Rev. Heather J. Blais
This morning I’d like us to spend some time thinking about labels.
Labels are used to classify people or things, and they are often restrictive.
What labels was Jesus assigned--by himself or others?
(Pictured below are the labels we named for Jesus. They include messiah, wonderful counselor, crazy, heretic, Christ, foolish, etc.)
Alright, let’s transition now.
What labels are you assigned--by yourself or others?
You each are going to be given a pen and a post it.
When you are ready, write down the labels you are aware you carry around and then go put them on the “US” stick figure.
These labels can be warranted or unwarranted.
They can be the good, the bad, and the ugly.
(Pictured below are the labels we named for ourselves. They include labels about our physical appearance, our relationships, our occupations, our personalities, our socio-economic status, etc.)
This is a lot that we each carry around each and every day.
Some have truth in them, and some may have been unfairly assigned to us.
Let's turn back to Jesus. If we were to peel back all of Jesus labels, only one would remain.
The label that was affirmed in his baptism, when a voice from heaven said to him,
“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).
The same is true for us. And I would argue this truth begins long before baptism, but at our birth.
Rachel Held Evans once said that,
“[In baptism] you splash water on a baby’s head, or dunk someone underneath the water, and as they come up, tell them that over and beyond any other label that the world might assign you, you are a beloved child of God and nothing can change that.”*
No matter what other labels are assigned to us, none matters more than our identity as a beloved child of God.
This is the truth we affirm in our baptism.
The unchangeable truth affirmed in our baptism is that we are beloved children of God. In following Jesus’ example of baptism, we are saying we recognize this truth, and we long to do our best to live into this truth. We will stumble, we may fall away, and yet this unchangeable truth remains. We are all broken, beautiful, and beloved children of God.
I wonder, which labels in your life do you pay the most attention to? How much does that compare to the time you spend remembering that you are a beloved child of God? Or to flip this all on its head--what labels do you assign others? In the people that drive you the most crazy are you able to see the unchangeable truth, that they too, are a beloved child of God?Given all this--what does your baptism mean to you? Amen.
*Rachel Held Evans on The Liturgist Podcast-Season 1, Episode 19 Searching for Sunday with Rachel Held Evans
Rev. Heather J. Blais
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If at Christmas we celebrate love being made manifest, God becoming present in human form, then at the Epiphany, we celebrate how that love is made manifest beyond the Jewish community, in the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. We celebrate how our God is revealed to all people, in all places, throughout all time. While the Jewish community was awaiting a political Messiah, the rest of the world wasn’t expecting anyone at all. Which is why it is so remarkable that the magi would follow a star from the East to pay homage to this newborn child. Over the next seven weeks, we will witness several manifestations, where Jesus’ is revealed to be God’s Son. First in the visit of the magi, then in his baptism and in calling the disciples, as Jesus heals the sick and tends to the oppressed, and again in the transfiguration.
Today’s story features a ruler, his kingdom, wise men, a baby and his family.
For the ruler this is a story about fear. Fear of the stranger. Fear of lost power, place, and prestige. Fear of a child, whose very existence, threatens his rule.
For the people who lived in the ruler’s kingdom, this too, is a story about fear. Fear of the ruler’s instability, his anger, his erratic actions. Fear that children they love will be killed, when the ruler condemns every child two and under to be killed.
Fear of what ends this ruler might take their kingdom if left to his own devices, yet ever more fear of what might happen
should they try and stop them. That kind of fear leads to a blind, disempowering submission.
Yet fear is not the only way.
There is also love.
For the wise men, this is a story about love. They leave the safety and comfort of home to follow a star and pay homage to new kind of king. They encounter a fear driven ruler, and still, love sustains them, and drives them further on in their journey. When they saw the star had stopped, they knew they had found the child. They were overwhelmed with joy.
Because when we take the risk to love, we will always find joy. The joy will overwhelm us and has the power to make us whole. The wise men gave lavish gifts to this rather ordinary, poor family. Gifts of love that had come from a far away land, simply so this family might know their child’s life had already begun to touch the lives of people in strange and far away places.
This is also a story about love for this child and family. They do not completely understand, but know this child is special. The shepherds and strangers from distant lands have all come and bowed down to their child as though he were a king himself. These new parents do not get caught up in the potential power or prestige. Any fear of the unknown is kept at bay by their faith that God must know what God is up to, even if they do not quite understand it yet. And mostly, it is kept at bay by their love for this beautiful and precious child that has come into this world and turned their lives upside down and right side up again.
This story is one about the decision to live in fear or lean into love. In fact, nearly all the stories within scripture
at their core are about this decision--fear based living or leaning into love. Yet the choice between living in fear and leaning into love is not only for those we read about each week.
It is the choice we are faced with every morning when we wake up and start again. And there seems to be a sort of momentum to the decisions. Meaning, if we typically choose to live in fear, that becomes the easiest way to live. It seems to become physically harder and harder to choose to lean into love. Yet it is still, and will always be, possible. If we take courage. And the opposite is also true--the more we find ourselves leaning into love, the easier it becomes. Until leaning into love feels a bit like discovering you have the ability to fly. Choosing to love again and again will take us to faraway places. Within ourselves, our relationships with others, and with God.
The story of the ruler, his kingdom, the wise men, the baby and his family is a reminder of the everyday decisions we must make. Will we let fear or love dictate our choices? From our first encounter in the morning with a spouse or child or coworker. From the sad and scary news we might face when we learn of a friend or loved one’s illness. To the pain and loneliness of a broken relationship with a partner, a child, a sibling, or friend. To the choices we make about how we treat the earth or the effects of the public policy we support, either consciously or unconsciously in our actions.
Everyday we face decisions about living in fear or leaning into love. I’d like to say our faith will give us the courage to always lean into love. But we will all face fear. There will be some days when we will wake up and we will live that whole day in fear. It might even drag out into weeks, months, or years. Yet the great hope of being in a faith community together,
is that we can help one another follow the magi’s example. The wise men model for us how to be bold and courageous
in following the star of hope that leads us back to Christ again and again.
What do you choose in this moment--living in fear or leaning into love?
How can we help one another chose hope and lean into love together?
Rev. Heather J. Blais
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On a night long ago, a young teenage mother-to-be, and her betrothed, found themselves in Bethlehem. There were no available beds. Which is why this couple seem to find shelter in a place housing domestic animals. Luke writes, “While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger…”( 2:6-7).
Now, women have been giving birth in any variety of places throughout history, so a barnyard birth is not actually that unusual. It even makes sense that the manger, better known to us as a feeding trough, was used for the newborn’s bed. Yet what I find most peculiar, is why these new parents put their child down at all? While the pregnancy was unexpected, we know from the story of the annunciation that Mary is full of joy and wonder, and is ready to serve God in this most unusual way. We know that an angel came to Joseph in a dream, and afterward, he felt called to wed Mary and raise this child together. This child is wanted, and will be loved.
Can you remember a time you held a newborn child? Their frailty and beauty, their small quiet way of slowing us down, warming our hearts, filling us with a tender peace. Their very presence humbles us, and reminds us of who we are and why we matter. They remind us that love “...bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7).
Which is why when our eldest son was born, it took months for us to set him down. We broke all the rules, and he spent his first few months of life sleeping on our chests. When our youngest was born prematurely, we were not allowed to hold him for the first 24 hours. Even on the second day only one of us could hold him for half an hour, and the next day, the other parent got to hold him for a bit longer, and so it went for the first few weeks of his life. It was agonizing to not have that sweet and beautiful child in our arms.
Which makes me wonder, why is this newborn, who is loved and wanted, not being snuggled in his parents’ arms? Even after the shepherds arrived a while later, Jesus was found resting in the manger--just where the angel told them he would be. It could be that there were medical issues that arose or that they needed to sleep after a long labor. Yet I can’t help but wonder if it is something more.
One very real possibility is the fear all new parents face, not knowing what to do. During those nine months of pregnancy, you can fret about every possible scenario under the sun.
What if I do something wrong?
What if they get hurt?
How will I know what to do?
What if my parenting will cause years of therapy?
Giving birth and raising a child is an exercise in faith. Is it any wonder that this is how our God chose to come and walk amongst us?
We do not get many glimpses of family life for Mary, Joseph, and Jesus--but we know they face the impossible together. They will be refugees in a foreign land. Mary and Joseph will think they’ve lost a teenage Jesus, when really he’s wandered back to the temple to teach. Jesus will abandon a normal life as a carpenter’s son to engage in a public ministry of transformative love and reconciliation. A ministry that will so upset the establishment that it will cause him his life. There was plenty for these young parents to worry about.
Yet they also may have refrained from holding him out of reverence. After all, somehow, this infant is God made flesh. They do not know how, but they know somehow God is really present in this child. Just as we do not know how, but we know that Christ is somehow really present in the bread and wine we consume in the eucharist. God has given us a tangible form of love. Both in this child’s body and in the way Christ’s love is poured out for us into the bread and wine, and into each of us again, and again, and again. Love made manifest.
By putting their newborn child in the manger, Mary and Joseph are signaling to the rest of us that something momentus has begun in this child’s very arrival. They are signaling to the animals resting nearby, to the shepherds who will visit, to the wise men who will journey from afar to see them, to the poor, hungry, homeless, and hurting that Jesus tended to in his ministry, and to all of us here today, that this child is a child for all of creation. This child before all of us is Love in human form. Love made manifest.
We may never know why Mary and Joseph lay their newborn in the trough. Maybe it was the fear of new parents, maybe it was reverence, I think most likely it was both. What do you think was happening at that moment?
This Christmas, I invite you to find a quiet moment and remember that love came down at Christmas in the form of a newborn child. What might it be like to hold such love in your arms? How is the love of God made manifest in your life this day and every day? Amen.
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