"Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this." Rev. 1:17-19.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

IABAP: The Most Important Letters

 The First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of our Lord

Father in heaven, who at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit: Grant that all who are baptized into his Name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

         Ask for 2 children to help. Give one a paper sign to hold but not to show the congregation.
          I was starting to work on my sermon when David Brown stopped by my office. When I told him that I was preaching this week, he reminisced about the best children’s sermon that he’d ever heard—one that Fr. John Hines preached here over 25 years ago. Now, I was definitely interested in any sermon that someone can remember for 25 years. Usually, it’s hard to remember what I said myself last month! But then, when I realized that this great sermon was a reflection on this week’s readings, of all things, I knew that the Holy Spirit must be at work! So, tipping my hat to Fr. John, I will start today with my own version of what David shared with me.
          (Unroll paper sign with letters IABAP written large across the top.) Take a good look at these letters. These are divine, holy letters. When you are born, God engraves them on your soul. Everyone--each son and daughter of Adam and Eve, from the beginning of Creation until now--carries these letters deep within their very being. There are no exceptions. These letters stand for who we are in God’s eyes, who God created us to be: “I am beloved and precious.” IABAP.  Say them with me: IABAP.
Can you feel the letters stir around somewhere inside?  If you feel silly doing this, it’s because these words are strangely hard to believe. My preaching mentor used to always say that it’s easy to get people to believe that they are terrible sinners. What’s hard is to get them to believe that God loves them. Usually, young children have less trouble calling themselves beloved than we adults do. But it’s only in babies’ eyes that you can see straight through to the letters. Baby’s eyes have a kind of soft glow, a thinly-veiled twinkle. I think that’s God’s hand-etched love letters shining through.
          What happens to us as we get older, then?
Adults and children, I bet you can all remember that time when the girl on the playground told you that she wouldn’t be your friend anymore? Or the first … or the tenth …. time that you got picked last for the team? Rip, went part of God’s beautiful name for you. (Children tear paper and let it fall).
Remember the time when the teacher sent you out in the hall for talking, when you were just trying to help your neighbor? Remember your first B, or C, or D on a test? Rip, went part of God’s beautiful name. (Children tear paper and let it fall.)
How about the time when you didn’t get a Valentine, and everyone else in the class did? Or the time that your mom or dad yelled at you really, really loud. Rip, went another of those letters (Children tear paper and let it fall.)
And then there was the time that you prayed really hard for something, for something important, and it seemed like God didn’t hear you. There was the time that you or your grandma or your pet was really sick, and it sure didn’t look like God was doing anything to help. Rip, went another of those letters.
Pretty soon, that beautiful name that God gave you is covered over by hurt and lost behind ugly names that life pastes on top. The letters are torn in little pieces by the destructive powers that swirl around us in this world. Oh, we’re all still anxious to touch these letters again, of course. Even grown-ups. We will do anything for words of approval, words of unconditional love. We will work too hard for them. We will buy whatever advertisers promise us will deliver them. We will hunt for them in food, and alcohol, and drugs.
We might forget where to look for these words, but God never gives up on us. God is like the nanny in the film, The Help, crooning over and over to her neglected and abused young charge, “You is good; you is beautiful; you is important.” God leans over to the exiled and beaten people of Israel and proclaims through the prophet Isaiah: “I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you… you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”
In Luke’s Gospel, too, we see a crowd of God’s beloved people thirsty for answers, starving for hope. They think that they might see that hope in the person of John the Baptizer. They pray that they will find the wholeness of these words under the waters of the Jordan. Even Jesus. Even Jesus needs to hear these precious words from his Father.
Right before today’s lesson, Luke reminds us that Jesus belongs to the whole human condition. All the way from Joseph back to Adam, Luke traces Jesus’ genealogy. Like each of us, each child of Adam, Jesus needs to gather the strength of these words before he can fulfill the Father’s plans for him. God breathes them down on him from heaven: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well-pleased.”          
When we are baptized, too, God sends the Holy Spirit to breathe us back to wholeness, to the loving, living wholeness of Jesus. My favorite part of every baptism in our church is when I get to take the blessed oil, the chrism, and make a tiny cross on the forehead of the person being baptized. “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked as Christ’s own forever,” I say.
What I didn’t know until this week is why we make this sign of the cross on the middle of the forehead. According to an ancient mystic tradition, the eye of the soul is located here, in the middle of our foreheads. While our regular eyes look out to see the world, the eye of the soul both looks out on God’s spirit in the world AND looks deep within us, where God resides in us, where God’s name for us is still intact. Our baptism washes the dirt from this third eye. It washes this eye open, this hidden eye, here in the middle of our foreheads. Our baptism wakes our souls to what God intends for us.[1] With the third eye open and sealed with the Cross, we can once again see ourselves as God sees us. We are made ready to love God, to love others, and to love ourselves. We are made ready to do the work that Jesus gives us to do.
Artist Janet Richardson tells the story of a homeless schizophrenic woman named Fayette. Fayette found her way to church and asked to be baptized. The priest explained that baptism was “this holy moment when we are named by God’s grace with such power it won’t come undone.” In the chaos of her troubled life. Fayette would come to church every Sunday, and ask, “When I’m baptized, I am …?” Everyone would tell her “a beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.” The day of her baptism, she lifted her head from the font and shouted, “And now I am ….?” And the congregation responded, “beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.” “Oh yes,” she shouted, and began to dance around.
Sometime later, the priest of this church heard that Fayette had been attacked and beaten out on the streets and was in the hospital. She stopped by for a visit, and from the door to Fayette’s hospital room, she saw the woman pacing back and forth. “I am a beloved, precious child of God, and …” she said, over and over. She was hurt and disheveled from the attack, and the words were stuck and torn, like these pieces of paper on the floor. Looking at her bruised face in the mirror, though, she persevered. “I am the beloved, precious child of God …. and God is still working on me. If you come back tomorrow, I’ll be so beautiful I’ll take your breath away,” she finally said triumphantly.[2]
You, me, Fayette, every child of Adam and Eve, every child of God: We are all beloved and precious, bound to God in Christ, bound to one another in God’s love. Forever.
In a few minutes, when Father Bill and I come by to sprinkle you with water in remembrance of your baptism, touch a few drops of that water to your forehead, and wash the sleep from the tiny soul-eye there. Whisper, with God: “IABAP. I am beloved and precious,” and rejoice.  Amen.

[1] John Shea, The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers: Following Love into Mystery (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2010), 70.
[2] As told by Janet Richardson, http://paintedprayerbook.com/2010/01/03/epiphany-1-baptized-and-beloved?#sthash.wMZfB0kT.dpuf

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Rejoice?! You viper spawn!

Advent 3, Year C

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

Well, fellow vipers … My first time to stand here in this pulpit, and wild-eyed John the Baptizer is calling us “Viper spawn!” When I hear John’s words, I don’t picture myself clothed in the scaly indifference of a well-fed schoolroom snake. Being from the Gulf Coast, I picture myself as part of a nest of baby water moccasins. I imagine a whole community of those small black vipers, tightly entwined under a dock in murky lake water somewhere: A dark tangle lying silently in wait for a hapless victim to wade into its poisonous nest. The brood of vipers seems to me a perfect image of my fear: of churning, writhing, hidden, dark, deadly fear. Fear of God, fear of messing up, fear of others, fear of death, fear of life … all cowering beneath the water’s surface, all fleeing from a wrath of my own devising.
Kids, what does your fear look like? Like snakes? Or all weak and bug-eyed like the cartoon Fear guy in the movie Inside Out? If you have crayons or a pencil, I invite you to draw or write your image of fear in the space on the paper in your clipboard. Once you’ve drawn a good “fear” picture, just hang onto your paper and I’ll tell you what to do next.
While the kids are drawing, we do have to wonder: What’s with all this fear talk, anyway? Isn’t today Gaudete Sunday? Isn’t it the joyful day of the Pink Candle? Kids, that’s what we learned when we made our Advent wreaths, right? That today we’re putting a smile on our serious Advent faces. We’re celebrating! Christmas is almost here! The waiting for Jesus is almost over! So why does our Gospel lesson burden us with fear and wrath and judgment? Can we really be saying, “Rejoice! You brood of vipers!”
As a matter of fact, it’s not just John. Even our other bright and joyful readings today are lifted from dark backgrounds. The entire book of Zephaniah is full of scary, depressing poetry that makes John the Baptist sound tame. The prophet Zephaniah spends whole chapters telling the people of Israel how rotten they are—and yet he ends with the beautiful, hopeful words that we hear today. The prophet Isaiah, too, is full of doom and gloom in the chapters surrounding today’s hope-filled verses.  And then the apostle Paul, with his “Rejoice in the Lord always?!” He’s writing from a dank, dark Roman prison cell, far from his beloved Philippians.
Our rejoicing is never completely separate from our sorrow, is it? Even as we rejoice with hearts overflowing before the birth of a child, there are the aches and pains of pregnancy. I remember well the waves of fear for the health my unborn children, the worries over the changes that a baby would bring to my life. Expectant joy, mixed with worry and pain. The light of the world, born in the dismal shadows of a stable. Moments of joy seem to rise upward out of the gray everyday world, like the glorious body of Christ, reaching out from a simple loaf of bread.
To rejoice in the Lord seems to be a choice. A chosen response. A hopeful response. A response that moves our bodies and quickens our souls. There’s a recent helpful article from the Washington Post called, “Fifteen Things to do When the World Feels like a Terrible Place.”[1] The author suggests that a series of small actions will bring welcome light to our dark fears about terrorism and racism and refugees and natural disasters. Buy socks for the homeless, she suggests. Give away those extra clothes in your closet. Be kind to those who serve you. Share food. Visit an animal shelter. Honesty, kindness, simple things. Easy things, really. “Do what you can,” she states to end her list. Amazingly, it works!
What’s interesting to me is that this quest for finding joy in the midst of life’s darkness seems to parallel the quest of the crowds in Luke’s Gospel to find favor with God. Do we decide to repent in the same small ways that we choose to live with joy?
When the brood of vipers comes out from under the dock and asks John the answer to their predicament, notice what the Baptizer tells them. John doesn’t tell them to grovel before God on their knees. He doesn’t tell them to believe a certain way or to do impossible tasks. His advice is surprisingly simple: in order to turn your life around, share your things—give away that extra coat or some of the food from that full cupboard. Tax collectors were members of a dishonest profession in John’s day, a profession full of Jews who collaborated with the hated Roman oppressors. Notice that John doesn’t even require that the tax collectors give up their cushy, lucrative jobs. “Just don’t cheat anybody,” John advises. Really, is that all? And the soldiers, probably Jews forced into the army by the Romans, shouldn’t they be required to rise up and refuse to fight? To kill their generals in the Name of Israel’s God? No, nothing like that! “Just be satisfied with your wages,” John tells them, “and don’t use your power to throw your weight around.”
That’s pretty basic stuff, isn’t it? Kids, isn’t that just the kind of stuff that your parents and teachers talk about all the time? Share your stuff. Don’t cheat. Be honest. Be kind. Work hard. Do what you can.
Now, what I want the kids to do is to draw a picture or write a story underneath your fear picture. I want you to show yourself or your family doing what you can to be kind. Making a choice to live joyfully. The kids and moms who came to bake Christmas cookies last week for an ill parishioner did what they could. It wasn’t hard at all. Actually, it was rather fun! What are some other things that you have done, or could you do, to grow your joy? Just something tiny. Something simple. God doesn’t ask us only to do hard things. No kindness is too small to make God rejoice.
          Indeed. God rejoices. Even over a brood of vipers! Listen to the prophet Zephaniah speaking to his wayward people: “God will rejoice over you with gladness; he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival.” God singing about me! Can you imagine? Throwing a huge party for me like the one that the Father gave for his prodigal son? That’s our real reason to rejoice. God rejoices over us, even when we disappoint God. Even when we hide in fear. Pope Francis wrote this past week: "Let us set aside all fear and dread, for these do not befit men and women who are loved. Instead, let us experience the joy of that grace that transforms all things."[2]
          Kids, fold your papers now to cover up the fear picture with the picture of love. I invite you to put it in the offering plate later. You don’t need to put your name on it. But remember, as you offer your work up to God, that you are loved: by God, by your parents, by all of us here at St. Andrew’s. And love is the one thing that is always stronger than fear.
          Adults, you too. Let’s cover up that nasty water moccasin image with some true joy. Let’s put this image in its place: Years ago, I was serving as chalice bearer and watched a toddler from the congregation come up for communion. Confident in the love that upheld him on every side, the boy stood teetering on tiptoe at the rail, waiting patiently for the Cup of God that floated above his determined gaze. Like a master painter mixing perfect colors for a creation of love, he slowly swished the wafer back and forth across the wine’s deep purple, watching it fill with God’s presence just for him. As he finished, this tiny boy whispered a solemn “Amen,” and his baby face was lit by a burst of pure pleasure. As he turned to walk back down the aisle, he did a little happy jig, just for a second, as if he were unabashedly dancing with unseen angels. Time stopped. This little child was rejoicing in the Lord. Rejoicing because he knew how much he was loved.  
          So just do what you can. “Let your gentleness be known to everyone. And the peace [and love] of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Amen.

[1]Katherine Fritz,  https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/inspired-life/wp/2015/12/07/here-are-15-things-you-can-do-when-the-world-feels-like-a-terrible-place/
[2] Cited in http://www.irishexaminer.com/world/pope-francis-calls-to-set-aside-all-fear-and-dread-at-launch-of-holy-year-370491.html