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Saturday, January 14, 2017

Why was Jesus baptized?


We are gathered to celebrate the Baptism of Jesus. Our special music includes Jesus the Light of the World, Take me to the Water, Jeremy and I do Bob Ferguson’s On the Wings of a Dove, Wade in the Water and Down to the River to Pray…as always, a joy to sing with Jeremy.

After scriptures, here is our refelction: 

It is Baptism of Jesus Sunday.

71.7 % of the earth is water, the oceans contain 96.5% of the earth’s water
Our bodies are  50-65% water, and bodies of infants are 75-78%
There can be life without light. Life without air. But there is no life without water. 

Water looms large in the the Bible beginning with creation, the flood, crossing the Red Sea, and Jesus baptized in the Jordan

Our creation story has roots in the Babylonian story with the ultimate defeat of the great sea monster of chaos, Tiamat. (Though our Biblical story does go a radically different direction) Although as my friend Pastor Heidi  Neumark likes to point out, and recent events have made clear, Tiamat is never far behind "chaos and confusion” were the words used to describe the scene at the Ft.Lauderdale airport where five were killed and another eight injured…It is a sign of our insanity when the question is asked “Well was this terrorism or just another typical American mass shooting”? Tiamat is never far behind..

Until we took to the air, water was our fastest way of getting from one place to another..the rivers, and later canals…my great grandfather spent some time as a drover on the C&O canal…I’ve often  fantasized taking a long river trip…and of course the oceans..

My son watched the movie Titanic the other  day….and I pondered the awesome overwhelming power of water overwhelming the human hubris that thought we had created an unsinkable ship..and of course as always, there were significant  class issues involved in the Titanic tragedy as well…

Water continues to be a serious political issue whether it’s drought in California, the failure to provide potable water to Flint or what we have done to our rivers and streams, not to mention the ocean..

All goes to say, no wonder water is one of the central symbols of the Christian faith…and today we celebrate, commemorate the  baptism of Jesus and consider our own…the official end of Christmastide

First of all what
  1. Here comes John the Baptist (again!) … Jesus’ cousin, his father aTemple official, a child of privilege, born into religious/political establishment 
  2. He has gone out into the wilderness (like the Essenes and Nazirites))
  3. He has adopted a ritual, rooted in Jewish purity rites, the mikveh,  suggesting that the  whole religious institution has become so corrupted, we all need to be converted again
  4. And so Jesus comes to be baptized

Before we get to why?  Lets reflect on relationships. Jesus and John were cousins. Imagine their conversations. Jesus was the poor country cousin so to speak. Imagine their childhood experiences. One remains an unmarried working guy in his  father’s workshop. Odd for his day. The other rejects his privilege and goes out into wild as a prophet, What had John been told about Jesus growing up? All that is the unwritten background..John’s hesitation to baptize Jesus, Jesus’ insistence on being baptized…why? if he is sinless?  And then the dove. As Leonard Cohen sang:

The birds they sang
At the break of day
Start again
I heard them say
Don't dwell on what
Has passed away
Or what is yet to be
Yeah the wars they will
Be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
Bought and sold
And bought again
The dove is never free

The why is what wraps up our Christmas…the key reality of Christmas is incarnation, word made flesh, God made flesh ….living in the midst of us…it is for Jesus a symbolic act of solidarity with us…he is fully human

By tradition, baptism is emotionally understood like another vaccination/innoculation .My father was always anxious over the fact that my nieces were never baptized. 
It’s also a rite of initiation, of inclusion
In our tradition we baptize children because for us salvation  is not by our will, or anything we do, or choose, it is a free gift.

We promise community responsibility for a child..We historically rejected godparents, but due to popular demand  have ultimately let them in (Although we officially call them SPONSORS)

Each of our own unique  ministries  comes not through ordination, but through baptism. It is 
no longer a ticket to the club, as our denomination declared at its last General Assembly that we offer an open table, baptism not required.   
it is a call to us to join Jesus in that solidarity.

Last night I saw Silence, Martin Scorsese’s  film of Shushaku Endo’s novel. It’s ultimate truth is that the way of Jesus, our way, is our give up all for the sake of others..That is the solidarity we are brought into through our baptism, joining with Jesus as he joins with us. 

Following our reflection, we go to the baptismal basin created for us by Cheryl Jaffee, the mother of  Occupier Dan after our baptismal font lid disappeared during the Occupy days ..
The "Occupy" basin
It cracked when she brought it out of the kiln. She thought of redoing it, but then decided not to because in her eyes, We were repairing the cracks in the world. There is a crack in everything, that’s how  the light gets in (Cohen). 

I mix the water fro the Jordan Alistair brought to us with the other water as i pour it  into the basin and bless the water. The congregation comes forward to receive a blessing. Each individually. And then, I am profoundly moved as Marsha claims her own ministry as a ruling elder and lays hands on land blesses me. More than any sermon, she has made clear its meaning. 
Baptism Sunday

Saturday, January 7, 2017

New Year's Day 2017: the Holy Innocents


If getting people out on Christmas morning is tough, New year’s day is even worse…and for me there was a trifecta of issues to deal with. 

We opened with Jeremy’s gospel  version of “Joy to the world..”.  To bring in the Kings, we sang the traditional “We three Kings of Orient Are”.  Later we  will do the Puerto Rican carol, “De Tierra Lejana” in a salsa style.  And bring the wisemen back with “Early on One Christmas Morn.”  And finally we finish our service with “Jesus the Light of the World”  

There was a lot to think about..
Happy New Year!
There are so many ways I can go here…
  1. It’s the 8th Day of Christmas
  2. Because of the way the calendar falls, this year we have no Three Kings Sunday, no Epiphany …if we’re going to do wise men, Magi, they have to be today
  3. The assigned scripture takes us to a place we don’t get to every year, namely Holy Innocents Sunday, the dark Christmas story we don’t read but every three years, the massacre of the children.
  4. And of course, it’s New Years Day….

From Matthew 2 we read:
13Now after they 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, 20“Get 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.”

My friend Pastor Heidi Neumark says the wise men committed civil disobedience…at any rate they lied to Herod….and they saved Jesus but…it led to the massacre of children. In reality, there is no historicity. No external verification. However, using historic population numbers etc, it would have been  maybe two dozen children at most…an occurrence so common, it would not have even been written down. Herod was even known to have  murdered to be three of his own children…(It was said that it was better to be his pig than his son…)

In church tradition, these children were the first martyrs and the first feast day of the new church year was set for December 28th. The story of the Holy Innocents touches a nerve.  And resonates down through history.

In 1534,a  mystery play left us the Coventry Carol, the only of the collected Child Ballads with a Biblical theme. 

Lullay, lullay
My little tiny child
By-by, lullay, lullaby

Lullay, lullay
My little tiny child
By-by, lullay, lullay

Oh, sisters two
How may we do
For to preserve this day?

This poor youngling
Of whom we do sing
By-by, lullay, lullay

Herod the King
In his raging
Charged he hath this day

His men of might
In his own sight
All children young to slay

Then woe is me
Poor child for thee
And ever mourn and say

For thy parting
Nor say nor sing
By-by, lullay, lullay

Lullay, lullay
My little tiny child
By-by, lullay, lullay

Lullay, lullay
My little tiny child
By-by, lullay, lullay
By-by, lullay, lullay
By-by, lullay, lullay

It was also a common theme with medieval painters, especially Rubens and Bruegel who panted the scene with contemporary  characters. (Like by the Nicaragua Solentiname artists in the 1980’s..) 
from Solentiname
In 1886, Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck wrote a piece describing the Spanish occupation of the Netherlands based on Breughel’s painting of 1567 (which predated actual repression by two years! ) 
Here is its disturbing conclusion:

When all the children were killed, the tired soldiers wiped their swords on the grass and supped under the pear-trees. Then the foot-soldiers mounted behind the others and they all rode out of Nazareth together, by the stone bridge, as they had come.

The setting sun lit the forest with a red light and painted the village a new colour. Weary with running and entreating, the priest had sat down in the snow in front of the church; and his servant-maid stood near him, looking around. They saw the street and the orchard filled with peasants in their holiday attire, moving about the market-place and along the houses. Outside the doors, families, with their dead children on their knees, whispered in amazement and horror of the fate wherewith they had been assailed. Others were still mourning the child where it had fallen, near a cask, under a barrow or at a puddle's edge, or were carrying it away in silence. Several were already washing the benches, chairs, tables and shirts all smirched with blood and picking up the cradles that had been flung into the street. But nearly all the mothers were kneeling on the grass under the trees, before the dead bodies, which they knew by their woollen frocks. Those who had no children were roaming about the market-place, stopping to gaze at the afflicted groups. The men who had done weeping took the dogs and started in pursuit of their strayed beasts, or mended their broken windows or gaping roofs, while the village grew hushed and still beneath the light of the moon as it rose slowly in the sky.

It is violence, murder, that serves no purpose. Those who could intervene, who the people our to are the church and local  political power . The priest impotent. And the feudal Lord indifferent. Which raises the question, where is God?  According to New York Times, 100000 of the 250000 trapped in the eastern half of Aleppo are children…
49 died in a  mortar attack in July, 
8 died n a bombing of a hospital
In November, every day more deaths….
There are 8 million  at risk (according to UNICEF) and perhaps 50,000 dead…abnd it goes on and  on

Russ’ choice for a bulletin cover is painfully appropriate..

This is the context in which we read Hebrews 2, which we read as an introduction to our Eucharist:

10It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. 11For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, 12saying, 
     “I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, 
          in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.” 
13And again, 
     “I will put my trust in him.” 
And again, 
     “Here am I and the children whom God has given me.”

14Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. 16For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. 17Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. 18Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

Jesus is there…where are we? The world needs us…

But yes, it is a New Year
Who knows what we can expect?  We’re all glad to see 2016 go, BUT what will 2017 bring? Happy New Year? The most I’ve ever heard those words reflected on. You can’t say them without thinking the year…maybe that is the context in which we read Isaiah 63: 7-9

 I will recount the gracious deeds of the LORD, 
          the praiseworthy acts of the LORD, 
     because of all that the LORD has done for us, 
          and the great favor to the house of Israel 
     that he has shown them according to his mercy, 
          according to the abundance of his steadfast love. 
8   For he said, “Surely they are my people, 
          children who will not deal falsely”; 
     and he became their savior 
9        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.

We are called on to resist with hope….and joy

In Their Eyes were watching God by Zora Neel Hurston, she writes of the celebration when the first street lamp comes to a black town in Florida…

The town was full and swarming with people. They wanted to see that lamp
lit at dusk. Near the time, Joe assembled everybody in the
street before the store and made a speech.
“Folkses, de sun is goin’ down. De Sun-maker brings it
up in de mornin’, and de Sun-maker sends it tuh bed at
night. Us poor weak humans can’t do nothin’ tuh hurry it up
nor to slow it down. All we can do, if we want any light
after de settin’ or befo’ de risin’, is tuh make some light ourselves.
So dat’s how come lamps was made. Dis evenin’
we’se all assembled heah tuh light uh lamp. Dis occasion is 
something for us all tuh remember tuh our dyin’ day. De
first street lamp in uh colored town. Lift yo’ eyes and gaze
on it. And when Ah touch de match tuh dat lamp-wick let
de light penetrate inside of yuh, and let it shine, let it shine,
let it shine. Brother Davis, lead us in a word uh prayer. Ask
uh blessin’ on dis town in uh most particular manner.”
While Davis chanted a traditional prayer-poem with his
own variations, Joe mounted the box that had been placed
for the purpose and opened the brazen door of the lamp. As
the word Amen was said, he touched the lighted match to
the wick, and Mrs. Bogle’s alto burst out in:
We’ll walk in de light, de beautiful light
Come where the dew drops of mercy shine bright
Shine all around us by day and by night
Jesus, the light of the world.
They, all of them, all of the people took it up and sung it
over and over until it was wrung dry, and no further innovations
of tone and tempo were conceivable. Then they hushed
and ate barbecue.

I wish we had barbecue…but we do have each other …and as we leave here having shared bread and cup, let us remember that it is not these elements but we the people who have been transformed in to the body of the Risen Christ in the World. Let us be his head and heart, hands, feet and words…

Happy New Year!

Christmas Day: What child is this?

Christmas Day 2016

Ironic as it sounds, in this neighborhood, Christmas day is a tough day to get people to church, especially if they have young children. But fro many in our community, this is an essential weekly time of community. And so we gather…and so our reflection…

My question today ….What child IS this? Or WHAT child is THIS?  As the carol asks…
What Child is this
Who laid to rest
On Mary's lap is sleeping?
Whom Angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?

That’s the question we have to answer…

The text today….Jon 1 with the words .. in the beginning…the word inn Greek is  genesis….sounds like the Happy New Year rejoinder to last night’s Merry Christmas…a New Year… a new beginning…and for most of us. it’s good riddance to 2016… BUT before we go there…it is John’s Christmas story…only for him it’s cosmic…his Christ is in time and out of time and an always was and will be….

It starts with a word…like the word spoken by the Creator that breathes life into creation…like the word brought  by preachers and artists and singers and paper makers and painters and poets and prophets…

and the word that brings light…

We almost don’t notice that it brings our man John the Baptist back again…

But what I want to focus on is that darkness has not overcome it…
we need to remember that in a time when darkness surrounds…
that light is a gift…
and we are to receive it…and be light for others…we are all going need that for next year….

But what child is this?
All of John’s cosmic speculation is beautiful and inspiring….but for me it’s the earthly human form, the idea became flesh and dwelt among us…that this child is like the WORD made flesh…ie, the way this child moves in this world will be like an expression, a sermon, a song…

that’s what I want for us…

Pat has brought egg nog and cookies…so we share this time together before returning to our families…

And so Merry Christmas…and Happy New Year….

Thanks Leila and Pat

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Christmas Eve 2016: Light in darkness


It’s Christmas Eve . As always, I am  anxious about how the night will go. As the hour approaches, I say a silent prayer. And cross myself. Leila and Pat have once again done beautiful work decorating the sanctuary, now a stage for the upcoming Noche Flamenca production.
Ready for Christmas
And after months worshipping in our chapel, we are back in our sanctuary. We get closer to  PM and the sanctuary is still empty. Farolitos outside on the steps proclaim welcome.
Farolitos say "welcome"
And as 7 o’clock comes up, the sanctuary fills….

We move through the service, my spirits lift, the congregation lifting me. We sing Carman Moore’s new carols, a full quartet.
The "Sky Singers"
And finish with John Lennon’s Christmas/War is Over…and it’s time for my reflection….

Hear these words:  

Light and life to all he brings
Risen with healing in his wings

We passed this week, as we always do three days before Christmas  Eve, the longest night of the year. From here on out, the light grows, we say. And a voice replies, if only…

The darkness seems so much darker this year. Just this last week, the attack at the Christmas Village near Kaiser Wilhelm Church in Berlin. A place I have been. In a city where my son and daughter in law and grandson live. My grandson who looks at the world as if its a wonderful surprise gift just for him to unwrap every day. I want  a world for him where you can walk through the markets with the smell of pine and warm mulled wine and music in the air. And no fear..But that is not our world. 

In Turkey, the Russian ambassador is shot dead.
And the  ancient city of Aleppo vanishes in a veil of blood and smoke.  And the world stands by.

And we await with fear and uncertainty in less than a month  the unexpected inauguration of a most unlikely President. 

Light and life to all he brings, risen with healing in his wings..
It’ s always about light….the light that shines in the darkness, that the darkness does not overcome….

It didn’t begin with Jesus.  its been there since creation. Sometimes dim, sometimes nearly imperceptible, but always there.  With Abraham and Isaac. With Moses and his freedom march. With the prophets Hosea, Amos, Micah…Isaiah…in the fields, in the streets, in the halls of empire..they lifted their voices.

And tonight with our Jewish friends, we remember the Maccabees…freedom fighters against a most powerful…and attractive..empire…and celebration of a miracle that tells us the light always grows, does not diminish, as a candle is added each day until a menorah full of light bursts into flame…

On December 6th, St.Nicholas Day, our Buddhist friends celebrated Bodhi, the coming of light, the enlightenment of the Buddha. A year ago, I got to participate in that event at Riverside  Church. It was profoundly moving as I watched the  light move from the altar throughout the sanctuary until the whole place glowed.
Even as ours will soon…

And this year on December 12 (or for the Shia the 17th) our Muslim neighbors celebrated id e malad, the birthday of the prophet.

Something in our darkness, no matter who we are,  craves light. 

Light and life to all he brings
Risen with healing in his wings

Healing.  As Mary Gauthier says, we all could use a little mercy now. Our light comes in a poor stable in a way side town. Occupied then, occupied now. Angels singing to outsiders, to the shepherds. In the by was of red states, Shut down mill towns, and mining towns. Angels voices. 

The one who brings us light comes from there.  From the midst and middle of our darkness. We light these lights as a witness that the light still shines…and will not be doesn’t fix everything, doesn’t cure everything….but it’s the beginning of healing…
This all too human one shows light through love…and when we love, we shine…our imperfections remain….they make us who we are…like doubting Thomas knowing the risen  One first by his wounds, not made perfect by resurrection, but made whole.  Or as a prophet we lost recently Leonard Cohen said, there is a crack in everything…that’s how the light  gets in..

Tonight let that  light in..and take it back out again…out to the streets…for this Christmas, this year…

I was almost shaking when I finished. I looked out. Saw neighbors. People I did not know. Visitors who came seeking.The Christmas tree sellers from Alaska from across the street
Sean, James and Rachel..our tree friends..
…our friends and neighbors for the last month. We shared bread and bathrooms, they shared trees and wreaths. Hung out at our open mic. Were neighbors for a month. My musician Jeremy has brought his wife and new son Elio and we greet them.
Priska, Jeremy and Elio
And Pat and Larry are on the stage with their granddaughter Nyla. Who is playing with the baby Jesus.
Nyla plays with baby Jesus
My friend (and bandmate) Pat, militantly antireligious since his Irish Catholic upbringing, (rightfully so) has come with my good friend (and singing partner) Rabbi Steve. 
Pastor Brashear, Rabbi Steve and Pat

We sing Joy to the World to Jeremy’s rocking gospel piano. I have missed him so much. So glad that they have come back from Switzerland for this night.This is the way it should be. This is Christmas. And if this is my last, no better way to go out. 

Friday, December 23, 2016

Advent 4: Love...and what about Jospeh?


The theme for the fourth …and last…Sunday of Advent was “Love”…and we were joined by our friends from the Seed Group of the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards. (They meet every Wednesday at West-Park). They finished our  service with another moving performance of their special music and movement, each taking a turn as leader..As Jeremy Goren said, Our songs may not speak directly to the theme, Advent and Love. But we bring them with love and we hope that the love shines through.  And it did. 
Our friends from the Seed Group

Lading a song

Before they shared their songs, we shared one in old call and  response form, Mary Had a Baby…

And we reflected on Joseph….here were our thoughts…

And the 4th Sunday is LOVE….as last Sunday was about Mary, this Sunday belongs to  Joseph…before I go further, impressions?

(And one  said courage. And another patience. And another love

He is the patron saint of workers, the patron saint of May Day…he worked his hands in wood as a carpenter.   We have his story…an unexpected pregnancy….that could have dire results for Mary…not to mention his feelings…then the  visit of an angel…with an UNBELIEVABLE message….
If this is not a history, a Instagram or tweet or livestreaming from the scene, but a story, What then are we to see?
What i see first is trust.
…and Love
We note that he….has no relations with her….until the child is born…some in  my lectionary group saw this as perhaps a continued resentment or estrangement..I said that idea sounds like 21st century isogesis…reading into…

There has always been this Speculation about Joseph..….this ancient English Cherry tree carol…from pseudo-Matthew…or the Infancy Gospel of James……and, surprisingly, the Koran..only ion the Koran the story is told of a date plan and the time we get to old England, it’s cherries…of Joseph’s doubts and anger..

(so I sing the carol…one of the few collected Child ballads on a sacred theme..)

He virtually disappears from story……I always wondered about his death…about this last conversation with the son he had raised….was it like Jonathan Kent and Superman, if Martha had given birth to Clark?  the bottom line is ….it was an act of love…

These are hard days we are living in….and uncertain….there is no time for debate about  doctrine….or theological fine points…what I hear over and over again in the conversations I hear, spiritual  or secular, Christian or communist, is LOVE….it’s almost like going back to the Beatles, all we need is love…a love that is courageous…and patient…and active…and strong…’s that simple…

Thank you Leila and Pat