’t pass up a chance at music of that caliber. About halfway through the concert, the director introduced a piece written by one of the students. The student was a fairly conservative Christian, but he had used text from one of his Ba’hai friends’ faith for the piece. The director commented that this was an ensemble that regularly put their differences aside to create something amazing.
As they sang the song, the director’s words rang true. These were college students from just about every field of study offered at St. Olaf, from all sorts of religious and political views, and here they were, filling a building with enveloping melodies and rich harmonies. Putting aside every conflict and difference for this one common cause—creating music of excellence.
We live in a messy world. Forces try to divide us and persuade us that our differences are cause for hate and fear rather than for enrichment and enlightenment. Our world is messy, but good wins. Light wins.
Our first lesson tonight states: “Those who have walked in darkness have seen a great light.” At the beginning of our service, we read from John 1, verse 5, declaring that, “Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.” There has been much darkness this year. We are barely ten days out from the tragedy of Newtown, not five months from the tragedy in the Sikh temple near Milwaukee. We only have to turn on the news to be reminded of the hunger, disease, and conflict still present in the world.
Despite all that, we declare to ourselves, to the world and to the darkness that the light cannot be overcome. I ask you tonight to join me in that declaration—3 times I will say, “light shines in the darkness,” 3 times I ask you to please respond, “and the darkness cannot overcome it.”
Light shines in the darkness
And the darkness cannot overcome it.
Light shines in the darkness
And the darkness cannot overcome it.
Light shines in the darkness
And the darkness cannot overcome it.
We live in a messy and broken world. There is darkness in the world, but light shines there—and where light shines, darkness retreats. Our faith, our God tells us that. It says “You don’t win, darkness.” Christ has come. Jesus Christ, God incarnate, light itself, has come into the world, and darkness cannot overcome it.
Christmas Eve is a night we remember a story of the unexpected and unexplainable love and light God brings to our lives.
God comes to this messy and broken world and becomes human—but Jesus comes to us as a helpless baby, not a warrior. Jesus comes through this young woman, Mary, who is with her husband Joseph. Two peasants on a pilgrimage in a strange town, not wealthy established and secure households. Jesus comes to a stable, not a palace. Jesus’ birth is announced by angels to shepherds in a field, not to kings and queens and political powers.
That’s Christmas. The greatest gift we could know of, and that’s how it happens. Completely unexpected. The amazing brilliance of Emmanuel—God with us—comes to the world in this way.
Isaiah says it better than I could. "People who have walked in darkness have seen a great light."
Again, I go back to that evening in Nebraska. People had gathered—some for the whole season, some for a few of the days, some just for that night. Watching all the people from different places and opinions come together up front and all of the people from different professions and parts of town come together on the floor all for this one thing—this music—made me realize how similar we are and how much we can do when we stop worrying about what divides and start worrying about what unites. When we see that, the light of Christ is present.
The shepherds watching their flocks in the night, saw it. The St. Olaf Choir, with all their differences, saw it. We, too, see it. We see it whenever we glimpse the goodness of the world in the midst of everything else that goes on. In our friendships, in kindness shown to a stranger, we see it. When a hungry person is fed, a cold person given a blanket, when anyone finds what they need, we see it.
We see it. When we remember the one who came for our sake, in the most humble way, we act for that goodness, the light of Christ is there. We carry it with us. We say, you don’t win, darkness, because, where light is, darkness cannot be. Light is the victor in the end.
This is a candlelight service for a reason. We will declare again the victory of the light in a few moments by lighting our candles. As we lift up our candles tonight, take a moment to watch as the darkness recedes. As the lights multiply, the darkness recedes further and further—the light is brighter when we join together.
We are a group of differing political, professional, and maybe even theological interests. But when we set that aside, we can make something amazing happen. We can shine light into the darkness.
Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.