Thursday, January 21, 2016

So What Brings You Here? (Reflection on Epiphany 3, Year C)

 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ (Luke 4:14-21)

So what brings you to Planet Earth? Have you ever wondered why you’re here? In this week’s Gospel lesson, Jesus lays out his mission statement. He’s telling the folks why he’s here. In a nutshell, God’s Spirit has brought him into the world to proclaim the Hebrew notion of jubilee—the time when the society hits the reset button on human behavior. Historically, this would mean that land was returned to its original owners, debts were cancelled, slaves were freed, and everybody gets a new start. As Christians, we often look at this passage and imagine that the year of the Lord’s favor—that great second chance and restoration—comes when we figure out that God loves us in spite of our stupid selves. God in Christ has come to us, washed in our bath water, taken our punishment, experienced our pain and sadness, and still said, “Father, forgive them.” And every day we drown to our old sinful selves and rise anew, trying to be better, striving to be more thankful and appreciative, hoping to do right out of gratitude for God’s limitless patience with us.

Of course, we can’t all teach in parables, heal the sick, give sight to the blind, or die on a cross for the folly of humankind. But what can you do? What is your mission? Why did God put YOU here in this place and time?

I like to think that I’ve finally found my purpose after more than half a century of life. I think my job is to tell stories. Not just Gospel stories, but stories of where Christ shows up in the lives of everyday saints. You see, as one of the few full-time Protestant clerics left standing in my neighborhood, I get called on to preach at the funerals of just about every non-fellowshipping Protestant or lapsed Catholic in Northeast Philly. I see my job as pointing the way to Christ. That is, seeing Christ in the lives that I eulogize. In a way, that’s the job of all Christians: to see Christ in others and be Christ for others. That’s our spiritual path.

I think the challenge for this Third Sunday in Epiphany is to ask ourselves if we know our own purpose and if we know the purpose of our congregations. There’s a pretty cool policy guide (if you will) found in Evangelical Lutheran Worship’s liturgy for Affirmation of Baptism:

“You have made public profession of your faith. Do you intend to continue in the covenant God made with you in holy baptism:
To live among God’s faithful people,
To hear the Word of God and share in the Lord’s Supper,
To proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed,
To serve all people following the example of Jesus,
And to strive for justice and peace in all the earth?” (ELW pg 237)

(BTW: That last part about “justice and peace” was the purpose of the “Year of the Lord’s Favor” which Jesus references in the Gospel reading.)

Now, I’m not suggesting that following the above rubrics is the only purpose of your life, but I do recommend this path as a way of finding your mission if you’ve not already done so. It’s also a way of encouraging yourself in the mission you may have already found.

“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” (Frederick Beuchner, Wishful Thinking)

Think about it this week, won’t you? 

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Godparents For Life (Reflections on Baptism)

Back in the day I used to hang with this girl named Julie. She was a musician and played the organ at our church. She and I often joked about getting married, and I certainly couldn’t have asked for a better partner—she was pretty, wealthy, generous, funny, smart, talented, and Christian. But she was also gay, so that kind of put the marriage thing out of the question.

But I’m thinking of dear Julie this week in connection to her godfather, Clyde. Clyde was an elderly fellow in our congregation (I don’t believe there are young fellows named Clyde) who was ubiquitously loved by every member of the church. He was kind and funny and fond of leisure suits (Remember leisure suits..? This was all about thirty plus years ago) and white shoes and the Los Angeles Dodgers. But he was quite concerned when he learned that his goddaughter was into girls.

One Sunday during after-church coffee hour, Clyde approached me and wanted to know about Julie. “There is something,” he said, “which is extremely distasteful to me. And you know what I’m talking about.” I told him I knew, but I wasn’t comfortable discussing my friend’s sexual orientation around the assembled church folk. We agreed to meet for lunch the next day to discuss it.

Clyde picked me up from the small college where I was teaching the next day, and we dined at a local restaurant. After he said grace, I explained what I had observed in Julie since she had “come out.” You must recall this was thirty years ago, so folks’ attitudes towards the LGBT community were not as enlightened as we might have wished. But I told Clyde that, since Julie had come through the flood of recognizing her sexuality, she would now hug me—which she’d never done before. She’d also say, “I love you,” which she’d never done before. And she seemed happier than I remember her seeming before.

Clyde’s response to this was one of the most Christian things I can recall. He told me he loved his goddaughter, and, though he did not understand her lifestyle, he would pray for her happiness. He told me he accepted what I had to tell him despite his initial misgivings. All he wanted was for Julie to be happy. “Please tell her,” he said, “that I will not ask anything about her personal life. But if she ever needs anything, she’s to call me. After all, she is my godchild.”

I share this little tale with you on the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord because I want to celebrate what an extraordinary godfather this now long-deceased gentleman was. To subordinate the ingrained opinions of his upbringing for the sake of the love of the child he’d promised to nurture in the Christian faith was a true sign of sacrifice. But what impressed me the most about Clyde was how seriously he took the promises he had made at Julie’s baptism. His concern for her did not end after the water had dried on her infant forehead, nor did it terminate at her Confirmation or her eighteenth birthday. He had made a promise before God and intended to keep it.

“Sponsors,” the Evangelical Lutheran Worship baptism liturgy asks, “do you promise to nurture these persons in the Christian faith as you are empowered by God’s Spirit, and to help them live in the covenant of baptism and in communion with the church?” (ELW pg.228) There is no statute of limitations on this question. Living in the grace of our own baptism requires that we become servants to all the baptized—especially the young whom God has placed in our charge.

I get a bit miffed and feel rather superior when someone calls my church, claiming to have been baptized here, but saying they have lost their baptismal certificate and need a duplicate to prove to some Roman priest that they are worthy to stand as a godparent. I want to ask them, “What qualifies you to be godparent at a child’s baptism when you seem to have so little interest in your own that you haven’t even preserved your certificate?”

I can feel really smug at such times. After all, I know where my baptismal certificate is (hanging on the wall of my office). I can also lay my hands on my Confirmation certificate and my seminary diploma and certificate of ordination. But, truth be told, I have been one crappy godfather to my own godchildren. I have had nowhere near the life-long commitment to their spiritual growth which Clyde had for Julie.

What would the church look like if we all took seriously these baptismal vows? What if we committed ourselves to sharing our faith with our children and we all assumed parental roles for the kids in our parish? What if Affirmation of Baptism no longer meant “Graduation from Church?” What if we remembered that, in baptism, Jesus got down in our dirty bath water and promised to love us through all of our sin and pain and confusion, and we committed to doing the same for each other?

So often I feel that baptisms have become just an excuse for a party. What if we committed to being godparents for life?  I think, then, that God would be well pleased.

Thanks for reading, my dears. God bless you.