Tagged with Sermon Summary

The Gift of Courage by Jane Fleming

Some people say I have an unusually peaceful aura about me. I don’t know if that’s always true but I think I’ve always had a gift of courage. I believe I’ve had it so that I could deal with the challenges I’ve had to face in life.

Like my mother said earlier, I have Prader Willi Syndrome. Prader Willi is a genetic condition with a few different symptoms. But the main thing about Prader Willi is that you’re born without the signal that tells you when you’re full. So people with Prader Willi always feel hungry.

You might think Prader Willi is the biggest challenge I’ve faced in my life. But it’s not. Getting diagnosed with Prader Willi made my mom and me really happy! I wouldn’t say knowing made my life any simpler. But it explained a lot—like why I have small hands and feet and why I was always really good at puzzles. For the first time, there was a reason why aspects of my life seemed different. And it was a huge relief to know I wasn’t the only person who had gone through some of my issues. But Prader Willi has not been my biggest challenge in life. Growing up without my dad, moving a lot when I was a kid, and having a hard time in school were a lot tougher. That’s when I needed my courage.

I’ve always been drawn to people and places where the Love is big and easy to feel. The dance studio where I dance several times a week is like that. It’s a place where everyone is glad to see each other and where we’re free to be ourselves. It’s like there’s a Love in that place that’s bigger than all of us. But we are all a part of it if in our own ways. All I have to do is walk in the building and I feel it. West Concord Union Church and Sunday Fellowship are like that for me too. So are certain people. And so is Nature. They’re the places I know where I can always go to recharge my batteries and fill up on Love.

My best friend Madeleine was one of those people too. She drove a taxi service I used a lot and I would be with her most Sundays. Being with Madeleine always made me feel such love. But along the way, I found out she had ALS. It was very hard for me to admit she was going to die. But when I saw her getting the signs of ALS so rapidly, I had to face it. And that was a much bigger challenge than finding out I had Prader Willi.

My mom and my friends often say I’ve taught them a lot about how to “live in the now”. I guess that’s true because I don’t hold on to my problems. I know how to look for the people and the places where the Love is big and easy to feel. Thanks be to God.



Broken and Open by Pat Fleming

Little did I know, the day Jane was born, that this tiny little girl would forever change me and challenge who I was day after day. She still challenges me even now. But on the day she was born, she demolished my girlish fantasies of who I would be as a mother and deliver dreams to our lives we didn’t know we had.

When she was born, Jane had no reflexes at all, including sucking. When the doctors sent us home, saying she was fine, she still could not suck. They told me I must get 3 ounces of formula into her every 4 hours whether she wanted it or not. If she fell asleep I was to wake her up by flicking the bottom of her feet. For many weeks it would take me at least 10 hours day to do this and sometimes 20– flicking the bottom of her feet – working her mouth- to get this formula she did not seem to want, into her. I would cry. I would weep. “I cannot do this,” I wailed. Or I would pray, “Help me help me! I promise I’ll be good.”

Sometime during those weeping weeks and childish praying—-something within me said, “Stop it. Get the job done!” And I did. I did it silently, quietly. I learned to listen to Jane. I watched her carefully and kept a diary – how long did she sleep, how long it took to feed her, what did she pay attention when awake. I let the doctors tell me she was fine. I stopped arguing with them and they stopped telling my husband–Jane’s father—I was neurotic. We were an Air Force family. My husband was a pilot and gone most of the time. He and I acted like everything was ok—though I knew my child was different from others. I kept working, reading and watching. Was Jane meeting the normal developmental benchmarks? No, she wasn’t. So I studied other children and asked myself, “How is she the same and how is she different?” I was developing the Benedictine practice of work as prayer.

Jane did develop, a little slower than other babies, but she was growing faster than I was. I was wound too tightly to grow feely. I was still concerned with being nice and polite, always having a smile on my face, not getting too emotional and never challenging anything or anyone. When Jane was three, we had another baby girl. Shortly thereafter, Alan was assigned to a Special Ops unit in SE Asia. He left when Jane was barely 4 and Ann not yet a year old. And then he was killed in action, in Laos, when Nixon said we were not in Laos. Alan was killed on his first flight in-country.

At my husband’s funeral, with full military honors, a 21-gun salute, honor guard and planes flying in formation overhead, I fearfully wondered to myself, “What am I going to do?” And once again something inside me said, “You are going to give your daughters the life you and Alan promised you would give them. Get to work.” And I did. In the 4 years since Jane had been born, I had quietly and carefully developed my intuition. I began to let myself feel. I learned that I was a small, suppressed and broken person who simply was not up to the job life had given me. But I took it on anyway. I went back to college. I got a BA, an MA and PhD. I went to therapy and took apart the emotional box I was in.

I was finally growing, first into the mother Jane needed, the kind who didn’t tolerate doctors or teachers who focused on what she couldn’t do. I looked for warriors. I interviewed doctors, teachers, speech therapists, physical therapists, orthodontists, nannies, neighbors. Even my own friends were scrutinized. I researched towns, communities, neighborhoods where Jane would not only be safe but also supported and included. I, like all parents, wanted people who were committed to who my daughter could become. I could see this was also going to cost a lot of money so I better get a good job. And I did. The University of New Hampshire offered me a faculty position and that’s how we got to the east coast.

The broken woman I had been, was becoming more open, less encumbered by the restraints and limits I had learned in the past. I was opened past many of the attitudes of the day. Did you know that Reagan signed a law in 1980 that made it illegal to neglect a compromised baby? But until the 1980’s it was legal to let a baby die!

Jane kept growing differently than others. She didn’t speak until she was almost 6 years old. Two weeks later, we discovered she had taught herself to read. She was also becoming very interested in food. She was a collector of it. It was an adventure cleaning her room: “What snack would be in the sock drawer? How old was the pizza in the underwear drawer? Where did she get the jelly beans in her boots?” She made it through the many hazards of grade school and high school and into her adult life still a mystery to all of us around her

Jane was 38 years old when she was finally diagnosed with Prader-Willi Syndrome. Prader-Willi is a non-inherited genetic error which displays hundreds of physical and neurological characteristics. But the single most challenging and disruptive symptom to daily life is the ever-present desire for more food. Jane’s body, every neurological mechanism, every cell, tells her every moment of her life that she must have more food – much like a starving person. Their early deaths are often the result of this never-ending demand for food from a body that will gain weight on 800 to 900 calories a day (which is comparable to the 800 calories diet of prisoners in Nazi concentration camps during WWII).

There is no cure for Prader-Willi, only a protocol, for managing the lethal choices the person is compelled to make. The protocol is 100% supervision and 100% control of available food. Just to let you know, we do not maintain this protocol of complete supervision and control. By the time, Jane was diagnosed she was a very independent person and she was not about to let that be taken from her. Somehow, somewhere, she has learned to stop eating when her body is saying more but is always in a dangerous conflict with her body’s desires. Jane is one of the few people with PWS that has survived into her 50’s. (I should note that this community has an abundance of Prader-Willi People. You have two, Jane and Dennis. This is a great number for such a rare syndrome). Now we can find doctors who have at least heard of Prader-Willi but very few have met such a person.

As for me, I’m still growing and battling my way toward a life that is both broken and open. At times, I still fight with that superficial girl who is concerned with superficial things. Jane and I were once in a battle over something, I don’t remember what, when Jane said to me, “You are interested in looking good and I am the child that doesn’t look good.” She was right! It was true in that moment. I was angry that she didn’t look good and it might tarnish me. Since then I promise myself repeatedly and regularly to let go of such mundane, shallow concerns. And I still don’t like being the food sheriff.

I have also learned that our story is not unlike the story of this church-maybe a few more challenges or pitfalls. Maybe our story is on steroids – you know what I’m talking about. But I know it wasn’t always easy for this church to include people of all abilities. And yet, you found a way and it has broken you open in some wonderful ways. I thank you for this, for your openness, for your insistence on inviting everyone to this church. I am grateful Jane is here in your company.

In my experience, Broken and Open are like sisters who squabble in a shared room, brothers who compete at everything or parents, who feel the responsibility the and sorrow of bringing their children into this flawed world. Jane’s birth did not break me. Jane’s birth and life revealed that I was already broken. What I know now is that love can overcome any amount of brokenness. Maybe you too you have loved someone whose spirit insisted that you open yourself to something you didn’t think you could. Jane’s spirit insisted, still insists that I open myself to the mystery of her and of her life. Someplace in this journey Jane and I have been on, I have found a deep and abiding gratitude for our whole demanding glorious life. Today, the prayer I repeat over and over quietly is still simple – it is “Thank you.”


Born of the Spirit

“Beautiful things don’t ask fo2014-03-09 16.01.58r attention.“  That’s a line from the recent film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty but it could also be a description of Sunday Fellowship.

Sunday Fellowship has been a ministry of this church to developmentally delayed adults for over thirty years.  We sing, we pray for one another, we worship and we have snack.  It’s pretty simple.  But it’s also transformative.   As anyone who comes to Sunday Fellowship will tell you, its’ a community where God’s grace and love is palpable.

I’ve witnessed many large and small moments of grace at Sunday Fellowship.  My favorite of late is when we were singing and half the room got up and started dancing.   Before I knew what was happening someone grabbed me by the hand and was twirling me around.  That’s when I realized that I am not the one in charge.  It may be my job to choose the songs and scriptures, but the Spirit blows where it will.  My job is just to hang on for the ride.

That’s pretty much what Jesus says to Nicodemus in John 3.  If we want to enter the kingdom of God we have to become more like water and wind which flow in whatever direction the current takes them.  This can be difficult for people like Nicodemus and I who are so used to being in charge that our ability to trust has become paralyzed.  We need help learning how to let go and trust.  But Sunday Fellowshippers are experts at this and offer their wisdom to anyone with the ears to hear it.

I wish more churches had the vision to offer a ministry like Sunday Fellowship.  The potential for mutual transformation is boundless.

If you haven’t yet had the opportunity to experience one of our gatherings firsthand, I hope you will consider coming one day.  Because the most beautiful things don’t ask for attention, you just have to experience them for yourself.


Why is Jesus Here?

taizeMatthew 4:1-11

This season of Lent we have just entered into is a season of preparation. It’s a season usually marked by prayer, confession, fasting, and self-denial.  It’s a time for us to name our wrongs, and to try to make them right.  It’s a time for us to shorten the distance between us and the heart of God. So why is Jesus here?

You remember Jesus.  Jesus, that baby whose birth caused angels to sing and stars to appear in the sky. Jesus, that man whose baptism caused the Spirit to descend like a dove and God to proclaim, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.”  Jesus, whom Christians have identified in our creeds as God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father. Surely Jesus doesn’t need prayer or confession, fasting or self-denial.  Jesus is already as close to God as any human can get.

But Lent begins with this story:  Jesus, still dripping from his baptism, is led out into the wilderness by the Spirit.  He spends forty days and forty nights praying and fasting.  And while he is in the wilderness, the devil appears, to tempt him with bread and power.

Why is Jesus here, with us, joining in prayer and fasting, facing temptation, as we begin Lent?  Perhaps this story is here to help us understand who Jesus is, and who he isn’t. We know that Jesus is the son of God, full of a holy power, capable of miracles.  But he will not turn stones into bread, even when he has gone forty days without food.  And so we learn that Jesus’ gifts are not for himself alone, and that hunger will not be the ruling passion of his life. We know that Jesus is the son of God, a beloved child of the creator of the universe.  But he will not throw himself off the temple in Jerusalem for an angelic rescue.  And so we learn that Jesus doesn’t need empty spectacle, he’s not here to create a cult of personality. We know that Jesus is the son of God, we call him King of Kings and Lord of Lords. But he will not worship the devil in return for world domination. And so we learn that earthly power is not his ultimate goal, that he is not that kind of King; he is not that kind of Lord.

Why is Jesus here?  Maybe Jesus comes out to the wilderness to help us understand who he is, and who he isn’t.  Or maybe he’s here to be a model for us. Maybe, because Jesus would not turn stones into bread, we can learn to resist the temptation to use our resources only for ourselves.  We can learn to share more fully with our neighbors, and tend more carefully to the earth. Maybe, because Jesus would not throw himself off the temple, and create a spectacle, we can learn to resist the temptation to make an idol of ourselves or any one else.  We might free ourselves from our obsession with self-perception, liberate ourselves from the cult of celebrity. Maybe, because Jesus would not worship the devil in return for world domination, we can learn to resist the temptation to sell any piece of our souls in the pursuit of power.  We might gain the wisdom to dismantle systems of racism and privilege.  We might gain the courage to recover from our cultural addition to violence and weapons and preemptive strikes.

Why is Jesus here, with us, in the wilderness?  Is it to tell us who he is?  Is it to help us understand who we should be?  Yes.  And also – Jesus is here, because we are here. In Jesus, God is with us in all human experience.  Jesus is with us, we remembered at Christmas, in human birth and childhood.  Jesus is with us, we will remember on Good Friday, in suffering and death.  So during Lent, it is only right that we should remember that Jesus is with us in times of wilderness and solitude and prayer and fasting and temptation.  There is nowhere we can travel that he has not already been.

At the top of this post is an icon.  This same image is at the front of our sanctuary, where it will stay throughout the season.  Icons are image created as an invitation to draw closer to God.  Just like a beautiful poem or a scripture passage, icons and other images can help us to pray.  So this icon is meant as a help for all of us, this season.

This particular Icon is known as the Icon of Friendship, and it comes from the Coptic Christian church in Egypt, from the 7th century. In this image, Jesus stands with Menas, an early saint; but the Icon is known as the Icon of Friendship because Menas stands for everyone one of us.  You may notice that while Jesus carries a large book, the whole of scripture, Menas carries only a small scroll – representing the small but important part of God’s message that each of us can understand.  Notice also their gestures.  Jesus has his arm around this believer, embracing him, while Menas raises his hand in the sign of blessing usually reserved in Jesus.  Through the blessing of the love and support of Christ, Menas, the believer, is able to bless others.

This image reminds us, just as our scripture does, that Jesus is here, travelling with us through the season of Lent.  And just to make that sense of companionship even more real, surrounding the icon at the front are some pieces of origami paper.  I invite you to write your prayers on these pieces of paper throughout the season, and put them in the box in front of the icon. Then members of this community, our sisters and brothers in Christ, will pray over our prayers as they transform the piece of paper into something beautiful, to decorate our sanctuary in the Easter season.  We will act as Christ to one another, traveling together in prayer.

Jesus is here, today, with us.  He knows the bleakness of the wilderness.  He knows the pangs of hunger.  He knows the struggle and blessed relief of prayer.  He knows temptation.  In this season, may each of us feel his presence with us, his example before us, his arm around us.  May it be so. Amen.


No, Thank You

Matthew 5:38-48The Sermon on the Mount Fra Angelico, c. 1440

Just for fun, let’s go over what Jesus asks us to do in this passage:
1. Give to everyone who begs from us.
2. Lend to everyone who wants to borrow from us.
3. Love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.
4. Do not resist an evildoer.
5. Be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect.
Does anyone want to join me in saying, “No thank you “?

Jesus seems to have adapted some extreme sport version of our faith. His enthusiasm is wonderful. But why should we lie down and get walked on? Why should we go bankrupt, and collaborate with criminals? Why should we aspire to spiritual perfection, especially if it looks like this?

These strange and challenging words from Jesus come from his Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is expounding and exploring the law of God shared with the people by Moses (who, by comparison, seems very reasonable). Moses spoke to a community that had a fresh slate. He established rules and habits for a people newly freed from Egyptian enslavement. But Jesus’s original audience was Jewish peasants, and Jewish leaders, and gentiles, and even Roman soldiers, all people with a particular place in a giant colonial empire. He was speaking to people who lived in an entrenched system of division and oppression. Jesus tries to show us how we can follow God within that kind of society. Jesus tries to tell us how we can begin to transform that kind of society into one where love of God and neighbor is fully expressed.

It pains me to admit that I believe we live in a society all too similar to the one in which Jesus first shared these words. Yes, there is unprecedented freedom and wealth in our democratic nation. There’s a lot for us to be proud of. But within our country and our communities are deep divisions caused by differences in wealth, power, education, culture, and privilege. And our presence on the global stage has often been polarizing, rather than peaceful.

How are we to gain traction in our attempts to become more neighborly towards our neighbors, both domestic and foreign? How can we begin to bridge the divisions among us? According to Jesus, it doesn’t happen just by being fair, or even by being generous. We have to go further than that, because of where we’re starting from. Jesus proposes that we simply refuse to be anyone’s enemy anymore. If we are separated by great wealth, we should give until wealth no longer divides us. If we are separated by injury, we should offer forgiveness or confession. We should reach out with compassion and prayer to everyone, especially those from whom we are most divided. We should do this, not out of stupidity or passivity, but out of radical, non-violent love.

I do not mean to pretend that this is easy. It is, perhaps, almost impossible. Those of us with privilege and wealth are terrified of casting any part of it away because we have seen how cruel this world can be. Those of us who have experienced violence and discrimination are terrified to trust those who have hurt us. All of us have become accustomed to our roles as oppressor or oppressed or, perhaps, a bit of both. We have become wonderful fence builders and trench diggers for our own protection in a harsh, antagonistic, greed-driven world.

Jesus’ teachings are almost impossible. And yet, sometimes, through the power of God, we manage to transform conflict into peace, and pain into promise, and enmity into hope.  You may have your own favorite story about this. On Sunday I shared the story of Lucia McBath, a grieving mother who has found the strength to pray for the man who murdered her son.

It is not because Jesus’ teaching is impossible, but because it is in some times and places somehow possible, that people gather in communities of faith all around the world. We gather to remind ourselves of the vision that Moses and Jesus shared: a vision of a just and loving society. We gather to remind ourselves of our own capacity for holiness, and even perfection. We gather to practice, to take baby steps towards, the outrageous, Olympic-sized generosity and non-violence and humility and trust that Jesus calls us to.

God, this teaching is so hard, we want to say, “no thank you.” Help us to see that when we lay down all that we have: our wealth, our power, our privilege; our pride, our resentment, our righteous anger; only then can we discover the freedom you desire for us and the love you desire for all your people. Help us to find a way towards your strange way, and the joy we will discover there. Amen.

A Valentine from God

deuteronomy 30 st johns bibleI call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving, obeying, and holding fast to the Lord your God. Deuteronomy 30:19-20

Moses has come a long way. He led his people out of Egypt and across the Red Sea. He travelled up Mt. Sinai to meet God face to face. He came back down and shared God’s word with the people. He survived 40 years of wilderness travel and has come close to the Promised Land. Now, nearing death, Moses has one more chance to say something to the people of God.

If you look up this text in a bible, you’ll discover that Moses has been preaching for a long time. Moses has shared what many of us know as the Ten Commandments and the Great Commandment. He has conveyed God’s instructions on worship and food; tithes and sabbaticals; war and murder; marriage and divorce; parenting and ploughing. Moses preaches for a long time, and miraculously, the people are still listening. Now, at the end of his speech, at the end of his life, Moses tries to drive his point home. He urges the people to reject the ways of death, and choose life: loving, obeying, and holding fast to God.

You may know that many years later, Jesus relied on the words of Moses as he preached his first sermon (Matthew 5-7). Like Moses, Jesus uses the strongest possible language when talking about the importance of God’s law. Neither speaker wants to take any chances about whether we’ll understand what’s at stake. They provoke us to discover the distance between ourselves and the divine, the distance between ourselves and our neighbors, the distance between our habits and practices that truly honor all life. They provoke us, so that we might begin to liberate ourselves from death and despair, and choose, or choose again, a path of life.

I like to think of God’s law as a valentine for us: a letter of love, designed to help us live fully and well. When we are able to live this law that Moses and Jesus share with us so urgently, we  become Valentines, too: messengers of life, messengers of love, God’s awkward and aging cupids.

Consider looking up what Moses and Jesus had to say about a life well lived. What might a way of life look like for you? How can you choose life today?

Source of all life, teach us your ways, and help us to be messengers of love in the world. Amen.



Matthew 5:1-12Prayer-Shawl-2

Jesus faced many challenges as a preacher. He had to capture the imagination of a diverse crowd. He had to rely on his natural vocal abilities to project his message.  This resulted in occasional confusion, according to the British comedians Monty Python – did he say “Blessed are the peacemakers” or “Blessed are the cheesemakers?” Jesus faced many challenges, but he knew how to draw a congregation and how to keep their attention. People followed him all the way out up to a mountain with only the promise of a sermon – no choir, no organ, no coffee, no childcare, no well-known beloved community. And once they were there, Jesus transfixed these people with words of hope, words of challenge, words powerful enough to change hearts and minds.

This passage from Matthew is the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ most famous sermon.  Perhaps you have heard it before. Maybe you have heard it so many times that it fails to confuse you anymore. But it is a strange text, and one that commentators are still arguing about.

The controversy centers on the translation of the first word in this string of statements, the Greek “makarios.” Should we translate it: “Happy are” (happy are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven)? Or “fortunate are” (fortunate are those who mourn, for they will be comforted)? “Blessed Are” (blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied)? This is the most common translation, but hard to interpret. According to my sources, the best translation may be, “How honored are” (how honored are the pure in heart, for they will behold God).

Why does it matter? Jesus is trying to tell us something. He’s giving us words of hope, words of challenge, words that are meant to change us. What is it that he’s trying to say?

It’s not that those who struggle are happy or fortunate. There’s no need to romanticize poverty, sickness, or violence. And God doesn’t give us challenges just so that we can gain character, or prove our worth. Let’s let go of that translation. And it’s not that those who struggle are being punished or have been abandoned – a misunderstanding of our culture and sometimes, also, the church.

No, Jesus has a more revolutionary idea to share with us. God blesses and honors the poor, the grieving, the meek, the desperate, and the persecuted. God lays her hands upon them, and dwells within them, and lifts them up —  these beloved sisters and brothers, and we ourselves.

We, as followers of Jesus, are part of the body of Christ. And we try to follow the teachings Jesus offered on the mountain. We try to bless and honor those who might otherwise be only gossiped about or pitied, ignored or avoided. One of the ways we do it is through prayer shawls. These shawls are knit by and prayed over by members and friends of this community. We give them to folks who, for one reason or another, may be having trouble feeling the love and blessing and honor of God. We give them to be a visible reminder, a physical reminder, of the love and blessing and honor of this community.

Holy one, come now, and bring your presence and power among us.  May we feel how you honor and bless us. May we be among those who bless and honor others in Jesus’ name with a kind word, a compassionate act, a laying on of hands, a prayer-filled shawl. Amen.


Seeking God's Face

“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!” Your face, Lord, do I seek.  Psalm 27:8
Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for pDuccio_di_Buoninsegna_036eople.” Matthew 4:19

The psalmist cries out with longing to see God’s face. Through these words, Jews and Christians have expressed our desire to encounter God for thousands of years. But how do we fulfill that desire? How can we find God?

The bible is full of stories of divine encounter, each of them different. Sarah and Abraham unwittingly host angels when they open their house to three strangers. The prophet Elijah finds God in a still, small voice.  Jonah meets God in the belly of a fish.  Everyone experiences God in a different way.

This week, we read about how Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John encounter God in a stranger named Jesus, who calls to them while they are casting and mending their nets. Ever since then, Christians have discovered that we can glimpse God through Jesus, too.  We can’t see Jesus’ face in the same way that the disciples did. Still, we can learn about him in our scriptures. We can encounter the presence and spirit of Christ in prayer.  And we can meet Jesus in one another.  “Now you are the body of Christ, and individually members of it,” the Apostle Paul writes (1 Corinthians 12:27).

Paul’s idea may seem farfetched. Other Christians we meet may not particularly remind us of Jesus. And we ourselves may not always magnificently resemble the one we call Word, Light, Lord, Liberator.  Moreover, the church has not perfectly embodied Jesus by any stretch of the imagination.

But the followers of Jesus who gathered on the feast of Pentecost after the resurrection received a glorious calling that is our precious inheritance. They were called to be, together, the body of Christ in the world. This is one reason to get up on Sunday morning, and get ourselves to church. One reason to stick around with a faith community, giving money, giving time, opening our hearts. We’ll witness many mistakes, and make plenty ourselves. But then we’ll look up from our work because we hear the voice of God; we’ll look up and we’ll see the face of God; God will be speaking to us, and shining through to us, through the voices and faces of our sisters and brothers in Christ.

God, I give thanks for the Christ in those around me.  I give thanks for the Christ in me.  I give thanks for the Christ in all of us, and in the church universal.  Call us again to resemble you more closely, healing ourselves and the world with your love. Amen.

Jesus, John, and Martin

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”  John 1:35-36

When we learMartin-Luther-King-Jr-Intellectual-Revolution-7n about Jesus’ baptism in the Gospel of John, we don’t see the crowd, the water, the Spirit of God descending like a dove. We don’t hear the voice of God declaring: “this is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” In this version of the story, all we have to go on is the testimony of John the Baptist.

You may remember John the Baptist, the prophet with a fiery tongue who we meet in our Advent texts. But here John shows his softer side. In this text, he’s in awe. Here John testifies that Jesus is the Son of God; the whole reason for his calling as a baptizer. He tells his followers, “Look! Here is the Lamb of God!”

John’s testimony is so powerful that two of his disciples take off after Jesus instead. Surprised, Jesus asks them, “What are you looking for?” as if they might be looking for the bathroom, or the way to the closest sandal repair shop. But they say, “Rabbi, teacher, where are you staying?” Jesus replies, “Come and see.” In the other stories of the disciples, it is Jesus’ words or actions, or his invitation, that cause people to follow him. But in this case, it is simply the testimony of John.

This weekend we celebrated the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. He was a great man, a man of faith and wisdom and courage. In 39 short years he changed our country, helping us to imagine a different future for ourselves and move towards it with dignity. He spoke and organized with passion, becoming a leader in the civil rights movement and then a powerful voice drawing attention to issues of poverty and war.

Because he is such a hero in our nation, I think there has been a temptation to cast him in the role of Jesus, a flawless savior. We want him to be perfect, to have all the answers. All these years after his death, we can sweep his humanity under the rug, and even forget that he was controversial. But for all his great gifts, Martin Luther King was not flawless. At his best, this very human preacher was much more similar to John the Baptist than Jesus.

Through his upbringing in the church, and the influence of Christian writers and leaders, Martin Luther King, Jr. came to recognize a profound truth in Jesus’ teachings. And he spent his life drawing attention to those teachings. He spent his life testifying to what he had seen, and heard, and felt:

So I want to turn your attention to this subject: “Loving Your Enemies.” … In the fifth chapter of the gospel as recorded by Saint Matthew, we read these very arresting words flowing from the lips of our Lord and Master: “Ye have heard that it has been said, ‘Thou shall love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy.’ But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven.”

…Now let me hasten to say that Jesus was very serious when he gave this command; he wasn’t playing. He realized that it’s hard to love your enemies. He realized that it’s difficult to love those persons who seek to defeat you, those persons who say evil things about you. He realized that it was painfully hard, pressingly hard. But he wasn’t playing. And we cannot dismiss this passage as just … a sort of exaggeration to get over the point. This is a basic philosophy of all that we hear coming from the lips of our Master. Because Jesus wasn’t playing; because he was serious. We have the Christian and moral responsibility to seek to discover the meaning of these words, and to discover how we can live out this command, and why we should live by this command.

And this is what Jesus means, I think, in this very passage when he says, “Love your enemy.” And it’s significant that he does not say, “Like your enemy…. There are a lot of people that I find it difficult to like. … But Jesus says love them. And love is greater than like. Love is understanding, redemptive goodwill for all men, so that you love everybody, because God loves them. You refuse to do anything that will defeat an individual, because you have agape in your soul. …. This is what Jesus means when he says, “Love your enemy.” This is the way to do it. When the opportunity presents itself when you can defeat your enemy, you must not do it.

So this morning, as I look into your eyes, and into the eyes of all of my brothers in Alabama and all over America and over the world, I say to you, “I love you. I would rather die than hate you.” And I’m foolish enough to believe that through the power of this love somewhere, men of the most recalcitrant bent will be transformed. And then we will be in God’s kingdom. We will be able to matriculate into the university of eternal life because we had the power to love our enemies, to bless those persons that cursed us, to even decide to be good to those persons who hated us, and we even prayed for those persons who despitefully used us.

Oh God, help us in our lives and in all of our attitudes, to work out this controlling force of love, this controlling power that can solve every problem that we confront in all areas. Oh, we talk about politics; we talk about the problems facing our atomic civilization. Grant that all men will come together and discover that as we solve the crisis and solve these problems—the international problems, the problems of atomic energy, the problems of nuclear energy, and yes, even the race problem—let us join together in a great fellowship of love and bow down at the feet of Jesus. Give us this strong determination. In the name and spirit of this Christ, we pray. Amen.

Martin Luther King pointed the way towards Jesus, who, in turn, points us towards the very heart and mystery of God. As we remember him this week, perhaps we can be encouraged to ask, not “What would Jesus do?” – but, “What would Martin do? What would John the Baptist do? And who around us do we see who is a prophet for this time and place – pointing the way to Jesus?”

Some of us are gifted with experiences in which God comes very close. But most of us, most of the time, need to rely on the help of others – great prophets, friends, neighbors – to tell us to “look!” Look at the presence of God, and what God is doing in the world. Only then, when we’re pointed in the right direction, can we hear God saying, “Come and see.”

God, thank you for all your prophets: famous, infamous, and unknown, who say, “Look!” when they see you passing by. Amen.

Why do we get wet?

Mosai015Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 
Matthew 3:13

For over two thousand years, people from all over the world have come to be baptized. And where do we come? We come to fonts and pools, to lakes and rivers and oceans. We come to water, just as Jesus came to the river Jordan. We come to be sprinkled, and splashed, and dunked.  But why? Why do we need to get wet, for this sacrament of the church?

Imagine, if you can, what access to water meant for people in the ancient near east: communication; trade; agriculture; livestock; and something to drink at the end of a hot, dry day. Water meant survival in that desert land. Water meant life.

So perhaps it is not surprising that we find water everywhere in our sacred scriptures. At the beginning of creation, the Spirit of God broods over the face of the waters. In the Garden of Eden, a river flows. Water destroys and renews the earth in the story of Noah. The baby Moses is discovered among the reeds in a river, and leads his people across a parted sea into the wilderness, where they receive water from a rock. The psalmist tells us that God, our shepherd, will lead us besides still waters. The prophet Isaiah proclaims that we will draw water from the wells of salvation.

We do not live in the ancient near east. Our relationship with water has changed.  Most of us have access to water through faucets conveniently located throughout our homes. We even have automatic systems to warm our water before it pours out on us from a shower head. But sadly, that water that seems so accessible, even disposable, today, is only more precious than it was two thousand years ago. Due to population and pollution and climate change, drinkable water is becoming a luxury commodity that corporations are eager to buy up, and nations are prepared to go to war over. More than one in six people around the world have trouble finding clean water to drink.

Why do we get wet, when we come to be baptized?  Water reminds us that we are a part of God’s creation, which She calls good.  Water reminds us of God’s saving power, flowing forth even in times of desolation.  Water offers us physical and spiritual renewal, a return to our true identity as children of God.  Water reminds us of our sacred responsibility to the communities and creation we are a part of.

So when we welcome someone into the family of Jesus, and call upon the Holy Spirit, we use water. Like the bread and cup of communion, this water helps us to experience a God who is both intimately present, and awesomely far away.

Lord, pour out your Holy Spirit now and renew us. Satisfy all our thirst with your living water. Amen.