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Saturday, January 17

Today’s Readings: Psalm 123; Isaiah 47:1-15; John 1:19-34; 1 Corinthians 1:26-31; Psalm 115

I have an important anniversary coming up in my life. Next Sunday – January 25 – represents the fifth anniversary of the date I was ordained as a minister in the United Church of Christ. So what made me think of my anniversary a week out? Well, it just so happens that today’s reading from 1 Corinthians was the passage I used as the Scripture for my ordination service. I know that I raised some eyebrows when I selected the text since the text reads: “Take a good look, friends, at who you were when you got called into this life. I don’t see many of “the brightest and the best” among you, not many influential, not many from high-society families. Isn’t it obvious that God deliberately chose men and women that the culture overlooks and exploits and abuses, chose those ‘nobodies’ to expose the hollow pretensions of the ‘somebodies’?” (1 Corinthians 1:26-28 from The Message). In the days leading up to my ordination, there were those who tried to portray me as a somebody to make it appear I was worthy of being ordained (i.e. “salutatorian of his high school class, president of his high school class, graduated with honors from college, appointed to the human rights commission for the city in which I was raised, politician, etc). I refused to go there because I knew that the same people and structures that had supported and encouraged me on my way up, were the same ones that turned on me when I came out as a gay man. They were the ones who took delight in turning me from “a somebody” to “a nobody”. God did exactly the opposite. God embraced me during my so-called “nobody” days (actually well before then, but that’s fodder for another blog entry) and transformed me into something else: a “somebody”! So today – I can proudly say: “It wasn’t my intelligence or talents that qualified me to be a minister – it was my willingness to embrace my status as “a nobody” that opened me to embrace my call.” So where are you at with all of this? Are you still trying to live your life as “a somebody”, or are you willing to entertain the notion that – apart from God – you are “a nobody”? Til next time…

Friday, January 16

Today’s Readings: Psalm 71; Isaiah 46:1-13; John 1:1-18; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; Psalm 129

During one of my trips home during my seminary years, I found myself bored one afternoon so I started rummaging through old boxes in our garage to find something interesting to read. While glancing at titles, one title caught my eye. The title was “In His Steps”; it was a classic written in 1896 by Charles Sheldon. I had never read it before so I thought it would be worth reading. While the language was definitely dated (and admittedly more than a little cheesy in many places), the book's premise resonated with me strongly. For those of you who haven’t read the book, the basic premise of the book tells the story of individuals who transformed their individual lives (and the life of their community) by asking themselves one simple question whenever they faced a challenge: what would Jesus do? While that question had floated around for a long time, Sheldon’s book helped popularize it (though please don't blame Sheldon for the way the saying has been marketed and commercialized!). While there are some in progressive circles who have dismissed the question by treating it simply as a hokey cliche, I’m not one of those folks. For those of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus, that hokey question can help bring a clearer focus to our lives. I was reminded of the question when I read today’s passage from 1 Corinthians – for in that passage Paul wrote: “to us who are personally called by God himself – both Jews and Greeks – Christ is God’s ultimate miracle and wisdom all wrapped up in one” (1 Corinthians 1:24 from The Message). The simple question – what would Jesus do? – can be a helpful way of accessing God's ultimate wisdom. When I find myself starting to get sucked into a cycle of verbal and/or spiritual violence by a virulent personality like Rev. Fred Phelps, for instance, I can take a deep breath and ask myself, “What would Jesus do in response to Rev. Phelps message of hate?” When I find locked in a power struggle with someone over control, I can ask myself, "What would Jesus do in the midst of the struggle for control?" The list of possible applications of the question goes on and on. Today, when you find yourself in a situation where you are unsure of what to do, try asking yourself that age-old question – “What would Jesus do?” – and see if it helps you access some of God’s ultimate wisdom and insight. Til next time…

Thursday, January 15

Today’s Readings: Psalm 119:73-120; Isaiah 45:18-25; Matthew 4:18-25; 1 Corinthians 1:10-17

Two days ago I was talking with an individual in his twenties about some of his friends’ experience of the church. The individual issued one of the most stinging indictments I could have imagined regarding the church; he said the church is totally irrelevant to their lives. “How sad,” I thought to myself as I heard him say those words. I thought that not simply because I’m worried about the future of the institution; I thought that because it was evidence of how much we Christians have gotten off track in our attempts to live out our faith. You see, if there was one thing that Jesus went out of his way to model for us it was that our faith ought to be relevant to the lives of people. Take the way Jesus issued Simon and Andrew’s call in today’s Gospel passage from Matthew. Knowing that they were fisherman, Jesus issued their call by saying: “Come with me. I’ll make a new kind of fisherman out of you” (Matthew 4:19 from The Message). By using language that was consistent with Simon and Andrew’s social location - language that was relevant to their lives - Jesus was able to reach out and draw them in. My question for you to consider today is this: how relevant is your faith to your day-to-day life? Is your faith a decorative ornament that you tuck away until a moment when you feel like taking it out, or is it something that’s integrated into the fabric of your every day life? Til next time…

Wednesday, January 14

Today’s Readings: Psalm 119; Isaiah 45:9-17; Matthew 4:12-17; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9

There are so many stories I have heard over the years about local churches that have failed to live into the fullness of their call to be the Body of Christ. If I had a dollar for every such story, I would be a millionaire. A few years ago, however, I heard the story of a local church who reminded me of what can happen when a church takes that call seriously. The church I’m speaking of was located in a small mountain town in Colorado. One of the members of the church committed an unthinkable act – an offense against a child. The church member was convicted of his crime, served his time, and then released. Instead of doing what many churches would have done – shunned the offender – the local church did something else. They worked with the offender to set up terms for his participation in the life of their church that would make the church safe for the children and the offender. As long as the offender followed the terms, he was welcome to participate in the life of the church. So what impressed me about the actions of the local church? Well, while many churches are satisfied to simply pay lip service to concepts like forgiveness, healing, and transformation; this local church went to remarkable lengths to actually live into those words. I was reminded of that story when I read today’s words from 1 Corinthians where Paul wrote: “God, who got you started in this spiritual adventure, shares with us the life of his Son and our Master Jesus. [God] will never give up on you. Never forget that” (1 Corinthians 1:9 from The Message). While most of us have never done anything as disturbing as committing an offense against a child, many of us probably have a piece of our past that wouldn’t hold up to the scrutiny of others if brought into the light of day. Maybe that buried piece of ourselves has caused us to withdrawal from God due to a fear of rejection. Paul’s words remind us that no matter what mistake(s) we may have made in the past, there is one thing we never have to worry about: God giving up on us. As you hear those words, I would encourage you to take some of the energy that perhaps you have devoted to shame and self-loathing in the past and instead devote that energy to giving thanks for a God that NEVER gave up on you and pulled you through. Til next time…

Tuesday, January 13

Today’s Readings: Psalm 18; Isaiah 45:1-8; Mark 4:21-31; Hebrews 1:1-11

I learned an important lesson in life at a relatively young age (okay, it took me 21 years – but as a 41 year old, 21 years doesn’t seem that long). The lesson is this: if we take our greatest strengths in life too far, they can easily become our greatest weaknesses. Let me give you a couple examples of what I mean. Let’s say you have a job that you love and are passionate about. That would be considered a great strength by most people. Your passion for your job, however, might consume you to such a degree that you end up completely neglecting your personal relationships. Because of that, your greatest personal strength might become your greatest weakness. Or let’s say you are an extrovert that enjoys being around people. Your love of people might cause you to invest so much time and energy in others that you end up completely neglecting yourself. Once again, your greatest strength becomes a glaring weakness. Today’s reading from Isaiah reminded me of a huge challenge our progressive faith communities face. One of our greatest strengths in progressive faith communities is our love of learning and knowledge. And yet - if taken to an extreme - we may evolve to the point where we come to think of ourselves as a god. Isaiah bluntly challenges that tendency and helps us from taking our greatest strength too far. “But doom to you who fight your Maker-you’re a pot at odds with the potter! Does clay talk back to the potter: ‘What are you doing? What clumsy fingers?’” (Isaiah 45:8 from The Message). Our challenge, then, as progressive people of faith is to find the right balance where we use the wonderful gift of reason with which God has blessed us – but not use it to transform ourselves into gods as well. Til next time…

Monday, January 12

Today’s Readings: Psalm 15; Isaiah 66:12, 22-23; John 9:1-12, 35-38; Revelation 3:14-22; Psalm 16

In working with lots of families over the years that have lived through the loss of a loved one, I know there are many stress points along the way. These stress points often produce fights over a variety of things ranging from when it is time to discontinue life support systems in the hospital to what hymns should be sung at the memorial service. One of the more powerful stress points, however, lies around issues of inheritance. The greater the material worth of an estate, often the more intense and prolonged are the disputes. Today’s second psalm got me to thinking about the issue of inheritance. In verses 5-6, the psalmist noted: “My choice is You, God, first and only. And now I find I’m Your choice! You set me up with a house and a yard. And then You made me your heir!” (Psalm 16:5-6 from The Message). It would be fascinating to hear what individuals think they are due when they hear they have been made an heir of God’s. Some would hear those words and assume it means they’ve been handed ultimate power over others. Other would hear it and conclude they have been promised a life of comfort and ease. I don’t think of being God’s heir that way. Since God is one who regularly practices things like mercy, grace; I tend to think that God’s heirs are drawn into those practices as well. And I tend to think we don’t simply receive those things from God – we are expected to do what God does with them: give them away to others. That concept makes the entire notion of being one of God’s heirs much more challenging. Today, I would ask you to think about what it means to you to be one of God’s heirs. Once you have a handle on it, then go forth and lead a life that embodies your understanding of what it means to be God’s heir. Til next time…

Sunday, January 11

Today's Readings: Psalm 29: Genesis 1:1-5; Mark 1:4-11; Acts 19:1-7

Here is my reflection/sermon for the day...

On April 1, 2000 a small book by the title “The Ultimate Gift” - written by Jim Stovall - was published. The book told the story of a gentleman named Red Stevens. Red was a man who had a humble beginning in life – and yet he was a person who knew how to make the most of the opportunities that presented themselves to him. He turned a small herd of cattle that he acquired as a young man, into an impressive cattle-ranching business; then he turned around and parlayed those resources into a variety of investments that stretched across several continents.

By the time Red passed away several decades later, about the only regret he had in life had to do with the way he had raised his family. You see Red’s children had known nothing but wealth and extravagance throughout their lives. As a result, they were not only unappreciative of the many blessings they had – each of them had come to expect those blessings.

The story that Jim Stovall told started in the most unlikely of places: at Red’s funeral. And if you had asked any of those attending Red’s funeral that rainy afternoon why someone would call Red’s story “The Ultimate Gift”, they probably would have said the Ultimate Gift represented the huge payout they were expecting to receive at the reading of Red’s will.

Little did they know!

For when the family members arrived at the attorney’s office for the reading of the will, they were in for a rude surprise. For each of them received just a pittance of what they thought they had coming.

This was particularly true for one of Red’s grandsons – a young man by the name of Jason Stevens. Jason had been estranged from his grandfather for years – ever since Red had taken Jason’s father on expedition in which Jason’s father had been killed. Jason blamed Red for his father’s death. Because of that, Jason had shut Red out of his life.

Jason was the last of the relatives to show at the law offices that day. In fact, by the time he arrived – nearly all of his relatives had left. When he finally sat down the attorney slid a plane ticket toward Jason and said, “Your grandfather left you a series of gifts. Here is the first of them.”

Jason was surprised by the attorney’s words since he - like the rest of his relatives – had come to the office expecting his payout to be two things: immediate and complete. It was neither.

What transpired over the course of the story was a series of journeys that Jason’s grandfather took him on posthumously around the globe. Jason spent a month doing manual labor on a cattle farm in Texas, for instance, learning the value of doing an honest day’s work. Jason returned from that first lesson only to find both his condo and sports car repossessed – thrusting him into his second lesson about taking things for granted.

Of all the lessons Jason learned, it was the third lesson that perhaps changed him more than any other. You see in watching Jason from afar over the years, Red knew that Jason had no true friends – only folks that used him for his money. So Red asked the recently impoverished Jason to do the unthinkable: make one true friend in the next thirty days. During that month Jason found his way to a little girl by the name of Emily. It was through the context of that friendship that Jason’s heart was truly opened and his life was transformed.

So by know, I know that by now most of you are wondering what – if anything - Jim Stovall’s story has to do either with today’s theme of baptism or the reading that Marcia shared with us from the Gospel of Mark. Let me take a moment and see if I can help you understand the parallels.

You see when many of us think about the sacrament of baptism, we do so in ways that reflect the attitude of Red’s family members that showed up that rainy afternoon in the attorney’s office. We show up with our hands open, expecting the immediate payout we think we are due.

What we get at that moment of baptism, however, doesn’t usually look like we expect. For the reality of our baptismal experience is that the payout we receive looks a whole lot more like what Red’s grandson Jason experienced – a payout that unfolds slowly over the years through a serious of life lessons to which we are exposed: experiences into which those baptismal waters seep, and quench the thirsting roots of our faith.

The truth is that while we come to the baptismal font expecting to find an ending – what we find in those precious waters is just a beginning.

Think about the baptismal moment in today’s Scripture and what it represented in Jesus’ life. Did it represent an ending of Jesus’ public ministry? No, it represented the beginning. And think of where Jesus’ was swept immediately after his baptismal experience at John’s hand? Was he swept into the heavens for a moment of adulation and glorification? No. He was swept into the desert for an extended period of testing. Those realities can help us think about the role of baptism in new – and challenging – ways.

Friends, on this Baptism of the Lord Sunday, we have an opportunity to think about our own baptisms in new ways. We have a chance today not to try to re-create our baptisms as we might do if they were simply a historical event from our past. Today, we have the opportunity to center ourselves in the on-going work that baptismal water is still doing within us. To use the language from Jim Stovall’s book, we have a chance to contemplate that Ultimate Gift toward which those baptismal waters are carrying us.

To do that, I have a simple request of those of you who have already had your experience at the baptismal font. In recognition of that experience, I’m going to ask you to come forward to the baptismal font at the front of the sanctuary. In that baptismal font you’ll find several rocks. Those rocks represent the rocks that Jesus might have found on the bed of the River Jordan into which he stepped. I’ll invite you to come forward to the font, reach into the water, and take one of those rocks as a reminder of the work that God continues to do within you – the work that you and your loved ones became conscious of at the moment of your baptism. As you pick up that rock, I’ll lay my hand on your forward and give you a word of blessing…

In this moment of remembrance let us do what Jesus did on the day of his baptism: open ourselves to the ongoing work that God is doing within us.