Monday, November 24, 2014

Thankskeeping? Grudgegiving?

And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. 10 A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches.11 The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; 12 and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. 13 The name of the second river is Gihon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Cush. 14 The name of the third river is Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates. 15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16 And the LordGod commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband...Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

Amanda Lindhout collected National Geographic magazines as a child. In her bedroom, she would run her hands over the glossy photos to escape the grown-ups who were yelling at one another. She longed to see the wonders of the world in real life, not just on the page.  It’s not surprising that she grew to be a young woman seeking adventure, working as a cocktail waitress in fancy Canadian restaurants so that she could earn enough money to travel and see the world. She travelled to South America, Afghanistan and Iraq. She tells her story in the book A House In the Sky.
Travel was an adventure for her, but things went drastically wrong when she went to Somalia. There, she was kidnapped by rebel troops and held for ransom, a ransom so high her family could not afford it. The Canadian government refused to pay the kidnappers because payment might lead to more abductions for profit.  So, Amanda was held hostage for over a year by teenaged soldiers looking to earn money to help them start families or go to school.
But what started as a profit-making venture devolved into hell. When it became clear her family couldn’t pay, she was starved, kept in chains and gang raped at the hands of her captors. She was abused, but never killed. She says she survived by creating an alternate place to go in her mind, a house in the sky. It was place where she could remember there were things she could be thankful for.

Lying alone in the dark on a hard floor, she writes that she gave thanks for her family at home and the oxygen in her lungs. She was intentionally grateful when her captors set her meager food on the floor instead of throwing it at her.
Amanda Lindhout practiced gratitude in the most horrific circumstances. Her imagination, her memory and the ability to practice giving thanks gave her a will to live and allowed her to keep her dignity. Practicing gratitude reminded her that she was worth more than ransom money.
What we see in Amanda’s story is that practicing gratitude didn’t have anything to do with how she was feeling. It was a defiant act of reframing her circumstances and focusing on the things that sustained her.
In her moments of reflection, she would ask herself, "Am I OK? In this very moment am I OK?" In her house in the sky, she remembered the family that loved her, the friends who cared, pancakes, and soft beds. When she would look her life and take stock of who she was, she could ask, “Am I OK in this moment?”  and miraculously the answer was yes.
“Gratitude has the power to transform ordinary or even terrible things into extraordinary ones. Gratitude has eucharistic power. An old French proverb says, ‘Gratitude is the heart’s memory.’ There is an amazing grace in looking backwards on your life. You will see things from a new perspective.”

Amanda knew this. She discovered the transformative power of gratitude. Was she grateful for what she was going though? No. But, she was able to practice gratitude during it. Amanda's story ends with her going home. It ends with her reflecting upon the year she spent with the teenaged soldiers. Reading the end of her book through a blur of tears, I was amazed to see that she manages to forgive her captors. She doesn't hold on the fear and anger. I don't think she could have done that if she hadn't practiced gratitude. 

As we celebrate Thanksgiving this week, most of us will be thanking God for the things we have--warm homes, abundant food on the table, people who love and care for us. And this is good and right. Very few of us will have lives that resemble Amanda Lindhout's or those of her her captors. 

Reading A House In The Sky, it becomes clear that thanksgiving and gratitude are more than just feelings. Thanksgiving is a practice and action that lead to the transformation of the soul. 

Some people call practicing gratitude a spiritual discipline. That makes is sound like something complicated and difficult that is only for religious professionals.

Others say we need develop an attitude of gratitude. That makes it sound like something you get on sale at a health club. But remembering to give thanks is an important part of the Christian journey. It’s something we should practice everyday, not something we only acknowledge when we feel it.

All that we have and all that we are comes from the hand of God. We see this in the Genesis story and the Revelation story. In both of them God provides a garden with trees for food and healing. God provides rivers that bring forth life. We give thanks for the garden of creation, our earth—for brilliant sunsets and quiet snowfalls. For corn and apples and potatoes. For turkey and pumpkin pie and all the things that sustain us physically.

We give thanks for our family and friends who love us unconditionally. For the teachers that have formed us and the communities that sustain us. For those who lend a helping hand when we need it.

We are thankful spiritually, remembering our salvation also comes from the hands of God through the life, death and resurrection of Christ. We are sustained spiritually through Christ as he breaks the bread and passes the wine, as he submits his hands to the nails of crucifixion and death so that we might taste eternal life with God.

We feel thankful for a lot of things. But how often do we give thanks? Thanksgiving is a practice that has two parts. We are called not just to feel thanks but to give it as well. 

After all, we don’t call it Thanks-keeping, nor do we call it grudging-giving. No, it’s thanks and giving together. It is something we pass along, something that we share. It’s something that passes from God’s hands to Jesus’ hands to our hands to the hands of others.

This week you may want to try a little thankful giving. Pass it around. Give to God, give to your family, give to your friends. Remind them that they are important. Love and abundance flow from God's hands, through Jesus' hands to your hands. What you do with your hands matters. 

St. Teresa of Avila reminds us:

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,

Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours
From God’s hands to Jesus’ hands to ours. Pass along the love of Christ. Thanks is ours to give. Lets be generous.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Because (you know) It's All About That Grace

EXODUS  30: 17-21
17 Then the Lord said to Moses, 18 “Make a bronze basin, with its bronze stand, for washing. Place it between the tent of meeting and the altar, and put water in it. 19 Aaron and his sons are to wash their hands and feet with water from it. 20 Whenever they enter the tent of meeting, they shall wash with water so that they will not die. Also, when they approach the altar to minister by presenting a food offering to the Lord, 21 they shall wash their hands and feet so that they will not die. This is to be a lasting ordinance for Aaron and his descendants for the generations to come.”

MARK 1:4-8
And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with[a] water, but he will baptize you with[b] the Holy Spirit.”
8To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.
12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.13For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
14 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15If the foot were to say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16And if the ear were to say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.

Click here for a sermon excerpt

When I think of church rituals like baptism, it boggles my mind. 

Baptism is over two thousand years old. The world has made and remade itself again and again. Empires have come and gone. Languages have been created and died. We have been to the moon and flown ships across space. We’ve been to Antarctica and the bottom of the ocean. And yet here we are. Celebrating life. Celebrating God. Celebrating Christ’s forgiveness with water and the Word.

Baptism reminds us who we are in a universe that that is so vast it can be frightening. Baptism reminds us that no matter where we go, God is with us. In this changing world full of different people and ideas, we are baptized into the singularity, the oneness of God.

We baptize with the water, the first order of creation. If you remember the opening story of the Bible, in the beginning God hovered over the water and then started creating the world as we know it. If you're more of an evolutionist, water still comes first. It's still vital to life on earth. It was out of the water that that we came. Wherever you are in the world water is foundational to our existence and our flourishing. It's no wonder water is so symbolic.

We have three Bible readings today that show us the important role water has played in our religion since the time of Moses. We have ritual washing in Exodus, baptism in Mark and the meaning of baptism in 1 Corinthians.

In Exodus, God gives the command that the priests were to be washed before showing up for work in the tabernacle. Not only that, they were required to wash their hands and feet in the basin that stood in front of the alter.

This washing when approaching the alter reminds me of when I went to work as a chaplain in the hospital, we got instructions very similar to those that we read in Exodus. We sat in a conference room and were given the rituals we needed to prevent the spread of infection. At minimum we were told we must wash our hands each time we entered and left a patient's room. The rule is just like the one in Exodus 30. 

"They shall wash with water so that they will not die."

Well, maybe not exactly like that. But hand washing was important for our safety and the health of the patients. 

Washing and purity were important to the safety and flourishing of the Israelites, too. There has been a basin of water at the alter pretty much since the alter to God was invented. The Israelites knew the importance of washing and purity as a command of God. Today, we understand that water washes off the germs. We also know that some antibacterial soap helps even more.

In the Exodus passage the washing was literal, but the use of water for cleansing became symbolic, too. Not only was the outside made clean but water could be used to cleanse the inside as well. This brings us to our Gospel reading about John the Baptist’s revival on the River Jordan.

John the Baptist was baptizing people in the river. He offered this water ritual to the common people. The Bible says “all the people” came and confessed their sins to this crazy locust eating Jewish prophet. The washing was about more than literal cleanliness. By the time of John the Baptist, immersion in water was no longer just about washing the outside, but washing the inside, too. At the Jordan people confessed their sins as part of baptism.

Mark 1:4 says: John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins

The baptized were cleansed inside and out. Being immersed in the waters of baptism became a symbol for letting go of the sin and pain that keeps us from God.

John baptized with water and a promise. John used water but he also told them that someone greater is coming. Someone who can baptize with the Holy Spirit.

Imagine John’s surprise when that someone came to the river to be baptized by him. I can tell you if Jesus walked through that back door and asked me to baptize him, I’d be shaking in my shoes. But John did it. John baptized Jesus. And today it a sacramental ritual of the faith that all who love Christ share.

So, what does this do, this washing inside and out? What is the meaning of this water ritual? When we are baptized, we are baptized into the church universal. The church of God that expands across time and space. Like God’s  big creation, the church has many parts. Our earth has snow-capped mountains and tropical beaches. It has rainforests and deserts. It has oceans and polar caps and grassy meadows. But, just as God’s earth is both diverse and one, so is God’s church. Paul reminds us that baptism unites us into one body.

For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

And so today, we baptize these girls into Christ’s body, recognizing they are a vital part of that body. As Presbyterians we baptize these children—a preschooler and an infant—because we believe God’s grace is so amazing that it is with us before we can even recognize it.

We don’t just go a particular church, we go to Christ’s church. We are baptized into the body of Christ. Together with all Christians, we ARE the church. We are one body, and the children we baptize today are part of it. They are not the future of the church, they are its present. Like you they bring gifts and energy and needs that help to make us the body of Christ.

Indeed, Paul writes, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot were to say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear were to say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body.

We baptize these little children even though we have no idea where their lives will take them. They may end up colonizing the moon or inventing a cure for cancer. They may end up caring for children or practicing law or maybe even becoming a preacher. Wherever their lives take them, their baptism goes with them. They are baptized into the body of Christ. A body that is stronger than any sin they might commit—a body that will always welcome them with love and forgiveness.

We baptize these children because the Bible tells us that in creation, we are made in the image of God. These little ones are made in the image of God.

We baptize these children because we know that God’s steadfast love endures forever. While they will fail and succumb to sin, God remains faithful.

We baptize these children because it demonstrates that they are part of God’s story, the Bible’s story and our story, here at Reunion church.

We baptize these children because Jesus was baptized. He lived and died so that we might be reconciled with God. Through Christ we are given a new, abundant and eternal life.

We baptize these children because we believe that the God of the universe named them and claimed them before the beginning of time. Before they could sin or repent, God called to them.

We baptize these children because they are important and they matter—to us, to the world and to God.

We baptize these children because we believe the grace of God is more powerful and prevalent than we can ever imagine.

The grace of God will see these girls through their lives of joy and sorrow.

The grace of God will hound them when they stray and surround them when they fail.

The grace of God will laugh with them and dance with them and sing with them.

The grace of God and the love of Jesus Christ will lift them into something bigger and better than ordinary life.

Yes, after thousand of years we are still baptizing in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We know that the One God of the universe offers grace and love beyond measure and we are doing our best to magnify that love and grace for the world. We boldly baptize these children into the promise of God in Christ. Thanks be to God!