I had driven past that barn each day on my commute to work for 17 years. When I first moved to Belmont, three sheep claimed the old structure as “home.” In the Spring they would emerge from their lower-level pen newly shorn. I would wonder about the barn in its heyday. How many animals lived within its timbers for warmth? Were there tractors that tilled the field? Did children from the nearby farmhouse play in the rafters?
A couple of months ago the barn burned down. I was saddened to see the skeletal frame charred and exposed. Hay bales sat intact that had probably been dragged into the barn years before. Within a couple of weeks, the demolition was accomplished. A machine with a claw pulled down the timbers and piled them into a dump truck that carted them off to a place of refuse. The last pile to be pitched was a heap of stones. They had been held together with mortar to offer a firm foundation on which the whole barn rested. Even though the foundation had withstood the heat of the fire, it was no longer needed for support. I wondered what would become of those ordinary stones that had lived with such purpose for so long. Anyone seeing them now would just see ordinary rocks, field stone that is so plentiful that we scarcely notice it.
The writer of Ecclesiastes wrote of the seasons in life. He used imagery from a primitive lifestyle. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” One of those seasons came to mind as I saw the great claw lifting piles of foundation stones into a refuse truck: “a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together.” Ancient people used rocks. They were transformed into essential building material. Alone, a rock had limited use. But, combined with hundreds of others, it could withstand wind, fire, rain and snow. Together, the rocks held up a structure that kept animals secure and hay bales dry. For a long season, these stones were needed.
We’ve been given another year, a new season, a chance at new opportunities even as our world sits frozen about us. Resolutions that were made at the beginning of this month may have already been broken. While we may feel like just ordinary stones that could be easily overlooked, God has a purpose for each one of us. You must be in community with others to be able to fulfill all that God is calling you to accomplish. Then, when God is the mortar holding a bunch of us regular folk together, there’s no telling what changes we can effect for the good of our community. So, for God’s sake, let’s gather stones together!
The Parable of the Talents Matthew 25: 14-30 “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents,[a] to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
It was the third time his boss had been late in just a matter of weeks. His third shift ended at 6:30AM but, once again, she hadn’t shown up by 8AM. The other two times she had been in touch with Joe. But this third time she didn’t call, wasn’t answering her phone and was holding him up for a breakfast date Joe had with his dad. Frustrated at his boss’ lack of responsibility, 27-year old Joe Blumm taped a note on the window of the BP gas station in Eastown (Grand Rapids, MI), locked up the C-store and headed toward home. A customer stopped by the BP when it was unattended, saw the note, took a photo of it and uploaded it to the internet. It went viral. It read: “Hey boss, learn to be on time or at least communicate when you are going to be late, +1 hour with no phone call is unacceptable. As you can see, the doors are locked. I went home. Fire me if you must, but realize I walked out due to YOUR negligence.” Joe was fired but became the poster child for fed-up workers across the country. A shy guy who wasn’t seeking the spotlight, Joe simply wanted a workplace where his efforts would be honored and fair work conditions met.
Ever had one of those days?
Maureen Burns was a faithful member of a committee that served the needs of her community. But, as a Christian, she honored a higher authority than the call of the committee. There was a meeting scheduled on a Sunday night and she said she would not go because it was on the Sabbath. She was the only one not in attendance. Even though she felt misunderstood, she stood her ground.
What would Jesus do?
Isn’t that the question we ask as Christians in our workplace? As people take advantage of us or neglect to do their proscribed duties, how are we called to respond as followers of Jesus? When do we take an unpopular stand and when do we just get out of the way of office politics? Last Sunday I asked folks in our church family to write out for me how I could pray for them in their jobs. Some folks are clearly trying to live out Christian morals in their vocational setting. “For me in my workplace, to remain strong in my faith, to resist temptation and to be an example as a true disciple of Christ.” “For me to be patient and understanding.” “For me to listen fully and with compassion in all my interactions with others.” “For kindness, for good listening skills, for energy and strength.” “To love others and for a loving spirit.”
How do we take Jesus to work with us each day?
Jesus told a parable about three workers. This story is one of several that Christ told to describe how to live while waiting for His return. He preached about the Kingdom or Realm of God continually and had to help earthly-grounded people to grasp holy living. What is proper conduct while waiting for Christ’s return? Jesus painted a picture in words.
The Master or Boss was wealthy and powerful. We know this because one talent had the value of fifteen years’ wages for an average day laborer. Heading out on a lengthy journey, the boss needed to entrust the care of his estate to reliable workers. To one he gave five talents equaling 75 years of salary or, in other words, the paycheck of a lifetime! To the next one, two talents. To the one the Boss must have known wouldn’t perform as well as the others, he gave only one talent. Again, this is no small amount. He still entrusted 15 years’ worth of income to the employee who received the least. And then the Bossman left. He didn’t giving any directions for how to manage the large sums of money. He trusted their leadership and gave them complete managerial freedom.
The two with the greatest sums set to work, investing the money. Being shrewd and taking the kinds of risks that typified their manager’s style, they doubled the amount. When the Boss returned, they were able to share these gains with him. He praised them lavishly for their willingness to go out on a limb for him, balancing risk and caution. They were promoted and put almost on a par with the Master. The third worker took a different approach. He did something that was viewed as a safe and wise method of money management in Jesus’ time: he buried it. When his employer returned to be given his money, the third employee dug up the cash, dusted it off and remitted it—after giving an explanatory speech. He stated that he knew that his boss reaped where he did not sow. It’s interesting to note that the Boss doesn’t refute this statement. The Boss is sovereign. He has rightful claim to anything he wants! The problem is that the third slave acted out of fear. Perhaps he was lazy. Maybe he couldn’t handle much responsibility. It seems that the Bossman understood this guy’s limitations since he gave him the least amount. But still, it was the equivalent of 15 years of income! It was no small entrustment. His fears immobilized him and he was dealt one of the harshest reprimands we witness in the scriptures. When the passage ends with gnashing of teeth and utter darkness, you know it’s been a bad day! We are left with the message that we are expected to take risks for Christ, trusting that we will experience great joy when He reappears for an accounting.
We understand the fear that accompanies our work life, don’t we? Some of the prayer requests from our people echo anxiety. “Pray that, in this changing world, there continues to be a need for the work I do and that my skills will continue to be relevant.” “That I am able to keep it all together.” “To know what I should do for the future.” “In years of retirement, for peace and freedom from fear. Too much time to think…” “For safe driving conditions and safety on the streets and roads.” “For federal employees, that the government shutdown will stop.” (Hallelujah! That prayer was answered this past week!) “For stability.”
For stability. Isn’t that the prayer on all of our lips? Security. Safety. Stability.
How do we invite Christ to calm our fears so that we serve to the best of our God-given abilities? How do we discover the right balance between caution and risk?
Lindsay Armstrong writes about the necessity for holy action in this parable: “What we think about God and do in response to the master’s gracious trust is neither trivial nor incidental. We have real choices and power, with genuine consequences resulting from the ways we use our freedom. What we do or fail to do shapes this world and our lives. It is not the only factor, but it is nonetheless crucial. Thus, compassionately addressing inactivity, fears, and/or misconceptions about God could be a freeing treasure to offer an insecure society.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, pg. 313.)
The stakes are high because Jesus has an obvious priority in His ministry. He becomes an itinerant preacher who teaches the commandments for a holy life and shares the gospel. He trains up His disciples so that they, too, can head out courageously and talk about their faith wherever they go. Jesus teaches through His discourses, like the Sermon on the Mount. He models what it is to live in the power of the Spirit through His healing miracles and exorcisms. He teaches about God’s love through His presence with societal rejects. He demonstrates God’s nearness through His touch of the untouchables. No matter where He traveled, despite great risk, Jesus preached about the presence of God’s kingdom among us right now and the need for us to partner with God to transform our world.
We have lots of educators in our congregation: those who offer instruction in the public schools and a team of folks who are part of our Christian Education ministry. Two of the prayer requests given to me were from those with the gift of teaching: “For educators, i.e., budget cuts and unwilling students.” “As an educator, that education is held in a higher esteem when legislative decisions are made and that politicians keep in sight how their decisions affect children.” These educators pray as they enter their classroom each morning!
Psalm 19 upholds the strength of the commandments for Jesus’ people, the Jews. Beginning at verse 7 it reads, “The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul. The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the LORD are radiant, giving light to the eyes. The fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever. The ordinances of the LORD are sure and altogether righteous. They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb. By them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.”
Wow! Who wouldn’t want a piece of that action? Jesus reacted to the third slave so harshly because he treated the treasure entrusted to his care with such disregard. Fear that he could never measure up to his master’s expectations led him to waste the potential of the gift he’d been given. We are reminded in this stark parable that living as disciples of Jesus leaves no room for coasting. We understand the responsibility that comes with our faith but are hesitant to act. Like the third worker we bury too much kindness, patience, love and talent in the ground and then wonder why we feel empty. To be baptized into the family of Jesus Christ is no cakewalk! Rabbi Harold Kushner states, “We worship God not because He will make our path smooth, but because He gives us grace and determination to keep walking even when the path is rocky.”
Each one of us occupies a critical outpost in the mission field. As you go about your labors do you consider that you are a missionary for Christ? Theologian Kramer states that we are the “spearhead of the church’s encounter with the world displaying Christ’s relevance to the whole range of kingdom life.”
How do we take Jesus to work with us so that a skeptical, post-Christian society will better understand that Christ is relevant for their own life?
One way to imbue our day with our Christian faith is to turn our commute into a pilgrimage. How would it be if we used our time waiting at red lights to pray for our co-workers? Could we use stop signs to confess the negative attitudes we carry with us into our workplace that need to be surrendered? Can we use the stretch of road that shows off the beauty of nature to praise God for creation and to remember our place within the world? We are as insignificant and significant as the shivering sparrow on our birdfeeder. How would it be if we prayed for our neighbors as we left for work and prayed for our family in approaching our home at the end of the day? On the longest stretch of our commute we could consider the distance covered by the disciples to share the good news of Jesus with strangers who were many times hostile toward them. Can we break down our commute into landmarks that turn a monotonous ride into a mobile devotion? What spiritual landmarks can prepare us to bring the peace of Christ into our workplace?
Each week we gather in our sanctuary for worship. We bring our work life with us, perhaps grateful for good jobs and respectful colleagues. Some may feel like the gas station attendant who is hanging on to his sanity by a thread. Some of you may be yearning for meaningful work which has eluded you for what feels like an eternity. We come to church to refuel. We yearn for stillness. Through prayer, conversation, singing and a sermon, we process our experiences from the past week. In worship we come into the presence of Christ so that we will be emboldened to take Him to work with us, whatever our vocational calling may be. We are missionaries with outposts in the kingdom. We are entrusted to bring holy treasure with us that will glorify God. We dare not take that responsibility lightly!
On Sunday I had the great joy of baptizing three young siblings into the faith and family of Jesus Christ. They were ages seven, five and not quite one. When baptizing young children, I invite the smallest members of the church to sit in the front pews so that they get front row seats to the party! Usually the kids and I sit on the chancel steps together for the children’s message and have earnest talks about faith matters. This is one of my favorite and least predictable moments in the worship service! They tell me who has recently potty-trained in their household. They recount the most recent antics of their dog. Little girls cozy up next to me and whisper that they like my shoes. They reveal to the adults who are listening in on this conversation that they know their baby sister loves them because she smiles at them. Every other answer they offer is “God” or “Jesus” and they’re usually right!
But on baptism Sundays I block the pass to the steps and direct them to the front pews. It’s a bit like herding kittens (which we actually did during another children’s message years ago…but that’s another story) because switching up the game plan on small children inevitably causes some confusion. Once I have them in place, in rapt attention, I begin with the baptism liturgy: “They were bringing little children to Jesus that he might place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant…”
Of course Jesus was indignant! He knew that one of the best ways to grow a church is to have a baby giving you a drunken smile over the shoulder of their parent in a worship service! Jesus understood that the sound of small children thundering forward to sit with the pastor and share their great wisdom during a children’s moment is often the one theological teaching the adults remember when they get home! On baptism Sunday our kids receive a special invitation to the best seats in the house so that they can see the water dripping down the face of a tiny baby who becomes mesmerized with the sensation. They do, however, have a responsibility. I always walk the baby or small child up to this audience of young faces to ask them a very important question before we actually break loose with the water. I remind them that these younger children will look up to them and imitate them. I ask them if they will be a good friend to this child who is becoming a new part of the family. I ask them to promise to show this infant how to love Jesus so that they will learn how much Jesus loves them. I make it easy for them. I tell them how to answer: I promise.
This past Sunday I had three eager faces looking at a couple pews worth of church children. Sometimes their answer, “I promise”, is a bit lackluster. They are timid, distracted or simply using their quiet voices. I wanted some volume for these three baptismal candidates. So I gave more specific directions than usual, turning it into a sort of sacramental pep rally. I set up the proposal of shepherding and modeling for these three siblings a love for Jesus. Then I said, “If so, will you please answer by saying, STRONGLY, “I promise!” I smiled at these dozen or more faces and waited for their passionate responses. They did not fail me. Every single one of them said, “STRONGLY I PROMISE!” Straight out of a comedy routine–but they were serious!
How awesome is that?! They don’t just promise with strength in their voices—they strongly promise! The congregation laughed at their inadvertent joke and we walked the three siblings back to the baptismal font. We could proceed with the sacrament knowing that our church children were all in, ready to lead these newest Christians into the ways of discipleship! As we completed this beautiful celebration of a new faith journey for the family, I was able to assure the congregation that I STRONGLY believed that it had been a good baptism for all three kids! We had a congregational chuckle and I released the front pews to go to their Sunday School classes. As they tore down the center aisle to get to their classrooms, we sang the most fundamental lesson together: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to Him belong—they are weak but He is strong! Yes! Jesus loves me. Yes! Jesus loves me. Yes! Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me so.”
For the three children whose hair was still wet, their journey was launched, their discipleship begun. “Jesus said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these…’ And he took them in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.”
You better believe He did! Children so readily accept spiritual truths while we fight our way through layers of rational thought to embrace the assurance that Jesus loves even us, woeful sinners! Later in the day, as I was reliving the moment of the children’s rote repetition of instructions, it made me wonder: What do I STRONGLY promise to do to support my brothers and sisters in the faith? No, seriously!
We sang and prayed my father-in-law, John, into the next life on Tuesday night. His space has been confined to a hospital bed for the past 16 months following a stroke. He has lived in the lovely home of my sister-in-law, Jen and her family, who have given outstanding and compassionate care to him over this prolonged period. Their home is nestled into the woods where John and his father planted countless seedlings seventy years ago. His room looks out on this land where his spirit always resided, whether he was there bodily or not.
2014 reunion at Clear Bottom Lake, Michigan, near Rockford
At the end of a very difficult day on Tuesday, he surfaced from unconsciousness in such a way that Jen took his face in her hands and coached him into his new life. We had been praying with him and singing hymns. Garrett was singing a song, Come to Jesus, by Chris Rice. While he sang the last verse, Dad took his final breaths. These are the words of that verse:
With your final heartbeat, kiss the world goodbye. Then go in peace, and laugh on Glory’s side. And fly to Jesus, fly to Jesus, fly to Jesus and live.
I am deeply saddened to be saying goodbye to this man who welcomed me as daughter from the first time I visited the family eons ago. He advised Garrett not to let me go and has supported the two of us and our family in more ways than can be listed or remembered. His capacity for inclusion and warm hospitality were extraordinary. We have spent much time in the past two days recounting the many ways he lived out his devotion to his family.
For today let me simply offer you a couple of things. First, there is a copy of my husband’s facebook post from January of 2012 that speaks of dad’s ever-presence in times of need! Second, a devotion I wrote almost ten years ago that was published in our local newspaper as a reflective piece.
Willing and Ready June 21, 2009
I’ve always felt blessed to have parents-in-law who live near me and who are a phone call away. My father-in-law has always been available to drive me to pick up a car in the shop or to pick me up when stranded. But I’m thinking those days are over. He still drives and is certainly a willing soul. But, with macular degeneration in both eyes and dulled hearing I fear that a ride with him could be my last! I have to weigh out my needs: the convenience of a loving father-in-law ready to drive me wherever I need to go versus my own personal safety.
So I’m developing a new list of folks on whom I might call should I get in a pinch. There are many, I reason, who do not live near family members they can count on for favors. So I reluctantly begin to assemble an expanded emergency-support list apart from his reliable service. This seems logical enough until I find myself stuck—with my car needing to be dropped off and my father-in-law available, just a stones’ throw away. So, against my better judgment and keen sense of self-preservation, I call him. “Could you meet me at the mechanic’s in about 15 minutes, Dad? I’m dropping off my car,” I say loudly into the phone. Without hesitation, on the other end of the line he says, “Sure.” Simple as that. He has always been so willing.
I see him swing into the front of the parking lot. I say a little prayer and slide into the seat next to him, securing my seat belt. We talk about nothing in particular, the way family members can do with one another. He appropriately responds to all the traffic signals on the way home. We’re safely going at least 10 miles per hour under the speed limit (giving new understanding to what the word “limit” might mean, in this case). And I make it home safely with no terrifying moments to endure. How blessed I am to have a father-in-law I can call on for help at a moment’s notice even into my 50’s!
God, you place us in families and we are so blessed in the sharing of our days. How good it is to have relationships where we can ask for favors and they are so readily and happily granted. As we roll through the years together, with changes affecting the way we take in our world, help us to be kind in heart and generous in mind. May we be of help to one another as our senses grow dim and our navigational skills diminish. You created us to be interdependent and I thank you for this reminder of how we need each other! In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Several years ago my husband and I traveled to the Florida Keys to celebrate our anniversary. We stayed on Marathon but made our way to Key West for a day. Many of you have been there and you know that everything stops as the sunset approaches. The shops empty out, people drift out of bars, and gather at Mallory Square to watch the light show! There are street performers who take advantage of the guaranteed audience but even they know to pack up their gig as the sun dips lower in the sky. The sun is the indisputable star of the show. I was amazed at the sense of reverence that fell over this crowd of people, many holding on to their drinks and a loved one. There were show-off boat captains who sailed across our line of vision as the sun touched the horizon. But nothing could distract us from the glory of a painted sky, the rosy reflection on the clouds and the rather rapid disappearance of the sun. When the last ray of light left us the crowd broke into applause! It felt holy to me. I felt like I’d been to church, worshiped the God of all Creation with an unwitting congregation. With drinks in hand we had communed together whether folks knew that Jesus was the host of the party or not.
Perhaps you are still full from the holidays? Maybe you’ve had your fill of celebrative meals and family gatherings. Perhaps you’ve already dry cleaned your holiday attire and have settled happily into sweats and slippers? We can only take so much partying before we long for a “normal” routine. When we’re full it’s hard to make room for others. When focused on our agendas, we don’t listen well to each other. We’re so busy thinking about what interesting comment we will add to the conversation that we don’t hear what our companion is saying. It’s good to empty out so that we can experience our hunger for community and for God.
It’s Epiphany today—the 12th day of Christmas. It doesn’t often fall on a Sunday. An epiphany is when God touches down in our lives in some undeniable way. The season of Epiphany tells us of Christ’s glory and reminds us of His centrality in our lives. We most easily recognize our dependence on Him when there’s some empty space in our hearts. The reading from Matthew 2 tells the story of wise men, sages, ancient astrologers who were paying attention to the skies. When a remarkable star appeared they not only gave it their full attention. They were open to the nudging of God that directed them to leave their homes, jobs, and families. They abandoned their professional credibility to find the One whose birth was heralded by the star. We know that their journey was long and sacrificial. So there must have been an emptiness in them that could only be satisfied by pursuing Jesus.
One word for communion is Eucharist which translates to mean gratitude, grace, rejoicing. Eucharist is communal. If we look around our towns and cities we see eucharist happening in bars and restaurants, gyms and on the local bike trail. Folks are trying to connect but brokenness remains if no one acknowledges that Jesus is the host, that the Son is the star of the show. If folks aren’t paying attention to each other because they’re so full of themselves, they will leave each social gathering lonely.
The health insurer, Cigna, did a nationwide survey about loneliness in our North American culture. 54% of the respondents stated that no one really knows them well! That’s a startling statistic! Younger adults, born between the 1990’s and the early 2000’s, suffer from higher levels of loneliness than people age 72 and older. Some link a rise in social media with an increase in depression and suicide with the younger generation. Cigna and other health professionals have called this an epidemic in our culture. To suffer from loneliness has the health equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day! It is deadly.
Table fellowship has suffered in recent years because of the frenzied pace of our western life. Perhaps some of you have developed rules for sitting at the table with your family. What interferes with really being with each other? Some owners have banned cell phones from their restaurants. The customers are so focused on their screens that they hardly notice the carefully-crafted ambiance and not even the food that is served to them. Rather than enjoying rich conversation that deepens a connection to another person, they focus on social media connections and leave the dinner as isolated as when they arrived.
In the Lenten season last year our congregation read a book by David Fitch: Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines that Shape the Church for Mission. Fitch and his wife hosted a dinner group at their home for many years each Friday. Phones were not allowed. They practiced intentional sharing with each other that required good listening and authentic self-disclosure. Over a meal they reflected on God’s presence among them. If they noticed that they drifted into bragging or other forms of self-serving dialogue, they reminded themselves that they gathered each week to meet the deep needs of the other. They ended each evening with prayer and witnessed tremendous healing in their group. They acknowledged that Christ was the Friday-night host, paying close attention to Him and to each other.
Communion can happen in settings outside of the sanctuary. Remember when Jesus and His disciples were surrounded by a crowd of more than 5000 people? Jesus recognized their hunger and asked the disciples to feed them. They were stunned, panic-stricken! They assumed that they would have to rely only on their own resources to sate this enormous Sunday School class. They forgot that Jesus was the Host. They didn’t believe that He could take whatever earthly resources were available and transform them into a means of grace, gratitude, and rejoicing. The text tells us that Jesus took the bread, gave thanks for it, broke it and gave it to His disciples to distribute to the people. All ate to their fill and there were even twelve baskets of leftovers! How does that happen? When we welcome Jesus as the Host to a meal, it becomes Eucharist and we are nourished.
There are times in my ministry when I’ve been invited to eat with someone. Some of those settings have been unappetizing—a nursing home with a strong odor, a soup kitchen where the meal was unappealing, a room where there was a sick or dying individual for whom we were caring. From early in our ministry together my husband and I called this “Jesus food.” We enter into these settings as the guest, willing to eat what is put before us with grateful hearts.
In his book, Fitch reminds us that taking Jesus into our world means voluntarily going to people and settings where we become the guest. We become vulnerable because we aren’t calling the shots. For Eucharist to be genuine, those with the most power must submit first. Like the magi. On their travels I am sure that, when they rode into town, people noticed. They were important, respected, revered. Yet they subjected themselves to God’s will for their lives rather than clinging to their own agendas. One of my claims to fame was a conversation with Christopher Reeve. I worked on Mackinac Island the summer that the movie, Somewhere in Time, was shot. I was an extra in the movie one day and ran into my pal Chris at the end of the day! He interacted with lots of islanders that summer as if he were just another regular guy—which, really, he was! One waitress friend was at a bar one night where people were dancing. The actor asked her to dance and asked her what her name was. He then introduced himself to her as Chris—as if she didn’t know! His modesty was winsome.
When we take Christ out into the community, to the people and places of His choosing, those of us who have status submit to the hospitality of others and become the guest. Fitch writes that in each setting of the table, “a space is opened up for Christ’s presence to come and manifest His rule among us as a community.” (page 67) Communion refuels us. Unless we gather together at this table with Jesus we will fall, as a congregation, into spiritual exhaustion. We may be able to maintain our present programing but we won’t grow in the Spirit. If we think first of meeting our own individual needs in a church family, our church will ultimately die. Jesus got down on His knees to wash His disciples’ feet at the Last Supper. The Host of the feast became the least of all so as to glorify God.
On this Epiphany Sunday we look in on the arduous journey of the wise men. Their culture, nationality, language and beliefs separated them from the Christ child. Yet they recognized that only He could fill their empty hearts with love. They paid attention to the movement of God’s Spirit. They were the first foreigners to worship Jesus, signaling that He was sent by God to bring healing to the world!
Fitch describes the impact of this table: “In this space we submit all of our divisions and personal agendas to Christ’s presence. All of this must die. There we sit, tending to one another and to his presence. And an amazing social dynamic breaks forth that can only be described as a new political order subverting all other allegiances. Just as the first tables of the early Christians subverted Rome and Caesar and started a new way of life before the watching world, so this table subverts all other politics of American self-preservation, accumulation, and individualism. A profound flourishing in the kingdom results.” (page 53)
When we pay attention to Jesus in our midst, a profound flourishing in the kingdom ensues. The results are grace, gratitude, and rejoicing. What a great way to begin a new year!
The two Sundays after Christmas give us the opportunity to examine the stories about Jesus’ life after His birth and before His public ministry. Since there are so few Biblical texts that cover Jesus’ childhood, each story merits attention. This past Sunday the lectionary sent us to Luke 2:41-52, the story of Jesus being left behind at the Temple when He was 12 years old. This passage is the only glimpse we are given into Jesus’ childhood. It’s the only photograph in the family album. It’s a surprising story because it doesn’t portray a perfectly peaceful family. It shows parents who felt irresponsible when they inadvertently left their child behind. Most of us have had those moments of not being able to locate a child in our care. Our heart is in our throat. Our thoughts begin to spin out of control as panic takes over. Poor Mary and Joe spent three days scouring Jerusalem looking for their son before they found Him. The reunion elicited raw human emotions. Mary justifiably confronted Jesus who showed no sign of remorse for the obvious distress His parents were wearing on their faces. She sounds like us—demanding an answer for how her adolescent son could be so insensitive toward them. But Jesus seemed unfazed. In fact, He made Mary’s distress her problem, not His: “Why were you searching for me?” There’s a “duh” here that got cut out of the text, I’m quite certain.
“Duh! Where’d you think I’d be? Sitting at home with you guys?!”
The next words must have stung: “Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Mary and Joseph knew from the very beginning of Jesus’ earthly life that He was not theirs. But this scene shows that mystery envelops the incarnation even for the couple who were the first to be let in on the secret. The humanness of their son had tricked them into thinking that He really was just like them, on track to live the life of a happy, healthy Jewish boy. But these words at the end of a three-day search popped that bubble. Jesus was separating from them and growing into His identity as the Messiah, the Son of God. The Divinity of Jesus began to surface after a seemingly “normal” childhood.
We learn some important facts about Jesus through this story. He was lovingly embraced into a human family. Even though His initial response to His searching parents must have hurt, He was obedient to them and returned to Nazareth where He grew into adulthood. The fact that Mary “treasured all these things in her heart” assures us that her relationship with Jesus was deeply satisfying even if there were bumps along the way. Barbara Brown Taylor expresses it in this way, “As becomes clear in today’s story, the enlarging of family boundaries does not come without stretch marks.” We all have stories about our “stretch marks”!
We also see that the Temple was an important place for Jesus. He was a Jew. The reason that His parents lost track of Him is because the Jewish community traveled as a group when making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Jesus was part of a faith community that could trust that children would be well cared-for by other moms and dads. The last time the scriptures speak of Jesus being in the Temple was when he was eight days old. He was carried in before he could walk. He was dedicated into God’s service before He could talk. Now, at the age when a Jewish boy celebrates his coming of age, Jesus was making the long trek to the Temple with His parents to celebrate the importance of the faith for Himself. When they found Him they learned that the Temple elders were amazed at Jesus’ wisdom. This would not be the last time that people marveled at His ability to delve deeply into scripture and interpret it in an accessible way. This chapter ends with the concluding statement: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” At age 12 Jesus was preparing for the next time He would come to the Temple–with a band of twelve men who would call themselves disciples!
I’m struck as I read this story of the importance of a faith family. Jesus’ transformation into the Savior of the world was built upon His upbringing in the Jewish faith. From birth to death, He was connected to the Temple and His people. Now, in His Church, we continue to raise our children in the faith. We baptize them and make vows to raise them in the Christian faith. We give them a chance to confirm that faith commitment for themselves when they come of age. We gather for worship regularly and allow different adults in the congregation to help raise them. We read Bible stories to them that help them get to know the story of our faith. One of the most memorable gifts I received as a child was a white leather(ette) Bible from my grandparents. It sits on a shelf in my office now, surrounded by newer interpretations with study notes. But I know that this is the Bible that first taught me the stories about Jesus that formed my faith. Just a few artistic images are scattered throughout the tissue-paper pages that highlight Jesus’ words with red ink. These images gave shape in my young mind to the Jesus we sang and read about in our Sunday school classes.
The story about Jesus continues in Luke 2 with Mary and Joseph finally finding Jesus. It was after the Passover celebration had ended. Jerusalem would have had reminders of the festival evident everywhere: dirty streets, lost and found items, a marketplace that looked as if a plague of locusts had swarmed through. It is a fitting passage for us to consider as we sit in homes strewn with bits of Christmas paper and tags; as we eat leftovers of Christmas feasts and begin to think about packing decorations away. In the aftermath of a great festival of the faith, we set our sights on God for the long haul, for the ordinary days.
One of the ways we learn about the faith from an early age is through our singing. We had our worship service on Sunday around breakfast tables and were able to share, in the intimacy of that setting, the songs that shaped our faith. Our Sunday School teachers had taught us the books of the Bible, the stories of wee little Zacchaeus and Father Abraham at an early age. VBS teachers, whether gifted at singing or not, led us in belting out “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine” with animated motions to accent the story line. We grew up knowing that “Jesus loves me…for the Bible tells me so..” Music is a central part to our Christian worship just as it was for our Jewish ancestors. If you look at the Psalms many state that they were sung and even had the accompaniment of musical instruments. After the Last Supper, it says in Mark’s Gospel, “When they had sung the hymn, they went out…” Jesus and His disciples grew up singing their praise to God. In a memory-loss unit, I’m always amazed that people still know some of the songs we sing and can often recite the Lord’s Prayer word for word, even if they don’t remember their own name! Music and liturgy in our worship go deep and continue to nourish us spiritually even after our cognitive abilities wane.
I invited my Sunday morning breakfast companions to choose a hymn that had helped shape their faith. They read their favorite verse for us then we sang that verse together with the inspired accompaniment of our pianist. Hands went up with suggestions of hymns that had a history for people. “In the Garden” was chosen by a member because her father had always sung that to her when she was young. Later he had cradled his grandchildren and offered that same musical lesson in the faith to them with more emotion than melody. We sang hymns that lifted up the power of prayer and the importance of Jesus’ life. One woman asked that we sing the first verse to “How Great Thou Art”, which we did with gusto. Another member suggested we continue with the fourth verse in memory of one of our long time members who had died in his sleep just that night before. With a mix of sadness and confidence we affirmed the eternal rest of our newly-departed brother with words penned more than sixty years ago: “When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation and take me home, what joy shall fill my heart! Then I shall bow in humble adoration, and there proclaim, ‘My God, how great thou art.’ Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to thee: how great thou art, how great thou art! Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to thee: how great thou art, how great thou art!” Affirming our faith in Christ through melody and lyrics produced tears because we were reminded of those who had instilled the faith that allows us decades later to face death with resurrection hope.
Looking at this one snapshot of Jesus’ family from the Nazareth album reminds us of the lessons of the faith that start young and grant us guidance for all of life. We pin our hope on a human family that sacrificially raised the Son of God as a gift for us. I appreciated the insight of William Danaher, Jr. as he concluded his commentary on this text from Luke’s gospel: “That the incarnation took this shape in the life of the holy family gives hope for families of all kinds and conditions on this day. The model of living that the holy family offers is not, as is sometimes depicted in romantic paintings and portraits, that of a family perfectly ordered and without division or differences. Rather, it is of a family that lives into messy moments with the confidence that God in Christ Jesus has entered and redeems them from within.”
Redemption amidst messy moments in life? I’ll carry that promise into the new year!