Now the word of the LORD came to me saying, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations." Then I said, "Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy." But the LORD said to me, "Do not say, 'I am only a boy'; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD." Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me, "Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant."
When Christian and I were talking about his baptism a few weeks ago, I told him I was the exact same age when I got baptized. He turns ten this week (hurray!)’ Being ten is a beautiful time in your life, because you begin to recognize what it means to live beyond yourself. Sure, developmentally it’s important to let kids be kids. It’s equally important that we give avenues of meaning and purpose to young people. This helps us all (those teaching, those learning) claim WHO WE ARE in a sea of contradictory messages. I gave Christian an example of this within the baptism liturgy. When it says, “to resist oppression and evil,” that means we ignore any message that says we’re not worthy of love or purpose in this world. The world may say we are too young or too uneducated or too inexperienced to make a difference, and that’s simply not true. Resisting evil means shining a light on false messages that try to tell us we’re not worthy.
Theologian Fred Rogers assumed this work wholeheartedly, as he describes in his book: The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember. He says, “Whether we're a preschooler or a young teen, a graduating college senior or a retired person, we human beings all want to know that we're acceptable, that our being alive somehow makes a difference in the lives of others.”
Yes, and making a difference often opens a pathway to feeling loveable- to feeling worthy of living a full life, a vibrant and messy and wonderful life- no matter our age. And sometimes that requires breaking down the messages we’ve received that are the exact opposite of what God intends.
Take Jeremiah, called as one of God’s prophets from a young age. Charles L. Aaron, Jr. tells us, “The Lord’s charge to Jeremiah contains six verbs, four of which involve breaking down. Only after the way has cleared can Jeremiah create and construct.” In order to help God’s people hear the truth that God’s way leads to life abundant, Jeremiah needed to start by deconstructing the culture of his day with the truth of God. No, young people are not meant to sit down and shut up. “You are NOT only a boy, Jeremiah,” God says, “You are MY son, and you are worthy of doing big things with your life. Before you were born, I knew you. That is your value- you are a child of the living God.”
In the UCC, we baptize babies and toddlers and 4th graders and adults. The truth is, there’s no such thing as the “right age” to say yes to God in our life. Scripture reveals as much. If we have the heart to believe God’s word lives within us, God WILL use us to draw all people, even ourselves, closer to eternal love. Here’s a question we all get to ask ourselves on a Baptism Sunday: Do you trust the word of life written on your heart? Do you know that you are lovable? Do you believe you are a child of the living God?
Fred Rogers knew the value of young people and the fresh perspectives they bring this world. He said, “We need to help people to discover the true meaning of love. Love is generally confused with dependence. Those of us who have grown in true love know that we can love only in proportion to our capacity for independence.” Baptism is a quest for spiritual independence, grounded in the truth that spiritual connection with Christ IS freedom; None of us can save ourselves- and we certainly can’t save one another. But you better believe we can hold each other’s hands along the way. This is church at its finest, friends. Practicing love, growing faith, and embracing hope. Even as we live into our vows of baptism with Christian and his family today- may we reclaim our own connection with Christ.
A final quote from Fred Rogers “The connections we make in the course of a life--maybe that's what heaven is.” Jesus so badly wants us to connect with him. While each of us does this our own way, we also share the path, that’s the joy of it all, isn’t it? We see Christ more clearly when we witness Christ’s work in the life of another. If you need a reminder that you are indeed a child of the living God, take a cue from Jeremiah- and look to the children in our midst!
We thank God for Alaya, Luca, Henslee, Evelyn, Merritt, Charlotte, Otto, Theodore, Hugh, Fio, Grady, Veronica, Rayna, Pearl, Ike, Blaire, Truly, Tayson, Polly, Fox, Tayden, Zed, Clara, Wendalynn, Briggs, Logan, Emry, Emersen, Zach, George, Christian, Seth, Taylor, Maddox, Howie, Sawyer, Lorelei, Asher, Annaliese, Lizbeth, Helena, Jamiah, Luke, Avery, Jack, Sarah, Jenna; our college students and young adults. Everyone we strive to love and support through our baptismal vows. Each child & youth who has yet to make a connection with our church. All of us, better off for the vision and purpose children & youth provide. Praise be to God for our young neighbors!
1 Corinthians 12: 12-31a
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you," nor again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you." On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts.
Just this week I rediscovered my love for the PBS show Call the Midwife. Has anyone seen it?
Or maybe you’ve enjoyed the drama of Downton Abbey, another gem set in England. Something I notice at work in every scene of these two shows is the idea of “class” or “social status” and how society is both segregated by it and drawn together in the great ecosystem that is a neighborhood. It matters where you came from. Who you are in comparison with another. What your education opportunities may have been. The servants, the midwives & nuns, the police and news reporters, those who went to war and those who aren’t expected to put their lives in harm's way. And of course the nobility. Each with clearly defined positions in society, specific roles and expectations always at play.
The scene is similar as we listen to how first century Christians were operating when it came to church work. Paul hears that some in the early church felt their gifts were more significant, placing them in an elite spiritual position. It’s no surprise, is it? For as long as humans have organized ourselves, we’ve dealt with systems of privilege and oppression. Get this, the same body analogy Paul offers was used in the Roman Empire of his time for a very different reason: to describe WHO was the head- and who wasn’t. The Emperor gets the power simply by claiming his part of the body is more important. Knowing this, I’m even more drawn to Paul’s use of the body as an image of equality and mutual respect. Paul clears up any confusion about who is important within Christ’s body: no one and also, everyone. “But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”
The truth is, we don’t have to watch a period piece from England to see classism at work. We humans are very good, in all times and places, at creating artificial hierarchy in our cultures. Fred Rogers knew this well. We look back at his theology of neighbor now and think “oh how wonderful,” but the truth is, he wasn’t always well received for saying things like: “Mutually caring relationships require kindness and patience, tolerance, optimism, joy in the other’s achievements, confidence in oneself, and the ability to give without undo thought of gain.” With such firm conviction, Fred Rogers brought to life the Gospel message for countless children and adults for over 30 years.
He believed, as does the Apostle Paul, that Jesus has an entirely new paradigm for community; people interested in following “the way” to abundant life for all have to dream bigger than social status or class. We need to claim the inherent goodness and key role each part of the body possesses- if we are to thrive together. This analogy of the body works for the church, yes; and for the towns we live in, our schools and hospitals, government, non-profit and for-profit institutions alike. Our families, and most of all, the neighborhoods we call home.
In what ways do you affirm this truth in your life? Respect for all, acceptance of each distinct ability, appreciation for how we each can make the whole better than the sum of its parts? I’ll give you one great example- each time I meet with our boards and executive council, I am moved by the way our decisions and work are more thoughtful and robust because we cherish one another’s distinct gifts. Want a tangible look? Check out the details of 2021 in our Annual Meeting booklet. It’s amazing to see the breadth of ministries we engage. And some of our coolest ministries occur when we choose to take gospel love outside the walls of church, right into our neighborhoods. Healthy communities, like healthy church groups, depend on co-existing neighbors who know each other well enough to appreciate what each offers the world.
What if it is really that simple? What if the ONLY goal we created for this year was to learn more about the gifts our neighbors possess? When we pay attention to what others offer the world, something sneaky happens…we begin to discover more of our gifts too. Fred Rogers offers this final word for us today: “Discovering the truth about ourselves is a lifetime’s work, but it’s worth the effort.” If you think this work is pithy or trite, I challenge you to name one person in your neighborhood that you don’t know well- and initiate contact in some way this week. Send a card, share a conversation on the sidewalk, ask them where they work, if they have siblings, if you might be able to help them with a chore? The more we practice, the easier it becomes to acknowledge and appreciate the other parts of this big, beautiful body we call humankind. All in the name of the one who inspires equality and respect for others, Jesus our Christ.
On Thursday, we celebrated Epiphany as the climax to the 12 days of Christmastide. The new year is underway, and we begin it with the Infant Savior lighting the way.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “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.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘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.’”
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then 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.” When 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. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On 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. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
I imagine Mary reacted to the arrival of the Magi in much the same way as when the shepherds paid the holy family a visit in the stable: “Mary treasured these words and pondered them in her heart.” Much of our faith is found in the earnest questions we ask- maybe even more than the answers we get. In fact, we continue to question today exactly WHEN the magi arrived at Jesus’ side. We don’t really know when, but we know what occurs when they do. Jesus’ divine nature is affirmed yet again. To live in faith like our ancestors Mary & Joseph is to receive the gifts of the divine in our lives, with wonder and awe- unanswered questions a part of the journey.
I suspect it’s the wonder that brings the Christmas story to new life each year. Will Joseph dismiss Mary upon learning of her pregnancy? Or will he stay by her side? Will someone allow Mary a place to lie down as she endures the pain of labor, or will she be denied entry yet again? Will King Herod find Jesus and put an end to his story so soon? Or will he live to be the savior of the world?
The concept of journey is a deep part of the scriptural narrative. And as we begin a new year, it’s the perfect time to recommit to our own pathway of following Christ. What does that look like? For one, it means we’re on the move- we’re learning, growing, adapting, coming into the potential that is our birthright: to bear the image of God. Like the Maji, compelled by the signs of the stars, embarking on a meandering journey to discover the divine within a human. Some mysterious Spirit compelling them onward.
Have you ever tried to explain to someone else that feeling you get when a prayer or shared experience or an image of nature catches your breath? It’s weird, right? The rational world seems to fade just a bit, because you KNOW you’ve encountered something real, a connection within your soul, even if you can’t find the words to express it. That, my friends, is the journey the Christ-child inspires in us- something divine experienced on earth. Stories are often how we choose to convey that type of spiritual connection, which is why I love to lift the story of the Maji- the strange unveiling of Jesus’ divine nature. Scripture is a gift, meant to be pondered like Mary, a word of life and hope.
This year we missed opening gifts with my family- stupid flu. But I made certain the kids opened their grandma’s gift (my mom) over our video call, because I knew it was an experience that would connect us across time and age.
On Christmas Eve, I shared a bit about my Grandma Yvonne, who has since passed away- but whose spirit remains very much a part of my family. She had a few tricks up her sleeve come Christmas. She LOVED laughing, mostly at herself. Like, you tell her she spilled chili down the front of her white shirt, or that she had butter smeared all over her face… and instead of getting upset or embarrassed, she would let out a great big belly laugh- and she meant it. Joy found in the strangest ways.
We always knew what gifts grandma brought, because she wrapped hastily: sometimes with duct tape or three types of paper; often we’d find loose popcorn as a filler. We never quite knew what grandma was up to, but we could count on a surprise. In particular, one gift each year would be wrapped a certain way. One of us four grandkids would luck out and get this gift. On the outside it looked like any of the others. We’d peel back the paper, open the box, only to discover-- another wrapped box inside. Maybe you know this trick, yes? We’d unwrap that box, open it to find yet another. With each unwrapped gift, my grandma’s laughter got louder. On and on, sometimes 5-6-7 layers deep these boxes- until we’d get the actual gift. We enjoyed what she gave us, of course, but what we learned to look forward to most was the sound of her voice filling the room. The journey she would take us on, filled with joy in not knowing what came next.
Obviously, I needed to keep this tradition alive, so when the kids opened my mom’s gift over video, she watched box after box unwrapped, until shared laughter filled the screen.
Our lives of faith are like unwrapping that kind of gift. Part of the delight of living is not knowing what we’ll find when we open another box. Who knows what 2022 brings our way? I don’t, but I do know where I intend to direct my gaze: toward Christ who lights up the world with wonder and awe. The one eternal mystery: God in the flesh.
I know it can be unnerving not knowing the outcome of another year. Can you even imagine what must have raced through Mary & Joseph’s minds as they heard news that the King was trying to take the life of their firstborn son? Forced to live as refugees in a foreign land? They show us the way to live in faith. Keep on moving, follow the guidance of the wise ones, and receive each day as a gift that it is- to be opened with wonder and awe. Oh- and use those star words to guide your hearts toward greater awareness of the gifts you bear in this world.
Rev. Emily Munger
delights in connecting sacred texts with everyday life.