One in Christ

If you’ve been following along with my sermons, you might have noticed I generally preach on the Gospel passage, sometimes drawing in the other readings to its theme. When I preach on the Hebrew Bible passage or the Epistle, you know it’s either because it’s a really good reading or I really had something to say. This week was a little bit of both. I love First Corinthians (although my favorite passage comes just after we stopped this week), and the topic of division was just so timely that I couldn’t not preach on it.

If you’re taking a look at the readings (Found here: Lectionary Readings), I spend most of my time focusing on the First Corinthians.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Tim and I can’t watch professional football together. We’ve tried, and we’ve found that it’s very bad for our marriage. You see, Tim grew up in Connecticut, and, I suppose through no fault of his own, is a fan of the New England Patriots. He is also a much more rational person than I am where sports are concerned, and is perfectly happy to root for the Eagles, as long as they’re not playing the Patriots. He doesn’t understand why, no matter who New England is playing, I want to see them collapse in on themselves in a giant, fiery ball of incompetence. So, we don’t watch much professional football together. Our loyalties are too ingrained and too divergent.

We have happily, though, found the higher, shared loyalty of being Penn State fans. UConn not really being known for their football meant that Tim had no previous team loyalty, and we did not have to be divided on that front.

This is a fairly silly example, obviously, because hopefully sports teams are not a real source of division in our society. But real divisions are anything but silly. Real divisions cause pain, fracture communities and families, and leave lasting scars.

The Apostle Paul gets wind that this is what’s happening in the Christian community in Corinth, and writes this letter to them, seeking to address these divisions. Unusually for Paul, he gets right to the heart of the matter in the very first chapter. He often opens his letters with more lengthy introductions, but here, after a brief salutation, he jumps in: I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.”

He’s heard, through people that he trusts, that this church is quarreling amongst themselves. People are separating themselves into groups—some saying they belong to Paul, some to Apollos, some to Cephas. Some are apparently above all of this and say only that they belong to Christ. While that is, in fact, the right answer, you can imagine their sanctimonious attitudes when giving it didn’t help the situation.

Paul is, rightly, really worked up over this. He’s angry. He says he thanks God that he didn’t baptize many of them, so that they can’t use that as a source of division. I started with a silly example of division, but this issue of division isn’t silly at all—it’s very serious. And it’s certainly not one that only the ancient Corinthians struggled with.

Although technology and globalization mean we’re tied closer than ever before, sometimes it feels as if our world is only getting more and more divided. We don’t claim to belong to Paul or Apollos, but what things do we define ourselves by? What loyalties do we give more importance than we give to Christ? Certainly the first ones that come to mind are political. A study out of Stanford a few years ago found parents would be more upset if their children married someone from a different political party, than if they married someone from a different religion. Unfortunately, I think that says more about our feelings towards opposing political parties than it does our growing tolerance of religious pluralism.

While it’s definitely the biggest one, political affiliation isn’t the only thing that divides us. Or the only way that we define ourselves. What about our national identity? Which one matters more to you—to say you are an American? Or to say you are a Christian? There are divides among the generations, distrust between urban and rural communities, frustration and resentment between social classes.

Division hurts us. Division is painful; it drives wedges between us and causes lasting harm to communities. No wonder Paul sought to address first in his letter to the Corinthians. No wonder he was so agitated he couldn’t even remember who he baptized. Our reading from First Corinthians today ends with this verse that gets at the heart of what is wrong: For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

The individual points of division in Corinth are symptoms of a larger problem. These Corinthian Christians have fundamentally misunderstood what God has done through the cross of Christ. They don’t see that the cross was God’s way of upending how they defined and valued themselves and one another. They claim Christianity but are still operating under old assumptions and old ways of doing things. They are still competing. They are still trying to prove their own worth. They are still defining themselves by who they leave out instead of who they include.

Christ calls us to leave behind old ways of thinking—about ourselves and about others, about the way God operates in the world. When he calls the first disciples, he asks them, quite literally, to leave their old ways of doing things—leave their jobs, leave their families, leave their homes—and come and be part of something new. He completely disrupts these men’s lives and calls them to a different loyalty, creates a new community.

But Christ doesn’t just issue that call to the first disciples. He calls us, too. He calls us to leave behind our old ways of thinking, our old prejudices, our one-upmanship. He calls us instead to be formed as people of the cross. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor and martyr to the Nazis, once said: When Christ calls a person, he bids them come and die.

When we talk about baptism, we talk about it as participating in Christ’s death and resurrection. It is a death to everything in our lives and in our world that is not of God, and a birth into the new community shaped by the cross.

It would be naïve for me to stand here and say that because we have joined this new community in Christ, that all of our divisions suddenly melt away. Paul writes of what it looks like beautifully in his letter to the Galatians, saying that there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for all are one in Christ Jesus. But we don’t suddenly cease to be male or female or genderqueer or nonbinary when we are baptized. We are still defined by our economic realities, we still have religious and political affiliations. To brush over them too quickly only creates a false unity, found in ignoring rather than reconciling with one another.

But we are also given a new identity—one that supersedes all of these others. We are one in Christ Jesus. We belong to Christ. And Christ bids us to come and follow him. To be formed as disciples, as people of the cross. It’s a foolish message, but it is, as Paul says, the power of God. The power of God to cross our divides and boundaries, the power of God to cross the walls we build within our own hearts. The power of God to make a new thing—a new person—out of something old. So come, Jesus says, follow me. Amen.

 

 

What are you looking for?

This year, in the time after Epiphany, we get two stories of the calling of the first disciples. This week, from the Gospel of John, and next week, from the Gospel of Matthew. To preach back-to-back weeks on very similar texts meant I needed to find some unique detail to this call story. I decided to focus on Jesus’ question: “What are you looking for?” Did the disciples know? Do we?

Readings for Second Sunday after Epiphany: Lectionary Readings

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Have you found what you’re looking for?

There’s a song by the Irish rock band U2 that begins with these words: “I have climbed the highest mountains, I have run through the fields…I have run, I have crawled, I have scaled these city walls…but I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” What about me? We might ask. Have I found what I’m looking for?

The people and relationships I’m looking for? The job or career? Is this it? Is this all there is? Or should I keep looking? We’re searching for fulfillment, for purpose, for peace. And we’re not always sure where to find those things. Is it in our careers, in our families, in our hobbies? Through the newest self-help craze, whether it’s diet or exercise or organization. Will this be the things that makes me happy? Have I found what I’m looking for? I started with that question, but honestly it’s the wrong starting point. We’re better off starting with Jesus’ question in the gospel. What are you looking for?

This is the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of John. In fact, it’s the very first time Jesus appears in this gospel at all. John the Baptist, who has been waiting for him, watching for this chosen one of God, points to him and declares: Here is the Lamb of God! He’s speaking to two of his disciples, who then leave John and follow Jesus.

Jesus sees them following, and I always imagine this as kind of a comic scene. Jesus is walking down the road, and these two are creeping along behind. Curious, but unwilling to step up. Jesus finally turns around and asks them: What are you looking for?

What were they looking for? They don’t really answer the question. Maybe they don’t know, or maybe they can’t articulate the feelings and longings they are having. They just know that they are looking for something. And John has seemed to say that they will find it with Jesus. Instead of answering him, they ask a question of their own: Teacher, where are you staying?

Where are you staying? That word used for stay also means abide. It’s the word Jesus uses when he says, “Abide in me, and I will abide in you.” Teacher, where are you abiding? How can we find you again if we need you? Where are your roots? Just like the disciples didn’t answer Jesus’ question, he doesn’t answer theirs. He doesn’t tell them where he’s staying, instead he issues an invitation: Come and see.

What are you looking for? In your heart, in your secret and quiet places, what hunger drives you forward? What are you seeking in life? When I come to God, to scripture, to church, when I pray, what am I looking for? Am I looking for anything at all? Or am I just going through the motions?

If I am following Jesus like these two disciples, what am I seeking? What am I looking for? Consolation? Affirmation? Certainty? Healing? Belonging? Am I looking to gain power and influence or to surrender it? When we follow Jesus, when we are part of this thing called Christianity, what are we looking for?

Are we looking for someone who will confirm our assumptions and judgments or someone who will challenge them? Someone who will conform to our understanding of the world, or someone who will help us to reshape it? Someone who will make us feel safe, or someone who will make us feel passionate? Perhaps it doesn’t always have to be either/or, but Jesus’ question is an important one for us to consider. What do we want, what do we seek from following God?

Sometimes, we can answer that with surety. I seek purpose. I seek belonging. I seek love. But other times, like those first two disciples, we might not have an answer. We might not be able to put into words the longing that we have. We just know that something is missing. Something is incomplete. And we know that the answer lies somehow in this person of Jesus.

Come and see, Jesus says. Abide with me, rest with me, and you will see. You will see a new way of life where you are not defined by your past actions, or your bank account, or your grades, or the neighborhood you live in. Come and see a new community that is built on mutuality and compassion, patience and love. Come and see a new call, a new purpose to share this news with others.

We come to Jesus with questions, with longing, with hopes and doubts and wonders. We might be looking for answers to difficult questions: why is my loved one sick? Why is there so much suffering in the world? What am I meant to do with my life? We come to Jesus looking for any number of things.

Like those first disciples, Jesus might not give us answers, but he does give us an invitation. Come and see. The invitation is the answer. Jesus invites us to follow him. Invites us to become disciples. To be part of making real God’s kingdom on earth. Part of his ministry of healing, of wholeness, of bringing good news to the poor and outcast. Come and see. See what God is doing in the world, see what God can do through you and your life. Come and be a part of something bigger than yourself.

There are no requirements to be a part of it. Jesus doesn’t ask these first disciples for anything other than to follow him. They don’t have to pass a test or prove their worthiness. In fact, they’re going to fail numerous times along the journey. But always the invitation is there. Come and see. No matter your past, no matter your doubts, no matter your reservations. Come and see.

The life of discipleship is one of constant longing. Longing to see the promises of God come to life in our world. Longing to be part of that. Longing to share it with others. And along the way, we just might find what we’re looking for. Amen.

No such thing as impsoters

Baptism of our Lord is one of those festivals that comes up each year with very similar texts. Sometimes it’s hard to find a new way to talk about things that we hear year after year. But this year, I was inspired by the first part of our text from Matthew: not the baptism itself, but Jesus’ conversation with John. Perhaps I’d recently been reading something about imposter syndrome, I don’t remember, but that idea just stuck in my mind. Have you ever felt imposter syndrome? What helps you with self-doubt when it comes?

Readings for Baptism of Our Lord: Lectionary Readings

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Have you ever heard of imposter syndrome? It’s gotten a lot of press in the past few years after some TED Talks about it, but it was first researched in the 70s. Syndrome is sort of a misleading term for it, because it is not a psychological or physical diagnosis. Imposter syndrome is the feeling that you haven’t earned the success, recognition, or accolades that you’ve received, no matter how much outside validation people give you.

You feel that people overestimate your abilities, that you’ve just gotten lucky. That you don’t deserve the praise or accomplishments you’ve actually earned. If you’ve ever felt this way, know that you’re in good company. Even after writing eleven books and winning several prestigious awards, Maya Angelou couldn’t escape the nagging doubt that she hadn’t really earned her accomplishments. She was quoted as saying, “I’m running a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.” Albert Einstein experienced something similar. He described himself as “an involuntary swindler” whose work didn’t deserve as much attention as it received.

Imposter syndrome isn’t something that only the Einsteins and Angelous experience, though. We all can experience those feelings of self-doubt. How did I wind up in this job? Am I actually qualified enough to be doing this? We can worry that we might be exposed, that others will find out we actually have no idea what we’re doing. Studies have shown that most of us experience self-doubt about our abilities. But because we don’t voice these doubts, we think we’re the only ones that have them. The only ones who feel unworthy or unprepared. Unqualified, or like an imposter.

John the Baptist is definitely suffering from something like impostor syndrome in our gospel reading of the baptism of Jesus. John’s whole story has been amazing up to this point. His own miraculous birth, to a couple of old age, was heralded by angels. He was so advanced, that he was preparing the way for Jesus even in utero. He leaped in his mother Elizabeth’s womb when a pregnant Mary came to visit. He has been a successful prophet, baptized hundreds of people, made quite the name for himself. Scripture tells us that huge crowds of people were coming from all over to hear John preach and to be baptized.

Yet, when Jesus comes to the river, John doesn’t feel like he’s good enough. He doesn’t want to baptize Jesus because he feels unworthy. Of course, we need to remember that it is Jesus. Even the most qualified person would probably feel unworthy in this situation, but John feels it acutely.

This conundrum of John baptizing Jesus is something that the early Christians struggled with, too. And all of the Gospel writers handled it differently. In Mark, the earliest gospel written, John objects, saying he is not worthy to untie Jesus’ sandals, then does it anyway. Matthew, which we read today, has this back and forth with Jesus, where Jesus seems to say that it’s okay because the situation is temporary. In Luke, John doesn’t baptize Jesus. Jesus is baptized, but John is already in prison when it happens. And in John, if Jesus is baptized, it happens off stage, it’s not part of what John writes down.

But, even with all of these explanations and back and forths, at the end of today’s Gospel, John baptizes Jesus. Even though he feels unworthy. Jesus tells him, this is what you should do. This is what you are here for, this is your calling. Despite your doubts, despite feeling as though you’re not good enough, you are. You are good enough, and you are meant to do this.

We can all suffer from imposter syndrome sometimes. We feel like we have been thrust into situations that we aren’t prepared for. We feel like others don’t realize just how little we know. It might be your job, it might be marriage or parenthood, buying a house, you name it, if you’ve ever felt like you’re the only one completely out of your depth, that’s imposter syndrome.

I feel it. I feel it a lot, and most often these days, it’s brought on by the complicated, turbulent times in which we live. I’m not sure I was properly prepared for this. To be a pastor in the midst of an opioid epidemic, climate change, political polarization, possible war. Like Maya Angelou, I feel like I’m going to be exposed for the fraud that I am. Maybe you’ve found yourself in a situation you feel unprepared for. Unqualified for. And maybe you wonder what in the world God expects you to do with it.

Sometimes, God calls us to big challenges and seemingly impossible situations. But God calls us to them, not because we don’t know what we’re doing, but precisely because God knows we have the power and the ability to make a difference.

Today is the Baptism of our Lord, but it is also a chance to think about our own baptisms. That moment, whether you were a tiny baby or a teenager or an adult, when you were sealed with the Holy Spirit, just as Jesus was in the River Jordan. That moment when God declared you to be a beloved child. When God said, “This is my son, this is my daughter.”

We all have received God’s Holy Spirit, and we all have received God’s call to mission and ministry in this world. In the baptismal rite, which we will affirm in just a few minutes, we say that we will—to the best of our ability—“live among God’s faithful people, hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper, proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and strive for justice and peace in all the earth.”

It’s a big calling. It’s a huge calling, there’s no denying that. God asks a lot of us. And this big, challenging call might mean we sometimes feel like imposters. We sometimes feel like we’re making it up as we go along, like we’re not qualified to do it. God asks a lot of us, but God gives a lot to us. God gives us everything we need. We have received God’s Holy Spirit in baptism, and we have everything we need to answer God’s call. To be God’s voice of good news, to serve all people, to follow Jesus’ example. Because we do not do it alone. We do it with the power of Spirit, and with the love of Jesus flowing through us.

So, my brothers and sisters in Christ, know this: God doesn’t make imposters. God makes beloved children. And God equips us with everything we need to be God’s hands and feet and voice in the world. So as we remember our baptisms, remember: you are beloved. And you have received God’s spirit of power and truth. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

And the Word became flesh…

Depending on how the calendar falls, we don’t always get to celebrate a Second Sunday after Christmas. This year, we got one on the very last day possible: the twelfth day of Christmas. The readings for the day help us to consider the ongoing implications of the Christmas story–what does it mean that the word became flesh, beyond just a baby in a manger?

Readings for Christmas 2

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Merry Christmas! That’s right, it’s still Christmas. The last day of Christmas, but we’ll savor it for as long as we can. For all that we’re excited, as a society, about Christmas, with Christmas songs starting at Thanksgiving and decorations in the malls even before that, we’re sure willing to cut the celebration short once it starts. Tree collection in Lower Merion started this past Thursday, on January 2. Christmas in our culture lasts two, maybe three days. Then it’s on to other things. New Year’s, then it’s back to school, back to work.

But Christmas in the church still lasts for twelve days, because one is just not enough. One day is not enough to celebrate the birth of Jesus. One day is not enough to spend on this earth-changing event. But I have a feeling that the writer of the Gospel of John would feel that even twelve days are not really enough.

Our reading from the Gospel of John this morning, is, essentially, John’s Christmas story. Only there’s no angels and shepherds. There’s no Mary and Joseph. No inn and stable and manger. Bethlehem isn’t even mentioned. There’s no baby at all! Instead, John speaks of the beginning of time and the creation of all things. John speaks of light breaking into the darkness of our world and of our lives. John speaks of cosmic matters.

John’s Christmas isn’t really about the birth of Jesus. You can’t have a Christmas pageant based on John. You’d have to have kids dressed as planets and stars; you’d have to figure out how to portray light and darkness. But just because John’s version is different from the Christmas story that we’re used to, doesn’t mean this is all detached from the world as we know it. Because John’s cosmic narrative all leads to this: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” John writes about the wonder of the Word-made-flesh. About the incarnation—God becoming human, and what that means.

These first eighteen verses of John are called the prologue to John. They’re written in verse, as poetry, instead of prose. And much like an overture does for a work of music, John’s prologue sets the stage for what is to come. In the prologue we hear snippets, pieces and themes, that will be picked up later in the Gospel.

Because we’re going to be reading from John a lot during the coming year, I wanted to take some time this morning to look at just a couple of those themes and what they mean on this last day of Christmas. The first is the theme of incarnation: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Incarnation, God becoming human, is truly at the heart of Christmas and why Christmas can never be contained to one or even twelve days. The incarnation changes everything—it changes who we are, how we relate to God, and to each other.

By taking on our human form, God identifies with us. God redeems us in this act of salvation. We often think of the cross and resurrection as the salvific part of Jesus’ ministry. But in the creed, we proclaim each week, we say, “For us and for our salvation, he came down…” The incarnation is an act that saves. It is God saying: you—humans—are important. You matter so much to me, that I will become one of you, so that you might experience my love more fully.

But it doesn’t all go according to plan. Jesus comes into the world, the world that he helped to create, and it says: but the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, but his own people did not accept him. This is the second theme that I want to look at this morning. That the incarnation is rejected.

These verses are dangerous because these verses and others like them in the Bible have been used to fuel and defend antisemitism. It always needs to be said, but especially now as attacks against Jewish people are on the rise, it needs to be said that antisemitism is not Christian. And it has no place in our church or in our society.

Jesus was Jewish. He lived in a Jewish society, among Jewish people. So yes, Jesus’ earliest detractors were Jewish. Much like all of his earliest followers were also Jewish. But instead of using the Bible to scapegoat others, turning these verses against others, we need to hear these verses as a challenge to ourselves. When do we fail to recognize Jesus in our world? When do we not accept him? When confronted with the true light of God’s love, what makes us sometimes turn away?

We reject God’s light and truth, the love that Jesus came to bring, when we cannot or will not love ourselves and others the way that God does. When we do not see each of our bodies as a dwelling place of the divine. When we value some people, some lives, more highly than others. When we do not care for the world that God lovingly brought into being.

And yet, even facing our rejection, Jesus does not reject the world. Instead, Jesus enters the world of fear and anxiety, depression and longing, hopes and love. Despite rejection, this will be God’s chosen way to bring grace into the world.  From his fullness, John writes, we all have received grace upon grace, and he gives us the power to become the children of God. The power to become children of God. The power to be like Jesus. To be forces for light and hope, love and truth, in a world that needs them oh so badly. The power to love like Jesus loved, the power to give of ourselves for others, the power to know that we are loved.

John’s Christmas story is not about sentimentality. It is about life and light and love, breaking into a world full of division and grief and despair. It is the Christmas the story we need, not just once a year, not just twelve days a year, but every day.

We spent New Year’s with friends of ours, and their four-year-old had all these Hallmark snowmen. Maybe you’ve seen them—you press a button and they sing and dance. They’re very, very annoying, especially when eight of them are signing eight different songs at one time. One of them sang: “We Need a Little Christmas.” You know, “we need a little Christmas, right this very minute, need a little singing, ringing in the rafters…”

Well that song has been stuck in my head since New Year’s Eve. I only know like two lines of it, but they’ve been going over and over. They’re not wrong. Even though Christmas is over, we do need a little Christmas. We need a little incarnation. We need a little light shining in the darkness. We need a little grace upon grace. Alright, maybe we need a lot of that. Thankfully, Christmas is not just a season. Christmas is God’s love come to us, come past our rejections and barriers, come to reshape us as children of God. Made in love for the sake of the world. It’s something we need every day. And thankfully, it’s something we get every day. Amen.