Tuesday, January 26, 2016

On snowflakes and signposts that testify to His glory . . .

     Ah, the faithful remnant!  I told the 8am folks that I expected the rest of us would be looking at the back of their heads when we gather at the end of the age with our Lord.  They were absolutely nuts coming out in that cold and ice to church.  Some might say that about you all gathered here at 10:30, but at least you gave the sun a bit of time to start working on the roads!
      To that end, I changed my sermon.  Originally, I had intended to focus on Paul’s letter to the Corinthians and the discussion of Christ’s Body and the Church.  Given the discussions involving the wider Communion and wider Church, the timeliness of diocesan convention, and some conversations over the past couple weeks following Sophie’s baptism, such a topic seemed a slam dunk.  But, it dawned on me at 8am that they really didn’t need to hear that sermon.  And I have learned quickly not to preach different sermons at the two services!  I’m a month behind in getting my sermons typed up and posted.  I sure do not need to make my weeks any busier!
     So, as I prayed quickly and fervently this morning about what I should do, a couple faces popped into my mind, as did some scenery.  I’ll trust it was a gift of the Holy Spirit.  In the end, though, you all will have to be the judge.
     I have reminded a number of you, both in private conversations and in public sermons, that it has long been held that our job in the Church as preachers is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.  I think I first mentioned that in Advent with respect to John the Baptizer.  John famously called Israel to repent, along with colorful names such as viper broods and others, and yet the Gospel writers noted that John encouraged the people with the Good News.  It is a delicate and difficult balance, so it is not surprising that we tend to get too focused in one area or the other.  I know our wider national church is perceived to be all about comforting everyone, with very little attentiveness to sin and its impact in our lives individually and collectively.  Other churches have a reputation for browbeating their people with their sins and offering very little by way of comfort.  I’m not interested today in accusing or defending or even arguing about perceptions; I simply want you to understand the difficulty involved in preaching a sermon.  More importantly, I hope and pray that if your ears hear people wrestling with the readings or my sermons, with some pronouncing them as comforting and some pronouncing them as afflicting, maybe the Holy Spirit really was among us that day.
     I cannot say for sure what the prompt was today, but I really felt called to give up most of the affliction side.  Maybe the comfortable people stayed home.  Maybe those of you who dragged yourself to church in these conditions did so out of a real hunger to know God’s love.  Maybe I should have focused on Corinthians and the Body with a small group and just bailed, for reasons unknown.  Maybe God sensed you were all artistic folk and budged me to the subject today.  I’m not sure why, but that’s where I am today.
     Turn in your Order of worship to Psalm 19.  Psalm 19 is an incredibly rich psalm.  We could probably spend several hours discussing any number of the themes in the psalm and will when we get to it on Monday morning Bible Study.  The psalm easily divides into three sections.  Verses 1-6, which should bring us back to the creation narrative in Genesis, verses 7-11,which speaks of God’s revelation of His torah to humanity, and verses 12-14, which speaks of the human response to that instruction.  But I found myself drawn to one today: The heavens declare.
      Let’s look at the description of the first six verses.  The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows His handiwork.  It is poetry, so I know it is tough for some of us, but the psalmist is hearkening us back to the creation story.  God created the heavens and the earth, the all that is seen and unseen in our liturgy, from nothing.  We Christians do not believe that forces of nature of gods, like many in the ANE, but we do believe that God created everything to testify to His glory.  Everything.
     Think of this snowfall that we have experienced and that has kept so many of us from church this morning.  Yes, in major cities that lack machinery, snowfall is a major hassle.  But even something that seems like a hassle to us testifies to God’s glory.  I found myself Friday heading over to St. George’s for convention.  All kinds of Adventers asked me if this was reminding me of Iowa.  It truth, it is a very different kind of snow and a heck of a lot more warm, so it more reminds me of March or April in Iowa.  But as I was driving, I could not help but notice how well the snow was sticking to everything.  The trees, the rock clefts, the overhead wires, everything was covered in snow.  There are some green spaces which were simply postcard pretty.  At a time when we lament the deeming dead and dormancy of nature in the season we name winter, God used it for a glorious canvas.  Look at those hills out the windows.  Two days later and everything is still covered in white.  How can you look at it and not appreciate the glory of the snow?
     What else did the snow bring?  I do not yet know where all of you live, but my family and I live pretty close to the interstate.  It is always noisy around here with cars and trucks swooshing by, an occasional horn, tractor trailers pumping air brakes, and the not infrequent sirens of emergency responders.  Listen today.  Yes, there is some background noise, but even two days out the noise is still muffled.  The snow causes many to stay off the roads and acts as a sound breaker for those who brave the roads.  There is a peace, a whisper that descends with the snow that often causes us to marvel.
     One other benefit of that snow, of course, is the Sabbath that was forced on everyone.  I am not sure how many texts, e-mails, Facebook notifications, and phone calls I received from Adventers on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, but there were quite a few.  Delegates could not make it to convention or work and so stayed home on Friday.  Saturday was even a bit worse, causing the diocesan staff to cancel the attempt to hold convention.  It was my first off day in four weeks and, after talking with a number of Adventers, it was the first weekend a number of you have had in some time.  Adventers felt bad about not making it to meetings or to fulfil their responsibilities at church.  Why?  I do not mind doing funerals for believers, they are after all a celebration for us in one sense, but I sure as heck would rather not.  I don’t want us out on those roads, risking the idiots who think they can switch to four wheel drive and drive like they do on a sunny day, or risking those who have proven to me time and time again they cannot drive in the rain.  But the snow not only quieted the world around us, it made us quiet ourselves.  Some of us slept; others of us hunkered down with good books; some enjoyed television or movies; a lot of us just spent time with our families.  The snowfall forced most of us into a Sabbath.  This glorious creation testifies on many levels to the glory of God described in Psalm 19, and it is one simple event in nature!  There are tons of others.
     Perhaps you are one of those who prefers the ocean to the snowfall.  Maybe you best hear God’s voice or nature’s testimony to His glory in the crashing of the waves.  Maybe you are one of those who loves to hike or bike in nature.  You see the rolling hills and the skies, and all the scurrying on or beneath both, as a testimony to His glory and handiwork.  Maybe you are a visual person.  For you the wonderful testimony to His glory is the perfect sunset or the perfect sunrise--you know, the ones with enough volcanic ash in the atmosphere to bring out those incredible hues of pink, blue, orange, and violet.  Maybe you hear God in nature better.  For you the song of the thrush or other bird or the call of particular insects or other animals sings the song that was sung on that first day or on that glory Easter morning.  Maybe you are like the magi and simple marvel at the skies.  For the next four weeks or so, five of our planets (mercury through Saturn) line up in the night sky, making them easy to spot.  Maybe you are one of those who appreciate the pictures sent back by the Hubble telescope.  Last week, several of my Facebook friends shared a picture that purported to be the gates of heaven.  It was a crystalline ice structure a ridiculous distance away from us, but it perplexes scientists just because it is there and causes wonder in some because the structure looks like gates, just like that exploding nova a couple years ago looked like the eye of God.  Whatever it is, there is something or several somethings that speaks to you in creation about the glory of God.  It might be something visual, it might be something heard or silenced, or it might be something touched.  Judging from the nods, you are all thinking of those handiworks now.
     I want you, however, to think of the rest of this part of the message of the psalm.  For all the beauty of the snowfall, what causes it?  Really, it’s just lots and lots and lots of snowflakes, right?  For years I have heard that no two snowflakes are ever identical.  Every time I have seen these discussions about snowflakes, they show these amazing crystalline structures under microscopes, none of which seem identical.  I have had the pleasure of speaking with a couple meteorologists over the years about the phenomenon.  Both shared a similar answer to my question of how we can know this.  On the one hand, we can’t.  How many billions and billions of individual snowflakes fell on the eastern third of the United States this past couple days?  How can we know they were all different?  We can’t.  Nobody is going out there examining them all.  They would all melt before the job was complete.
     On the other hand, think of all the dynamics that go into the formation of a snowflake.  There is water vapor, temperature, wind, barometric pressure, altitude, pollution particles, and time to the ground just to name seven quick factors.  Scientists among us could start naming more.  Adjust any one of those variables just a smidgen, and the formation of the crystal is changed.  Each one of those snowflakes that fell outside of the church were likely formed in an amazing combination of variables.  My guess is, if we had the desire and equipment, they would look different from one another.  After all, what would be the odds of all those variable lining up perfectly again?  Some would be incredible different, but others would be similar.  Why all this discussion about snowflakes?
     What is God’s greatest creation?  What does Scripture teach us, as revealed by the Lord God, is His greatest creation?  For all our love of snowfalls or ocean rumbling or majestic mountains or northern lights, God’s greatest creation is you and me.  Nature may show His handiwork, but you and I and everyone we encounter were fashioned in His image!  And like the billions and billions and billions of snowflakes blanketing the East coast, no two of us are exactly alike.  We are shaped by our families, by our diets, by where we grew up, by our interests, by what we do, by what we learn, by the environments in which we are located, and by what we experience.  Even twins and triplets, who share the same material down to the microscopic level, end up different from one another.  All of those things that shape us, of course, are influenced by sin, but they shape and mold us in ways not unlike the ways the snowflakes are shaped and molded by those natural forces.  And like nature and all creation, you and I have a purpose.  We were fashioned to testify to His glory and to His handiwork!  Our lives are meant to be signposts on the road to salvation for those whom we encounter.  We are called to be like John the Baptizer, pointing the way to the One in whom we glory and whom we praise.  God gave us the torah, as this psalm notes, that we might reveal to the world His holy, saving, merciful grace and rest assuredly in His love and mercy.
      Yes, we get it wrong.  Yes, sin pollutes us like particles pollute snow.  Yes, we fight amongst ourselves; we ignore His instruction to our harm; we turn our backs on Him; we trust in powerless idols; heck, we often trust in our own abilities or strength to fix us or our mistakes.  But in the end, all these fail.  Only the maker of heaven and earth is truly able to fix us.  Only the creator of all that is, seen and unseen, is able to create a clean heart in each one of us.  Only He can remove the stains that we so desperately want excised from ourselves.  And guess what, as the psalm reminds us, one day He will do just that for all His people!  For all who come to Him in faith, He promises complete restoration and redemption.  What hints we get today are merest shadows.  Make no mistake, the transformation in each of us is begun, but it will not be completed until our Lord returns and fashions us again a new body for a new heaven and new earth.
     I do not know all your struggles today.  I can, perhaps, wonder a bit at your sanity for having braved the roads and southern drives to be here this morning.  But given my late urge to change my intended sermon and your obvious hunger for these words today, I do not wonder about our need.  Brothers and sisters, as you head home from worship this morning and begin to reflect on the beauty of the snow around you or of the handiwork of nature that testifies to you of God’s glory, remember this: With the same care and concern and intention with which He fashioned those incredible handiworks that you love, He fashioned you!  And such was His intention and focus that He numbered your hairs.  More amazingly by far, though, when He could have rightly left you and me and the world to rot in ur sin and idolatry, He took the shape of you and me, He took the form of a frail human being, lived and died and was raised in that form in all its gloriousness, that we might know the depth of the love in which He holds each one of us.  Brothers and sisters, you and I are part of His greatest creations, but the best is yet to come.  One day, one glorious day, all those who claim Him as Lord will be recreated in His complete glory, unique as any snowflake, testifying individually and collectively to His love and mercy of all humanity.  That, my friends, is a lesson we need always to remember!  That is the lesson that caused both the psalmist and Mary to sing!



Wednesday, January 13, 2016

You are Mine! . . . On a very special baptism, indeed!

     No doubt some of you are disappointed that we are not celebrating the Feast of the Epiphany today.  We celebrated that on the 6th, the date when the Church celebrates the Epiphany of our Lord, because we are gathered today for a very special event.  Probably a couple months after my arrival, Sophie began asking and then nagging me about baptizing her.  Each week, as I laid my hands on her and blessed her, in place of giving her Communion, she would get this annoyed look on her face.  Sometimes afterward, she would verbalize her displeasure.  Though she comes to Advent with her grandmother, it was necessary in my mind that her parents’ consent to her desire to be baptized.  So many decisions are made without parental consents these days, and I think the Church has no business wading into those activities.  Maybe it is the right pastoral response for families today; maybe it is simply a father of seven railing against the trends of society.  Time, I suppose, will tell.
     In any event, during some our conversations about her desire to be baptized, Sophie would sometimes express a worry that she was missing something or that she was somehow in danger.  Trying to remind a young girl, even a girl as precocious are our dear Sophie, that God knows the heart was quite a challenge!  I learned from my discussions with her that she had similar ones with a number of people around here, particularly those who work with Children’s Chapel and with Godly Play.  In many ways, you all who have worked with her over the years, who have answered her many questions, who have tried to channel her inquiring mind and enthusiasm into those areas of her life over which she had control, and who have nurtured her love of God, ought to be celebrating today, for you have recognized in her the truth of the prophet Isaiah.
     Sophie, in some ways, today is incredibly unique.  With your parents’ consent and support by their presence, you are being baptized into the family of God.  Some in the world out there might want to teach you that the family of God has no problems, no miscreants, no sadness, and nothing of which ever to be ashamed.  Those who have taught you, though, I think have done a good job.  I think you have learned that God takes normal men and women, normal girls and boys, and works through them to grow His kingdom and to reveal Himself to the world around them.  Today does not mark some specific day in history when you were protected from bad things by God.  Quite the contrary.  Today marks the day that you chose to call Him Lord, to be baptized into His death, to pick up your own cross and follow Him, and to trust that, from this day forward, no matter what happens to you, so long as you are faithful to Him, He will redeem you and give you a double portion share in His glory for all eternity.  It is an amazing promise from an amazing God for a beloved daughter!
     Perhaps those of you present have wondered about your own commitment.  Perhaps you have wondered whether God really will redeem your suffering.  Perhaps, you have never given the daily grind of life a second thought.  Isaiah reminds us of our importance to God.  “I have called you by name, you are Mine.”  All of us who have been baptized into His death and raised with Him to new life share in the inheritance of Israel.  It is likely that the prophet was speaking only of what you and I consider to be the Old Testament people of God.  Certainly, His image of passing through the waters evokes memories of the Exodus through the Red Sea.  We cannot help buy remember how He stopped the river Jordan as He ushered Israel into the Promised Land.  Maybe the flame not consuming us reminds us of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.  No doubt the call of the children from the east, west, north, and south speaks to the end of the Exile.

     But, buried within the words of the prophet are also deeper words, words that sing to those of us who claim Him as Lord, the new Israel, of our future and our hope with Him!  Raging waters speaks to the chaos of the world.  God does not promise that chaos ends on that day when we call Him Lord.  He promises only that the chaos will not overwhelm us and that He will be with us during those chaotic moments of life.  Each one of us, including little Sophie this morning, are precious in His sight.  The world may claim we are crazy, simple, gullible, stupid or worse, but the Lord, the Savior, has declared each one of us precious in His sight.  Nothing, nothing can ever take us from Him or Him from our side.  And even if the chaos of the world would seem to be victorious over us, we know better.  Just as baptism marks our share in His death, so does it mark our share in His Resurrection!  One day, as the prophet so beautifully declares, one glorious day, even if our death will cause it to seem to His enemies and ours that He and we lost, He will call us from the ends of the earth, all of us whom He formed and created for glory, to join Him for ever!  “But now thus says the Lord, He who created you, O Jacob, He who formed you, O Israel:  Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are Mine,” Sophie, and Mine, Adventers, now and for all eternity.  That is the promise she is given this day, and that we all remember and celebrate in our life together.  Amen!