Tag Archive: Children of God


This was this morning’s sermon, preached at Community Lutheran Church!

 

 

Today is a big day here at Community!  We’re celebrating 15 young peoples’ First Communion, and we’ve got two baptisms happening.  It’s a day full of joy! We’re welcoming people into the body of Christ in the waters of baptism and celebrating how we continue to grow and live out those baptisms through receiving God’s holy meal time and time again.

And we also have this wonderful passage about salt and light, cities on a hill and what it means to live out our faith.  This passage always makes me think of the musical Godspell:

You are the light of the world!
You are the light of the world!
But if that light is under a bushel,
It’s lost something kind of crucial
You got to stay bright to be the light of the world

You are the salt of the earth
You are the salt of the earth
But if that salt has lost its flavor
It ain’t got much in its favor
You can’t have that fault and be the salt of the earth!

I love musicals and this song makes remembering Jesus’ words catchy and jazzy!

However, I think when we hear this passage, our tendency is to think, “what do I have to do to be salt?” or “what do I have to do to be light?”  I think we hear Jesus’ words in the second part of the passage and they put us on edge: “Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Gulp.  Well, I’m out!  Good luck, right? To give you an idea, the rabbis, the descendants of the Pharisees, name 613 commandments or mitzvot to follow.  If we’re honest, it’s hard to even follow the 10 commandments, right? So how can we possibly reach such an incredibly high bar?! We can’t.  We all fall short. And thankfully, God knew this and took on humanity to do what we couldn’t do – to fulfill the law and the prophets.  And so we’ve been made righteous through Christ, our savior.  In God’s eyes, Christ has made us righteous – right before God – through his self-giving life and death on the cross.

We know this.  We are reminded of it week after week.  We remember it when we enter the church and see the font – the waters in which we were forgiven and welcomed as children of God.  We remember it when we are graciously invited to the feast and we hear those words, “‘Take and eat; this is my body, given for you.  Do this for the remembrance of me.’” “‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sin.  Do this for the remembrance of me.’”

We know this incredibly good news and, yet, sometimes we lose sight of it.  Sometimes it remains in our heads and doesn’t quite connect with us in our hearts.  And so I hear in Jesus’ words in the Gospel today words of amazing promise: “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.”

You are the salt of the earth.  You are the light of the world.  You all know by this point that I love grammar.  So here goes!  “You all” – plural – meaning all ya’ll.  “Are” – present tense meaning right now, at this very instant!  Each and every one of you is salt and light! Great, you may be thinking, but what on earth does that mean?!

In the ancient world, both salt and light were precious.  Salt was a valuable trade commodity, a symbol of purity and wisdom in Mesopotamian thought, and was used in sacrifice.  It was, and is, a seasoning and a preservative, helping food last longer, and was also used as a cleansing agent.  Light was precious because people were dependent on the sun or lamps to see – remember, they didn’t have fluorescent bulbs in every building to making working or shopping easy! It was also a common metaphor of God and God’s salvation.

So what is Jesus saying when he says that we are salt and light? I think he’s saying, “You are a precious commodity, seasoning the lives of others around you.  You are a sign of God and you help others to see God’s salvation.”  What amazing words.  What empowerment.  What abundant grace.

Jesus doesn’t say that we will be salt and light if only we do this, that or the other thing.  Instead, he says you are already salt and light because you have been made bright and well seasoned! We have already been illuminated by the current of God’s love and grace running through our lives.

And Jesus doesn’t stop there.  Rather, he says that it is important to remain salty and illuminated! We do so by staying plugged in to God, as well as by letting our lights shine forth into the world. Jesus says that we aren’t to hide or misuse the gifts and the calling we have as children of God, but rather to put them to good use.  It’s even a part of the sacrament of baptism – the newly baptized receive a candle and hear, “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”

Through the leading and strength of the Holy Spirit, we are to seek after and do our best to follow God, humbly serving and pointing to God.  We will make mistakes and mess up, and we will never be perfect, as much as this recovering perfectionist would love that! But just because we aren’t perfect doesn’t mean we can’t let our lights shine brightly or that we can’t make a difference.  Remember, God has made us light and salt and we have something to share with the world.  And no matter how often we fall short, God forgives us and frees us to go back out into the world – to make a difference by following Jesus, the Light of the world.

I’ve been thinking about being light and salt for a while now and trying to keep my eyes open to see where people are salty and bright.  And I’ve experienced some wonderful things! I’ve witnessed people listening to one another and comforting each other at the Compassionate Friends grief group.  I’ve seen people step up to shovel and salt the church sidewalks – more of a literal use of salt, I suppose! I’ve heard of the life-changing work that LINK is doing in our community.  And I’ve been reminded by so many of you in conversations, e-mails and phone calls the things you do day in and day out not only for this church, but for your jobs, schools, other non-profit groups and the larger community.

Those things may seem small or to go unnoticed, but those are the little things that help to season others’ lives – to have an impact on them.  As Catholic nun, Sister Jean, put it in a trailer for the upcoming documentary, Radical Grace, “In every encounter, something sacred is at stake.”  Even a smile, a kind word, or a simple action can shed light on God and reflect God’s light into someone’s life.

Being salt and light for the world means working for the kingdom of God.  It means calling for an end to injustice and standing with those who are oppressed and downtrodden.  It means comforting those who mourn and having compassion on the suffering.  It means speaking out against persecution and bullying, and caring for the hungry and the poor.  It’s a big job!

But we have been called and welcomed into this kingdom work in our baptisms.  We’ve been made part of a community – sisters and brothers all called to work together to make the world a bit brighter.  And we continue to be strengthened to do this work every time we receive bread and wine – the promise of Christ for us and with us.  We welcome others, grow in grace and share Christ’s love.

So as we celebrate with these young people being baptized and receiving communion for the first time today, may we hear the promises of God anew.  You are the salt of the earth.  You are the light of the world.

And in the words of Godspell:

So let your light so shine before men
Let your light so shine
So that they might know some kindness again
We all need help to feel fine.

Amen.

Beeswax Candles Burn Brightly by Golgotha in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (Photo taken by Annabelle Markey in January 2014)

Beeswax Candles Burn Brightly by Golgotha in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (Photo taken by Annabelle Markey in January 2014)

© 2014. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

 

 

Journeying with the Magi

This was yesterday’s sermon for the Eve of the Epiphany, preached at Community Lutheran Church.  The text was Matthew 2:1-12:

2In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah* was to be born. 5They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’

7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

One of the things I loved most about growing up in the country was being able to look up at the clear night sky.  And I didn’t realize that until I moved to Rockville and I couldn’t really see the sky because of all the electric lights.  When I was younger, I remember going snow tubing once in Pennsylvania and leaning back on my snow tube, gazing up at the starry sky.  I just thought it was perfect – the crisp, cold, clean winter air and the stars twinkling above me.  And I remember feeling like there was something holy about that time – something that filled me with a spirit of worship and praise.

In this morning’s reading we hear about the magi having their own night sky experience – encountering the star of all stars.  These magi show up in Jerusalem asking about the child who is to be born king of the Jews.  And they don’t just ask around town, they ask Herod, who is, by title, the appointed king of the Jews.  Awkward!

Needless to say, Herod is caught by surprise, and he calls together his top advisers – the chief priests, those who are in charge of the Temple, and the scribes, those who interpret the law of God – to see what they have to say about all this.  They tell him the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem, just 5 miles south of Jerusalem.  This revelation makes Herod shake in his sandals, as well as all of Jerusalem, because a new king not appointed by Rome is not only a threat to Herod, but a threat to the Roman Empire.

So Herod, not exactly rejoicing over this news, secretly calls the magi to go and search for the child and to let him know when they find him.   He says he wants to know so he can go and pay this new child king homage, but as we heard last week, he’s really out to eliminate this potential threat.

So off the magi go, following the star they had been following from the East.  Eventually, it stops over the house where the child Jesus is living.  When they see him with Mary, the magi kneel down and pay him homage, acknowledging him as king, and bestowing gold, frankincense and myrrh on him.

It’s a familiar story – a great story!  There are songs about it and there’s even a tradition of going around and blessing houses on Epiphany, marking them with the year and the initials of the wise men’s names: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar.  But, there’s a couple interesting things about all this.  The Bible never tells us how many magi there were.  We only think there were three because there are three gifts.  The Bible also doesn’t give us any names – these were added on later in Christian tradition.  And, finally, while it’s really fun to sing “We Three Kings,” these people probably weren’t kings at all.  Instead, they were probably astrologers and magicians from the East – maybe even Persia.

So we’ve got an undisclosed number of people from the East following a star to a king.  And they must have had some doubts about following a star to get to their destination because they pull over in Jerusalem for directions! It’s only after Herod tells them to keep searching that they follow the star again.  It’s like verifying your GPS isn’t lying to you by asking a local.

Still, you have to admire them.  They set out from their homes, not knowing where they were going or what they might encounter along the journey, or even what they might find at their destination – and, still, onward they went.  They went, following a star, knowing that stars were associated with kings.  And they went to worship the king of a foreign country.

It’s made me think a lot about journeying and traveling.  I have always loved learning about different countries, cultures and history – so much so, in fact, that I thought I might end up going into anthropology in college.  And when I was sixteen, the travel bug bit me… hard.  In my previous, pre-seminary and pre-pastor life, I worked at a travel company.  Working there, I was able to learn a bit about different countries and was fortunate to be able to travel to a couple different places.

I still love traveling, and Jeff and I are blessed to be able to be headed to the Holy Land with Gettysburg Seminary tomorrow… and, yes, I still have to pack!  Now, this is going to be a religious trip, focused on the land and history of Scripture.  But one thing I’ve realized throughout my journeys is how all my travels have played a role in my faith.  They’ve helped me to understand church history better, but they’ve also helped me to see people in a new way. I’ve realized that it hasn’t been the places so much as the people and experiences that have shaped my faith.

Speaking with Muslims in Egypt during the month of Ramadan – their month of fasting – helped me to reflect on my own Lenten practices.  Realizing how far a laugh or a smile can go to break the ice and transcend language barriers has helped me think about people as the children of God in concrete ways.  And I’ve been moved to prayer taking in gorgeous landscapes and spectacular feats of engineering.  Having time away from the hustle and bustle of regular life and experiencing a new place has given me the opportunity to tune in to God in new, fresh ways.

That’s been my experience traveling, and perhaps you’ve experienced similar things in your travels, but I firmly believe that you don’t have to travel in order to be on a journey.  We can journey even while we’re at home and encounter Christ on our way.  I have seen God in the faces of people with whom I’ve worshiped.  And I’ve seen God in conversations and laughter with family and friends.  Maybe you’ve seen God through cooking or through creating things.  Maybe it’s been through your interactions with others.  Or maybe it’s been through being transported by reading fantastic books.  What has God used to move you worship like the wise men?

Each of us is on a faith journey.  They all take different shapes and forms, but there is one unifying factor – God is seeking us out.  God led foreign astrologers and practitioners of another religion by a star to meet Jesus.  Now, that’s some creative communication if you ask me! It shows that God pulls out all the stops to reach out to people and draw them from afar to be near to God.  Listening to people’s stories, God’s creativity in communicating with us never ceases to amaze me, but we’ve got to have eyes to see it.

The question when it comes to our journeys is what are we seeking?  Are we seeking Christ or something else?  In our world, success, wealth and fame are highly prized and highly sought after rather than the radical way of Christ. Instead of listening for God’s leading in our lives, it’s often much easier to listen to what society tells us is meaningful – power, prestige, money and independence.  So are we looking for Christ as we travel through life?  And where do we meet him, see him and worship him in our lives?

When the wise men saw that the star had stopped, the gospel says that they were overwhelmed with joy.  In the Greek, it almost seems as if the writer is falling over himself trying to describe how excited and bubbling over with joy the magi were.  It says, very roughly, “and seeing the star, they rejoiced with great joy very much!”  It’s a wooden translation, but you get the point – these were happy people, overflowing with joy that they had finally found the one for whom they were searching!

It reminded me of one of my family’s favorite movies: Hook.  In it, Robin Williams is a grown-up version of Peter Pan who has lost the magic and become a workaholic lawyer, driven by success and blind to his family.  That is, until Captain Hook, played by Dustin Hoffman, captures Peter Pan’s kids and makes him return to Neverland to get them.  It is there that he begins to remember his past and reconnect with magic of life again.

The other lost boys have a difficult time seeing past the fact that their beloved leader is now grown up.  But one of them takes a good hard look at Peter’s face, smoothing away the wrinkles and peering into his eyes.  He then says, “Oh, there you are Peter!”  He is filled with joy at this discovery of his long lost friend.  And his joy causes the other boys to take a closer look and realize that their leader just needs a little help and memory jogging to get back into shape.

I’ve seen this movie a thousand times.  And when I have those moments when I encounter Christ in the unexpected, or I witness God in conversations and interactions, a little voice in my head says, “Oh, there you are God!”  It’s always a moment of surprise, wonder, delight and joy.  I think it’s this type of response that the magi had when they knelt before Jesus and paid him homage.  It’s the kind of attitude and response, we too, should cultivate in worship and in our daily lives.

Imagine if we came to receive communion that way.  Following God’s call to come to the table and outstretching our hands in wonder and joy that Christ meets us there.  Imagine if we entered into conversations with others, looking for God to be present there.  Imagine if we remained open to God’s leading and let ourselves be moved to prayer and worship in this midst of everyday life.

As we continue our journeys, we can remember the journey of the magi.  How they came from afar, trusting in a star and God’s leading, and being open to worship Jesus and be filled with joy.  We can keep our eyes open for encountering Jesus in the people and places, situations and experiences of our lives.  And we can remember that God never stops seeking us out or trying to reach out in creative ways to get our attention.

I’ll end with one of my favorite prayers: “O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  Amen.

© 2014. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

Born Into Our Suffering

This is the sermon I preached at Community Lutheran Church yesterday on the Massacre of the Holy Innocents.

Here’s the text from Matthew 2:13-23 for the First Sunday of Christmas:

13Now after they [the wise men] had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
16When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
18“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
19When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead. 21Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

As Jerry Seinfeld might say, “what’s the deal with the Gospel reading for today?!” I mean, seriously, it’s the First Sunday of Christmas, and the lectionary gives us the slaughter of the Holy Innocents?! What happened to the angels and shepherds, the wonder of the manger and the word become flesh?!  It even feels like this gospel sets a totally different tone than the other readings for this morning.  Isaiah speaks of recounting the gracious deeds of the Lord, of praise and God’s mercy.  The Psalm speaks of angels, men and women, birds, beasts, sea monsters (that’s my favorite part!), and, indeed, all of creation praising God.  Hebrews speaks of God bringing God’s children to glory.  And then Matthew speaks of Herod killing all of the children two years old or under.  It’s… awful.

All together, the readings present celebration and praise of God alongside the struggles and pains of life under Herod’s rule.  Herod the Great, who is the ruler Matthew is writing about, was a powerful king – a “Jewish” king in name only known for his complete and unabashed loyalty to Rome as well as his incredible building projects, which included the magnificent Temple in Jerusalem, entire cities, and several fortresses.  He was also known to be a ruthless leader, harshly squashing opposition, even to the point killing multiple members of his own family! Talk about family drama…

Bearing all of this in mind, it makes sense that Matthew writes about Herod being afraid when the magi mentioned that they were looking for “the child who has been born king of the Jews.”  And it makes sense that Herod is infuriated that the wise men hadn’t returned to tell him where exactly they had found the boy king.  Herod the Great, a man who lived to defend his power, was terrified at the prospect of a new threat to his throne, even if that person was to be the Messiah!

Now, different traditions say that there were varying numbers of children killed, and we may never know if this massacre actually took place.  But that’s not the point.  The point is that there was a vicious tyrant ruling the region where the Messiah of God was to be born.  A Messiah who was to be the true ruler of God’s people – not the empire of Rome, not the puppet kings appointed by Rome, but a true king, with the best interest of God’s children at heart.  A king that would be worshiped not only by Israel, but also by Gentiles like the wise men who had come from afar.

Needless to say, this made Herod a wee bit uncomfortable and he responded to his fears by commanding that all the children under two be killed.  Now, if Herod had remembered his peoples’ history, he would have recalled the slaughter of the baby Hebrew boys at Pharaoh’s hand and how one baby, Moses, was spared.  He would have remembered that Moses was saved to deliver God’s people from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the promised land – to bring about a whole new chapter in Israel’s history.  And if he had remembered all that, it might have crossed his mind that maybe God was acting again in his own day to bring about a new type of liberation.

But he ignores all of that, or at best, forgets, and, instead, innocents die while Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus flee to Egypt.

Last week on NPR I heard a shocking statistic about the war in Syria.  There have been many statistics about this war, but this one caught me completely unaware and caused me to tear up in my car.  I heard that so far, 11,420 children have been killed in this brutal civil war.  11,420.  That is roughly 10% of the total war deaths.  And over half of the 2 million refugees are children.

In addition to these statistics from overseas, we cannot forget that on December 14, we experienced the first anniversary of the shooting of 20 children and 6 educators at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut.

Sadly, it’s clear the slaughter of the innocents continues in our own day – this isn’t just a story about Herod, Jesus and the children of Bethlehem.  It’s a story about us, Jesus and all the children of God.

Giotto di Bondone - The Holy Innocents

Giotto di Bondone – The Holy Innocents

It turns out that this story isn’t the antithesis of Christmas after all.  In fact, it is the very meaning of Christmas that God comes into our hurting world and walks with us through all that we encounter and go through. You see, Christ is born in the midst of the ugliness and hatred and violence of this world.  In a fragile, helpless baby, God enters into history and human time in the flesh.  God is born into our pain and suffering.  And there’s the good news.  God is born into our lives and our experiences – not just into some far off land in another time, but directly into the middle of – the very heart of – our darkness, pain, brokenness and suffering.  And we heard it in the Isaiah reading for today: “…and he became their savior in all their distress.  It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.”  In God’s love and pity for us, God chooses to be fully present with us in Jesus.

And Jesus didn’t only live as a human, but also died as a human.  God is a God of the cross, bearing our pains and experiencing death as fully human.  Because God has taken on human life, God is intimately acquainted with the distress, despair and grief we encounter.  As the author of Hebrews wrote: “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”

Or, in the words of one of my favorite Christmas songs “O Holy Night:” “The King of kings lay thus in lowly manger, In all our trials born to be our Friend; He knows our need, To our weakness is no stranger. Behold your King, before Him lowly bend! Behold your King, before Him lowly bend!”  The fully human and fully divine Jesus is our real king, not a tyrant like Herod.

Of course, we can’t forget that the story continues after the crucifixion.  Our God is not only the God of the cross, but also the God of the resurrection and of new life, conquering sin and death once and for all.  He brings forgiveness, life, comfort and hope to all in need.  This is the promise of Emmanuel – “God with us” – in all that we go through, no matter how difficult or hopeless the situation seems.

In our baptisms, we too, are marked with the cross and given new life in Christ.  As such, we are called and challenged to walk among and with those who are suffering as Christ did, meeting people in their needs and journeying with them – helping to bring about transformation in the name of the One whom we serve, one step at a time.  Where we see the slaughter of the innocents, the oppression of God’s children, the destruction of creation, we are called to step up and respond.  To make a difference, acting in loving service as a response to God’s amazing love and grace in our own lives.  Where there are barriers between God’s children, we are called to work to knock down the walls and bring reconciliation.

As we reflect on God being present in our suffering and that of the world, we can reflect on how we can be present to those around us in their time of need.  What can we do for those suffering in Syria?  What can we do to lessen the violence in our world? What about the children hungry in our own backyard – the children who receive backpacks of food each Friday at our local schools before leaving so that they can eat over the weekends?

Herod feared Jesus and what this baby boy might do.  He feared change and the loss of his power.  And to some extent, Herod’s fears were grounded because Jesus’ birth did change things.  And as our texts for this morning point out, that’s what Christmas is all about.  It’s the celebration and praise of God’s almighty acts and God’s entering into history to bring hope and new life.

Today, Jesus continues to threaten the status quo and promise change and transformation in our lives and in our world.  It’s like that line so often heard in movies: “Is that a threat? No, it’s a promise.”  Jesus doesn’t only threaten change and transformation, but promises it.  Continuing to try to follow Christ in our daily lives transforms us, little by little.  And through God’s grace, we are invited to be a part of changing the world even if it’s hard to see that we are making any difference.

We, like Herod, may fear the change and transformation Jesus brings to our lives, even if we don’t respond as dramatically as Herod did.  We might find ways of ignoring or resisting God’s call, or just feel uneasy about what we might need to face within ourselves to better follow Christ.

But God has come to walk with us in our lives.  The question is, how we will respond to God’s presence? Will we respond with fear like Herod and continue abiding by the status quo? Or will we welcome and embrace God’s presence and the kingdom of heaven?

God never stops coming to us in our lives, seeking us out, and calling us to welcome the ways of God’s new kingdom.  Even if we respond with fear or trepidation, God continues to gently invite us to be transformed by grace.  Thanks be to God for God’s steadfast love that comes to us at Christmas and every day.  Amen.

© 2013. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

You Are My Beloved Child

This was the homily I preached yesterday at Christ Lutheran Church in Washington, DC for the Festival of the Baptism of Our Lord.

Two years ago, Jeff and I went on a trip with Gettysburg seminary and some local pastors to Turkey and Greece.  It was a fabulous trip and we had the opportunity to see many sites written about in Revelation, as well as to explore some of the places Paul visited and wrote about.  And two years ago, to the day, we visited Sardis in Turkey.  There we saw the ruins of the massive temple of Artemis with its towering columns that were made up of 22 rounds of marble a piece!

Temple of Artemis and Church Ruins in Sardis, Turkey

Temple of Artemis and Church Ruins in Sardis, Turkey (church ruins bottom left)

But in the back right corner of these ruins, there was a tiny 4th century church, made of simple brick.  There, we gathered together and heard the letter to the church in Sardis from Revelation, and one of the retired pastors offered anointing.  My journal entry from the day reads as follows: “It was amazing to stand in a 4th century church on the Baptism of Our Lord and be anointed in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  What a special experience.  The sweet smell of the oil, the gathered community and the simplicity of the ruins were so moving.  Thank you, Lord.  To stand gathered with all the saints in worship is a gift – remarkable and holy.”

In the ruins of a tiny church, nearly completely hidden by the enormity of the surrounding temple ruins, I was reminded that in baptism, I had been sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.  I was reminded that I was a part of a larger community of saints – saints who worshiped thousands of years ago in countries far away, and saints who worship together today from differing backgrounds.  And I was reminded that in my baptism, I was called to follow Christ throughout my life.

4th Century Christian Church in Sardis, Turkey

4th Century Christian Church in Sardis, Turkey

In baptism, God claims and affirms us.  God says to each of us “you are my beloved son” or “you are my beloved daughter, with you I am well-pleased.”  Baptism is God showing us who we are through water and words.  It’s God saying, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name and you are mine.”  It’s God showing us whose we are – people freed from our sins and dead to our old selves, raised to live new lives in Christ.  Baptism shapes our identities – we are God’s beloved children, forgiven through God’s grace, and made a part of the beautiful community of believers that stretches across time and space.

In baptism we are also gifted and blessed with the Holy Spirit.  This Spirit calls us to seek God, stirs up fire for justice and transformation in our hearts, and empowers us to serve in the world.  It is with this Spirit that both John and Jesus were filled – and we receive it, too! Folks, that’s powerful.  And as Uncle Ben told Peter Parker in Spider-Man, “with great power comes great responsibility.”

When I hear this Gospel reading for today, I think about John in all of his wildness – all of his unconventionality and how he served God as a prophet.  Here was a man yelling “you brood of vipers!” at the curious people who came to see him and listen to him.  He wasn’t one to hold punches or to withhold the truth from anyone.  And oddly enough, they ate it up!  They couldn’t get enough of it – they wanted him to baptize them with the baptism of repentance.  John’s fiery words convicted them of their wrongdoing and they wanted to straighten up and fly right.  But when they started to wonder if John was the long-awaited Messiah, this confident and feisty leader pointed away from himself.  That’s the image I have in my mind – John standing on the banks of the Jordan River, fired-up about calling people to repent, all the while pointing to God, trying to put the attention where he knows it should be.

We may not serve like John the Baptist – I mean, seriously, how many people can pull off calling others a “brood of vipers” and get away with it?  But all of us are called to serve and, in doing so, to point to Christ.  And it’s crucial to recognize that each of us has different skills and passions – tools we can use to serve God and to build up the kingdom.  Our ministries are not going to be identical, because we, as beloved children of God, are not identical.

This doesn’t make it easy to figure out how to serve because our service might look very different than that of our neighbors.  But I think the key is appreciating that we were baptized into a community – into a group of people who may be very different but who are all united through Christ.  We can respect and support the ministries of our fellow believers as they respect and support ours.  Remember, God says “with you I am well-pleased” not “with you I would be well-pleased if you were only a bit more like so-and-so!”

Continuing to come back to baptism each day helps ground us.  We are God’s beloved children and God is well-pleased with us simply because God loves us, not because of anything we’ve done to earn God’s favor.  In baptism, we are forgiven and set free, gifted with the Holy Spirit to make a difference in this world for the sake of the kingdom of God.  Yes, we have been gifted with the Spirit to make a real difference, if only we could believe it!

And we’re not just called to serve within these four walls.  Throughout the week, the words we say and even the smallest things we do can all bear witness to Christ and how God is at work in our lives.  It may be as simple as letting someone merge in front of you on your commute home or by being a gracious host or hostess.  It may mean taking a stand against something you know is wrong at work or in school.  It may mean following that little nudge that you feel pushing you to do something that is out of your comfort zone.  Wherever we are and whatever we’re doing, our lives, just like John the Baptist’s, are to point to Jesus, the one who has redeemed us through love.

Today we are installing the council members, both experienced and new.  Each of them has responded to the call and challenge to serve with a “yes.”  Throughout the coming year, they will be tasked with prayerfully beginning new discussions, considering requests, and making decisions.  And in all of these situations, they are being asked to serve in ways that mean they, and by extension our congregation, will point to Christ.  As they begin or continue their terms, let us pray for them that they might be filled with the Holy Spirit and be faithful in following Christ as they serve on council.  And as we all continue on our journeys, may we pray for one another and help each other figure out the ways in which God may be calling us to serve using our unique skills.  As we go out to serve this week, may you remember, you are God’s beloved child and with you God is well-pleased.  Thanks be to God for this incredible gift and the opportunity to make a difference! Amen.

© 2013. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

Here’s the sermon I preached last week at Christ Lutheran Church in Washington, DC.

It’s Holy Trinity Sunday.  Now, I’ve been pondering for a couple of weeks now, wracking my brain about what to say about the Trinity.  If you want to tie your brain in knots, I recommend thinking about the Trinity.  It’s something we can take for granted because we use the language of “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” all the time.  And we speak of God as being three persons, but I don’t know if we actually pause to think about what that means.  God is three-in-one, one-in-three.  As someone put it, 1 + 1 + 1 = 1 What?!  I’m no mathematician, but that does not add up.  So, pondering the Trinity blows my mind a little bit.

In preparing for this sermon this week, I sat down to pray, asking for inspiration and guidance.  And I was surprised and delighted by how God answered my prayer.  As I sat silently, I was overcome by a sense of being invited to just be with God.  To simply experience God.  To stop thinking about God or the Trinity in abstract terms and to just sit with the triune God.

Now the best word I have to describe what I experienced is “invitation.”  And I think that’s what the Isaiah and Romans readings for today, and indeed the whole Bible do.  They invite us to get to know God – not as a doctrine, but to experience the living, active, mysterious God – three-in-one – in our own lives.  The ways in which the authors speak about God are vastly different, but I think this only serves to show the breadth, depth and mystery of God.  These texts invite us into life with the triune God in diverse ways, and they remind us that we can never quite figure God out completely.  They also remind us that our encounters with and our ways of speaking about the triune God might look or sound a bit different from one person to the next.  Overall, they invite us to experience God and to keep our hearts open on the journey.

When I was young, my mom, my brother Zack and I were walking along Carroll Creek in Frederick.  Now if you’re familiar with the creek, you know that there is a bridge there that is concrete, but painted beautifully to look like real stone.  The technique used on this bridge is called trompe l’oeil, which is French for “deceive the eye.”  There are several such paintings in Frederick including one of an old angel who is leaning out of a window, one of ducks flying through an open window, and one of a man who has his arms outstretched.

That day when we were walking along the Creek, the artist was painting the bridge.  We stopped to watch him, filled with awe and wonder at the amazing work he was doing.  Then, to our surprise, he asked my brother and I if we wanted to help him paint the gate he was working on.  We were all shocked!  My mom, naturally worried that her little children would not have the same skill as the artist, asked him if he was sure he wanted to let us paint!  He smiled and without hesitating said, “yes.”

Under the watchful eye and with the guiding hand of the artist, my brother and I each painted a few strokes of black on that portion of the gate.  And to this day, when I walk down Carroll Creek, I always make a point of looking at the gate, right at the spot where Zack and I were invited to be a part of a work of art.

In the Isaiah reading, in an incredible vision, the prophet finds himself standing before the Lord’s throne.  Seraphim fly around and call out, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”  The throne room shakes and is filled with smoke.  And Isaiah, knowing full well that he is a sinful human being in the presence of a completely holy God says, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”  It’s as if we hear Isaiah saying, “oh boy!  I really shouldn’t be here right now!!”

But just as Isaiah is overcome with panic and feelings of being unclean and not worthy to be in the presence of the Holy One, the unthinkable happens.  One of the Seraphs uses a hot coal to touch Isaiah’s unclean lips, telling him, “your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”  In the throne room, filled with God’s overwhelming holiness, Isaiah is forgiven and made clean.  As if that isn’t amazing enough, God issues an invitation: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”  Sins blotted out and guilt washed away, Isaiah is able to say “Here I am; send me!”  God invites Isaiah, a man of previously unclean lips, to be a messenger of God, speaking God’s word to Israel.  From sinner to God’s spokesperson – that’s pretty good.  Just as a talented artist invited relatively unskilled little kids to participate in his work of art, God invites Isaiah, a man of unclean lips, to participate in God’s salvation-oriented work of art.

In a completely different way, Paul continues this idea of invitation into relationship to God in his letter to the Roman community.  Through the movement of the Holy Spirit, we are invited to know and trust God.  The Spirit leads us and through Christ, makes it possible for us to be called the children of God.  It is through this movement of the Holy Spirit that God adopts us as God’s own daughters and sons.  And for Paul, this means that we are freed from all that holds us captive or keeps us bound.  As he says, “for you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.”  Through this holy adoption, we are invited into a life of forgiveness and freedom, rather than one of fear.  And when we cry out, whether in joy or sorrow, to God as our Father in heaven, it is the Holy Spirit bearing witness that we are indeed children of God.

But Paul doesn’t stop at saying we’re children of God.  He goes one step further.  “And if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ — if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”  If we’re the adopted children of God, we’re brothers and sisters with Jesus, the Son of God.  And even more than that, we are heirs with him!  With Jesus, we inherit or receive all of what God has to give.  That’s crazy!  Since this is possible through Christ, just as Jesus suffered on the cross and is glorified, we also encounter suffering, all the while awaiting the glory the Father has to give.  Just as Christ died and has experienced resurrection life, we, too, die to ourselves and experience resurrection life and hope through our baptisms into Christ.  In others words, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit work together for the redemption of all of creation.

In both of these readings, the triune God – God three-in-one, and one-in-three – reaches out and draws humanity into the life and work of God.  In Isaiah, just when Isaiah was overcome with knowledge of his own sinfulness, impurities and imperfections, God forgave him and sent him out to serve in the world.  When we feel bogged down by our sin or feelings of unworthiness and wonder if God could possibly work through us, God reminds us that God prepares us for service and empowers us to say “Here I am; send me!”

Paul describes powerfully how the triune God has freed us from all that keeps us bound.  We have received a Spirit that liberates and empowers, rather than one that keeps us trapped with fear.  We live in a broken and fallen world and so we continue to suffer with illness, relationship struggles, grief, lack of self-confidence, guilt, and shame.  However, we have tremendous hope because we have been adopted as daughters and sons of God and we are heirs of the resurrection life of Christ.  The Holy Spirit reminds us of this when we forget, bearing witness that we are the children of God.  The Spirit reminds us that we can always cry out, “Abba! Father!” in our deepest need and that nothing can separate us from God’s love.

God continually invites us into relationship with Godself.  And as I was thinking about the Trinity and invitation, the image of Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Trinity kept coming to mind.  Nadia Bolz-Weber, the pastor at House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado describes this icon beautifully:

“The three figures in the icon are depicted as angels seated at an altar table. They have identical faces but their postures and clothing differ as though we are looking at the same figure shown in three different ways.  But it is the way in which the figures relate to one another which is so compelling.  The father looks to the son gesturing toward this Word made flesh, Christ gazes back at the Father but points to the Spirit, and the Spirit opens up the circle to receive the viewer.  Between the Spirit and the Father in the Trinity icon is an open space at the table in which the viewer is brought to sit in communion with the Godhead.  Here we see an image of God’s relational circle into which we are welcomed.  The Father sends the Son the son sends the Spirit and the Spirit welcomes us to the table.”

God longs to welcome us into an experience of the Trinity – God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  And because of this deep longing of God, God never stops inviting us to experience Godself.   God draws us through the Holy Spirit, forgives us through the Son, adopts us as beloved children, and empowers us to serve in the world.  We are invited into the experience of a God who lives and acts in relationship as three-in-one, one-in-three.  We are invited into loving relationship with the God whose very being is loving relationship.  Thanks be to God for such an incredible invitation!  AMEN!

© 2012. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

Andrei Rublev’s Icon of the Holy Trinity

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