Normal Is Strange

Matthew 3:13-17  – The first Sunday after Epiphany – for Sunday, January 12, 2014

“And when Jesus had been baptized . . .” (Matthew 3:16)

the_baptism_of_the_christ_21When I served full-time in churches, my normal was always strange.

I recall one particular family, several months before I left my last church, that asked me to talk to them about baptism for themselves—the parents—and their two children. We negotiated calendar dates and, ta-da, I arrived at their home at the appointed time.

Talking about baptism was and is normal for me. It’s in my job description! I am ordained, according to the United Methodist Church, for “word, order, and sacrament.” Baptism (along with communion) falls into the third category: sacrament.

Most pastors, since the church became an institution, have a job description that includes baptism, communion, covenant ceremonies, preaching and supporting the living and honoring the dead during times of death. In the pastoring biz, we joke about hatching, matching and dispatching. Another version would be marryin’, buryin’, and baptizin’. We can make what we do sound humorous or serious, simple or complex.

And our normal is strange.

It’s strange to visit people in their homes. Who does that anymore?

It’s strange to talk about a ceremony that’s mostly a mystery.

It’s strange—in a world of Duck Dynasties, Dennis Rodman coaching basketball in North Korea, cute Hannah Montana becoming Miley Cyrus the wrecking ball and Lance Armstrong (and so many others before and certainly after him) confessing his selective sins to Oprah Winfrey—to spend time sharing about baptism’s meaning and value.

And yet I think, for pastors, it’s always been like that. The sacraments of the church have always been at odds with the odd world we live in. Continue reading →

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Mi Casa Es Su Casa

Acts 16:9-15 – The 6th Sunday of Easter – for Sunday, May 5, 2013

“A certain woman named Lydia, a worshipper of God, was listening to us…” (Luke 16:14)

The Gangitis River, in the district of Macedonia
The Gangitis River, in the district of Macedonia

Along the banks of the Gangitis River, in the district of Macedonia, a certain woman named Lydia heard Paul’s first-century message about the good news of Christ Jesus.

Soon after, Lydia and her household were baptized.

Which made her, based on the stories shared in the Acts of the Apostles, the first woman baptized on the European continent.

In Acts, Lydia spoke a singular sentence:

If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.

At the end of the 16th chapter of Acts, the only chapter in the New Testament where her name appeared, she was referenced once more. Following a brief stint in the local slammer, Paul and his companions beelined for Lydia’s home. Then, after an interview or two by eager Macedonia-based reporters, an update of his blog and Facebook page, Paul and his buddies skedaddled from Phillipi.

Lydia was never heard from again. Like Tabitha (also a woman named in Acts), she was a charter member of the club of obscure New Testament women. We know little about Lydia, other than she was . . .

  • A woman
  • In Macedonia
  • A seller of purple cloth
  • Wealthy (or indebted) enough to have a household
  • Someone who met Paul
  • Baptized

And, with apologies to everyone else that speaks better Spanish than me, her singular statement was a variation of: Mi Casa Es Su Casa.

My home is your home.

I assume Lydia’s life changed for the better, but that is only and forever an assumption. After all, she left the story.

I assume Paul’s encounter with Lydia influenced his life for the better, but that is only and forever an assumption. After all, she’s only mentioned in chapter 16 and doesn’t appear among the friends and co-workers listed in the letters attributed to Paul.

It’s easy and fun to play a “what if” game about Paul and Lydia: Continue reading →

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Impossible Is Possible

Acts 10:44-48 (and also earlier in Acts 10) – The 6th Sunday of Easter – for May 13, 2012

“…the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.” (Acts 10:45)

In order to fully appreciate what prompted the very Jewish Peter, a.k.a. the future first Pope, to declare that Gentiles—non-Jews!—were acceptable for baptism (Acts 10:44-48), I backtracked a few pages and verses.

Earlier in his ministry, Jesus bequeathed a new name on Simon the fisherman. Simon became Peter the disciple. In Greek, Peter means “rock.” Jesus famously called the erstwhile angler a “rock upon which I will build my church.” Aha! Pontiff #1 was a “rock star.”

What! Pigs can't fly!? (photo from PA Photos)

Peter-nicknamed-Rock also seemed to have stones for brains. After all, the traditional first Pope of the Roman Catholic Church—eventually known as Papa, Summus Pontifex, Pontifex Maximus and Servus servorum Dei—was the same guy who lied about Jesus. The future Pontiff #1, warming his hands around a fire while religious bigwigs grilled Jesus, denied knowing the preacher from Galilee (Luke 22:54-62). Old Rocky didn’t lie once, but three times . . . and it makes me weep every time I read it. Indeed, Luke reported that Simon Granite-for-Brains Peter also wept after lying, lying, lying.

And yet I’m grateful for Peter’s deceit and tears. As a sometimes less-than-honest and occasionally weepy modern day follower of Jesus, I’m glad to share some dubious character traits with Pontiff #1.

There’s more to Peter’s rocky start. Before Saint Metamorphic changed his mind and announced baptism could be a full-service sacrament in Acts 10:44-48, he grappled with a dietary dilemma. Near the beginnings of that chapter he did what proper Jews then and now do: he prayed. At noon, according to the Bible, he’d trudged up to the roof of a building and went about his ritual of prayer.

And lo, his prayers were answered . . . or weren’t answered?

Praying can be a dangerous endeavor. Whether through traditional words, in humble silence or even when we spontaneously blather on, confessing or justifying mistakes, prayer means we’re conversing with God. However The Lord God Almighty can be notoriously cranky with the Divine side of the chat. Or perhaps, to be a tad more reverent, the Holy One is oft mysterious and unfathomable.

But I’ll stick with cranky because sometimes . . . I pray, but God seems silent, indifferent. It gets worse. I pray, fervently or routinely, and God answers. But it’s not the answer I wanted! Continue reading →

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