Thursday, December 26, 2013

Lighting the World

I love writing communion liturgies, and reading John 1 after a while seemed to me as though I was reading a Great Thanksgiving. Here is a Christmas Eve communion liturgy based on John 1:1-18 (NRSV).
Communion Table on Christmas Eve. Picture by Aaron M. Harrington, 2013.
INVITATION and CONFESSION

We came into being through a Light that pierces through the darkest places. Tonight we remember when that Light, in pursuit of us, put on flesh and dwelt among us. Yet sometimes we still cling to the darkness around us, and so when we gather together to be with God, we must try to let go of the darkness. We must try to allow the Light of Life to pour into us again. So let us pray together:

Illumine us, O Light of the World. Shine through our darkness. We come before you tonight asking for you to push out the ugliness and pain that too often cramps our souls, asking for you to make room in our hearts for the Light. Forgive us for the fear and stubbornness that keeps us from following the way of life you have set out before us. Offer us grace upon grace again, O Holy One!

ASSURANCE

Open your ears to hear the good news: God loves us so much that God comes to us in the form of a baby wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.

Glory to Our God who is full of Grace and Truth!

PASSING OF THE PEACE: Now let us share signs of that peace which we find in Christ with our neighbors!

THE GREAT THANKSGIVING

The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord Our God.
It is right to give our thanks and praise.

It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Almighty God, creator of heaven and Earth.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things came into being through him and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, life that persisted through sin in the Garden, slavery in Egypt, the reign of crooked kings in Israel, and exile from the Land Promised to us. That life persisted in spite of the darkness of our violence toward one another, in spite of the ways we abused one another and ignored the cries of the needy. That life persisted, and the life was the light of all people. That light--- it shone in the darkness so brightly.

And so, with your people on earth and all the company of heaven, we praise your name and join their unending hymn.


Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest. 
Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

Holy are you and blessed is your son Jesus Christ. You blessed us with life, but we turned away toward darkness again and again. And again and again, you called us back to the light. You sent us a man whose name was John as a witness to testify to the light. For the true light which enlightens everyone was coming into the world.

That is what we celebrate tonight as we worship together--- how You came into the world. How the Word Became flesh. You, God, became human to bring light to a world dark with the oppression of the Roman Empire, to a world so mired in sin and greed and despair that people were losing their imagination for a different one. But you in Jesus turned water into wine, you healed the sick, you fed the hungry, you washed the feet of the weary, you called out people on their judgmental behavior and urged us instead to love one another as you have loved us.

And yet we didn't accept you. We, your own friends, betrayed you. We gave you up to death on a cross. But the light shines even in the darkness of death. That light will not be overcome.

That is what we proclaim as we come around the table on this Christmas Eve. On his last night with us, Jesus sat at a table and fed us. He took bread, blessed it, broke it, and shared it with us, saying “This is my body, which is given for you.”

When supper was over he took the cup, blessed it, and shared it with us, saying, “Take, and drink. As often as you do this, remember me.”

Because when we eat and drink and receive Jesus, we gain the power to become your children.

And so, in remembrance of these, your mighty acts in Jesus Christ, we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving as a holy and living sacrifice, in union with Christ's offering for us, as we proclaim the mystery of faith.


Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.

Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here, and on these gifts of bread and wine. Show us your glory as we come together on this sacred night. From your fullness may each of us here receive grace upon grace. May we in receiving through bread and cup go forth from this place sharing grace upon grace with our brothers and sisters. May we be light that shines in the darkness that the darkness cannot overcome.

And now, with the confidence of the children of God, let us pray as Jesus taught us: THE LORD'S PRAYER

BREAKING THE BREAD

GIVING AND RECEIVING THE BREAD AND THE CUP

PRAYER

Let us pray:
Light of the World, we give you thanks for this mystery, for how your Word became and becomes flesh to live among us. We give you thanks for the grace upon grace we have received from you. Now we ask that as we light candles and sing, your grace will grow within us, overflowing to touch those around us. For each of us here will hold a flickering candle; seemingly insignificant one by one, yet magnificent when held together. Let your light pour out of this place, that all may now how your light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. Amen.

Of Shepherds and Angels

This is the Christmas Eve sermon I preached at Presbury United Methodist Church as part of a lessons and carols service complete with communion and candlelight. It is short and sweet. May you find beauty in it as well as a challenge to Go, Tell It on the Mountain...

The Adoration: Luke 2:8-20 (NRSV)

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Sermon:
Do you ever think much of the shepherds? For me, on Christmas Eve at least, I keep coming back to these shepherds--- and not just because I'm a duck farmer from North Harford. But that the Good News came to shepherds, shepherds of all people, says to me that maybe the Good News can come to me too.

According to many scholars, shepherds at the time of Jesus' birth were looked down upon in the same way tax collectors and prostitutes were looked down upon. They were thought to be lazy and even dishonest. They were pushed around by wealthier landowners, often excluded from religious rituals because they were thought to be unclean, and even deemed unsuitable to testify in court. Shepherds were poor, lonely, dirty; they did not expect great things in their lives. They did spend much of their lives watchful, even through the darkest time of night, but they were not awaiting some magical prize. They were just trying to keep their sheep, which are dirty and smelly and not the most intelligent of animals, from running off. And yet it was to these people, a people walking in the darkness of exclusion and exhaustion, that God sent messengers to proclaim peace.

While not all of us know the kind of exclusion and exhaustion the shepherds must have felt, we have walked in some kind of darkness--- that of grief or illness, financial stress, bullying. We, too need to see that light the shepherds saw, hear the words of the angels, rush to find the promised child who will change everything. And this story offers all of that too us.

Yet, for us, this story has become an ordinary story, one we have read so many times it is difficult to see the good news within it. We read it year after year and sing the same carols. I can't read the story in a different translation because these words are written on my mind and any other translation sounds wrong. We have to sing Silent Night and Joy to the World or it just isn't Christmas. We get into a rhythm the way those shepherds must have done, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And so the wonder of this story wears off for us, and we get used to living in darkness We forget that there is a message of light available for even us. But then angels, God's messengers, come and mess everything up.

That's God for you. God messes things up, turns the world upside-down. This is what Christmas is about, turning the world upside-down, kings born in barns, shepherds becoming God's messengers, light shining on those who have lived in darkness. But even when we need that light so badly in our own lives, when we see it, we are often terrified, as the shepherds were. We may even try to shut our eyes to it. At least in our darkness, we know the rules. If we are sick, we know that we must go for radiation for a set number of days and a set amount of time. If we are grieving, we know what kinds of things will set off our tears. If we are being bullied, we know in what order the taunts go. If we are struggling financially, we know how to avoid bills and stretch food. The rules to these kinds of games are horrible, but sometimes they are less fearsome than this unknown, topsy-turvy world that the angels proclaim when the speak of a child-king wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.

But, for all the fear the shepherds had at the sight of the angels, their story ends with them glorifying and praising God for all they have heard and seen. Rev. Vicki Flippin, a United Methodist pastor in New York City, writes, “We have no idea...what it will look like after the world turns. All we have and all we need are the glimpses of glory shining off each other’s faces in the darkness, assuring us that God is still in this, birthing something beautiful and significant among us.”1 The shepherds glimpse the glory of God in the faces of those around them, and they knew that, frightening as this world the angels proclaimed might be, they were not alone. They had one another. And God was with them.

But God being with us is not always a comforting thing. In the case of the shepherds, it meant responsibility. The shepherds basked in the glow of the choirs of angels, then they went and worshiped the baby Jesus, perhaps even cradling that baby, that God-with-us, in their arms. The Gospel of Luke does not tell us what happens to those shepherds, not exactly, but we are told is that the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. They became the messengers, the angels, sharing the good news.

Picture by Aaron M. Harrington, 2013
And we, too, are given the same responsibility when we come to this place on Christmas Eve. For the real work of Christmas, to paraphrase a poem by theologian and civil rights leader Howard Thurman,2 begins when the shepherds are back with their flocks, and we begin to search out others who are lost, broken, hungry, or prisoners and we bring light to them, offering healing or food or release. The real work of Christmas begins when we rebuild our communities, when we work for peace, when we reach out in love to one another.

And so we will begin that work right here in worship tonight.

As we pass the peace, I will be giving you angel pins made by the Leafs to remind you that the Christmas story has transformed us from shepherds into God's messengers, the angels. We are to glorify God, sharing with everyone we meet about this baby in a manger who signified how God comes to us no matter how far gone we feel. And then we will come to the communion table together, choosing to leave our land of deep darkness for the land of Light and Love.

1 Vicki Flippin, http://issuu.com/rmnetwork/docs/december_2013_katalyst. 
2 “The Work of Christmas” by Howard Thurman, page 23 of The Mood of Christmas and Other Celebrations 
When the song of the angels is stilled, 
When the star in the sky is gone, 
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks, 
The work of Christmas begins: 
To find the lost, 
To heal the broken, 
To feed the hungry, 
To release the prisoner, 
To rebuild the nations, 
To bring peace among people, 
To make music in the heart.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Water Breaking Forth in the Wilderness

In 2009, I went on an experiential educational trip to the border with Methodist Federation for Social Action folks through BorderLinks. There, I saw "water breaking forth in the wilderness" (Isaiah 35:6). I wrote about the experience for December 18 of the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church's Young Adult Advent Devotional (see page 19 of this PDF or continue reading below). I have been reflecting a lot recently on my adventures traveling, and this experience is one that burns brightly for me this Advent season.

Scripture: Isaiah 35:1-10
Focus: Opening your eyes to hope
 

In the desert where we were, a tall blue flag shot up into the sky, anchored to the dusty earth by a blue jug.

Water.
 
Here, on the border, where so many are lost in the wilderness, whether the symbolic wildernesses of greed or grief or the actual desert, here, there was water breaking forth. This hospitality is what we had been waiting for, whether we knew it or not.

We were a group of young adults participating in an experiential education program focused on immigration. Earlier that day, we met with some high school students living on the border who, when we shared our names and what the border meant to us, overwhelmingly spoke of death.

That stuck out in my mind as we saw this flag that symbolized water, which was being offered by a migrant shelter in Altar, Mexico, a simple place with hot food and a warm place to sleep.

When we arrived, no one was there yet for the night, so we waited. We had no idea what we should expect, but one of us got out a guitar and began to sing. Slowly, people began to arrive, including a young family, a teenage boy, and two brothers. They were exhausted and the language barrier made it difficult to strike up a conversation, but they joined us in song. Then we ate together, piecing together stories.
That night was filled with life and warmth, even though the realities of the dangers of the desert hung over us.

Reading Isaiah brought me back to that night at the migrant shelter. Isaiah's litany is one of hope in the midst of death; the hope we have been waiting for in the midst of the death we have seen around us.

Preparing ourselves for Jesus' arrival this Advent season is about opening our eyes to that hope at the same time it is about how we can nurture those blossoms God has planted in the wildernesses of this world. As that shelter on the border was, we can be waters breaking forth, offering life to people in their wilderness places.

PRAYER: Holy One, we reach out to you, seeking relief from the wildernesses around us. But we know we aren't the only ones. Return us to your joy, and give us the courage to bring your realm to this place. Amen.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Contents of Your Bookcase a Part of Your History

"The contents of someone's bookcase are part of his [sic] history, like an ancestral portrait." -Anatole Broyard

On Facebook, there is this suggestion going around: "List 10 books that have impacted your life, but don't think about it too hard." Of course, I always think too hard, and there are way more than ten books that have influenced me, especially if I include all I have read recently. But I still wanted to participate because books have made me into who I am today, helped me to better understand that I learned from the saints and prophets in my life. I am thankful for those people who have shared books with me, and hope that you pick up one of these books and enjoy it as well!

1. Books about Who God Is and Who We Are
Old Turtle by Douglas Wood and Cheng-Khee Chee, Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, The Color Purple by Alice Waker, The Sparrow and Children of God by Mary Doria Russell
The first three of these were read before I graduated from high school, and I was fortunate to have encountered both Old Turtle and The Color Purple in church. God in all these books is far more fluid and complex and vulnerable than one typically learns in Sunday school.
2. Books that Showed Me What Strong Women Can Look Like
The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch and Michael Martchenko, Philip Pullman's The Sally Lockheart Mysteries, Books by Tamora Pierce, A Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler
Unfortunately, all of these books were also very white and middle class; yet they still gave me an image of the women and girls as heroes.  
3. Books that Taught Me to Be Critical of Religion from a Young Age
Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, The Poinsonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
Philip Pullman's are beautiful books that treat the children they are written for as intelligent and capable of knowing the truth, even when it is ugly and painful. The Poisonwood Bible showed me the dangers of mission and evangelism while at the same time showing me the beauty of cross-cultural relationships. The Mists of Avalon taught me that we have a lot more in common across faiths than we care to admit...
4. Books about the Church, Our Pitfalls, and Our Possibilities
A Generous Orthodoxy by Brian McLaren, The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne, and Jesus for President by Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw, and Acts of Faith by Eboo Patel
These books I read in college and am now at a much different place in my faith journey, and I could probably include Donald Miller as well. Now I am far more critical of Shane Claiborne, even though I still admire the work he does so much. But these books gave me a taste of the revolution that is inherent in faith-communities while critiquing their current state.
5a. Probably The Most Beautiful Book I've Ever Read
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison 
Really anything by Toni Morrison. I think she is one of the most brilliant, most powerful authors of all time. 
5b. Also This One is Amazing
Borderlands/La Frontera by Gloria AnzaldĂșa
Seriously.  
6. Books that Helped Me Place Myself in the Biblical Story
The Magdalene Gospel by Mary Ellen Ashcroft, Lamb by Christopher Moore
When I preach, I am constantly trying to discover how we can claim this biblical story without whitewashing it and ignoring its own sin--- and without taking it too seriously. These two books helped me see how to do that.
7. That Book I Can't Get Out of My Head
Love the Sin: Sexual Regulation and the Limits of Tolerance by Janet Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini
The problem with tolerance. Read it.
8. Books that Reveal the Reality of this World We Live In
The Revolution will Not Be Funded by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, The No-Nonsense Guide to Globalization by Wayne Ellwood
Tired of being lied to? Wondering about the failure of liberalism to change the world for good? Read these books, be sad, and then do something about what you've read.
9. More Books I've Read since Graduating from Seminary about Who God is and Who We Are
The Cross and the Lynching Tree by Jame H. Cone, On the Mystery by Catherine Keller, Children of Israel by Danna Nolan Fewell, Saving Paradise by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker
These books have changed my life as a pastor, constantly keeping me critical, and reminding me why I felt God could use me as a pastor to do justice work.
10. And of Course, My Favorite Books
Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer, Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, The Question of Bruno by Aleksandar Hemon, and The Dog Stars by Peter Heller


There are many missing--- Laura Ingalls Wilder, L. M. Montgomery, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and  Lloyd Alexander being the most glaring omissions--- and I am still thinking about The Hunger Games and The Book Thief. But that's the thing about books. They stick with you and give you a hunger for more books.

Please share your own lists below in the comments section!

Invitation to Peace

The second Sunday of Advent, we had three baptisms at Presbury United Methodist Church and I felt called to remember the prophetic life of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. It was a lot for a young preacher to attempt in one sermon! What follows is adapted from the sermon I preached.

Scripture Lesson: Isaiah 55 (NRSV)
Ho,everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. 

See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples. See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you. Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. 

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. 

For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off. 

Sermon: Invitation to Peace
Let us pray:
Patient Teacher, let not the Word that goes forth from your mouth return empty!
Plant your Word within us this morning,
pour out your Spirit upon us so that we may bear good fruit;
for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.1

I found myself reflecting this week on the Isaiah text we read together as though I was on Robben Island in South Africa, a place I visited four years ago. Robben Island is a desolate place. Even now that it is covered in tourists, it feels empty and cold. You can see Table Mountain and Cape Town across the water, but it feels so far away. It was easy to see how such a place could be used as a prison, as it was used since the seventeenth century until the mid-nineties, for it feels as though this little bit of land had broken off from civilization and was drifting off into the sea. And yet, it is a place that signifies, to me, the invitation to peace we read about in the fifty-fifth chapter of Isaiah. 

The text is introduced in my translation of the bible as an Invitation to Abundant Life. Yet, for the community who first read this invitation, they must have felt like the prisoners on Robben Island, desolate and cold, cut off from home and community unjustly. Such an invitation to abundant life that we read in scripture or hear in the words of great leaders like Nelson Mandela seems strange. And yet, when I was visiting Robben Island in 2009, I saw it has indeed become a place where it is as though the mountains and the hills break forth into song and the trees clap their hands. One of the most powerful things about visiting Robben Island was how the South Africans touring it with us burst into freedom songs.

Now, I know that not many of us are familiar with South African history--- I never even learned about apartheid in school and I don't know if it is taught today. But in light of Mandela going home to his ancestors, joining the great cloud of witnesses, this week, I could not shake the connection between Isaiah's and Mandela's invitations to abundant life, characterized by full bellies, joy, and peace. So even though a history lesson may be strange for a sermon, I hope you can hear the calls to abundant life within it.

The first connection I saw between these two invitations is that both invitations came from people in exile. When we read, “For you shall go out with joy and be led back in peace,” in the fifty-fifth chapter of Isaiah, it is a reference to the Babylonian exile, when important, prestigious, and powerful Israelites were forced out of Israel when it was conquered. But even after two generations of exile, prophets believed that they would return home.

So too the story of not only Mandela but of all South Africa is one of exile and a longing for home, especially for native black South Africans. South Africa was colonized by the Dutch and the British beginning in the 1600s. Slavery, war, and exploitation of labor and land were characteristics of Europeans' occupation of South Africa. And, as was the case in our own country, inequality was present from the beginning. The government run by the white minority established apartheid, officially introduced in 1948 when Nelson Mandela was 30 years old. Apartheid is a word that means “apartness,” and was a system of violent racial segregation not unlike Jim Crow in our country. In it, however, people of color were not considered to be citizens at all, did not deserve any rights at all, and for whom most services like medical services were inferior to those for whites. People of color were to be constantly reminded of their so-called inferiority, even to the extent that Mandela received short trousers instead of long pants that white prisoners received when he got into prison in Robben Island to remind them, he says, that they were boys.3 This system of segregation provided a labor force for the whites in charge.

Mandela resisted apartheid from the beginning, and worked for freedom. He started as a lawyer, often working with poor blacks on things like police brutality. He urged South Africans to fight for their freedom, and spread a vision of an egalitarian society where people could live free of domination based on race. He moved up the ranks in the African National Congress, a political party that was eventually made illegal by the apartheid government and was forced underground. Mandela was constantly harassed by the police, and was eventually imprisoned for twenty-seven years in that place of such cold loneliness on Robben Island.

And yet--- here is the second connection--- yet, leaders like the prophets of Israel and Nelson Mandela and Jesus kept dreaming and proclaiming a different world. They spoke of peace in the midst of violence, abundance in the midst of hunger, equality in the midst of huge economic difference. Now, in Mandela's case, this dream was not a nice, nonthreatening one. Mandela was actually considered to be a terrorist by our own government until 2008. While I find that absolutely ridiculous and embarrassing on our part, I must confess that as a pacifist I struggled reading his autobiography when in it he talks about his decision in the African National Congress to take up arms against the white supremacist government. But I still consider him to be a fighter for peace because, even in his acts of sabotage he was against hurting civilians, and his presidency was defined by reconciliation. He was elected president, the first true democratically elected president, in 1994, and he served until his retirement in 1999.

Mandela oversaw the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission during his presidency, where war criminals, those who had perpetuated the sin of apartheid in South Africa could be brought to justice. However, those convicted were not thrown in Robben Island's cold cells. Rather, the commission offered amnesty in return for truth and breaking the silences around the human rights violations that had occurred. It offered opportunity not to dwell in the past, but to break silences that blocked the possibilities for the future.

In his inaugural speech, Mandela said:
We understand it still that there is no easy road to freedom. We know it well that none of us acting alone can achieve success. We must therefore act together as a united people, for national reconciliation, for nation building, for the birth of a new world. Let there be justice for all. Let there be peace for all. Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all. Let each know that for each the body, the mind and the soul have been freed to fulfill themselves. Never, never, and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world. The sun shall never set on so glorious a human achievement. Let freedom ring. God bless Africa.4

That is an invitation to abundant living. While we do not know the exact impact the invitation of abundant life in Isaiah had on the exilic community, we do know the impact Mandela's invitation had in South Africa. I saw the impact in a conversation I had while in South Africa with a refugee named Fabien from the Democratic Republic of Congo. One of the things I asked him was why he thought his country and the countries around him are still plagued by such violence and cruelty. War is constant in countries like the Congo. I mean, I had my ideas about how nations like ours continue to colonize countries like the Congo economically and politically by encouraging debt and corruption. But Fabien said that the violence was a result of a lack of leadership.

His answer kind of dumbfounded me. So simple and yet so powerful. In South Africa, the first democratic president had been a political prisoner for almost thirty years: he had been degraded and abused and yet he and other leaders preached reconciliation. Unity. Peace. These leaders extended an invitation to build a world like the fifty-fifth chapter of Isaiah envisions, one in which everyone who thirsts--- no matter their color, no matter how much money they have, no matter what--- can come to the waters.

This Sunday, the second in Advent, is one in which we have already come to the waters, the waters of baptism. And so, on this Sunday, the invitation to build a world of abundant life is extended to us. We prayed together today that through baptism we would be incorporated by the Holy Spirit into God's new creation and made to share in Christ's royal priesthood. The new creation is a world of peace and plenty so complete that the nations of the world run toward it, of justice and joy so catching that even the mountains sing and the trees clap their hands. And as ones who share in Christ's royal priesthood, we are to be leaders, extending the invitation to this new creation.

Mandela's leadership demonstrates for us that this invitation is not to an imaginary place or a vision of the world where we will go when we die. This invitation is a different way of living here and now when we speak out and witness, even at great cost to ourselves, for that which is good and right. This invitation is a different way of living when we stand up to say enough is enough in the face of bullying and hate speech. This invitation is a different way of living when we reach out in love across our differences. There is no easy road for freedom, but when we work together, we will bring glory to God. So let us respond to the invitation this holiday season.

I found a prayer of thanksgiving for Mandela's life that I wanted to close with. Will you pray with me?
Merciful God,
Author of salvation, Giver of every gracious gift,
we give thanks for the life and witness of your servant, Nelson Mandela.
His quest for freedom was was a witness to your saving power in our world
a power that can break the shackles of sin and oppression and hatred.
And his commitment to justice gave us a glimpse of what your kingdom should look like
a place where swords of war can actually be traded for the plowshares of peace;
a place where bitter enemies can, by your grace, become friends.
Receive your servant, Mandiba, and grant him the eternal rest of your saints.
May he rest in your mercy and rise in your glory.
And may we, your Church, follow his witness of peace and justice marked by reconciliation.
For when we do, we know we are also following the ways of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns now and forevermore. Amen.5

1Based on Kimberly Bracken Long, ed., Prayer for Illumination, Eighth Sunday after the Epiphany, Feasting on the Word: Worship Companion, Advent through Pentecost (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 85.
3Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (New York: Little, Borwn and Company, 1994), 383.
4Nelson Mandela, Inaugural Speech, 10 May 1994, http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Inaugural_Speech_17984.html.
5Prayer by Bgosden, A Prayer of Thanksgiving for Nelson Mandela, 6 December 2013, covered in the master's dust, http://mastersdust.com/2013/12/06/prayer-thanksgiving-nelson-mandela-1/.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

On Faithfulness

This is the sermon I preached at Presbury United Methodist Church as we continue using the Narrative Lectionary. It was a frightfully difficult sermon to write as this is a Text of Terror (see Phyllis Trible), and I wish I had preached this amazing message from Teri Peterson on what the Word of the Lord is, but retelling Abraham's story as I did, reminding the congregation of where we are in this story, really worked. Check it out:
 
Gospel Reading: John 1:29-36

The Binding of Isaac: Genesis 21:1-3, 22:1-19 (NRSV)
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The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him..

After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”
 
So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together. When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.

But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”

The angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, “By myself I have sworn, says the Lord: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.” So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beer-sheba; and Abraham lived at Beer-sheba.

Sermon:

Let us pray:
Patient Teacher, we give you thanks,
because even when we don't understand your teachings,
even when it is so difficult to interpret stories about you,
you are beside us, willing to explore with us once again.
This morning we ask that you move among us, so the words of my mouth
and the meditations of all our hearts,
provide a clearer glimpse of your saving work in our lives. Amen.

The summer Tuesday night night small group study focused on the History Channel's miniseries The Bible. Many of us were fascinated by the visual interpretations of the stories, and I was impressed by the way characters were given depth in the New Testament stories. However, there were some places in which I wondered how closely the directors of the film actually read the Bible. One of those places was in the story of Abraham. Abraham is portrayed as strong, sure of himself and of God's presence with him. Many of us here today probably agree with this portrayal, placing Abraham on this pedestal of epic faithfulness. And this story of the binding of Isaac, alongside Abraham's willingness to leave his homeland, is the story we cite to support such a portrayal. See Abraham, so trusting and faithful, he could pass the horrific test God has set before him.
The scene of the Binding of Isaac from The Bible miniseries.


Except when you really read the bible, Abraham is not all that trusting and faithful. I feel like I'm blaspheming when I say that because of the way I have been taught since my Sunday school days that Abraham is the epitome of faithfulness, but just look back at the story with me. Abraham's story begins in the twelfth chapter of Genesis, when he is still called Abram. God says to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (Genesis 12:1-2 NRSV). So Abram, his wife Sarai, who will eventually be renamed Sarah, set out with his nephew Lot and their household goods and servants toward Canaan.

We don't know how much time passes, but textually, only six verses after Abram's blessing, in the face of famine, Abram leaves the land God has promised his descendants and goes to Egypt. Leaving the promised land is not the act of unfaithfulness, of course, not in the face of famine. The act of unfaithfulness comes when Abram gives his wife to Pharaoh. Abram claims that because Sarai is so beautiful, if they don't pretend to be siblings, Pharaoh will kill him so he can take her freely. We don't know how true this is, but we do know that giving away Sarai makes Abram very rich. We also see that Abram understands himself to be the sole receiver of God's promise.1 Already, so early in the story, he has misunderstood God and shown himself in not an entirely flattering light, to say the least. But God does not give up on him. God rescues Sarai, restores her as Abram's wife, and Abram and Sarai leave Egypt to make yet another new home for themselves.

Some time later in chapter thirteen and again in fifteen God reminds Abram of the promise first made to them. First God shows Abram the land that will be his and his descendants', then says, “I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted” (Genesis 13:14-17 NRSV). God tells Abram not to be afraid, that he will have a son. Here, though, Abram stands up to God, pointing out that promises are nice and all, but it didn't look like he was going to have a child anytime soon. Then, and I love this detail, God brings Abram outside and says, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be” (Genesis 15:5 NRSV). Can you imagine sitting under the stars with God? What a spiritual high that must have been?

But the spiritual high, that intense moment of closeness to the Divine--- it does not last. This time it is Sarai, tired of hearing God's promise through the words of a husband who had already discarded her once, whose trust in God slips, and she puts forth her slave woman Hagar to have a child for her. The text does not tell us much about Sarai, but she must be in a dark place because she abuses Hagar so badly that Hagar runs away. Hagar does eventually return, at God's prompting, and gives birth to Ishmael.

But God's promise is not just to Abram, but to Sarai as well, and neither of them seem to understand that. So in chapter seventeen, God comes to Abram again with such power that Abram falls on his face before God. God then renames the couple Abraham and Sarah, and reiterates the blessing of a homeland and multitude of descendants (Genesis 17:1-8,15-16 NRSV). What is Abraham's response? He laughs at God. It was not possible for Sarah and Abraham to have a child together, Abraham informs God, encouraging God just to accept Ishmael as the sole child of blessing. But Ishmael is not the only son for Abraham in God's plan here. So God again says that Sarah will give birth to a son, and in the next chapter even gives a timeline for the birth!

And still Abraham doesn't get it. A new name, a new son with another one promised, an amazing relationship with God, and still, still Abraham makes pretty huge mistakes. He and Sarah become immigrants again in another place called Gerar, and he does exactly as he did in Egypt, lying to the king about Sarah being his wife. So the king takes Sarah for his own wife, and God again is forced to rescue Sarah and reunite her with Abraham. Abraham is looking less and less like a strong, faithful, confident person and more and more like a dunce and not the nicest guy.

But finally Isaac is born, bringing laughter to Sarah and everyone who hears her story. There is such joy at this point--- surely there is room for two children in this happy family, especially if Abraham is to have children as numerous as the stars. Yet Hagar and Ishmael are evicted, sent out to starve in the desert until God rescues them too. Reading through the story, I wonder why God doesn't just give up on Abraham. Wouldn't you? Abraham is looking nothing like that strong, serene, faithful man the History Channel's miniseries and most of our Sunday school curricula have in mind. He's looking more and more like a normal person who makes huge mistakes, who misunderstands God's call, and who is just generally confused.

It is at this point in the story that “God tests Abraham”.2

Now, let us remember that Abraham, for all the faults I have illustrated here, has an intimate relationship with God, one in which they talk and argue and even just sit under the stars together. Over and over again, God comes before Abraham with a promise. When Abraham disbelieves, when he changes direction away from God by abandoning his wife to the harems of kings, God is there to speak the promise anew and reunite Sarah with Abraham. And then finally, God fulfills part of the promise by giving a child to Sarah and Abraham. And yet, in the midst of such a powerful relationship, full of reminders of promise and miraculous saving deeds, Abraham forgets. Abraham walks away from God.

Just like we do.

Have you ever gone to worship or a concert and left feeling this amazing connection to God, only to go back to work and start gossiping about one of your colleagues the very next day? Have you ever had a conversation with a loved one in which your eyes were totally opened to how much God loves you, only to go home and snap at your kids or partner because someone left his or her socks right in the middle of the floor? Have you ever sat on your front porch to watch the sunset and felt God's love wrapped up all around you, only to ignore another's tears the very same night?

God comes to us every day, all the time, offering us words of hope and trying to get us to live into the promise of those words. Sometimes we recognize those moments, but close our eyes because we're too busy to be too concerned with it all or because to acknowledge them would just be too hard and different. Sometimes we recognize those moments, welcome them with wide open arms, but then forget about them in the face of a new challenge or opportunity as Abraham did when he offered Sarah up to the king in Gerar right after falling to his face in worship to God. And sometimes, just sometimes, those moments may change our lives, redirect us back to God and leave us ready to live into the promise.

We read this over and over again in scripture--- David, a man supposedly after God's own heart, is also a murderer and flanderer, and even Jesus' own disciples are totally clueless most of the time. Yet, when we think of church, we think of people who have it all together. On this Back to Church Sunday we need to remember that we come to church not because of some kind of faithful obedience but because we are all just looking for grace.
The Akedah by Pat B. Allen


So, even though I really struggle with the story of the binding of Isaac, of this image of a God who would demand the absolute worst of a person, I have come to understand that this is not a story about how we ought to have a blind obedient faith like Abraham, who was willing to sacrifice his only son at God's direction. Rather, it is a story about how Abraham's faith was a struggle as ours continues to be a struggle. Even in the face of miracles, Abraham made mistakes. Even with the words of God ringing in his ears, Abraham forgot God's will for his life. And yet, even when he was not, and even when we are not, faithful to God, God will be faithful to us.

Because, though this story of the binding of Isaac begins with the terrible and confusing words of God demanding an unspeakable evil, it ends with God calling out to Abraham, staying his hand, and providing a sacrificial ram instead. The story ends, as is usual for God and Abraham's relationship, with God speaking words of hope and blessing. “I will indeed bless you,” God says, “and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore...and by your offspring shall all of the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves...” (Genesis 22:17-18 NRSV).

This morning, may you hear hope and blessing in this place, remembering how even when you might mess up, even when you pull away from God, you are in good company. Abraham wasn't perfect either. But God loves him anyway, and God loves us too. God calls us back and offers us opportunities, opportunities as numerous as the stars or the dust on the earth or the sand by the sea, opportunities to reset ourselves so that we can live into that promise of blessing.

1Danna Nolan Fewell and David M. Gunn, “Keeping the Promise,” Gender Power and Promise: The Subject of the Bible's First Story (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 1993), 43.
2See Teri Peterson, “The Word of the Lord??” A Sermon for September 15 (Narrative Lectionary year 4, week 2), Clever Title Here, 14 September 2013, http://clevertitlehere.blogspot.com/2013/09/the-word-of-lord-sermon-for-september.html.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Please stop using women and children as excuses to go to war

I wrote this last week in the middle of the night. I updated it after the president's most recent speech. It has been weighing heavily on me, so posting it here today:

Please stop using women and children as excuses to go to war.

In the last few weeks, the leaders of the USA have spoken a lot about our ethical responsibility to save Syria from chemical weapons. As was done by former president George W. Bush in Iraq, rescuing women and children from living under oppressive and violent regimes has emerged as a important motivation for US military action. President Obama opened his remarks on Syria on August 31 by speaking of the fate of women and children. Earlier this week, he again opened by reminding us that “Assad’s government gassed to death over a thousand people, including hundreds of children” (emphasis mine).

On August 23, John Kerry actually spoke of the treatment of women and children as a moral obscenity. He said, “The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity. By any standard, it is inexcusable.” He is quite right.

Except that it does not make much sense that military action is the proper response, for, as UNICEF has reported, “armed conflict kills and maims more children than soldiers.” Which we have seen in our own military's record on moral obscenities in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Pakistan is abysmal. As I listened to John Kerry speak, massacres in Majalah in Yemen where 21 children and 14 women were killed in 2009 US missile strikes echoed in my memory.

So too, our domestic record in which women and children suffer from lack of access to health care, in which women's reproductive health is seen as a political football rather than a human right, in which children's head start programs are the first to be cut in the face of fiscal problems, in which women still in 2013 do not receive equal pay for equal work--- all of this makes plain to me that women and children are not interesting to us as a nation except as excuses to go to war.

And as I write this, I also remember hearing some people in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo talking in glowing terms about former president Bill Clinton's push of NATO intervention during the genocide in the 1990s. I am not proposing we do nothing as women and children are violently attacked by their own government. Rather, more of us need to echo folks like Rev. Andy Oliver at Reconciling Ministries Network who wrote, “Please stop repeating the story that our wars keep us safe, our killing is justified, our weapons are humane, please stop repeating it because it isn't true.” Or folks like Jim Wallis at Sojourners who wrote, “Old military solutions have clearly failed. It’s time to find a better and more successful way.” There are no easy answers, but there is an imperative to find a new way.

Rather, we need to lead a creative response to moral obscenities in a way that does not do further harm to civilians, particularly women and children. We need actually care for and show compassion for civilians brutalized by any government, rather than ignoring them until we can use them as talking points and rallying cries to justify ramping up the war machine.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Process of Revision

This week we had a beautiful outdoor service complete with a baptism to celebration God's work of creation. At Presbury United Methodist Church, we are beginning to use the Narrative Lectionary through Pentecost to better explore the story of our faith. 

Gospel Reading: John 1:1-5
Creation: Genesis 1:1-2:4a (Inclusive Bible translation)
In the beginning,
God created the heavens and the earth.


But the earth became chaos and emptiness, and darkness came over the face of the Deep--- yet the Spirit of God was brooding over the surface of the waters.

Then God said, “Light: Be!” and light was. God saw that light was good, and God separated light from darkness. God called the light “Day” and the darkness “night.” Evening came, and morning followed--- the first day.

Then God said, “Now, make and expanse between the waters! Separate water from water!” So it was: God made the expanse and separated the water above the expanse from the water below it. God called the expanse “Sky.” Evening came, and morning followed--- the second day.

Then Gd said, “Waters under the sky: be gathered into one place! Dry ground: appear!” So it was. God called the dry ground “Earth” and the gathering of the waters “Sea.” And God saw that this was good. Then God said, “Earth: produce vegetation--- plants that scatter their own seeds and every kind of fruit tree that bears fruit with its seed in it!” So it was, the earth brought forth every kind of plant that bears seed, and every kind of fruit tree on earth that bears fruit with its own seed in it. And God saw that this was good. Evening came, and morning followed--- the third day.

Then God said, “Now, let there be lights in the expanse of the sky! Separate day from night! Let them mark the signs and seasons, days and years, and serve as luminaries in the sky, shedding light on the earth.” So it was: God made the two great lights, the greater one to illuminate the day, and a lesser to illuminate the night. Then God made the stars as well, placing them in the expanse of the sky, to shed light on the earth, to govern both day and night, and separate light from darkness. And God saw that this was good. Evening came, and morning followed--- the fourth day.

God then said, “Waters: swarm with an abundance of living beings! Birds: fly above the earth in the open expanse of the sky!” And so it was: God created the sea monsters and all sorts of swimming creatures with which the waters are filled, and all kinds of birds. God saw that this was good, and blessed them, saying, “Bear fruit, increase your numbers, and fill the waters of the seas! Birds, abound on the earth!” Evening came, and morning followed--- the fifth day.

Then God said, “Earth, bring forth all kinds of living soul--- cattle, things that crawl, and wild animals of all kinds!” So it was: God made all kinds of wild animals, and cattle, and everything that crawls on the ground, and God saw that this was good.

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image. To be like us. Let them be stewards of the fish in the sea, the birds of the air, and everything that crawls on the ground.”

Humankind was created as God's reflection:
in the divine image God created them;
female and male, God made them.

God blessed them and said, “Bear fruit, increase your numbers, and fill the earth--- and be responsible for it! Watch over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air and all the living things on the earth.” God then told them, “Look, I give you every seed bearing plant on the face of the earth, and every tree whose fruit carries its seed inside itself: they will be your food; and to all the animals of the earth and the birds of the air and things that crawl on the ground--- everything that has a living soul in it--- I give all the green plants for food.” So it was. God looked at all of this creation, and proclaimed it was good--- very good. Evening came, and morning followed--- the sixth day.

Thus the heavens and the earth and all their array were completed. On the seventh day God had finished the work of creation, and so, on that seventh day, God rested. God blessed the seventh day and called it sacred, because on it God rested from all the work of creation.

These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.

Sermon: The Process of Revision
At the beginning of God's creating God told a story “that became the universe.”1 This beginning was not so much a time so much as a process,2 a process that may be still going on today, as the earth continues to change and adapt, as we change and adapt. This is a story not just about the earth and how it came to be, but it is also a story about us, about how we as people of faith came to be. This is not a literal, civil-engineer certified blueprint for how to create a world. It is a story. But it is a story that shows us the power of Word and Spirit.

When we translate this story from Genesis into English, it seems very straightforward. I had Minister Jackie read from a translation called the Inclusive Bible because it lets some of the confusion of the verses sink in. Where we usually read “formless and void,” in this translation we read something a little bit closer to the Hebrew: “chaos and emptiness.” But these two things together are confusing. My office in my house is chaotic BECAUSE it is not empty but full of stuff I have to organize. And every other time a phrase similar to this occurs in the bible, it signifies ruin and desolation.3 But isn't this the beginning? How could things be ruined already?

The text nurtures our questions but does not give answers to them specifically. Instead, we get another kind of answer. We get the Spirit and the Word. The Spirit of God broods over the surface of the waters, “the way a bird broods over the eggs in her nest...represent[ing] the divine power to recreate and restore that which has been spoiled or destroyed.”4 The story doesn't end with chaos and emptiness. It begins again with Spirit and Word; the power of God is to elicit goodness, to elicit life in the world again. From this brooding, God speaks, and that which God speaks becomes. And God saw that the desolation, the chaos, was transformed into goodness.

In the second chapter and first verse of Genesis, we read, “Thus the heavens and the earth and all their array were completed.” When we read that verse, sometimes we focus too much on the word “completed” and forget the first verses of chapter one that hinted at the processes of revision and restoration that are continually a part of creating.

I, unfortunately, am not a crafty person; when I want to create something, I use words, and used to write a lot more fiction. In an introduction to creative writing class I took in college, I got frustrated with my professor for denying that a story can be “completed,” as we read here in Genesis. He said that we are never wholly finished with a story. We do not attain perfection after receiving feedback from colleagues and writing a certain amount of drafts. We may get to a point where we decide that we cannot work on the story anymore, but we never craft the perfect story.

What made me mad about this point my professor made was that I could theoretically come back to a published story--- not a huge problem for me since I have not published any of my fiction, but it is the principle of the thing--- I could come back to a published story and find a word I wanted to change, or a paragraph I wanted to move around, or even something like a comma that should have been a semi-colon. I found this first hand when I stripped a novella I had written for this class--- at least a hundred pages--- down to a simple, one-page prose poem my senior year of college. All that work, hours of writing, for one single page? But where I was as an eighteen-year-old, fresh from Harford County wondering what the heck she was getting into, was not where I was as a senior who was fluent in another language, had lived in big cities, slept outside of train stations, made new friends, and heard my calling. And so I saw in revising that story how we ourselves are constantly revised.

God is constantly at work among us, revising, restoring, recreating. Always trying to lure us back to that goodness when things seem to get all ruined. Just look at the story of our faith:
  • We're having a good old time with God, but we eat this fruit God told us not to, and so we have to revise our way of living away from the garden;
  • we hurt one another and creation so badly that God sends a flood to kill everything but a small remnant to start over, but such an action makes God so sad that God promises never to do it again;
  • we get caught in the clutches of slavery, and God rescues us and gives us the Law to help us start over;
  • but still we fight and squabble and so God gives us a king to lead us;
  • only the king God gave to lead us becomes inept and corrupt, and we are sent into exile, but God sends prophets to give us words of repentance and of hope until we return home at last.
And those are just some of the moments in our faith story in the Old Testament that demonstrate this process of revision and restoration. We fall away, and God works with us to bring us back to that goodness God proclaimed at the beginning of God's creating. And of course then, in the New Testament, God gives us Jesus to walk among us and teach us and show us a new way to live, helping us revise our lives full of sin and oppression into ones of life and light. These are big moments where God shows us how that creation process really is never complete until the kingdom on earth Jesus preached is fully realized on Earth.

But there are smaller moments where God helps us to revise the story we're writing about ourselves and our community, helps us to revise our own stories from ones about isolation and greed, loneliness and grief, injustice and oppression to ones about goodness, light, and life. Maybe we had a Sunday school teacher like Miss Minnie or Miss Ethel or Baylee who instilled a love of God in us at a young age so deeply that we remembered that love when we were feeling at our worst. Perhaps we heard a song that spoke the gospel to us in such a new way we found renewed energy for life and service. Maybe a stranger offered us kind words in a moment of need that shed light on how we need to shed lives of busy-work for ones of intimacy. Through people and situations, the Spirit of God broods over the chaos and emptiness we may feel in our own lives and helping us create something good out of it all.

Baptism is a type of revision and recreating too. As Methodists, we often baptize children, which can be confusing, for most of us don't view infants as inherently sinful creatures who need to die to the chaos and emptiness within them and be born again in the goodness of Christ. Instead, baptism is a way that we as a community come together to proclaim God's constant recreating and restoring work in our lives. That's part of why we only do it once as Methodists--- if we were baptized every time God was at work in our lives offering goodness and redemption, we'd have to walk around with little baptismal font Supersoakers holstered on our backs or something. And if we chose to be baptized only after experiencing some particularly saving event, we could accidentally forget the power in all the events to follow in which God broods over us. Rather, baptism is a time where we as a community enter into this story of a God who has the power to restore and create us no matter what happens throughout our lives.

Now, we could live our entire lives with God brooding over us but never crack that shell to emerge into a world of goodness. When God creates humans in this story, God gives us co-creating responsibilities, telling us not only to bear fruit, but to watch over the life on the earth. We don't do this well. Sometimes we actively refuse to work for goodness, and use our co-creating powers for destruction and ruin. But God still reaches out to us, still demands a response that will lead to restoration.

The Gospel of John reminds us, that, “What has come into being in the Word,” both the Word God spoke at the beginning and the Word that is Jesus, “was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Let us live into that light together, my friends, rejoicing in God's power to recreate and restore all to goodness again.

1Michael Williams, editor, “The First Account of Creation: Genesis 1:1-2:4,” The Storyteller's Companion to the Bible, vol.1: Genesis (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 1991), 28.
2Notes to verse 1 of Genesis 1 in The Inclusive Bible: The First Egalitarian Translation.
3Notes to verse 2 of Genesis 1 in The Inclusive Bible: The First Egalitarian Translation.
4Ibid.