january 10, 2010

Anna Blaedel
Osage UMC
Isaiah 43:1-7
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
January 10, 2010

It is good to be in worship with you all today! Good to see you…good to be together…good to celebrate together—celebrate the birth of Emmanuel, God-With-Us; celebrate the new year; celebrate the season of Epiphany; celebrate communion…It is good to be with you, good to be together.

They say distance can make the heart grow fonder, and I do not usually believe this, but I do know that I have missed you all, have thought of you, have held you in prayer…and, I will continue to do so over the coming days, as we travel our separate ways, to come together again the final Sunday of the month…

Let’s pray…

This morning, the lectionary texts are some of my favorites…The poetry of the words, and the promise they carry…

To share why theses pieces of scripture mean so much to me, I need to tell you a couple of stories. Or rather, offer a couple of glimpses into my life, and my life of faith…

Story #1: It was a dark, cold winter’s evening. Well, as cold as a winter night can get in the Bay Area, in California…I came back to my apartment from something, some meeting, some study group, I don’t even remember what I was returning from, but I remember being cold, I remember it being dark, and I remember feeling tired and weary down into my bones. The weather had been really nasty. Record-breaking nasty, which I know might be hard for you to believe if you know northeast Iowa weather…but imagine a rainy season, a fog-encased, forty-something degree, constant wetness rainy season, in a place where buildings don’t have much insulation, where forty degrees is pretty chilly. And, imagine having only a bike for transportation. I only had a bike for transportation. It rained for over 100 days, in a row. Over 100 days, of riding my bike in the rain. It felt like I was always cold and damp—every class, every church meeting, every everything. So. This was somewhere around 80 or 90 days of rain. I had just gotten home, when the phone rang. I got some really bad news. A mentor of mine, Mary Gaddis, someone who I knew from United Methodist events long before I moved to California, who just happened to be a member at the church in Berkeley where I served, Mary, who was feisty and faithful and fierce and fun…Mary, who had already survived a brain tumor…who organized inner city kids and taught them shop and helped them learn their power to create, not just destroy…Mary, who encouraged me and challenged me and offered me, always, it seems, exactly what I was needing when I needed it…Mary had been in a car accident. She had significant brain injuries. She was not expected to make it through the night. Could I come to the hospital?

I found someone willing to give me the keys to their car, rushed to the hospital, and sat with Mary’s partner. I sat with Mary, I prayed, I cried, I pleaded with God…And, eventually I left. By the time I left, it was clear Mary wouldn’t live to see the sun rise the next day.

I drove home, returned the car, and wept. This woman, whose support I counted on, who had covenanted with me to walk with me throughout my candidacy process for ordination, throughout seminary, who promised to come to my ordination, whenever and wherever it might be…I was now going to have to do all of it without her. I cried because of my own loss, and because of the enormous void left in my life, and in the life of the community, the life of our church, of our denomination, truly, of the world.

I took a walk, in the rain, because I didn’t know what else to do. For once, the rain was almost welcome. It was comforting, almost, to be so miserable externally, when I felt so miserable internally. The tears flowing from my eyes onto my cheeks met with the rain, and it felt like the whole world was crying with me.

After walking for awhile, without paying any attention to where I was going, I heard singing. Or, I thought I heard singing…I looked around me…remember, I was in a big city, and singing is one of the least unusual sounds I was accustomed to hearing…I saw an open door, and candles lit in the windows and entrance space of a small church.

I crossed the street, drawn by the candlelight and singing, and heard a voice—a clear, beautiful, simple voice singing: “Do not be afraid, I am with you….”

The voice of God, the voice of Mary, the sound of all that was Sacred, coming to me from the rain, from a person I had never and will never meet, offering me the words of assurance and promise I needed to hear.

It was a simple mid week prayer service. I had never been to that church before, nor since. But the words of the prophet Isaiah, sung by an unknown voice, were incarnate, a gift, a sign of God’s presence:
Isaiah 43:1-7

I had read these words many times before. Later I would find that this very song was printed in our Faith We Sing hymnal. The message was not new, but I needed to remember. I needed to be reminded, right then and right there, of God’s promise made to us, God’s love and care and presence. Unshakable, unbreakable, even when we are shaken and broken open.

Story #2: Many of you have gotten to meet my grandma. I call her Ba, she lives in Burlington. She is my mom’s mom, and I love her dearly. You have not gotten to meet my other grandma, my dad’s mom, who died in 2004. She was a phenomenal woman, and the grandma I was closest to growing up. While my sister went each summer to stay with our mom’s mom Ba, I went to stay with Mia (and Grandad, in Madison, WI.)

She was an amazing person—creative, compassionate, faithful, patient, a fabulous cook. She loved living in a University town—going to museums, trying new foods, experiencing different and exciting things. She wore red Reebok sneakers well into her 80s, because she loved that it made people smile, and laugh, and pay more attention to surprises and beauty, and she knew that this world desperately needs more people spending more time laughing, and paying more attention to surprises and beauty.

She taught me to whistle one day, by whistling at every man, woman and child who walked by us. I was in 7th grade, the whole thing was so embarrassing. It was also so fun! Mia brought life and joy and love into the world, until the very end.

My grandma loved her three sons—dearly and deeply. Not too many years before she died, my dad, her oldest, decided to do a Companions in Christ study through our church. I imagine some of you have heard of Companions in Christ. Perhaps some of you have even participated in this program. Anyway, my dad needed a good study Bible, and his mom, my grandma, decided she wanted to buy him one—a gift he could use over and over, long after she was gone. She carefully chose a beautiful study Bible, and then labored to come up with the right inscription. She wanted to find the perfect piece of scripture—one that would inspire, and connect, and reflect something of her deep love for her son. Something that would remind him of her love, when she could not.

Finally, she inscribed the inside cover. My dad still uses and treasures this Bible. Perhaps what he treasures most of all is the inscription, in his mother’s already shaky script. “You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

“You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

The words were not new, nor where they her own. But the deep love of our Creator was reflected in the deep love of a mother for her son. Opening that Bible and reading his mother’s words, the words that form God’s claim and covenant made with each of us: “You are my Child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.

In the gospel according to Luke, we read of Jesus’ baptism. For most of us, it is not a new story. It is one we have heard before—John the Baptist, telling of the One far more powerful, far more prophetic, even than he. The heavens opening, a dove descending—the Holy Spirit coming to earth, and a voice from heaven, calling to Jesus, calling to us: “You are my child, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

It is not a new story. But, it is a story we keep telling, over and over and over again.

This story about Jesus’ baptism is also a story about our baptism. And the story is all about identity—Jesus’ identity, our identity—being publically, ritually, re-rooted and proclaimed in God. God’s beloved. Each of us. All of us.

In Jesus, we see the face and intention of God. And, in this person, we see God’s intention for our lives.

In this story, we remember God’s promise to us, and recommit our promise to God—to pledge our whole serves to ordering not only our lives, but, to the best of our ability, the world in which we live in harmony with the reign and Kin-dom of God.
In this story, we are invited to remember who we are, and remember whose we are, and remember what we are all about.
We keep telling the same story, over and over again. Because we take the risk that someone, someone, might hear it differently. Someone, someone, might receive it in a new way.

Martin Luther said a truly faith-filled life is nothing else than a daily baptism once begun and ever to be continued…baptism, once begun and ever to be continued…a truly faith-filled like is nothing else than remembering daily who we are…and whose we are…and how beloved we are…all of us.

Epiphany. Meaning manifesting. Showing. Revealing. Jesus’ baptism—epiphany—heavens opening, God’s voice calling, the Holy Spirit descending…God’s love, Jesus’ identity, our identity as beloved, manifest, shown, revealed.

Like happening upon the promise, sung and offered and received on a dark rainy night, right when all seemed lost.

Like being reminded, each time a father opens his Bible, of his mother’s love for him, and his love for his daughters, and our Creator’s love for us that enables us to love at all…

We keep telling the same story, over and over again. About God naming us, claiming us, loving us. Whoever we are. Whatever we’ve done, and not done. Whatever we believe, or don’t believe. There is no test of faith or doctrine or creed, no way to earn this love, nor is there to lose it. It is given, freely. “Now do not fear, says the God who created and formed you, do not fear. I have called you by name, you are mine…You are precious in my sight…Do not fear, I am with you. I have created you, I love you, I will never leave you.

We keep telling the same story, over and over again. Because right now, right here, baptized people are gathered, still washed in the living waters, still thirsting for God’s grace and a word of forgiveness and life, still waiting to be included and to feel welcomed, still yearning to share love, and be loved, still searching for their place in the story of healing and redemption, still longing for the chance to start their live over. And someone, someone, might hear the story differently, receive the world of love in a new way. The voice calls clear: “You are my Child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Amen, and amen.

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