Advent 4A: A Little Bit of Water and a Ritz Cracker

Ritz CrackersLectionary Epistle for Reflection:  Romans 1: 1-7

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

First of all, this has to be the king of run-on sentences.  Perhaps Paul was not one for taking lots of breaths.  Or was he almost in a panic-state trying to get the words out?  It was as if his audience was somehow drifting away, heading down a road that he did not think was good, leaving Paul behind in a sense.  So, Paul, with more words than a sentence could hold, went chasing after them.  Whatever it is, Paul is reminding his hearers to whom they belong.  Maybe it was his way of trying to call them away from the lure of the world, from what Paul saw as an almost competing society, a competing way of living and being.  See, these people probably had no problem seeing themselves as belonging to Christ, as part of Christ’s kingdom.  I mean, they were new believers.  They were excited.  They were still pumped up from that first evangelical moment that they had experienced.  And yet, there was the Roman Empire looming large around them.  It was hard to refuse.  Who are we kidding?  It was dangerous to refuse.  One could quickly lose everything.

Now I don’t think Paul really wanted them to leave it all behind.  After all, his own identity as a Jew in the Roman Empire was important to him.  He just wanted them to see something different.  He wanted them to see something bigger.  He wanted them to realize that it was not that the Roman Empire was where they belonged now and the Kingdom of God was where they were going; rather, the two existed together.  He wanted people to understand that the Kingdom of God was not the “other way”, not the veritable opposite of the way they were living but rather the “Thing” that encompassed the “thing”.  And maybe they belonged to both things.  (I mean, in our own context, patriotism is not anti-God; it just has the possibility of developing into sort of a misplaced devotion that competes with our spiritual selves.)  All that we are and all that we have and all to which we belong belongs to God.  It is the way God lays claim on us, bursting into our lives as we know them, pouring the very Godself into each and every crevice of our lives until all (yes, ALL) is recreated in the Name of Christ.  We are called not to choose between Christ and the world but to bring Christ to the world.

The other day I baptized a young child that was eating a Ritz cracker through the whole thing. Now, we don’t usually pass out hor’dourves with the Sacraments, but, really, did that change God’s Presence in that moment?  For that matter, who’s to say that it didn’t make that Presence more real?  (OK, so maybe I’m not as much of a sacramental purist as you thought!)  God’s presence and God’s promise comes wherever one is.  Our calling is to respond to that presence in the midst of the lives we lead.  But that entails learning to see and listen in a way that many of us do not.  We need to appreciate how God calls others into being so that we might be able to better discern our own unique way that God is entering our lives.  And the Ritz?  Well, who hasn’t eaten a Ritz? (And, for me, a little peanut butter)  It is not part of the “other” way of living.  All that we have and all that we are belongs to God.  And, you know, that little bit of water that I sprinkled onto that child’s head does not exist in a vacuum.  The choice is not to choose the water or the Ritz.  The choice is not to choose God or empire.  The choice is to follow God through all that is and all that we encounter, to open oneself to becoming new not instead of the old but as even it is made new.

In this Advent season, we have walked in the wilderness.  We have encountered darkness.  We have waited and waited for God to make the Godself known to us.  Maybe that for which we’ve waited was here all along–in the wilderness, in the darkness, in the Empire.  Maybe God’s Presence is found in all of it when we learn to see, when we learn to open ourselves to possibilities.  Maybe God’s Presence is not some big, flashy extravaganza like we’ve been expecting.  Maybe it’s been there all along, sort of like a little bit of water and a Ritz cracker, or maybe more like a baby born into a world that was not ready, that was never ready, a world that couldn’t move over and make room.  Advent is not about welcoming a King; Advent is about making room for a God who comes into our ordinary lives as an ordinary person into an ordinary place and makes it all extraordinary.  Advent is a lot like eating a Ritz cracker through a Holy Sacrament.

Reflection:  What are you expecting God’s Presence to be?  What is the most ordinary thing that you see right now?  Where might God’s Presence in it?

Grace and Peace,


LENT 2B: Identity

Octavia Spencer accepting the Oscar for Best
Supporting Actress, February 26, 2012.

Lectionary Passage:  Genesis 17: (1-3) 4-7, (15-16):
As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.   I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.

This passage is the story that establishes Abram’s identity.  He would become Abraham, the “father of many people”.  And Sarai, his (sort of) doting and laughing wife, would become Sarah, the “princess of many.”  Abraham and Sarah now have a new identity, an identity that comes from this established relationship with God.  This is what it means to be a covenant people.  In the Jewish tradition, this is the establishment of the identity of a people, the establishment of a covenant people.  God has done a new thing.  Nothing would ever be the same again.

Identity is a funny thing.  With whom do you identify?  With whom do you align yourself?  What are the relationships in your life?  How do you see yourself?  The idea of a covenant connotes an agreement.  But, more than that, it implies a relationship.  This was not some sort of holy “to do” list that was given to Abraham.  God never told him what he had to do to be accepted, to be part of the covenant, to  part of the people, to be “godly” (oh, I hate that word!…”like God”…are any of us really “like God”?)   God never gave him a list of beliefs to which he had to adhere to be part of the covenant community.  (Hmmm!)  Once again, the covenant was not about right living; it was about relationship.  God claimed Abram and Sarai as children of God and their life was never the same.  And then God renames them.  Their names mean something–father and princess.  The new names are symbolic of the new relationship into which they enter.

I looked up the meaning of my name.  “Shelli” (not spelled that way–it is NEVER spelled that way!) is actually a derivative of the Hebrew, Rachel–“ewe, female sheep, little rock, rest, sloped meadow.”  (So, Sarai becomes a princess and I am a sheep that rolls down a small hill and goes to sleep!)  Like I said, identity is a funny thing.  We hold tightly to the way we envision ourselves, to the image that we’ve created.  And then God comes up with the most ludicrous thing, like being the father or the princess of many (or maybe a sheep that follows down a gently sloping meadow! Hmmm!).  It’s just laughable.

We actually didn’t read the part where Abraham laughed.  He laughed because it was far-fetched and downright ludicrous.  But then, when you think about it, most of God’s promises are.  And then when he told Sarai the whole preposterous scenario, she also laughed.  So, do you think it was disbelief or nervousness or something else that brought laughter?  We in our 21st century boxes probably think it a little irreverent. After all, would you dare laugh at God? Well, good grief, don’t you think God is laughing at us sometimes? Perhaps laughter is what brings perspective. It brings humility; it brings a different way of looking at oneself. Laughter is about relationship.  Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “Humor is the beginning of faith and laughter is the beginning of prayer.”

Abraham laughed. Sarah laughed. And I’m betting God laughed. (You can just imagine the inside joke between the three: “This is going to be good. No one will ever believe this could happen.” You?  Sarai?  LOL!!!–for those who don’t text, it means “laugh out loud”!) Maybe laughter is our grace-filled way of getting out of our self and realizing that, as ludicrous and unbelievable as it may be, God’s promise holds and, more than that, holds something for us–a new identity. Maybe it’s our way of admitting once and for all that we don’t have it all figured out, that, in all honesty, we don’t even have ourselves figured out, that there’s a whole new identity just waiting for us to claim. In this Season of Lent, we are called to get out of our self, to open ourselves to possibilities and ways of being that we cannot even fathom. Go ahead and laugh. It’s probably incredibly ludicrous…and it’s only the beginning.

Now I know that many of you are amazed that I can write this through my sleepy-eyed disposition at 4:00 in the morning.  Well, the truth is, I POST these at 4:00 in the morning while I’m beginning my last hour of shut-eye.  So, as I write this, I’m sort of half-heartedly watching the Academy Awards.  And Octavia Spencer has just won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of a maid in the segregated South.  I have to convess that I never got my packed-in life around to see the movie but on a rainy Saturday afternoon, I sat and read the whole book on my Kindle.  It was about identity. It was about the identity that we have and the identity that the world projects upon us. I mean, think about it, how do those who are oppressed, either through out and out slavery or just socially acceptable oppression (even today!) envision themselves.  What is their identity–the one they have or the one that is projected upon them?  They both matter because they both form us.  But the key is that we are called to be transformed by the identity that God has for us.  So whatever identity that you or others project upon yourself, it is the covenant, the identity that calls us and recreates us that matters.

When Octavia Spencer accepted the Oscar tonight, her speech was not eloquent and it was not rehearsed (Thanks be to God!).  If anything, she was so shocked that she was almost laughing!  She voiced the perfunctory thank-you’s and then she closed:  “I share this with everybody.  Thank you world.”

As laughable as it may be, I pray that my identity will be true, worthy of sharing, and will project not a projected image of what I should be, but a “thank you” to the world.  In this Season of Lent, we, as a covenant people, are called to take a good hard look at our identity, at the way our relationship with God is lived out in our lives.  We are called to be real. 

So, continuing with our act of giving up so that we can take on, on this fifth day of Lent, think about your own identity.  What is real?  What is projected?  What part of yourself can you share with everybody?  Let go of those things that only benefit yourself.  And take on those things that say “thank you world!”

Grace and Peace on this Lenten Journey,