Object Lessons

One day in October, a year ago, I led chapel on a Wednesday morning that I’ll never forget.

The two-year-old class walked down the hall of the education wing, single-file with their teachers, made their way through the commons, came into the chapel and sat down in front of the altar, crisscross-applesauce right in front of me.

Normally we follow the same outline for our little service: First, we count 7 candles as we light them, and say a little poem: “Seven candles burning bright, reminds us of Jesus’ light.” Then I offer a little message which is almost always an object lesson to talk about how God loves us. We have a prayer, we sing “Jesus loves me,” and we invite each of the children to take a turn with our little acolyte’s bell and come up and extinguish a candle. Then they stand up and walk out, and head back to class and other activities.

But I’ll never forget this one day because in the orange class – that’s the two-year-olds – there was a new little boy. And this Wednesday was his first day EVER at school. His father had just dropped him off, and chapel was the absolute very first activity of this very first day.

This little boy was overcome with such sadness, stricken with such grief, to be away from his parents for the first time, that he was literally unable to stand on his own legs. All he could do was wail. His sobs were convulsing his whole, tiny body. The teachers and I were at a loss for what to do and so everything I just described about how chapel normally unfolds – none of it happened.

But one of the teachers, who is a member of our congregation, took this little boy in her arms and held him in her lap and tried to comfort him.

Perhaps we did light the candles, I’m sure no one else remembers either, and there was just 10 minutes of chaos, and no one knew what was going on, and that was chapel, and the little class all stood up and walked out.

Something has a hold of this man in Capernaum – an unclean spirit that has overcome this man’s ability to control himself – and now through him it has hijacked the morning service taking place in the synagogue.

As this man begins to cry out and thrash around, bursting through the circle of men who have gathered and are sitting crisscross-applesauce around Jesus, no one is sure what has just happened, and everyone is at a loss about what is going on.

These learned men, or men anxiously seeking learning, had been absolutely spell-bound by Jesus’ teaching until this intruder, who doesn’t belong, shouting loudly, interrupts and cries out: “what do you have to do with us Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God!”

And you have to give it to the unclean spirit, because it knows what’s up.

Indeed… We have Jesus – the Holy one of God – in the holy place of the sanctuary – on the holy day of the sabbath…and one of these things is not like the other…this demonic spirit doesn’t fit…it doesn’t belong in this Holy moment!

And so, with an object lesson of divine proportion, Jesus speaks and heals the man.

Jesus says, “be silent! (literally: be muzzled) and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit opens its jaws and takes its teeth out of the man, let’s go, and the man is set free.”

And Jesus’ healing itself becomes the object lesson that helps those in the synagogue, and us, grasp what Jesus’ teaching is about.

Jesus’ words and action are one thing – and through them he brings God’s freedom and healing to this man in the synagogue.

Jesus’ words silence evil and help us see that God desires to see us healthy.

God’s ultimate authority and power reside in the person of Jesus, and in Jesus God enters into our reality to show us God desires us to be well.

We all make to-do lists: on paper, or on our phone, or on our laptop, and we all know that process of gathering all the things we have to do – personal and professional, the business meeting and the trip to the grocery store, and doing the hard work of prioritizing it…the struggle of figuring out what can wait and what needs to have been done yesterday.

Jesus begins his ministry with a to-do list. And the thing and the very top of that list is our healing.

After calling his disciples and assembling his team (which we heard about last week) Peter and Andrew, and James and John, the very first thing he does is heal this man in Capernaum’s synagogue…he casts out the external force causing the man’s madness and restores him to his health, his family, his work, and his community.

God’s priority is our health and freeing us from the sin, the shame, the brokenness, and the fear that possesses us.

Not only is healing this man Jesus’ first work of ministry, but in Mark’s gospel Jesus performs 18 miracles and 13 of them, nearly three-quarters of them, are miracles of healing.

God desires to make us well from the forces that constrain us and contain us.

God desires to free us for abundant life.

Last Sunday night high school youth who going to be going on our service-learning trip to Houston this summer gathered for our third “getting ready” session, and we watched a video by the “Jubilee Project” called “50 People. One question.”

In the video we see snippets of many faces; a montage of people situating themselves in front of the cameras – young and old, African-American, Caucasian, Hispanic, women and men, as we read on the screen:

“We gathered 50 people to ask them a simple question”

We then hear the interviewer say: “We have one question that we want to ask you today.”

After a long pause, an older woman asks “Ok, what’s the question?”

The interviewer responds: “If you could change one thing about your body, what would it be?”

And we see lots of shots of people thinking, looking uncomfortable, a young woman laughs and says, “only one?”

Another woman looks up and says: “I would change my forehead. I have a really big forehead.”

Another, middle-aged woman answers after some thought, “I’d like to be taller.”

A young man touches his cheeks and says, “the puffiness of my face.”

Another young man looks at the camera without hesitation and says, “My ears. I have big ears. A lot of times kids would make fun of me. Hey man, you got big ears, look at Dumbo over here!”

A young mother, holding a toddler says, “my stretch marks after having a baby.”

Another woman says, “Definitely my skin because I have dealt with acne and eczema issues since I was a little kid.”

Another woman says, “When I was young, because everybody liked girls with big eyes, I also hoped my eyes could be bigger.”

There are more.

Then they cut to a montage of children walking out to be interviewed. The first child needs help getting onto the stool.

The interviewer asks: “If you could change one thing about your body, what would it be?”

These 7, 8, and 9-year olds think. They squirm. They throw up their hands.

A little girl with curly, orange hair and braces says, “Um…you know…have a mermaid tail.”

The next little boy says, “Probably like, a shark mouth so I could eat a lot of stuff.”

And there are more answers from these little children:

“Legs like a cheetah so I could run faster…wings…extra pointy ears….”

Finally, one says, “I don’t think there’s anything to change.”

There are unclean spirits that control our lives and cause us to fear what other people think about us.

There are unclean spirits that cause us to relive old hurts and shy away from new relationships imagining how we might be hurt.

There are unclean spirits that invade our hearts and cause us to compare ourselves to others rather than seeing ourselves as made by God to love, and to be loved, and to share love.

And there are things that go even deeper than insecurities about how our body might look or be perceived. We live with a chronic illness, or cancer, or depression, or addiction…

It lives in our body, and God desires to cast these demons out as well and to free us from the things that hinder our essential being, and our essential humanity.

These things ultimately don’t belong in our lives.

The truth is that all healing in this life is temporary.

Our final healing will only come in our resurrection, when we are joined to our crucified and risen Lord in the life he already lives.

Until then, in this life, every day we must rely on God.

In this life, Jesus has created and sustains, inspires, and guides the community of the church where we are accepted, welcomed, and loved no matter what demons we may face, no matter what forces are attacking our lives, and no matter what illness we might carry in our body.

In this life, God gives us to one another for our healing.

Here in this Community we can build one another up and support one another.

Here in community, God invites us to learn to be comfortable with who God has made us to be, to really accept ourselves and one another, and to trust God will give us the daily strength we need so that we can experience the abundant life Jesus gives us.

Jesus lives in and through us and the ministry we share.

The first day of school for the little boy in the orange class was probably the worst day of his young little life, and I really think that for all we change and evolve and learn as we grow up, our emotions are essentially the same no matter what age we are.

So, a week later, the Wednesday after the boy’s first day of school, I watched as he came into the chapel with his class and sat in the same teacher’s lap and quietly cried all the way through our chapel time.

The next week he sat in her lap the whole time and whimpered.

The next week he sat in her lap the whole time and was quiet but looked very sad.

The next week he sat beside the teacher, and he looked like he would fall apart if he got an inch away from this teacher, but as long as he sat there next to her he was doing ok.

And then we went on like that until one Wednesday morning when we asked him if he would like to put out one of the candles on the altar, and he smiled and got up and took the bell all on his own, put out a candle and sat back down.

It was at an achingly slow pace, but the love of this teacher had cast out the fear that had a hold on this little boy, until he was himself, at home in the world of school, and contentedly a part of the little community of the orange class.

May God continually make us into the Beloved Community that knows we belong in this world, that we belong to Jesus, and the community that longs to see God’s healing and welcome extend from our lives into the world.

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It’s Got Me Kinda Shaky

Giving a gift is supposed to be fun thing, an easy thing, and an enjoyable thing, but if you talk to people and catch up people about how their Christmas was – at least in my experience – if you talk about this long enough, you will get to the point where one of you finally share how stressful the season can be and, in particular, how one of the most stressful aspects of the season is shopping and buying gifts.
Every family embodies the stress differently: Some families give gifts to everyone and there is some stress related to making sure everyone’s gifts are equitable. Some families draw names trying to avoid some of that stress. Some people complain because their families are too cheap…Some people – and this is true – complain because their families are too generous…
So different families are different, and people are different, but in the end, the thing that all of our shopping and gift giving has in common is that when we buy a gift for someone we hope they will like it and we can’t be sure they will – we dare to hope for that smile to burst forth on their face that signals their delight…and we experience stress because we don’t know if that will happen.
I wonder if the magi were stressed out as they travel to meet this new king – hoping that the gifts they picked out for him will go over well, but not knowing for sure if they will. I think they may have been, because we get stressed out even when we know the person we’re buying a gift for pretty well.
We often have an idea of who the person we’re giving a gift to is and what they like and don’t like, and yet we still worry – but in the case of the magi, they don’t know this new king they’re going to see, they’ve never met him, they don’t know his family, they’re from a vastly different culture with vastly different expectations…
So, maybe they are feeling the way we feel when we finally tie the bow and write the nametag of the gift we’re giving…maybe they are also feeling hopeful as they follow this star through the dark nights and bright days, on and on, as it takes them further and further West.
We probably have a pretty positive reaction to the figure of a “magi” at this point. Matthew has certainly made them the heroes, but Hebrews who were hearing this story for the first time would’ve thought about them as unclean pagans, people who worshiped wrongly, heretics, and people who looked to the stars for signs rather than the God of Israel. And in that way, their inclusion as the heroes in this story of the Nativity would have been shocking and uncomfortable.
In the Bible’s colorful collection of books with their wild casts of characters, people called “magi” appear only in this one scene.
The word magi can be translated as scholars, astrologers, magicians, or wise men (as it is in the NRSV). They were fortune-tellers, palm-readers, dream-interpreters, pagan priests, Gentiles and not Hebrews who had certain knowledge related to the skies and how to interpret them, the person who picks up the phone when you call the psychic hotline, they authored little books to be sold in the grocery store isle that included horoscopes and advice…
…they could be called many things, but in the end, they were people who followed stars.
The magi come from the Far East, from Persia, following a very bright star – and they’re completely unclear about the situation they’re walking into…they don’t know the right gifts to bring to this new king and, in fact, they don’t even really know where they’re going.
First, they go to Jerusalem, not Bethlehem where the baby is. They probably knew enough to be aware that Jerusalem is the capital city and so they assumed that the new king would be born to the current king – probably assuming that the child they are looking for will be King Herod’s child – because that’s how new kings are usually born!
But when they knock on King Herod’s door asking after the new king they find Herod white as a sheet to hear this news. And so, Herod gets his scholars hard at work to figure out what’s going on and they are the ones that consult the scriptures and send the Magi on to David’s city – to Bethlehem – where the Messiah is to be born.
Herod is interested and not because he wants to worship a new king and hand over his crown, but because he wants to put this child to death and secure his own crown and he will do what he can to try to make this happen and so he sends the magi on with instructions to find the child in Bethlehem and return to him with news…
When the Magi arrive in David’s city and find the child and they kneel before Jesus and find themselves overwhelmed with joy.
They are filled with gladness and great joy and a smile bursts forth on their face that signals their delight, and they are overcome with joy at seeing Jesus with his mother. Somehow, they know that the only correct response to being in this child’s presence is to fall on their knees and bury their faces in the ground.
And they get up and give these three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh…gifts that tell us about who Jesus is.
Gold is for a king… Jesus is not the kind of king the world is familiar with. Not a king like Herod who brings death but a king who brings life…a king who brings God’s love to us which is more valuable than any precious thing we might have or be given or be able to unwrap.
Frankincense for the deity… Jesus is a man but he is not just a man. Jesus is God’s Son and Lord of all creation, and not just Israel. In Jesus the mystery of God is made known. That gentiles have been invited into the covenant with God.
Myrrh for death… already foreshadowing that Jesus is the king who came to die for us…who came not to be served but to serve and to give his life away as a ransom for many.

And, having given their gifts, the magi get up and go home by a new road.
The story of Epiphany is OUR story. It is our name. It is who we are. We are people who were far off but have been brought close to God. We are the ones who have received the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and the ones through whom the wisdom of God has been made known, because even our rich variety are one people.
Like the magi, we are included in God’s family through God’s gracious initiative. We have heard the gospel of God’s love and have been invited to fall on our knees and worship and give our gifts.
We might wonder, what gift do you give to your savior? How do we respond to God’s goodness?

This past week I was working in the office at my computer with the door open. Bruce Garringer came in and I stopped working and we were talking and he just happened to mention he was hanging out and waiting for someone to come in and sign a check. They had written a check to the Brighten our Light campaign but they had forgotten to sign it.

We talked a little more and then we heard the door to the main office open and he excused himself from our conversation and walked down the hall. I heard a woman’s voice, I don’t know who it was, but she said, “I can’t believe I forgot to sign the bottom of the check, I’m just not used to writing such big checks and I think it got me a little shaky.”

Everything we have been given belongs to God and we’re entrusted with it, to be sternwards of it and to use it for his kingdom and his work. That will make you a little shaky.
Almost two years ago now our long-range planning team read this story – the Epiphany Story – imagining that from it, we would gain some direction and leading from the Holy Spirit about what God is calling us to do and to be in the world in this time.
We talked about giving our treasure for him, we talked about following him, we talked about worshipping him…this story and the magi being brought from far off into the very presence of Christ, helped us discern “Walk the Journey, Worship the Christ, Witness with Joy.” Because we know we are now on a new and different road because of Christ.
The most powerful part of the conversation around branding and mission statements, and identity came when we were working on the logo of the star.

There were about 10 of us, we respectfully disagreed about the width of the star, about the proportions of the star, if the main use of the logo should be dark on light or light on dark, but what we all agreed on from the beginning, what was never in doubt, was that our star be the cross.
In the end, this is the symbol that signals God’s love for us that burst forth in delight as he reaches out to those who seek him and those who stray and those who are lost and searching.
We are called to follow the cross and live in the light it brings to us and to the whole world. God is with us in the stresses and strains and suffering times of our lives and he will be faithful to his promise to lead us.

We Want to Go to Bethlehem

 

For almost a month now, at some point every day, (sometimes before breakfast, sometimes after breakfast), but each day, our 2-year-old and 3-year-old will come to us and say, “we want to go to Bethlehem.”  And we say, Okay.

 

So, our 3 -year-old daughter wraps her head in a scarf or a t-shirt, and she puts her lovey bear under her shirt like it’s a baby, and says, “I’m Mary!”  And our son, who wants to be a part of whatever his big sister is into says, “I’m Joseph!”  And together, the two of them look at me and say, “Daddy, get down on my hands and knees. You’re the donkey.”  Then they get on my back, knees grinding into the floor,and we ride through the rooms of the house looking for Bethlehem.

 

Most of us have known this story since we were 2 and 3 years old.  It’s as comforting in its down-home simplicity, as it is in its familiar in the exquisite details that we hear every year: A young and faithful mother, treasuring it all in her heart, A quiet and strong father, the ragged shepherds under the stars, the supernatural splendor of the angels overhead, all waiting for the birth of a baby.

 

 The question for us is: can this story still surprise us?  Can this story still surprise us so that we, too, can travel across the hills of our distraction and sentimentality to arrive at Bethlehem again and find ourselves among those who have gathered around to adore the One who is wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in the manger?

 

Well, the story begins with the one who was given the title “the Prince of Peace…,” the one who some called the “Divine son of God…” Do you know his name?

 

History remembers him as… Octavian, or Caesar Augustus.  Never much celebrated in our retelling of the Christmas story, Octavian was the great nephew and adopted son of Julius Caesar who did what his Dad couldn’t do: Octavian deposed his rivals, set up an Empire,  and enlarged its lands so that its boundaries stretched and reached further than they ever had before or ever would again.  Octavian was called the prince of peace because he brought the Pax Romana, by conquering and laying to waste to every other power in the known world, so that he brought an ironic peace for sure – but a real peace, by virtue of ruling as a dictator and crushing the voices and lives of anyone who challenged him…

 

 And he printed coins that had his image and a new title, “Divine son of God,” so that his subjects throughout the empire were reminded of their ruler and his power over their lives every time they went to the market to buy a piece of bread.

 

 From what he supposes is his seat of absolute power, it is Octavian who pronounces a census: that every life should be counted, that every man, woman, and child should be accounted for, not because of his great concern for his subjects, but simply because you can only tax somebody you know exists. 

And it is his decision about extracting a tax from the people which sets in motion a young and faithful mother, A quiet and strong father (and perhaps their donkey), on their way to Bethlehem, traipsing over the hills through the desert, so that they too may be counted as subjects by the Roman Empire.

 

And when this little family finds its way to Bethlehem, when they finally locate a place to stay in a makeshift hotel room that is nothing more than a cattle stall, it comes time for Mary to have her baby.  History can tell us some of the background to these events, but there are some things history can’t tell us. 

 

In fact, there are only two details we really know about the birth:  First, that the Child was wrapped in bands of cloth, or a swaddle and then that he is laid in a manger.  We only really know these two details and so there are so many questions we might have about the circumstances of this holy birth.

 

For example:  We don’t know if Mary has had prenatal classes,  if there was someone to show her how to breathe, or if anyone has taught her how to count contractions, or anyone has told her what to expect. 

 

 In prenatal classes at Henrico Doctors, or wherever an expecting mother might choose to have a baby, part of one whole class is dedicated to the seemingly simple task of wrapping a baby in a swaddle.  A mother will learn, if she doesn’t already know, how to take a swaddle – a large, square piece of cloth that the hospital gives her – and fold it into a triangle.   If you were this mother, you would learn how to lay the baby in that triangle and wrap them up, more or less like a very large burrito, keeping as much of the contents inside as possible.  You would learn to tuck the corner that is leftover into a crevasse somewhere and hope for the best.

 

 You learn too, if you don’t already know: the reason for the swaddle is that the infant can’t control their arms and legs yet, he will involuntarily flail them about until you bind and secure them, and only then can the baby go to sleep.

 

And Jesus is bound in this kind of cloth, and swaddled into this little package.  God’s infinite love chooses to be born into one very small human life and bound by the same constraints we experience…To know hunger, thirst, sorrow, disappointment, frustration… (As well as the joys of life to be sure: friendship, laughter, and joy.)  But the good news of great joy is that the Savior born for me and for you intimately knows the same limits we experience.

 

He is born for all of us, who have had our life limited by alcoholism and addiction, who have had our life bound by chronic disease or pain, who feel the constraints our spirit is put under when we’re bullied, or labeled, or misrepresented.  He is born for all of us who live with grief, or anxiety, or loss, or shame, or any other burden of suffering that limits our life.

 

 Jesus’ birth means God is with us and truly knows those hopelessness moments, and helpless seasons in our life.

 

 At the beginning of his life, Jesus is swaddled in bands of cloth, and it won’t be the last time.  After he dies on the cross for us his body will be taken down and he will again be wrapped again, swaddled this time by a grieving mother and the few who gather around.

 

Jesus was born into the world to die for us, and to be raised to new life for us, and because our crucified Lord is living, we can look forward to a day when we will no longer be bound by the sin and heartbreaks and disappointments of life.

 

This past week, on Wednesday, we celebrated the life of Judy Rabe.  She was a longtime member of Epiphany, a faithful wife and mother. Her interment after the service was at Holly Memorial Gardens in Charlottesville. The cemetery has rolling hills and graves as far as the eye can see.   After we all parked our cars, the family and their friends walked together across those hills, up to the site where Judy’s body was ready for burial.  We gathered there to read the words of Scripture, to ask God to receive Judy into his mercy, and to remember his promise to raise her up on the last day.

 

As we looked out at those hills, we saw the graves of faithful mothers, quiet fathers, beloved children – and the good news of great joy is that they will live again, -We will all live again – because of the birth of the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, who also wore grave clothes for us, before God raised him up to live again, never to die.

 

The titles of “Prince of Peace” and “Divine Son of God” were placed on Jesus as a way to say he is God’s chosen servant and the One through whom we see what God’s power in the world looks like.

 

 In Jesus, we see a God who counts every life…every man, woman, and child – all of us.  We are accounted for, and wrapped safely in God’s love until the day of resurrection and God’s last and best surprise.

 

 But tonight, we celebrate a birth, And we want – and we need – to travel across the hills to Bethlehem to take our place and sing praise to the one who is born for us.

 

 

The Holy Family traveled to Bethlehem because of the census.The Shepherds arrived in Bethlehem because of the announcement in the sky. Later on, we’ll hear how the Magi reach in Bethlehem by following a star.

 

 So, how do we get to Bethlehem?

 

 Bethlehem means “House of Bread” in the Hebrew  and through this supper God does one better than take us to Bethlehem.  God brings Bethlehem to us. The one born for us, who died for us, who has been raised for us; the one who comes to bring God’s peace, not by conquering, but by giving himself for all, comes to you.

 

 Here at this table, his body is placed into our hand, and our hand becomes the manger, rough and fragile as it is, and we receive the Christ child into our life.  God, in his mercy, decrees  that every life, every man, woman, and child should be accounted for, and in his kindness, he takes our life and wraps us up in God’s love.

 

 How silently, how silently, he comes.  The gift is given with the words, “The body of Christ, the Blood of Christ, given for you.”

 

O Holy Child of Bethlehem, Descend to us we pray, Cast out our sin, and enter in, Be born in us today.