Renewed in the Waters of Grace

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splash

A scripture text from Baptism of the Lord Sunday still rings in my ears. To a people living in exile, the prophet Isaiah speaks of courage to believe that God is still up to something. “Do not fear,” comes the word of the Lord, “for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”

We hear these words as we remember and renew our baptisms. We come to the baptismal font knowing that God is actively involved in redeeming our lives and this world. Fear loses its threatening grip in the shadow of such immense promises. If the Lord of Creation claims us and calls us to live in the freedom of such promises, who are we to let fear get in the way?

The Israelite exiles were on the edge of extinction when they heard the words, “Do not fear.” They were scattered and despairing of their future when the prophet reminded them of God’s covenant with them. They were “a tiny, miserable, and insignificant band of uprooted men and women,” according to Old Testament scholar Claus Westermann, when the prophet declared their new and different identity as a people supremely valued by God. “You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you,” God says to Israel in spite of their shortcomings.

The waters of baptism lead us to new life – a life surrendered to the God who knits us together in our mothers’ wombs, a life of belonging to the community of the redeemed, a life of learning at the feet of the Rabbi from Nazareth what it means to be fully human and how it feels to be whole. “When you pass through the waters,” the Lord says, “I will be with you.”

The Rev. Dr. Israel (Izzy) Alvaran, Western Jurisdiction Organizer for Reconciling Ministries Network, was our guest preacher this past November. His message was in essence his testimony. Here is a young man who felt called of God at an early age to become a pastor. However, he was also aware of the church’s ban on openly gay people being ordained. He had a dilemma – how to respond to the call of God knowing that the church would not welcome someone like him in leadership if his sexual orientation were made known.

Years later as he stepped into his first pulpit to preach, it was in the very church where he had been brought by his father to be baptized as an infant. It occurred to him in that moment that baptism is a means of grace in which God blesses us with the name “son” or “daughter,” in which God calls us “beloved.” The church and its clergy may administer the sacrament of baptism, but God is the One who calls us by name and claims us as God’s own! No one can take that holy identity from us. No one can remove the sign of God’s grace that rests upon us.

When Izzy came out to his parents recently he felt their unconditional acceptance. He reported, “I am overcome with grace to know they love me.” What the church will do with LGBT people who simply wish to serve God freely with their gifts remains an open question. However, the walls of fear are crumbling. Baptism does that. Embracing our identity as sons and daughters of God does that. Trusting in the God who sides with the oppressed and the marginalized does that.

We are to live as a people named and loved by God. The delight that God takes in you and me is akin to the delight I’ve seen in the eyes of grandparents as they interact with their grandchildren. For that reason, God’s voice through the prophet still rings in my ears, as God gathers together the whole human family at the water’s edge and says, “Everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made,” come my beloved, receive grace, trust grace, be renewed in the waters of grace, preach grace, practice grace, live grace, breathe grace!

Words (c) 2016 Mark Lloyd Richardson

The Light of Epiphany

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Three Kings on AltarMatthew’s story about the magi who set out in search of a child king is the story of a spiritual journey. These were scientists – astronomers whose scholarship involved studying the desert night skies for signs of significant events. Their discoveries of what was beyond the earth in the heavens opened their minds to consider the meaning of a particularly bright and bold star one night and summoned them to take up their journey to Bethlehem.

From Matthew’s point of view, the magi were authentic spiritual seekers. A more accurate picture of their physical journey would be of a large caravan including more than three magi, as well as servants, animals, and supplies, traveling for weeks if not months. Their spiritual journey, on the other hand, was a journey toward the light of God’s presence.

These astrologers from a foreign land are the first to acknowledge Jesus as God’s anointed king, the first to see the light of God shining through this newborn child. Their journey to Bethlehem shows that it is God’s intention to welcome everyone into the joy of God’s eternal home.

In a sense, the journey of the magi points us toward the conclusion of Matthew’s gospel where the final command of the risen Jesus is to carry the gospel to all the nations, and to include all people in the baptismal blessings of God’s new covenant. Just as the light from the star shone on the place where the Christ child was born, so Matthew calls us in our discipleship to a kind of shining. “You are the light of the world,” Jesus says. “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (5:14, 16).

Epiphany reminds us of the light of Christ that shines for all people. We participate in shining this light. At the same time, the story of the magi cautions us not to think that we have all the light we need within our religious tradition. There is a universal human quest for reunion with the author of our lives that finds expression in other religions, cultures, and nations. We need one another in this vastly spread-out human family to practice humility in acknowledging that we are more alike than different when it comes to searching for the light of God’s presence.

So the task of the church is not to protect certain practices or beliefs or traditions. The task of the church is not survival in the midst of huge cultural shifts and increasing secularism. The task of the church is to show hospitality to all who seek God’s light. The task of the church is to reflect the radiance of the Christ child in the world. The task of the church is to live in the light and be a beacon for all who are on their own journey toward spiritual wholeness.

Our lives are meant to radiate the light of Christ in the world as we reach out to new people with the grace and peace of the Gospel message. As we grow in our own faith, we invite others to the life of faith. We humbly acknowledge that we are on a journey as well, that we don’t have all the answers, and that we simply seek to know God more deeply through prayer, worship, and the community of faith.

This Epiphany, may we be as determined as the magi in following the signs that lead to Christ. May we bring our gifts – the gifts of our love, our lives, our humility, our friendship, and our seeking – faithfully sharing them with those we meet along the way. May we give testimony to the light that shines in our midst, the light of God’s love in Christ Jesus, the Word made flesh.

Words (c) 2016 Mark Lloyd Richardson

A Child Has Been Born For Us

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(Originally preached on Christmas Eve 2015 in Santa Barbara, CA)

The world has had a rough year! I suppose that could be said of any year, but there seems to be a heavier sense of worry and fear in the air these days for reasons we all understand. Parents may sense a greater burden when the world feels like it’s going off the tracks. All of us feel the burden though – grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers, first responders, counselors, health care providers – all of the adults who care about the generations being raised in today’s world.

Fear is being hyped these days. It’s being bottled and sold on the political trail along with sides of protectionism and militarism masquerading as patriotic fervor. That’s not to say there’s no basis for the fear, only that the escalating rhetoric benefits the ones using it more than it does the public good. Tough talk lets people feel safer in the short term but doesn’t significantly change anything for the better.

The prophet Isaiah wrote during a time of national chaos and despair. In fact, things were about as bad as they could get for those living in the kingdom of Judah. In the midst of geo-political upheaval and shifting alliances in the Middle East, King Ahaz refused to listen to the counsel of the prophet Isaiah who offered him a word promising God’s deliverance from their aggressive neighboring kingdoms. The resulting destruction of Damascus, annexation of large portions of Israel, and deportation of much of the population forms the backdrop of darkness Isaiah describes at the beginning of chapter 9.

The light of the nation had grown dim. It was not just King Ahaz who had chosen this path of destruction; it was the people themselves who were looking for easy solutions to their fears without stopping to listen to the God who had rescued them before. It was the people themselves who had opted for darkness – the darkness of warfare, violence, oppression, and inhumanity. Darkness describes those times when we do not allow the better angels of our nature to come out.

The psalmist, in perhaps the most familiar poetry in scripture, describes darkness as the “shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4). “Even though I walk through the darkest valley,” the psalmist reassures, “I fear no evil; for you are with me.”

We long to be in that state of grace that would enable us to face all of the challenges of life and the troubles of this world without fear, knowing that God remains near. We long also, I believe, for an end to the violence and conflict that touches us not just on an international scale, but much closer to home, and sometimes tragically even within people’s homes. We long for the light of God’s peace to spread throughout the communities and nations in which we live.

Sometimes it is difficult to relate the message of scripture, written in a different time, in ways that will be fruitful and relevant to our lives. Isaiah spoke to a people who had been mired in dark times, their freedoms under threat, their spirits troubled, and he said that God had not given up on them, that God had already broken the yoke of their oppressor.

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness –
on them light has shined. (Isaiah 9:2)

As we gather around the manger, we come to embrace the child of the light! With hearts that ache for this world, with hearts longing for peace, with hearts open to the healing word of God, we come and kneel before the holy child of Bethlehem.

Indeed this is the sign offered by the prophet Isaiah that a new divinely inspired dominion is upon us:

For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
for this time onward and forevermore. (Isaiah 9:6-7)

Stephen Boyd comments, “In the face of the fear, even terror, it is tempting to put our trust in the powerful – those who, seeking their own interests, promise to protect us. In this, our own darkness, Isaiah poses the questions: Will we make room for the Prince of Peace, who orders the world with justice and righteousness? Will we prepare to follow him in peacemaking?”[i]

At Christmas, kneel before the Christ Child who is the very light of God. Poet Ann Weems, in her poem “The World Still Knows,” leads us to the manger with these words:

The night is still dark
and a procession of Herods still terrorize the earth,
killing the children to stay in power.

The world still knows its Herods,
but it also still knows men and women
who pack their dreams safely in their hearts
and set off toward Bethlehem,
faithful against all odds,
undeterred by fatigue or rejection,
to kneel to a child.

And the world still knows those persons
wise enough
to follow a star,
those who do not consider themselves too intelligent
too powerful
too wealthy
to kneel to a child.

And the world still knows those hearts so humble
that they’re ready
to hear the word of a song
and to leave what they have, to go
to kneel to a child.

The night is still dark,
but by the light of the star,
even today
we can still see
to kneel to a child.[ii]

Let us pray:
God of all ages,
in the birth of Christ
your boundless love for your people
shattered the power of darkness.
Be born in us with that same love and light,
that our song may blend with all the choirs of heaven and earth
to the glory of your holy name. Amen.[iii]

Words (c) 2015 Mark Lloyd Richardson (except where noted)

[i] Stephen B. Boyd, “Theological Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009, p. 102.

[ii] Ann Weems, Kneeling in Bethlehem, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1980, p. 55.

[iii] The Revised Common Lectionary website, Year C – Christmas, Nativity of the Lord – Proper I (December 24, 2015), Vanderbilt Divinity Library.

In a Stable Lowly

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Starry night

Photo credit: Pai-Shih Lee, Flickr Creative Commons

With allusion to Mary’s Song in the gospel of Luke, I wrote these song lyrics several years ago that can be sung to the melody of “In the Bleak Midwinter.”

In a stable lowly comes the One foretold,
wrapped in swaddled clothing warding off the cold.
Stars drift in the evening sky, glisten in the trees,
for this infant holy, born to set us free.

Creatures great and small come gather ‘round his bed;
children poor and friendless sound the earth’s lament.
God throws down the proud and lifts the humble high;
in his strength and mercy, souls are magnified.

God comes near to Mary, Joseph and the child,
blesses and beholds their family strong and mild.
God comes near to humankind in this gentle way,
bends to earth and leads us toward a brighter day.

In this holy season what gifts shall we bring,
to lay before our Savior, Christ the newborn king?
All the treasures we possess have no meaning here;
only hearts flung open, loving and sincere.

Words (c) 2015 Mark Lloyd Richardson
[You may use in worship with my permission]

Emmanuel

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NASA Cloudy Earth medium

NASA Cloudy Earth, Flickr Creative Commons

What was spoken through the prophet is fulfilled:
Look! A virgin will become pregnant
and give birth to a son,
and they will call him, Emmanuel.
(Emmanuel means “God with us.”)

 In bomb-shattered cities
children unable to play freely in the streets

In poverty-wracked slums
families struggling to put food on the table

In violence-plagued neighborhoods
the young learning early that life is cheap

On tear-soaked refugee trails
people desperately looking for a way to freedom

On vulnerable island shores
communities fighting the futile battle against rising sea levels

In the midst of everyday pain,
in the grip of widespread suffering,
the promised one comes and takes up residence among us.

Emmanuel – God with us in our deepest need.

There is no one left out of this divine scheme,
no one whose accident of birth disqualifies them,
no one whose skin color lessens their sacred worth,
no one whose race or gender changes their standing before God,
no one whose religion or lack thereof alters God’s affection for them.

God’s concern is with the whole.
God’s dream is that we all will one day see:
What affects one affects all.
Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.
Suffering is never isolated or contained.
We weep with those who weep,
our tears mingling with the tears of divine compassion.

God with us—
the whole human race,
the whole soul-stirring creation,
the whole beguiling mystery of what it means to be alive.

God with us—
in our search for wholeness,
in our poverty of spirit,
in our labor for peace with justice,
in our reaching out with hearts and hands to help,
in our holding on tenaciously to hope.

Words (c) 2015 Mark Lloyd Richardson
Photo Credit: NASA Earth Observatory

 

Making Room in the Inn

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syrian_refugee_crisis

Syrian children march in the refugee camp in Jordan. The number of Children in this camp exceeds 60% of the total number of refugees hence the name “Children’s camp”. Some of them lost their relatives, but others lost their parents.

Scripture is the story of God’s activity in the world, among peoples and cultures, with a universal scope of concern for all creation. The God we come to know in scripture is a God who seeks to gather all of humanity into a community of sisters and brothers, a community of mutual care and hospitality.

The gospel accounts for this time of year set the stage for the Christ child who enters the world in an ordinary stable. We tell the story of Jesus’ birth each year, of course, and like any good story, we don’t mind hearing it again and again. We love the familiar details of shepherds standing transfixed under the night sky and angelic choir visitations.

There is one line though in Luke’s telling of the story that gives me pause this year: “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” ~ Luke 2:7

 This is how life begins for Jesus, with the doors to a place of warmth and shelter closed. Jesus once said of himself – “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” – a poignant reflection from someone who seeks to take up residence in our hearts and lives.

I am led from these traditional images in the story of Christ’s birth to the images of refugees fleeing war, oppression, and violence in our own day. The gospels reveal many of the same conditions in the ancient world. Indeed in Matthew’s telling, the holy family is forced to flee Bethlehem after Joseph is warned in a dream of Herod’s plan to destroy the child. This is followed by a massacre of all of the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or younger. It is a brutal reminder of the inhumanity that has plagued humankind since the dawn of time.

However, it seems as though the world has had more than it can bear of tragedies of late. Most recently in Paris, Colorado Springs, and San Bernardino, we have been witnesses to indiscriminate violence with unclear motives. The victims have been people of diverse races, colors, nationalities, religions, genders, and stages of life. We cannot comprehend the ideology of those who kill so freely and value human life so little. What we do know is that hateful ideology is not defeated on the battlefield. We know that the goal of terrorism is to instill fear; yet scripture teaches us that “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” ~ 1 John 4:18

The story of Christ’s birth, you see, is not told in a vacuum. It is told and retold into the very places that make our hearts ache. It serves as a reminder that it is precisely into the world of human suffering and pain that God finds a way to come and be among us. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “Only a suffering God can help.” God is with us in the tragedies of life in ways that help us cling to hope.

Some lawmakers are suggesting that we shut the doors to refugees from certain regions of the world. They are feeding the fear of the stranger to promote their political careers. Our faith causes us to look at the issues differently, through the eyes of Christ who walked in compassion with the poor and the oppressed and invited them into the kingdom of God.

Recent United Nations statistics tell us that three quarters of the Syrian refugees who are waiting to enter the U.S. are women and young children. Followers of Christ have always felt the call to show compassion to the most vulnerable members of our human family. Times like these test where our true allegiances lie.

I encourage you to go to www.cokesbury.com/beyondbethlehem to see what Pastor Mike Slaughter and Ginghamsburg UMC in Tipp City, Ohio are emphasizing this Christmas. They are challenging their congregations to spend only half of what they normally do on their own family Christmas and give a sacrificial offering that will serve the 60 million refugees Christ loves. Pastor Mike writes, “As Christians entering into this expectant time of advent, let’s welcome those seeking healing and hope as we build strong communities of acceptance, inclusivity and harmony.” May it be so.

Words (c) 2015 Mark Lloyd Richardson
Photo credit: http://www.milwaukeejewish.org/syrian-refugee-crisis/

Poem by the roadside

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side of the roadOn the road
work beckoning
a daily duty
to be productive
to be hard at work
to be diligent in all things
to be focused on the important
to be tied to the meeting of goals
to be steadily progressing in the disciplined life

Only to be stopped in my tracks
stalled into awareness
dared to open my eyes
to the morning unfolding
in the periphery
where the land rises from the depths
in ways that mirror our own emergence
as living beings
within the large and beautiful Ground of all Being

Here the stillness refreshes
and releases me
to live
in the now

in the now of eternity

Words (c) 2015 Mark Lloyd Richardson

Cathedral of Earth, Sea, and Sky

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Spooners Cove Thanksgiving 2015

Montaña de Oro State Park, CA

All that we see,
all that we breathe,
all the places we walk or swim or fly,
all that is distant,
all that is near,
all that is empty,
all that is full,
all that comforts us with familiarity,
all that invites us into newness,
all that opens us to challenges,
all that surprises us with wonder,
all that humbles us in awe,
all things now living,
all ancestors, loved ones, friends,
all whom we hold in our remembrance,
all ancient trees,
all tundras, savannas and prairies,
all deserts, everglades and forests,
all morning brightened mountains,
all shimmering vibrant seas,
all cloud dotted skies,
all of these sing of one source,
all of these move to one timeless rhythm,
in all ways that matter.

(c) Mark Lloyd Richardson, Thanksgiving 2015

Awakening

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Moonshot, Photo credit: Dallis Richardson

Moonshot, Photo credit: Dallis Richardson

Have you ever been awakened by moonlight
so brilliant and full
in its muted illumination
that a breathless hope overcame you
from head to toe?

Have you ever considered the immense secrets
these nocturnal skies hold
about how our lives merge
into one life
one presence
one mystery
when all is said and done?

Or have you given up on hope
as you would a failed wish upon a star?

Have you closed your eyes to divine surprise?

Does your mind topple any mystery that comes along?

Early in the morning
not long ago
the moon poured suddenly through a western window
sprinkling blue and white droplets
over my sleep-covered eyes
bathing me
for a time
in its timeless memory.

I have no explanation.

Only gratefulness.

Words (c) 2015 Mark Lloyd Richardson

It’s not enough to be weary. #stoptheharm

I share these important words by a United Methodist colleague of mine, the Rev. Melinda Teter Dodge. We are involved in planning the October 10 event she mentions. It will be a celebration of marriage equality and a renewal of vows for those who were previously denied a wedding by the church because of the church’s official position forbidding same gender weddings. If you are in the Pasadena area (or San Diego or San Luis Obispo) on that day, please join us.
Also, since this is her first blog post on WordPress, here’s your chance to follow her or like the post or offer your words of support.
Grace and peace, Mark

pastorchixsta

Like you, perhaps, I am weary of the battle that is being waged in our church family.  And I am embarrassed that what so many of God’s people see and know as the United Methodist Church is that we harm people:

  • We charge clergy, bring them to trial and defrock them.
  • We excommunicate.
  • We silence burgeoning calls to ministry.
  • We injure our LGBTQIA brothers and sisters over and over again.
  • We alienate entire communities, families, and younger generations.

Yes, I am weary and embarrassed of this battle.  Moreover, my heart is extremely heavy knowing that I am part of a church, ordained by a church, that continues to injure deeply God’s people all the while proclaiming that we are following Jesus.

What the world sees of our church right now is not the hours and hours dedicated to ending homelessness or malaria.  What the world hears of our church right now…

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