Saturday, January 29, 2011

Catch the Vision

Luke 6:17-26

When I was in college I participated in a mission program of the Presbyterian Church called a Global Internship. The program existed to send 19-30 year olds around the world to our church mission partners in many different countries. Interns worked in a variety of settings - - from geriatric hospitals in Cairo, Egypt, to Waldensian cooperative farms in Italy, to ministries with street children in Zimbabwe. When I was accepted into the program I was assigned to work with youth in the Presbyterian Church of Ghana, in West Africa.

There was just one problem. The intense cultural focus on hospitality in Ghana prohibited me, a guest, from working. So much for an internship or mission trip, I thought in my first few days in the country. I didn’t understand what the problem was. I didn’t know why they couldn’t use me or didn’t want me. I was there to work. I was there to help, and they just kept bringing me to meeting after meeting with church leaders and members, village and tribal chiefs. I heard a lot of stories and told a lot of stories, but didn’t feel very useful as a “Global Intern.”

My internship, for the most part, consisted of traveling around from church to church, presbytery to presbytery, outreach ministry to outreach ministry watching and listening and learning about what Christians were doing in their community. It was frustrating at times because I didn’t get to “do” anything, but I sure did learn a lot.

I had come into the whole experience with a very Western attitude. Even just at twenty years old I was sure I had something that they all needed. I was certain that I could somehow do something to make their lives better, as if I even knew what better would mean for them. What I didn’t understand at all was that in order to do my job, in order for me to work with the ministries of the Presbyterian Church of Ghana, I had to learn from them. I had to listen to those stories, talk to those ministers and believers. I had to learn about the culture, the church, the history and the mission of the Body of Christ in that place before I could ever serve people within their present. I had to learn the vision of church by visiting the church in action and hearing her testimonies before I could ever dream of carrying it out myself.

Here in the gospel according to Luke Jesus’ followers are getting a similar sort of internship lesson. Teaching is what the next few chapters of Luke are all about, and it makes perfect sense. Jesus has just chosen his 12 apostles, those men whom he has appointed to represent him throughout the land. Yet, before they can be sent out to work on their own, they must learn the vision and the purpose of their work from the master. Jesus taught much in the same way my teachers in Ghana did. Or I should say, my teachers in Ghana, taught much in the same way as Jesus. By combining his actions with his words, Jesus shows that his vision does not just impact the intangible spiritual life, but gets down and dirty in the nitty gritty, physical life of humanity.

One of the attributes of Jesus that Luke focuses on throughout the whole gospel is his compassion. It is important that we understand that compassion is not the same as pity. Pity is superficial, and actually it can even be condescending. When I feel pity for you I am accepting the fact that I have something that you don’t have, and that you probably won’t get. Or if you do get it, my wealth or my friendship or my time, it’s not because you deserve it, but because I’ll feel guilty if I walk away without giving it. With pity I’m willing to live with the fact that things are unequal, and I feel no call or cause to do anything to change that reality.

What Jesus feels for these crowds and the people he meets throughout his ministry, is not pity, but compassion. Compassion is a much deeper feeling that comes from the belief that all human life is equal and worthy of the same love, the same blessings, and the same privilege. As Jesus looked at the multitude surrounding him, he was filled with compassion for them; for all of them, the rich, as well as the poor. At first glance, it sounds like he’s chastising the rich when he says “woe to you who are rich…”, but really I think he is warning them from a heart of compassion; a heart that sees what they are lacking inside and wants the best for them.

So, Jesus walks among them all and, I imagine that He touches some gently and looks into their eyes as He says, “Blessed are you who are poor…. Blessed are you who are hungry now…. Blessed are you who weep now…. Oh, blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you….” “Blessed are you!” he says to this crowd of people who are used to being called anything but blessed.
Some of the crowd was probably laughing and scoffing as Jesus said these things.
After all, the cultural wisdom of they day said that wealth was a sign of God’s blessing and poverty was a sign of God’s punishment, that health and wholeness to proof of God’s love and grace, while disease and infirmity prove God’s condemnation. Who was this nut who was saying just the opposite of what they believed to be the truth?!

Only the rich would have laughed at that, though; the poor, the outcast, the lonely, those excluded and left on the fringes of society through no fault of their own would have received Jesus words of blessing like water after a walk in the desert. It would have been food for their souls and they would have received it eagerly.

Next, I imagine that Jesus turned to those in the crowd who had been laughing as he blessed the poor. And with the same compassion and love in his eyes, “Woe to you” he says to these. It’s not a condemnation, but an expression of grief. I believe he touched them as he said, “What sorrows await you who are rich, for you have your only happiness now. What sorrows await you who are satisfied and prosperous now, for a time of hunger is before you all. What sorrows await you who laugh carelessly, for your laughing will turn to mourning and sorrow. What sorrows await you who are praised by the crowds, for their ancestors also praised false prophets.”

It’s extremely important to hear that Jesus was not condemning the rich here. It is easy to reduce this whole passage to a set of moral precepts, but the bottom line is so much more to that. These blessings and woes announce a truth about the divine vision Jesus has for the world and for his ministry, rather than a mandate for human morality.

Jesus wasn’t condemning the rich for the fact that they were rich. He grieved over their status, so he was warning them, encouraging them to change before it was too late. And their being rich wasn’t the problem; it was their attitude. It was thinking that they had an “in” with God simply because they were rich. He wanted them to think differently – to think like God.

God’s vision for the world is set out in this passage for the apostles of Jesus’ time and the apostles of our time, for us, to catch a hold of. In the culture of Jesus’ day, it was thought that there was a limited supply of everything: grain, livestock, love, honor, friendship, reputation, power. Everything was distributed as God saw fit and if you didn’t have it that was because God didn’t want you to have it, because you didn’t deserve it. It was thought that God gave more to those who were worthy and less to those who weren’t. Therefore, you could see exactly where God’s favor rested by seeing who had more stuff.

The vision Jesus is passing on to his interns is a reversal of this sort of thinking. He is heralding a new order in which the patterns of wealth, privilege, and well-being are broken open, and even reversed. Jesus wanted the people to realize that there was enough of everything for everybody. God has enough love for everybody, enough grace for everybody, enough compassion for everybody. And if the people who have more grain will share with those who have less, there will be enough. If those who have more power will share with those who have less, everyone will feel valued and have input into decisions made for the community.

Jesus’ vision calls for a radical reversal of the way we usually think about wealth and our systems of privilege. Instead of going to extremes to insure our status, power, and comfort as Jesus’ apostles today, we are called to go to the opposite extremes to insure the equality of all people. Those who are poor can have the riches of a kingdom. Those who are hungry can be filled. Those who weep can be filled with joy and laughter. Those who are hated, excluded, reviled, and defamed can feel the love and acceptance of community.

But, talking about blessings for the poor on the side of a mountain isn’t good enough. Jesus walked among the crowd, teaching with what he did as well as what he said. His healing actions and his words are closely interrelated. Jesus’ work and ministry was about declaring the value of all people not just through words, but especially through actions. His compassion that is to be our compassion is not something just to speak about in sermons or to pray for in prayers. It is something we must participate in with our actions where we live, study, work, and play.

It means looking at who we choose to talk to and who we choose to ignore. Who do we include in our circle of friends and who do we leave on the outside? It involves examining at the places we work to see that all workers are treated fairly and humanely. It means thinking about our fields and courses of study not just with academic minds, but with minds and hearts of faith. How does what I am learning relate to my life of faith? How can I use the knowledge I am gaining to further Jesus’ vision and God’s kingdom in the world? It means structuring our priorities and our energy around activities that empower and benefit others. What can I do with my free time that will help show those who feel insignificant, that they are truly valuable in God’s eyes and to the world?

As those carrying his vision into the world, we must reach out to others with touch. Jesus’ vision for the world is one in which each human life is valued infinitely. It is one in which the unclean are touched, and hugged, and healed, and cure. It is one in which the outsiders are brought in, the reviled are called blessed, the broken are made whole. It is one in which the hungry are filled and those who have stockpiled share with the world, one in which those who weep find joy, and those who are joyful turn to suffer with those who mourn. This is the vision we much catch and live as Jesus’ apostles today.

In the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Next Level

Micah 6:1-8
Matthew 5:1-12

Advertisements for a new book started appearing this week in all the “trade” magazines churches and pastors get during the week. Westminster/John Knox, a Presbyterian-related publisher, released the new title, What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still be a Christian. Immediately upon seeing the title the hairs went up on the back of my neck. Really? What’s the least I can believe? Have we sunk that low that it’s assumed we’re trying find the bottom line on which we have to sign to make sure we’re in? Or we’re covered? Or we’re safe?

I did a little more research after hearing the title, and I discovered the title did exactly what the publishers probably hoped it would do. It overstated the content of the book and by doing so drew me in to learn more. The book itself, from what I can gather, is not as bad as the title sounds, and in fact may be a very interesting study for some or all of our churches to undertake. But that’s all beside the point. What drew me in, I think, is the age old question that the title essentially restates straight from Micah, “What does the Lord require of you?”

It came to the people of Israel during what was likely some pretty shocking judgment from the prophet. Shocking because even the judgment itself earlier in the prophecy points out that they were not unreligious people. They weren’t lacking in their practice of their faith, but actually the opposite was true. They were faithful with their sacrifices and activities in the temple. They knew all the right things to say to God and really were talking about their faithfulness pretty publically and pretty loudly. They truly believed they were doing everything just right. That a challenge or judgment or question was being posed to them was unbelievable.

I can just imagine how people of deep religious belief or practice today would take the kind of judgment Micah was bringing. Imagine if he walked into the Presbyterian Church General Assembly last summer, or the non-denominational Women of Faith Conference, or a Billy Graham-sponsored revival, or a meeting of the World Council of Churches and started calling us all to task about doing or NOT doing what God has asked us to do. Imagine if a prophet came through the doors of our church right in the middle of worship when we are doing the very thing we know God desires and told us that God has a case to lay out against us in the heavenly courts. I don’t think we’d take the news or the question so well.

No, the people of Judah never saw it coming. They THOUGHT they were doing everything just right. They THOUGHT they were being faithful. They were making sacrifices in the temple. They were waiting for the Messiah. They were speaking out loud, maybe too loudly, about what they do to worship God. They THOUGHT they were on the right track as religious people of God.

It’s an easy trap for anyone to fall into, turning the life of faith into a religious check list, and then on top of that broadcasting it to the world when we are proud of ourselves for marking off all the tasks on the list. Sing “Amazing Grace” and “How Great Thou Art?” Check. Read 2 chapters from the Old Testament and 3 from the New? Check. Attend Sunday worship? Check. Sign up to usher? Double check! Make it for a communion Sunday? Hat trick! Three checks! Put money in the offering plate? Check. Bow head and pray at every meal? Check. Say bedtime prayers? Check. Make it to “Amen” before falling asleep? Bonus check!

It’s an easy temptation to fall into, and it’s exactly this behavior against which Micah speaks. It’s exactly this bone that God has to pick with us. God calls us out on it turning the majestic landscape of creation in a divine courtroom. God calls us to step out before the bench of the mountains, the jury box created by the hills and answer a few questions. The gracious piece, though, is that it isn’t really with rage or fury that God comes to prosecute. Other prophets and even other parts of Micah can really be angry sometimes. Yet this time the tone of God’s controversy is different. Instead of anger, the tone is one of frustration, even pain. It sounds like everything is turned around and instead of creation crying out “How long, O Lord?” the creator is weeping, “O my people, where did I go wrong?” God is upset, but even more than anger it sounds like disappointment.

God is saddened when our faith is placed in the things that we do. God is saddened when we start to reduce our faith to a religious checklist. That’s not the whole point. It’s not supposed to be about trying to figure out what rituals we need to perform to get by or what doctrines we have to agree to in order to meet all the criteria. God is wearied when we try to rely on our rituals to save us instead of our relationship. God’s goal for all of this is not just to count the rear ends in the pews and check off all our names in the Book of Life, calling us good because bothered to show up week after week after week. Just making it to worship and even participating is just not the point.

Don’t get me wrong. Worship is good! The traditions and routines of our public and private faith practices are good! They aren’t only good; they are great. In the fall one Sunday we talked about how much God desires our worship. I’d say it’s even the first and most central thing to which we are called. In one of our historic Reformed catechisms the question is asked “What is the chief end of [humanity]?” The answer that generations since passed were able to answer in one strong voice is, “The chief end of [humanity] is to glorify God and enjoy [God] forever.” God wants us to worship together, to give praise and honor and glory to God, to hear God’s Word, to make offerings to God, to celebrate the sacraments as the body of Christ, to sing praise, and to offer our prayers for ourselves and others.

God LOVES when the community gathers for ritual. God LOVES when individuals are committed to their personal and private acts of faith and devotion… but not when they replace a living faith in God, a relationship with Christ. Not when they replace being an active disciple of Jesus. Worship is good! Traditions and practices of our faith are good! But not when they prevent us from going to the next level.

I have to pause here and give thanks to last week's volunteers for the inspiration they gave me in last week’s children’s time. If you were here you may remember them talking to the kids about “going to the next level.” If not, they started by talking about video games and how players work hard to master the skills at one level to make it to the next, where the skill set changes a little and the challenges are somewhat harder, but the reward for mastering them is even higher. Then they talked about how being a disciple of Jesus can be thought of in a similar way. Knowing about Jesus is one thing, but following him is taking it to the next level. Hearing about Jesus is the warm up round, but believing in him and accepting the challenge to go with him is more difficult, but at the same time more rewarding. It’s taking it to the next level.

Take it to the next level, Micah reports for God. Do more than just honor God with the ritual bare minimum. Do more than just try to cover your bases with your worship, your public sacrifices, and your private prayer. Take it to the next level and really live this faith we proclaim; follow God’s lead, placing your footsteps right next to Christ’s, and move on to the harder challenges of justice, mercy, and humility.

God desires more, so much more, than our empty words and our mindless ritual. God desires more than our affirmation of memorized doctrine and the lowest common denominator of belief. God desires our relationship. God desires our actions. God desires that we submit ourselves to the divine will, that we humble ourselves by letting go of our emphasis on what we need to do to just get by or look good in front of others so that we can instead seek opportunities to enact God’s justice and to reveal God’s mercy to the world.

In presenting God’s case, Micah refers to particular acts of God, asking the people of Israel and us if we remember these saving acts of God. He brings to their mind and to ours these stories that aren’t just accounts of days gone by, but accounts of what God does even now, what God does for us. Remember how God brought us up from the land of Egypt? Remember how God stood up for us when we had no voice, no power, no strength? Remember how God is all about justice, freeing those who are bound up, releasing captives, lifting up the oppressed?

Next Micah reminds us of another story that is probably even farther back in our minds, if it was ever there are all. He prods our collective memory of the time when God got in the way of a foreign king who was trying to curse Israel. In fact, God even used the prophet for the enemy, a foreigner, to bless us to show us God’s redeeming love. Remember how God shows us mercy, using any available means to bring us into a deeper relationship with Christ?

Then he brings up the way Joshua led the people across the Jordan, FINALLY into the Promised Land. He recalls how after generation upon generation first of slavery in Egypt, then as a people wandering around in the desert wilderness, the promise of God was fulfilled. After walking faithfully and humbly with God, not always know why we were doing what we were doing, how we were going to make it where we were going, we were finally brought to the land of God’s blessing. Remember how God’s footsteps lead us right where we belong? Remember how God never left the our poor, questioning side?

Yes, one of our greatest callings and privileges as the body of Christ and individually members of it is to glorify God, worship God, give praise and honor and make sacrifices to God. But what God requires of us, what will take away God’s frustration and sadness over our personal attempts is when we take it to the next level. What does God require of each of us? That we enact God’s justice on behalf of the poor and the forgotten. That we show God’s mercy to those cast aside and left out. That we walking with faith and humility wherever God chooses to take us.

The blessings of God don’t come to us because we are completing the right checklist. That would be the way the world operates. God’s ways are not our ways. God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom. Instead God’s blessings are with those who are poor, those who mourn, those who are meek, those who are merciful, those who work for peace and righteousness and the unexpected ways of God. God asks us to take it to this next level. God asks us to step up to this greater challenge with this greater reward - - that in stepping up to the challenge we will be filled with Christ’s love enough to share.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

In Every Way

1 Corinthians 1:1-9

It would have been easy for Paul to just walk away. His joyful and celebratory opening to this letter to the church at Corinth doesn't tell the whole story. The church in the Greek city of Corinth was one of his “babies.” He had spent 18 months there, preaching, teaching, and evangelizing to build up this new community, and he did it all while facing extreme pressure and persecution from the establishment. And things didn't get much better after he left.

In addition to opposition from outsiders, things started going wrong on the inside of the church. Divisions arose, along with a corruption of practice and preaching. Factions argued about who was more spiritual. Immorality was running rampant. Brothers and sisters in Christ turned on one another with lawsuits. Worship was a mess. The church was arguing and bickering and drawing arbitrary lines in the sand about who was in and who was out.

Few people would have blamed Paul if he had ignored the pleas of those who apparently begged him to stay involved, to guide them back to effective ministry, but in the opening of his letter back to the Corinthians he tells them exactly why he didn't ignore them, why he wouldn't end their relationship. He tells them exactly why he believes they shouldn't turn away from one another, but find a way forward in the name of Christ. It all comes down to one word for Paul, a word he uses four times in this opening greeting.

Paul, called to be an apostle. The church, called to be saints. Together with all those who call on Jesus. By God called into fellowship. For Paul, it seems, it all comes down to call. He couldn't ignore the Corinthians because God called him and sent him to that place and those people. He couldn't and wouldn't shut the relationship completely down, because the relationship wasn‟t something he had formed from his own desire, on a whim. He was in relationship with the Corinthians, even if he was no longer living among them, because God had called him to them. God had joined them together in the Spirit.

Likewise the church at Corinth wasn't meant to be just a gathering of like-minded people who thought it would be fun to get together every once in a while. The church wasn't and isn't a social club created by its members for their own enjoyment, for the support of their own positions, or even to help out the community every once in a while. The church wasn't and isn't, at least as Paul understands it, some random voluntary organization that people join because the mission statement sounds nice, they seem to do a lot of good around town, and it looks good to the neighbors.

The church is the church OF God. The church is assembled by a very special invitation, an invitation that comes from God. The bounds of the church are not set by human minds nor human rules, but are instead set far and wide by God, the Father and Mother of us all who calls us children together into one body. Who are we, the ones who are called, not the ones doing the calling, to decide who is in and who is out? Who are we to even exclude ourselves from the body of Christ when it is God who calls us together, when it is God who calls us imperfect creatures together?

There have been and will be times in many of our lives when we will face a temptation to take ourselves out of the body of Christ, maybe a particular congregation, maybe the universal gathering of the people of faith all together. There are many and varied situations that might lead someone down this road of discernment, and I do believe that there are legitimate and Spirit-filled reasons to come to the decision that it is time to leave a congregation. I do believe that God can call us from one gathering of God's church to another. However, it is never a light decision and it should never be because we believe the new body is any more perfect than the last.

Paul says that the church called together is sanctified, made holy, but he never says it is perfect. Actually, I think the word sanctified really points to how imperfect we are. We have to be called together ansd made holy by God and God alone because we could never do it on our own. We could never be called the saints Paul says we are by our own power and practice of living. It would be easy to hear mistakenly in that word “perfect, above reproach, right.” It would be easy to hear in that word that we are better than others, holier than the rest, but we shouldn't allow ourselves to fall to that temptation. Being sanctified means first that the church has NEEDED God's blessing.

God takes imperfect, unholy, even sinful people, and calls us together into one body, setting us aside for God's purposes. Again, who are we to judge God's call?
There was a time in the history of this church, like many or most churches, when its members were faced with that decision. There was a time when people were deciding if God was calling them into other communities of faith or if God was calling them to remain in relationship here. As I can only imagine and as I understand from your telling, it was a painful and difficult time. It was a time that pointed to the humanity of the people of God, to our imperfections, our brokenness, and ultimately our dependence upon God. It was a time like Paul faced when people probably wouldn't have blamed you from just walking away.

But it also turns out that it was a time when God's call was made clear, because some people stayed. Some people stayed to work together and work things out. This is not to say that those who left were any less faithful. No, I do believe there are times that God calls us to new churches and new relationships in the family of faith. But what we celebrate today is that some people realized that this gathering of the saints of God was not a haphazard gathering. This church was called into being by God, and covered in the grace and the Spirit of God they committed themselves to the hard work of learning what it means to be called by God to be here together with all their different gifts, with all their different blessings to bring to the table.

Key to accepting the call to be together for this or any church is remembering that God is at the center, remembering that we are the church OF God. It is not by our own choice, but by the Spirit's leading that we are called to this or any church. It is God who calls us here; it is God who desires our diversity of gifts and expressions of faith. It is God who ensures that we who are gathered are enriched with every spiritual gift that is needed to carry out the call before us, the call to lift our voices and our actions in praise of our Lord Jesus Christ. The result is a community that is not monolithic, a purposely mixed and varied family of faith.

It is purposeful, but that doesn't make it easy. The challenge as Christians in the midst of diverse community is to stay in relationship for the sake of Christ. The challenge is to understand that as strongly as one holds an opinion about the music, the walls, the children's education, the adult education, the role of the session, the direction of our mission, there is someone else who holds another opinion just as tightly. The challenge from Paul and from this history of our church, the challenge that this five year old building testifies to is the challenge to respond to God's call with a resounding yes. Yes, I will stay in relationship with your people. Yes, I will stay in relationship with you. Yes, I will sacrifice my comfort some of the time for the benefit of others, because I trust that yes, they will do the same for me later.

Five years ago, the Our Town Presbyterian Church family in Christ was called to move into this new building and begin worshiping, and learning, and growing here. Many who were here then speak of it as time when our call out of division toward unity in Christ was fully embodies. In moving to a new space with a new commitment to be together enriched in every way by our diversity, we were called and rededicated to a holy way of life, with God at the center, blessing each and every member with gifts to contribute to the gospel ministry. Intentionally or unintentionally it was a fresh start. It was a unique chance to bring the best of what the church was and leave the rest behind. It was a chance to reassemble under the grace and peace of God.

Even today, this new building challenges us to be the church that Paul describes; it challenges us to see ourselves and others as apostles of Jesus, called and sent to make the gospel, the good news of God's re-creation, known in the world. It challenges us to live in holy community with another, not perfect, but sanctified. Forgiven and forgiving when mistakes are made, loving when personalities clash. It challenges us to remember that the building is not an end in itself, the building is the means by which we live out our calling to be followers of Jesus.

In the final report of the Building Workgroup to the congregation five years ago, it was said, “One thing we need to be cautious about is looking at the new building with an attitude of 'what can it do for me?' On the contrary, we should be wondering 'how can we use this building to better carry out our mission in the community?' As proud as we might be of it, it is not 'our building.' It is just 'ours to use.' Hopefully, it will be used a lot and for many different purposes all of which are in accordance with God's will. Knowing this congregation as I do, I am optimistic about us doing just that and I know we can do it if we all participate.”

The building is where we gather to worship God together in community regularly, but it's not the only place we ever have to worship. The building is where our educational ministries are anchored, but we can learn in a variety of settings in the world. The building is where we meet to organize and plan our ministry in the community and hopefully around the world, but the building is not the end all be all of who we are in this church. We celebrate five years in this beautiful, beautiful, inclusive space, but we dare not hide in our new building. We dare not point to the day this congregation moved into this building and say, “There we finished what God wanted us to do.” That was just the new beginning. And from that new beginning we
are called to serve Jesus in many different ways, in every way that we have been blessed.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Friday Five: Time to Get Up and Play

Singing Owl gave us an easy, fun Friday Five over at the RevGals. "Share five things that made getting out of bed worthwhile for you today!"

I didn't know them when I woke up, but I can count them easily as the day is winding up.

In chronological order:
1. My baby, Pearl, started eating her first finger food - - Cheerios of course.
2. My big boy, Godzilla, was SO EXCITED about his first day of the new session of swimming lessons and did an awesome job.
3. My husband made blueberry pancakes for dinner.
4. My big girl, LadyPrincess, started reading tonight.
5. Godzilla and LadyPrincess had a BALL playing with the "run and jump" feature on her camera, and I know there are some awesomely adorable pictures to download.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Flying Together

Isaiah 42:1-9
Matthew 3:13-17

It's the first thing he does in the gospel. Up to now everything has been done to him or has been written about him, but today we heard about the first things Jesus does himself. Right from the start he's not doing what is expected. John is completely confused, "You come to me?" Moments before he was telling the crowds that he is not worthy to even carry the sandals of the one about whom he speaks, and now the One is standing before him, submitting himself to John's baptism. From the start he is doing things completely different.

From Matthew himself forward a lot of ink has been spilled trying to figure out why it is that Jesus had to be baptized. John's baptism was a baptism of repentance, of cleansing from sin, but our understanding of Jesus is that he was sinless. John called people to the water to confess their sins and turn their lives toward God, but Jesus had none and was God made flesh. His baptism by John confuses not only the faithful today, but the baptizer himself.

I'm not going to solve the biblical mystery right here, right now, either, but I will say that what I see going on is Jesus joining us in solidarity with what we need. From the start he is identifying himself as with us, as one of us. He may not NEED a baptism of repentance, for he is, as the letter of Hebrews says, like us in every way yet without sin, but even still he voluntarily submitted himself to a baptism like ours to experience it and to join together with us as we rise out of the water together. In receiving the baptismal waters, Jesus shows us what our baptismal life is supposed to be like.

For Jesus, his baptism is the start of everything. It's the start of his public ministry. Save for one adolescent incident in the temple recorded by Luke, Jesus doesn't do anything as the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God until he is baptized, until the skies are opened and the Holy Spirit descends on him like a dove, until he hears God's reassuring and blessed words, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." He does nothing, at least that gets recorded, until after he is baptized. It is his entrance into ministry.

That is our belief, too. Baptism is our entrance into ministry. Last week we baptized a beautiful seven month old little girl; she is now a minister in God's name. She is a minister with each and every single one of God's baptized children, God's children of all ages. Like each one of us she was marked as Christ's own, sealed to him and to his purposes and to his ministry forever. Like each one of us her baptism was not an end in itself; it was just a beginning.

So, how did Jesus' ministry start? Well, from the very beginning it was about going out. From the very beginning, Jesus' ministry was about leaving home. "Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan." His first action in the whole gospel, the first thing he does himself, not that is done to him or told about him, the first thing he does is leave his home.

Baptismal ministry calls us away. Baptismal ministry does not keep us grounded. Baptismal ministry sends us off in flight, up, away, out of the font in which we were drenched in God's love. Baptismal ministry does not separate us from the world and mark us solely for service inside the walls of the church.

Jesus was not baptized in a synagogue or a temple or another place of ritual, and those baptismal options were available. There were baths set aside for religious and ritual cleansings, but he didn't go there. He went to John at the Jordan, the wild and running water. He went outside of the place of ritual to begin his ministry where it would mostly take place, in the world, not in the synagogue. Likewise, baptism marks us as children of God and sends us out in Jesus' name to share God's love and act with God's righteousness in the world.

That righteousness word can really trip us up, though. We've been well warned against acting self-righteous. Righteousness sounds arrogant; it sounds like we believe we can achieve perfection. Righteousness sounds holier-than-thou to our modern ears, but really what Jesus is talking about here, what Isaiah was talking about in his prophecy, is more of a "holy-for-thou." Righteousness is not about some status that is higher than another. It's not about being better, more holy, more blessed, more perfect than others.

Righteousness in Scripture is about obeying God so fully that the actions of our lives match the confessions of our lips and hearts. Righteousness is about living what we believe, particularly so that others may see God in what we are doing. Righteousness is about doing justice, opening blind eyes, bring those who are forgotten out of their dungeons, shining God's light into deep, dark places. Righteousness is about following God so closely that not only our words, but our actions are pleasing to God so that new things spring forth from our lives.

And most of all righteousness comes when we work for it together. When John protests about baptizing Jesus, Jesus responds with a message of inclusion, of cooperative ministry. "It is proper for US in this way to fulfill all righteousness." "It is proper for US." In being baptized at the start of his ministry, Jesus did not fulfill all righteousness alone. For that matter, neither did John the Baptist. They worked TOGETHER to fulfill God's call. They worked together to take a step on the path of righteousness. They worked together to demonstrate God's love and God's Spirit that is present in the person of Jesus.

In working together, in flying up out of the baptismal waters that have clothed us in the garment of God's grace together, we have a chance of doing the same, of working as the body of Christ in the world. In uniting our spirits and our efforts toward common goals and and the common call of the Spirit we are obedient to God, reflective of the unity of Christ's body and purpose, and one step closer to fulfilling righteousness as we do the new thing that God declares.

Last year our congregation participated in a period of discernment about God's call to this collective body of Christ. I don't believe that discernment is a "one and done" kind of activity, but is on-going. Yet through our listening sessions, our prayer, session retreats, and our worship together we identified several ministries toward which we hear God calling.

We heard God calling us to work in God's name in our community. We heard God calling us to serve others as a whole body, all ages and all abilities working for a common purpose. We heard God calling us to reach out to parts of our community that are missing from local churches, particularly individuals and families living with disabilities. And all of this we captured in a garden parable, a word picture of what this part of God's kingdom will look like when we're being just what God is calling us to be in the world.

We wrote and proclaimed: “In the kingdom of God, our community of faith is called to be a welcoming garden planted and sustained by the Spirit of God. Many hands work as one to plan, sow, nurture, and harvest. Inviting diversity, we bloom in all season of life. With compassion for those who are weary, we provide continuous shelter, healing, support, and growth. From the abundance of blessings we receive, we celebrate and share with those close and far the nourishing and life-giving love of our Lord.”

After discerning and identifying God's call for us to be garden of welcome, it seemed like things came to a bit of a stand still. The session was still thinking about what our discernment meant and how we were going to put it into action, but other seemingly more pressing issues started to take over our attention, and our focus went elsewhere. Our focus turned inward to the immediate needs of this church, our home, specifically our budget.

But now, God's baptismal call is pulling us outside of ourselves. God's baptismal call is drawing us away from our home and out into the world, so that we can fly with the Spirit, fly together to serve God as we serve others. God has shown us a way to be a garden of welcome in the world, and even to take our garden out into the world.

At its December meeting the session accepted a baptismal challenge on behalf of this congregation. A local organization that used to be housed here in our building wants to build a garden at their new property. They want to develop a green space that will support small-scale, community supported agriculture food production that teaches valuable life skills, provide a large grassed play area for their clients and a calming garden setting, beautify their property, and enclose their property for safety. They have some funding set aside for the project, but more work can be done with more money and so community-wide fundraising and some grant-writing is planned.

This church knows gardens. In the spring and summer just about everyone who comes into our building for the first time comments on the beautiful native prairie grass garden that members maintain in our parking lot. Members of our church and community delight in the garden setting of our outdoor labyrinth. More of you than I could begin to count enjoy working with the earth at your homes, and others like me are willing to learn. Our church heard God calling, and we are going to help build a garden.

This will be a project for our whole congregation. Involvement is not just about a few able-bodied individuals who can help on what I've started to call "Dig Day," even if it will be more like "Dig Days." Involvement will comes from all areas of our congregation and the organization as we partner with them and especially with God's Spirit to serve this important and unique part of our community.

Our children might work with clay alongside the organization's clients to make garden markers for the raised beds. Members who sew might help make aprons for holding tools while the youth are working in their garden or for gathering money when they eventually sell what they grow at the Farmer's Market. Those who are less mobile may help by writing thank you notes for the monetary and in-kind donations we hope to receive from the community. Crafters may create handmade items that can be sold in a silent auction. Musicians may put together a concert or "play-a-thon" or provide entertainment for the dedication celebration and outdoor worship when the project is complete. Others may participate by purchasing the materials for one of the raised beds. There are countless opportunities for the whole congregation's involvement, and that is the goal - - the involvement of the whole congregation.

The session has heard that this is one way God is calling us into baptismal ministry right here and right now, a ministry that takes us outside of our home in this church building and requires us to work together for God's purposes, not our own. It is a relatively short term project that will hopefully lead to long term relationships. The session has heard that this one way God is calling us to serve our community. It is our prayer and our vision that we are joining God's Spirit at work in the world. It is our prayer and our vision that we will fly together in this ministry.

With God's grace, may it be so.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Back Again!

I have been off lectionary almost the entire time I have been back at work since Pearl was born. It's been different. In some ways I have liked picking Scripture that seems especially in tune to the local situation of our congregation. In other ways it has been very difficult. It's not been my usual style, and I've been outside of my comfort zone in preparing and writing. This has also made it difficult to stick to my new plan of getting my sermon at least mostly written before Saturday night. Well, I'm coming back to the lectionary for as long as I can imagine, so hopefully I'll be able to re-establish that routine I was getting myself into. It doesn't help that today is Tuesday, and I'm already a day behind since yesterday was my New Year's holiday. Oh well. I'll give it a shot.

I'm coming in on the Baptism of Jesus Sunday, not one of my favorites. These in between Sundays, Baptism of Jesus, Tfig, Trinity (OH especially Trinity!), and such are not my favorite preaching Sundays. Even when we're lucky enough to get another telling of the same story from a different gospel each year it is very hard for me to hear something new in them each time. I try to preach from the differences between the gospel accounts, so it isn't necessarily a sermon from the generic story, but a sermon from the particular text. I don't know how that will work this time.

It was going to be the celebration of the 5th year in our new church building, but I've been told we're delaying that a week. I had sort of worked it into my thoughts. This is also the week I'm announcing a new big mission project that will be our focus for the next 6-9 months. I sort of had an idea about the best way to honor our building and the church family it has fostered is to get out of it. I was hearing in the text the words that Jesus came FROM Galilee to Jordan. To start his ministry he had to leave his hometown. He had to get outside of his familiar walls, be doused in the water and the Holy Spirit, and then be sent out to do his ministry.

I just peeked ahead to next week to see what I can do with the building piece if I go this way with the Baptism of Jesus. I love 1 Cor. 1:1-9 in which Paul gives thanks for the community, and how they have been enriched in Jesus and are not lacking in any spiritual gift. I think I'll run with that and have the service be a thanksgiving of all the gifts among our congregation, our new building for one, but then the community it has fostered.

I think I'm good to go! Jesus needed to leave home to start his ministry this week. Spiritual gifts and the strength of the community in Christ next week!

I'm so glad to be back to working WITH the community of preachers. It feels so so good!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Dear Ruby

Dear Ruby,

Today in our worship, after the water that baptized you fell on your precious head, we heard about the wise men who went to see another precious baby. We heard about how they came from some other land in the east because they had seen a star in the sky that was fit only for a king. Wondering, waiting, intrigued and inspired they left on a journey to find the precious life the star announced.

We don't really know from where they came or what their lives were like, but something pulled them away from their homes, their friends, their families to travel far away in search of the unknown. They must have REALLY NEEDED to find something. They must have longed so deeply for the king whose gifts they bore. They must have longed so intensely that they knew it would be true. They must have had hope.

Hope is a word we can toss around pretty casually. Sometimes I say I hope my favorite TV show isn't a rerun tonight. Other times we hope our football team will win. But real hope is something completely different. It's more than a wish; it's an action. REAL hope is longing for something promised so much that you're willing to act on it even before you have seen it come true. REAL hope is following a star to find a king.

Real hope is baptizing a precious child. What a blessing it is to start this new year with your baptism, Ruby! By your birth we can be sure that God has not given up on the world. God has chosen to continue to bring new life among us. You are a symbol of God's promise to each of us. You are a sign of God's covenant, God's promise to nurture and redeem life, not destroy it. You are a sign of the new hope for the future that God has made possible in the world. There is still hope for tomorrow.

That's why we baptized you. It was our way of following a star. We long for what God has promised, that one day every knee shall bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord. We long for what God has promised, that God's promises are for us and for our children and for our children's children. We long to be called children of the light. We long to be welcomed into God's loving arms even when we have turned away and squandered the lives we have been so graciously given. We long for a loving king, a gentle shepherd, a compassionate teacher who draws us in, guides us, and teaches us in the way we should go. We long to be adopted into the family of God with Christ our brother.

Your baptism put our longing into action, Ruby. Your baptism was our bold declaration that we believe what Scripture says about God's promises are true. We told you and we told the world that you belong to God, that even before you can respond in faith, God has chosen you to be a princess in the divine kingdom, to inherit the grace and riches of God. God has chosen you to be God's child. Your baptism was a celebration of our hope, our holy longing to be a part of what we know is true even if we can't always see it clearly right now. Your baptism was your public entrance into people of God and the demonstration of our hope for you and for the world.

We hope for you, Ruby, that you will experience God's love. We hope for you, Ruby, that you will feel accepted in Christ's church. We hope for you that you will find delight in God's grace, that you will praise Christ's glory, that you will be led by the Spirit to serve others in the world. We hope for you that you will trust in God's mercy, know God's forgiveness, and share God's love in your life. We baptized you because we long for the day when you will know this is true, and we are promising to do everything we can to make that day come soon.

Ruby, we baptized you because we love you. We all promised to show you that love by sharing that which is the most precious gift we have, our faith. Your parents promised; your godparents promised. This entire church promised for ourselves and for any other church you may know in all your days. We all promised that we will put our longing into action, we will teach you about God and share the love of Christ with you.

Today we followed a star. Today we stepped out in faith on the promises of God, and we claimed those promises for you. Someday you will have the chance to follow your own stars, to act on your own longing to know and to be known, to love and to be loved by God. As you journey toward that day, our prayers and our love and our support are with you. That is what we promised.

In Christ's holy name,
Your Church