Sunday, December 28, 2014

Christmas 1B

I rang the doorbell and a young woman answered.

“Hello I’m Pastor Kevin,” I said.

She let me in and we sat down on the couch. The baby was asleep in the crib by the window.

“So, why a baptism?” I asked.

“Well, I think it’s important to have God in my child’s life,” she said.

“What’s the baby’s name?” I asked looking over to the crib.

She muttered something I didn’t recognize.

“That’s an interesting name. Is there story behind that name? Is it a family name?” I asked because I hadn’t heard that name before.

“No, it’s not a family name,” she answered.

“Do you know what it means?” I asked.

“No, it doesn’t have any meaning. It’s just a word I made up. I just like the way it sounds.”

I have to admit, and maybe I’m being a little judgmental,  but was I taken a bit off guard, because I’ve always heard people offer fuller, more thoughtful, explanations on why they chose a name that will be with their child their whole lives - and beyond, other than a made-up sound that was easy on the ears. 

It wasn’t always this way, and she is an extreme case. Most people know what their names mean, or why they were given their name by their parents. I thought this was a missed opportunity for this mom and her child.

What does your name mean? Most of us have names that mean something. Perhaps they reflect the hopes and dreams that parents have for their children. Or they’re carrying a family tradition. Or they name them after a celebrity or important public figure.

Bible names all mean something. In fact, if you don’t know the meaning of the many of the names you could miss the point of the story. And my former spouse and I took that into consideration when we named our children.

Our oldest daughter is named “Sophia” because means “wisdom” (but she likes “Sophie”). Her mom and I chose that name to honour Lady Wisdom found in the book of Proverbs. Sophia in Proverbs is a feminine expression of God, and her mom and I wanted to recognize aspects of the divine that are sometimes overlooked. However, we didn’t do our homework. It wasn’t as unique a name as we figured it would be. We had no idea that there would be so many Sophias in her school. And Sophie was not at all impressed when I baptized another “Sophia.”

Sophia’s sister is named “Naomi” to remember the biblical story of Ruth and Naomi and the message of faith and commitment that it inspires. It’s a powerful story of integrity and sacrifice for others. We gave her the name “Naomi” because her mother and I hoped that our child would embody those virtues as she grew.

When my parents named me, I know they struggled for days to find just the right word to describe who they saw when they peered into my future. They wanted to place upon me the mantle of my destiny, hoping that I would be a force for good in the world, that I would lead others into a new tomorrow. And so they reached out to the heavens, grabbed with two hands and pulled down the name “Kevin” which means...”handsome.” Or more accurately, “handsome birth.”

And every time I look in the mirror I’m absolutely shocked by how prophetic my parents were!

Mary and Joseph did what they were told and named their son, “Jesus” which they knew meant “God rescues” or “God saves.” They were glad to give him this name because they had laid all their hope on him, as one who would save God’s people from their sins, and rescue them from the hands of their enemies.

And so, as required by law, Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to Jerusalem to offer the usual sacrifice as a thanksgiving to God.

And they meet Simeon, the old man who’d been around the temple forever, whose eyes may have given out, but he could see well enough to recognize God’s promises being fulfilled in this infant.

And Anna then wants to hold the baby, because she wants to feel in her arms the very power of God.

Both of them may have had more years behind them than in front of them, but they could see God’s bright future being born among them. They could see that everything old was passing away. And that God was doing something new.

It was like there was a flip of the calendar in this baby, and a new age had begun. And they were glad that they could see it before they closed their earthly eyes, and entered their own futures.

And this week, at this flip of the calendar we also can look to the future that God has given us in Jesus. While self-reflection is a yearly exercise for me, this new year seems different than most.

This is the first new years where it actually feels like a NEW year. It could be because I’m in a very different place physically, emotionally, and spiritually than I’ve been in a while. 

Being in this new environment, and carving out a new life, has forced me to think about what I REALLY want from my days, how I spend my 24 hours that add up to a lifetime. What I REALLY want my time on earth to be about. How I think God REALLY wants me to use my gifts. 

On a practical level, I figure that if I’m going to be away from my daughters’ day-to-day lives then I want this time to mean something. I want it to count. I want 2015 to be worthy of my - and their - physical absence.

So, this flip of the calendar is an important opportunity for me.

What about you? How do you meet 2015? What’s important to you?

Is it just another year, just like the last one, where you go about your day-to-day activities, not really challenging, but not inspiring either.

Or do you see 2015 as a time pregnant with possibility, and you feel that anything is possible, and you just can’t wait to get in the game, grab the ball, and run to the end zone?

Or are you anxious about 2015, not knowing what’s around the corner, since 2014 has provided unexpected challenges, especially given the price of oil and the damage it threatens to do to our economy?

Or did you face personal challenges in 2014, and are hoping that 2015 might be a year of healing, and maybe, of reinvention?

Or are you hopeful that this will finally be the year when you get your life together? When the challenges of the past are left behind and a new you will emerge.

Or are you all of the above? A muddle of mixed motivations? A patchwork quilt of expectations?

What about for us here at First Lutheran Church? What do you hope for our congregation in 2015? What are your dreams and ambitions for our family of faith? What would you like to see happen here at church?

A growth in membership?

Fresh programming to meet new spiritual needs?

A deeper sense of connection to one another?

Stronger outreach?

Longer sermons?

All of the above? None of the above?

In my job as interim pastor, I have the luxury of both immersing myself in the life of the congregation, and standing back to observe from a distance. And what I’ve seen so far is that this congregation is still in a period of transition. You’re looking for stability in order to try to figure out the future that God has prepared for you, because the ground under your feet has been shaky over the past while.

But also, thankfully, I don’t sense any real anxiety about the future either. I don’t feel as if there is an urgency born from fear, among the congregation or leadership, as you transition.

What I do sense is that the church, you and I together, are willing to take a step back and let things unfold a bit, to let our life speak, to hear the message that God is saying through the opportunities that present themselves to us instead of trying to move too quickly in one direction or another.

As Simeon and Anna knew, the kingdom of God is still in its infancy, it’s just been named “Jesus.” It’s still learning about its future, even though it is the fulfillment of that future.

And we’re still learning too. Even though First Lutheran has been around longer than many Lutheran churches in Alberta, we’re still beginning new each day, as God’s kingdom is being born again, and again, and again, and again within and among us.

One of the gifts that First Lutheran has been given is a forward looking perspective. Not all churches can look ahead as well as this congregation. First isn’t afraid to try new things. To think differently. To explore territory unsullied by human cynicism. 

So far I haven’t heard the dreaded phrase “We haven’t done it that way before” and I hope I never hear that phrase here, because it’s a phrase that shuts down innovation before it can begin.

For me, such openness to new ideas in this congregation means I can flex my creative muscles, to see just what I’m capable of as a church leader. 

And for us, it means that we can explore fresh ways to advance our mission, to grow and become strong, filled with wisdom; with the favour of God upon us. And that’s exciting!

After all, our name is “First Lutheran” and we have been challenged to live up to that name. With our name comes a responsibility. The First to test new ideas.The First to take holy risks. The First to step out in faith to show others that God is faithful even when we break out of beloved conventions and long-held traditions. God is doing a new thing in Lutheranism, and we have been saddled with the responsibility to be “First” among that new thing.

Simeon and Anna waited their whole lives to see the kingdom of God in their midst. We don’t have to wait that long. The kingdom of God is already within and among us. 

And the kingdom - the Spirit of God in Jesus is present within you, guiding you, speaking to you through your life, and leading you in the words of others.

No matter where you are in your life. No matter the challenges or opportunities, dreams or disappointments, troubles or delights, problems or possibilities, we trust in a God who was born in the middle of all of this bewildering and beloved mess, a God who has blessed you in your confusion and your hopes, so that you can rise to meet God’s future with open hands.

What Simeon saw in the baby, God also sees in you. What Anna held in her arms God also bestows on you, because you have been joined to Jesus. You are Christ’s living body. You have God’s promises knitted to your very being.

Your own eyes have seen the salvation that God has prepared for you and for everyone. You are a light to every nation. You are a candle in the dark. You are God’s answer to prayer. You are the first ray of sun appearing after a long, cold, sleepless night.

As we enter 2015, enter knowing that you are God’s beating heart, enter knowing that you are growing, enter knowing that you have become strong; enter knowing that you have been filled with wisdom, because God has found favour with you. 

And when we flip the calendar at this time next year to 2016, we will look back with amazement at what God has done.

May this be so among us. Amen!

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