Jesus’ Baptism and an Epiphany

The first Sunday after Epiphany on January 6 always commemorates the “Baptism of the Lord.” Jesus’ personal epiphany came as he heard the voice from heaven say, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Wouldn’t it be an epiphany for each of us to hear that we are a part of the family, loved and appreciated? Too many children are seldom told how loved they are.

I grew up in a family that had a spectacular Christmas dinner. It helped that it was also my mother’s parent’s wedding anniversary. Everyone gathered, ate, and had a marvelous time. Uncle Lee, who was a meat-cutter, always gave the nieces and nephews some coin or $2 bill with his name inscribed, usually in red fingernail polish. He always wrapped the item in meat wrapping paper and usually with a pig’s tail to add ballast. There was caramel cake which was my favorite, and others enjoyed the ambrosia. I must admit that I dislike coconut to this day because of my responsibility in hammering open and grating the prime ingredient.

You might wonder what in the world this has to do with Jesus’ baptism and the way we treat children. God didn’t do what my grandparents did as they made sure we sat at the “child’s table.” Sure, we were loved, but it was also important to know the pecking order. The first-class folks sat at the BIG table that had the untouchable finery on it. We were relegated to paper and plastic.

In God’s pecking order, something interesting happens at Jesus’ baptism. Jesus didn’t need to be baptized. He never sinned. There was no need of John’s message of repentance for him, but he did what he always did – the right thing. Some would say that he did it to give us an example to do the same. Others would say that Jesus was modeling humility. I think that is more where my mind goes. Either way, with obedience and humility there’s hardly a chance to go wrong. Jesus was baptized and God spoke. Maybe that’s the clincher for us, too. If we do the right thing, God will speak!

You and I will receive our own epiphany if we’re obedient and humble, doing the things we don’t have to do and doing the things we ought to do, whether we need to or not. God loves each of us so much. He delights in us when we we’re like Jesus at his baptism. His baptism and ours are the same except we do need to repent and have our sins washed away. I guess the closest we come to the wonder of Jesus’ baptism is when we baptize infants. They aren’t old enough to have committed actual sins, though they, like all of us, have original sin, but God does a marvelous thing. Since they are as close to sinless as a human can be to his only begotten son, he puts his baptismal seal of approval and love on them. Even when they will never remember it, from before their first conscious thought that there is even a God, God says to them, their parents, family, and the whole gathered church, “I love you and you delight me!” Pretty darn special, an epiphany!

I remember using Baptism of the Lord Sunday as a special day in the church. This was a long time before any baptismal reaffirmation liturgy was written. What I did was use it as a time to renew our baptismal covenant. At the beginning of each new year we used Wesley’s Covenant Prayer and I literally called the church roll, one name at a time. I encouraged families to sit together and, yes, they answered out loud whether or not they were present. It was kind of like Christmas with my grandparents except there was only one table – the Lord’s Table. We ratified our covenant, renewed our vows through that sacred meal, and moved into a new year with a clean slate.

Interestingly, every year I called some name and would find out that the person had died. The word had not gotten to the church office, but somebody would always know. It became an opportunity to clean up our membership rolls, or, in my mind, we made some transfers from the church militant to the church triumphant. We always had a big church dinner afterwards, and I was amazed at how people always got to talking about how their family history intersected with the church’s. It was a great time of fellowship, reconciliation, and pushed us to be better people than we would have been without it.

I hope this Sunday will be a blessed time for you and your church family. I pray that you will have your own epiphany and hear God say to you, “You’re a part of my family; I love and delight in you!”

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Family and Faith – Narcie on my Mind

 

*Narcie got a great report! Thanks for your prayers; still a long haul and trusting Jesus and counting on you!

Have you ever had a day that has your antenna and ganglia hanging or sticking out all over the place and your sensory overload has you jacked up more than with 4 cups of coffee. Well, that’s this morning for me. I’m a little nervous, more than usual. I have a good friend and parishioner’s surgery shortly and am about to head to the hospital. Then I’m meeting with a family about a funeral then probably heading back to the hospital. Sunday’s sermon is on my mind. The text is about Jesus’ own family thinking he was nuts and I’m wondering how to preach that and make it relevant. I hate to admit it but as I was driving to the church a few minutes ago all these alliterating words jumped out at me as options to think about when it comes to family relationships: Restoration or Rejection; Respect or Rebellion; Redemption or Retaliation – what is it about preachers and our phonetic thinking? Anyway, at the stoplight I pulled out my pen and a business card and scribbled my thoughts down while holding the brake and clutch pedals down.

Two other big deals on my mind this morning are Narcie’s regular 3-month MRI about her brain tumor, and next week’s Annual Conference. We do well dealing with the anxiety about Narcie until a two-week window closes in and I begin to get antsy, ratchet up my praying and my out-of-sight-out-of mind attitude is replaced by front-and-center preoccupation. Vice President Biden’s son’s death this week has kicked things up a notch, and another amplifier about Narcie is that next week at our South Carolina United Methodist Annual Conference I’ll be the Memorial Service preacher.

Memorial Services are primarily in memory of the clergy who died since the last conference session. We show photos of the deceased, and their families, along with Annual Conference members, are gathered to have a funeral service. Sure, each of these individuals already had their own service, but this is one of the United Methodist things that we do. Since we are a connectional church and try to do everything together, we mourn together, too. Actually, Annual Conference becomes every clergyperson’s church. When we become clergy our membership is literally transferred from our home churches to the Annual Conference.

Next week we will remember many individuals who gave their hearts, lives, and families for the cause of Christ, and we will cry. Narcie and I usually sit together during this service and we have cried. She cried buckets, we both did, when Rev. Charlie Summey’s face went across the screen. He had the same cancer as she and had a better prognosis, but he’s dead. The reality hit us and it should everyone: There’s going to come a time when Narcie’s picture, mine, Josh’s, and even Cindy’s will be up there on that screen at an Annual Conference Memorial Service. Over half my family has the South Carolina Annual Conference as its church home, and there’s going to be a funeral someday.

Of course, my prayer for Narcie is that it’s a long time away but since she has her appointment this morning and I’m preaching that sermon next week, I can’t seem to shake this nexus of events. I covet your prayers that her report is good. Her situation is so important to the doctors that they call her in within an hour of the MRI to give her the news. It’s a big deal. Of course, Narcie’s attitude is typical Narcie: “I’m going to do my ministry, show no fear, and live until I die!” But my eyes are welling up as I write this. I want my “little girl” to live for decades more. God bless every parent who’s ever been through this, or lost a child. For years, I thought as a pastor that I had a clue and could help people through their losses. Maybe my ministry of presence helped, but until all this has happened with us, I didn’t know what this really feels like. Your life is forever changed. God bless every parent who carries this, and please heal every child; in Jesus’ name.

When I think of this day and the family dynamics with every situation I’ll face this morning I can promise you that I will choose Restoration over Rejection; Respect over Rebellion; Redemption over Retaliation – and today I am especially going to choose Rejoicing over Remorse, Resurrection over Regret. A life well-lived, however short or long, is a gift to treasure. Treasure the people around you today as the gifts that they are.

Me, Narcie, and Josh at Josh's Ordination

Protect the Children!

Like everyone else I am shocked and saddened by the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. The loss of twenty children’s lives is unfathomable. I cannot imagine the pain and grief of the parents, and I pray for them and the families of the adult victims, too. We have all noticed that many of the newscasters have painted this massacre as “evil.” They are absolutely correct.

For more evidence of evil’s reality, read Dr. Scott Peck’s book, ­People of the Lie. He talks about all kinds of evil and contends that those who exhibit it most dangerously are those whom have no conscience and are so enamored with themselves that they have a coating of self-assured Teflon. They are so deluded that no sense of personal responsibility sticks with them. They are narcissistic gods of their own dominions. This is the source of much of the evil in our world and especially the evil that victimizes children in human trafficking, pornography, neglect, sexual abuse, and the like.

Those who perpetrate these attacks on children are minions of a worse Evil that has been around ever since the Garden of Eden. In other words, there’s a history of evil’s war against children and it didn’t start this Christmas. For instance, when God-in-the-flesh Jesus was born, narcissistic King Herod’s jealousy was inflamed when the Magi came to visit the Christ Child. With his own power threatened by a child, he ordered all the little boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity murdered (Matthew 2:13-18).

Indeed, evil has been attacking children from the beginning of history. Who have been and continue to be the hardest hit victims of hunger, war, and crime – children, the innocents? I’ve seen this terrible history’s evidence. One of my seminary professors showed us tangible proof of atrocities against children. He brought a clay jar about 12 inches tall to class. He had acquired it on an archaeological dig in Carthage, located in modern day Tunisia. He described to us how there were thousands upon thousands of these urns unearthed. He opened up the urn and scattered across the desk the ashes and tiny bones. It was a child. In Middle Eastern culture there were those who thought that fertility gods would bless you if you paid homage by sacrificing one’s children.

This urn reflected the reality of ancient Israel’s compromise with the surrounding cultures. 2 Kings 17:7-23, especially verse 17, describes why this caused God to send them into exile in 722 B.C. They followed the Baal and Molech-worshipping practices that were prevalent in Carthage and many other places. They put their young children on a pyre of wood, slit their throats, and while they were dying of blood loss they also burned them to death. How horrible! The burial grounds called Tophet(h) in Carthage were replicated all around the Mediterranean, including the Valley of Ben Hinnom just outside the gates of Jerusalem. God punished the Israelites because they attacked their own children!

So at the first Christmas and throughout the Biblical witness there is ample evidence of children being victimized by evil. God, on the other hand, is always on the side of children. Let’s just use Jesus as described in Matthew’s Gospel as an example. In Matthew 18:1ff the disciples ask Jesus who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven and the text says, “He called a little child and had him stand among them. He said: ‘I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven…’” The text goes even further and says about those who mislead a child (vs.6), “It would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”

Even with this endorsement of children and warning to those who would mistreat them, the disciples still didn’t get it. Matthew 19:13ff says, “Then little children were brought to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked those who brought them. Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.’”

On this day of wondering, “Why?” there is very little that a anyone can say to the distraught and heartbroken people across Newtown, Connecticut, the U.S., or the whole world in which children will continue to be targeted by Evil’s attacks. There are unanswerable questions of why didn’t God strike down the shooter, why my child, why, why, why? The only answer is that evil did this, not God. God has a history of being on the side of children. Jesus in John 10:10 says, “The thief comes only to kill and steal and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” Let’s tell our children that there’s a war between good and evil, and evil often wins; but there will be a Day when good will have the final word and evil will be no more.

Until then we need to trust in the loving Parent who is on our side and does everything in God’s power to shield us in this freedom-ridden world which allows terrible crimes to occur. God allows us humans to have freedom only to see it abused. It is a mystery and we wish God would set things right so nothing like this will ever happen again. We know that in Bethlehem’s Babe the process of retaking the world for good has begun, and we say, “Come, Lord Jesus – Come!”

In the meantime, we can all hug our children and count every second with them as precious gifts beyond measure. We can do all that we can to protect them better. We can pass gun laws. We can pray, and especially we can teach children that houses of worship are supposed to be sanctuaries – places of refuge and protection in an evil world that specifically targets them. Christmas is a witness that this world has little or no room for the Christ Child who was born in a stable, but we can make room for Him in our hearts and live like Him in the world. We can send the message that while evil does lurk across the land, there is a God who has consistently proven love toward the least of these. God even chose to come and live among us as a child because children best reflect God’s purest creation.

Oh, God, please overshadow the broken lives of your children everywhere and give grace and comfort. Teach us to offer sanctuary to children so that we might better reflect the coming Prince of Peace, even Jesus the Christ. Stop the evil Herod’s of this fallen world, and help us to do our part in crushing crimes against children of all ages. In a choice between light and darkness, let us always choose the light of redeeming love. Amen.

If God Had a Refrigerator

I am currently at the Pre-General Conference 2012 News Briefing in Tampa, Florida. To hear the myriad voices of our denomination is an arduous task but an exciting one. We are one of the most diverse faith groups on the planet. This is a strength, not a liability. It has been great to catch up with old friends and make new ones. We’re in this process of holy conferencing together as we prepare for “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” that we call General Conference. There are and will be disagreements but I pray that we will not be disagreeable. After all, we have a lot more in common than we dare admit.

For instance, studies of human DNA suggest that we have common origins. Some say we all came from an “Eve” source in Africa that migrated some 10,000 fold into Europe’s hinterlands and intermarried with other hominid life forms. Others say that we have a common ancestor of unknown origin but share Neanderthal attributes. Either way, the similarity in our DNA doesn’t diminish our individual uniqueness.

God loves diversity. Look at the myriad colors of birds, the duck-billed platypus, and the multitude of human personality and biological differences for evidence. An old Russian proverb says it well, “If I try to be like someone else, who will be like me?” We need to treasure our uniqueness, even those aspects of uniqueness that don’t always fit in. I saw this illustrated in a cartoon that showed the foreman of a jury at the door of the jury room giving the lunch order to the bailiff. You know the jury is in for a long time when you hear the order: “Eleven cheeseburgers and one hot dog. Eleven coffees and one hot chocolate. Eleven fruit pies and one bagel.” As much as we share in common, we all have different tastes.

A waitress was taking orders from a couple and their young son. She was one of the class of veteran waitresses who never show outright disrespect to their customers, but who frequently make it quite evident by their level stare that they fear no mortal, not even parents. She jotted on her order pad deliberately and silently as the father and mother gave their selections, down to what was to be substituted for what and which dressing changed to what sauce. When she finally turned to the boy, he began his order with a kind of fearful desperation.

“I want a hot dog…” he started to say. And both parents barked at once. “No hot dog!” Then the mother continued, “Bring him the lyonnaise potatoes and the beef, both vegetables, and a hard roll and…” The waitress wasn’t even listening to the mother. She said directly to the youngster, “What do you want on your hot dog?” He flashed an amazed smile. “Ketchup, lots of ketchup, and – and bring a glass of milk.”

“Coming up,” she said as she turned from the table, leaving behind her the stunned silence of utter parental dismay. The boy watched her go before he turned to his father and mother with astonished elation to say, “You know what? She thinks I’m real! She thinks I’m real!”

God feels the same way about each of us. None of us are overlooked or ignored. Each one of us is that special and unique to God. What a comfort to know that we are real to God! That is an epiphany that you might need to hear today. If God had a refrigerator, your picture would be on it. You’re special!

Children’s Sabbath

I was at a Charge Conference Sunday night and was handed a copy of the morning’s bulletin. It had beautiful artwork on the cover created by one of the children in the church. They were celebrating Children’s Sabbath. This is the time of year to think about ministries to children, especially when we think about church budgets and the United Methodist Call to Action report that reminds us that we need to do all we can to reach younger people as a denomination.

When Florida police arrested a 13-year-old in connection with the killing of a British tourist, they discovered the youngster had 56 prior arrests. Florida Deputy State Attorney General Pete Antonacci commented, “That is an ‘active child.’” An active child? And I always thought an active child was a kid who plays football in the fall, basketball in the winter, baseball in the spring and swims all summer. How out of touch are we with what is happening with children. This is one reason why we need a Children’s Sabbath. It is so important for us to focus attention on our children – the newest generation of church leaders.

You might wonder why I think children are church leaders. I would respond as the Bible does. In Isaiah 11:6 it says, “a child shall lead them,” and Jesus lifted up children as superior models of the Kingdom (Matthew 18:1-4). So, indeed, children are our future leaders, but before they can lead they have to learn. What are we teaching them? Children’s Sabbath teaches children that they are so special that they deserve a Sunday geared especially for them. Every Sunday’s “Children’s Sermon” also underscores this same emphasis, as does Children’s Worship. After-school, pre-school and all day childcare programs are tangible proof of the church’s appreciation for children and their families.

There is a wonderful Chasidic story about the child of a rabbi who used to wander in the woods. At first his father let him wander, but over time he became concerned. The woods were dangerous. The father did not know what lurked there. He decided to discuss the matter with his child. One day he took him aside and said, “You know, I have noticed that each day you walk into the woods. I wonder, why do you go there?” The boy said to his father, “I go there to find God.” “That is a very good thing,” the father replied gently. “I am glad you are searching for God. But, my child, don’t you know that God is the same everywhere?” “Yes,” the boy answered, “but I’m not.”

All of us need a special place where we can more easily find God, or, more accurately, remind us that God has already found us. We want to make sure that church is that special place. We want children to know that church is a place of safety, learning, and fellowship – a place where every child is special and loved by God. Our goal is to provide the best place imaginable for children to know Jesus’ love. This takes time and effort. We say thank you to all who give of themselves for children.

A British father wrote that when he was on an outing with his family, his wife implored their daughter Molly to hurry up because there was “no time to stop and blow dandelions.” In response, Molly raised what may be for a child – perhaps for all of us – the major philosophical issue of the new millennium. “Mummy,” she said, “what is time for?”

If the church lets children know that “time” is set aside for them and that they are of utmost importance, then think what a difference children’s ministry can make in the world. As the ushers passed the offering plate, a young child being taken to church for the first time watched the proceedings with intense interest. As the ushers approached her pew, the little girl said to her father, “Remember, Dad, you don’t have to pay for me. I’m under five.” Wrong! This is exactly who we are paying for and we are glad!!! The more money and time we can invest in children is a great thing!