I’m Not Gay, But That Shouldn’t Matter

Very thoughtful article by a very thoughtful person!

Linda's Bloughts

I am coming out as not gay.  That’s right. I am not gay.

Sounds strange to tell you that and yet, I felt I had to.  The need comes from the fact that due to how I look, how I dress, what I enjoy, how short my hair is and whom I support, suddenly puts me into the category of being gay and worse, non-Christian.  Why?

Why does it even matter who I am or what I believe?  Understand that this belief comes from years of researching scripture, questioning critics, and following Jesus’ Ministry.  I IMG_1812have a master’s degree from seminary. I have another masters in patient counseling. I have 15 plus years of studying scripture and its context.  I have 20 years of being a follower of Christ.  I should have the respect that is deserved from having delved into the words of God and actions of Jesus Christ…

View original post 1,809 more words

Why Follow Jesus?


Mark 1:14-20 NRSV

My wife Lori has always taken after her father: easy going, cool, calm and collected. She is never stressed, uptight, and never in a hurry. She is deliberate, slow, methodical, a mull-it-over kinda girl. When our realtor handed us papers to sign for the sale of the house this week, although it has been on the market for six months, Lori said she needed another day to sleep on it.

I will never forget the first time I put my moves on her. It was the last Thursday night of May 1986. We were on the campus of Wake Forest University for a week of orientation for the Baptist State Convention’s Summer Youth Corps program. We were taking a crash course to learn in one week how to be a youth minister for the summer. Following a worship service that evening, I made eye contact with Lori and sashayed myself over to meet her on the other side of the room. With words that were as smooth 19 year old face, I asked her to go outside with me to take a walk. I then turned and walked toward the door with utmost confidence that she was going to be following right behind me. As soon as I got outside just knew I was going to turn around and see her standing there smiling from ear to ear. However, I turned only to discover that I was standing outside by myself.

I stood there all alone and waited. A couple of minutes passed by, seemed like a couple of hours. I peeked in the window and saw her just sitting there inside, like she had nowhere to go. Five more minutes passed. And just as I was about to turn and give up, go back to my room rejected and dejected, she finally came outside.

The fisherman who were called by Jesus responded in a very non-Lori way. Jesus did not have to wait. There was no hesitation, no reluctance, no qualms whatsoever on the part of the fisherman. When Jesus called, Mark says that they “immediately” followed him. And not only did they follow Jesus with immediacy, Mark also tells us that without any dillydallying or shillyshallying the fisherman left their families and their businesses to follow Jesus.

I believe this is the most perplexing part of our scripture lesson this morning. It begs the question: Why? Why did these fishermen immediately leave everything behind to follow this man named Jesus?

At first glance, we might assume that these fishermen simply did not have much to leave behind. We might assume that they were poor, destitute hobos where were fishing for their next meal. And any change in their life would be a good one. Any move in their life would be one in the positive direction. In their desperate circumstance, there was only one way they could go and that was up.

However, we learn in this story that this was certainly not the case, because hobos do not work with their fathers and hired hands. These were successful fishermen who had security working in a family business. They were like most Jewish men. They had a family. They had a wife. They probably had children. But as soon as Jesus called, they immediately left it all behind to follow.

So they mystifying question is “why?” Why would these fishermen forsake all that they were and all that they have to follow Jesus?

Well, we could suppose that these fishermen believed they would somehow be rewarded for following Jesus. There was something to be gained. However there is nothing in this text that would lead us to believe this is the case. And nowhere in the gospels are we ever told that Jesus promises these fishermen any reward. There is no promise of more money, more friends, more influence, or more respect. The other thing we know they are ever promised by Jesus is persecution and conflict.

Well, we might suppose that the disciples simply thought that fishing for people would somehow be more satisfying than fishing for fish. I have often heard this text preached contrasting the worldly occupation of fishing for fish with the more spiritual occupation of fishing for people. And I suppose I suppose that could sound rather altruistic.

The church I served in Winston-Salem had a men’s choir that sang on special Sundays. They proudly called themselves: “The Singing Fishermen.” Although many of them loved to actually fish, they also understood that Jesus had called them to also fish for people. They understood that God has called them to catch people, to rescue people from the sea, to bring them on board, put them in the boat to experience God’s grace, love and mercy.

However, there is nothing in our scripture lesson this morning that indicates that these fishermen are able to understand this concept. After years of reading and studying the words and works of Jesus, we can grasp it. But how can we possible expect these first disciples to grasp it? How can we expect these to who prove over and over that they fail to understand Jesus to grasp this? After fish are caught, they die. They are gutted, cleaned, and broiled or fried. Then they are eaten. So what happens to people when they are caught? Knowing these disciples, I suspect that they are much more than a little confused.

So we are left with the question: why? Why do these men leave everything they possess, their jobs, their families, all forms of security, to follow this man named Jesus? Why do they give up a family business with a very secure future for some business that is ill-defined at best?

New Testament scholar Beverly Gaventa comments that there is absolutely nothing in these verses that tell us why these fishermen do what they do, why they leave it all behind to follow this man whom they cannot understand, on a journey that will perplex and confuse them, to a destination that is unspecified.

Why do they act in faith without any hesitation? And what kind of faith is this? Gaventa writes: “It is not a faith that understands. It is not a faith that takes only calculated risks. And it is not a faith that seeks a reward.”

She continues: It is a faith that responds with immediacy to a call from outside, a call that must remain unclear for them, even frightening. Responding to Jesus provides the fishermen with no security, but rather with the promise of rejection and danger. But they respond nonetheless. Immediately, they follow Jesus. And we are still left scratching and shaking our heads asking: Why?[i]

Maybe this is the point that God wants us to take from this scripture passage. Could it be that our lives as disciples of Christ make too much sense?

Think about it. Is there any part of our lives that are as perplexing as the lives of the first disciples who forsook it all to follow? Do people ever look at who we are and how we act; do they ever look at our selflessness and sacrifice; do they look at our faithful and immediate response to our Lord, then scratch and shake their heads, asking: why?

Why did she agree so quickly to serve on that ministry team?

Why does he travel every year to Nicaragua?

Why does she want to go back to West Virginia?

Why does he give up a Saturday to build a handicap ramp?

Why are they bringing new underwear to church?

Why does she care so much for the poor?

Why does she visit the nursing home and spend valuable time with strangers?

Why does she tutor a kid that is not in any way related to her?

Why does he help prepare meals for people who have in no way earned it or even deserve it?

Why do they give sacrificially of their hard earned money to the church?

Why is he so kind?

Why is she so loving?

Why are they so forgiving?

Why are they so welcoming?

Why doesn’t he ever complain?

Why does he have so much joy in the midst of so much suffering?

Why did she go into the funeral home with so much hope?


And our only answer to these questions is because we have heard a call from outside. And with a faith that does not and cannot completely understand, we have responded to that call, and we follow.

[i] Sermon inspired from the comments of Beverly Gaventa, Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year B, 1993.

Divine Strength of John Barefoot

Exodus 17:9-13 NRSV

In the 17th chapter of the Book of Exodus we read the amazing story of how the Israelites defeated of their enemy, the Amaleks. The Amaleks were a group of nomads who attacked the Hebrews in the desert of Mount Sinai during the Exodus from Egyptian slavery. The Amaleks swooped in on the Israelites and cowardly killed those who were lagging behind: the weary, the old, the weak and frail.

For that is what the enemies of life do. They can attack us at any time, during our strongest times when we are young, but perhaps more so, during our weakest times, often when we are older. Cancer, heart disease, and debilitating strokes swoop in on many during that precious period of life that we call retirement, during that period of life where we look forward to well-earned rest, respite, and recreation.

John Barefoot was not the first person to receive a new set of golf clubs as a retirement gift that he would never use due to sickness or a disability.

And when the enemies of this life attack us, we are faced with a choice. We can surrender to our enemies; we can succumb to their attacks; or, like an old Army veteran, we can stand our ground and fight.

“Moses said to Joshua, ‘Choose some men for us and go out; and fight with Amalek.”

After faithfully serving this country in the US Army, after devoting his life to what is now Southern States, after raising two beautiful children, Roger and Linda, after thirty years of service through this community through the First Christian Church, John began to suffer debilitating strokes. Many men, in John’s shoes, surrender and succumb to such illnesses, especially after retirement. After all, they are weary and old; they no longer lack the strength within to fight. They can reach down and dig deep; however, there is just nothing left. No amount of digging will see them through.

However, men with faith in the God of Abraham and Isaac, Moses and Joshua, men with faith in the God revealed in the Risen Christ, understand that true strength does not come from within, but comes from and by the grace of God.

Moses said to Joshua: “Choose an army and fight. I, myself, retired a long time ago from fighting. I left the army years ago. I am too old, too tired, but I will stand on the top of a hill and raise the staff of God with my hands and summon the grace and strength of God to defeat our enemy.”

So Joshua did as Moses told him, and fought with Amalek, while Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of a hill.

Whenever Moses held up his hand, Moses noticed that Israel prevailed; and whenever he lowered his hand, he noticed that Amalek prevailed. [This was a certain sign that it was God, and God alone, who was giving the Israelites the grace, perseverance and strength to defeat their enemy].

There can be no other explanation for the strength and the perseverance of John Barefoot, especially during these last years of his life. As I have said, many in John’s shoes would have surrendered and succumbed twenty-five years ago. Possessing no reason to live, no sense of purpose, and no strength to fight, many men die shortly after their retirement.

Many more men die shortly after their wives pass away. Several years ago when Audrey died, it would not have surprised anyone if John followed her soon after.

But John kept going, kept persevering, kept fighting. Many studies have been made to identify symptoms of depression or the giving up on life. People who give up and surrender to the enemies of life become detached and disengaged from the world around them. They no longer care what their neighbors are up to. They become disinterested in their church, the local and national headlines, and interestingly, they no longer care about sports.

John possessed none of these symptoms. John always looked forward to visits from his church family. He absolutely loved taking a stroll in his wheelchair around the neighborhood and even downtown so he could see the people he loved. He cared about what was going on in the world, and he was in no way, shape or form disengaged from sports. He was an avid fan and loved rooting for the Wolfpack of NC State and the Atlanta Braves.

It was obvious to everyone that John, though weak and weary, never gave up. For as Isaiah 40:29 reads, John was a living testimony that “God gives strength to the weary, and to him who lacks might God increases power.” And in the 73rd Psalm we read: “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” John Barefoot was a living example to all of this great truth.

Our story continues in Exodus: “But Moses’ hands grew weary; so Aaron and Hur took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it. And Aaron and Hur held up the hands of Moses, Aaron on one side and Hur on the other, and the hands of Moses were steady until the sun set.”

God has always used others to do God’s work in this world. God calls each of us to minister to one another. God uses us to supply God’s strength to those who are weak, to keep them steady, to help them fight the good fight, to finish the race. Such was the case in this victory of Amalek. Moses did not possess the strength to keep his hands raised through the duration of the battle, so God sent him Aaron and Hur who brought him a rock to sit upon and then held up each of his hands.

God also sent John others to give him support when he was the most weary. Church members visited. He children cared for him daily. And caregivers from Silvercare came to John’s aid. You could say that they brought him a rock and steadied his hands until the sun set. Pam Johnson, Catherine Walker and Savilla Jones were to John like Aaron and Hur were to Moses.

“And the hands of Moses were steady until the sun set. And Joshua defeated Amalek and his army.”

God always supplies us with strength for a purpose. God supplied Moses with strength through Aaron and Hur for the purpose of defeating the enemy. Thus, God did not supply John with strength, send him a rock through Pam, Catherine, Savilla and others who visited him and prayed for him just so John could watch a few more ballgames on TV. As Ephesians chapter 2 reads: “God will enable us to continue on in righteousness and to do the good works which the Lord has appointed for us.”

As God supplied Moses with the strength to keep his staff raised through the battle to defeat the enemy and to reveal the source that strength, I believe God supplied John with strength. As it was evident to all who encountered John—who saw his smile, heard his laughter, experienced his joy—that God was the source or his strength.


A month ago, a group of parents and children from our church came to John’s house to sing Christmas carols. One of the mothers that came with her children was someone who, just a couple of years ago, was not a part of any church. She said that she even avoided church and had many doubts about faith and the power of God.

But there, standing around John’s bed with others from the church singing Christmas carols, through John, something miraculous happened. God spoke. She said as she watched John donning a Santa hat and wearing a smile that was so amazing that it had to be divine, as she watched him sing along with the children the best that he could, with a joy, this amazing joy, a joy that had to come from heaven, she said that Christmas became real to her. Faith became real. God became real.

There is no telling how many people have been changed by God, how many battles have been won by God, how many of life’s enemies were defeated by God, through John Barefoot’s amazing strength in the midst of adversity, through John’s amazing joy in the midst of suffering, through God’s amazing grace in the midst of John’s life.

And the good news for us today is, that this same God, the God of Abraham and Isaac, the God of Moses and Joshua, the God revealed in the Risen Christ and in the life of John Barefoot, will give us strength in our grief, joy in our suffering and grace in our lives. God will send others: friends and family and church members to hold our hands, to keep them steady, until the sun sets, until the battle is won.

But the really good news is that the final battle, the battle with life’s final enemy has already been won. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “Death has been swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? Where is your sting?”

The good news for all of us today is that as God has stood by John and has given him strength to battle the enemies of life, through our resurrected Lord, God has defeated death, and John is now and forever with his Lord.

May this good news help us now to live our lives as John lived his: Persevering with the strength of God, receiving help from friends and family who provide us a rock, living with the purpose of sharing the joy and the hope of the Lord with all people, until the sun sets here and rises forever in eternity. Amen.

Come and See

come and seeJohn 1:35-51 NRSV

What are we doing here this morning? How did we get to this place? Why are we here this morning sitting in a worship service? How does faith happen?

Well, according to John, it all started one day when John the Baptizer saw Jesus walking by and said to two of his disciples: “Look.” “Look, here is the Lamb of God.”

When the disciples heard him say this, they immediately, almost enthusiastically, began to follow Jesus, spending the entire day with him. The disciple named Andrew went out and found his brother, Simon Peter and said, “We have found the Messiah.” He then brought Simon to Jesus so Simon could see for himself.

This is how church happens. This is how we got here. We are here this morning because one person told another person who told another person who told another person about Jesus. This is how our faith got started. It is the way our faith happens today. It is the way that it has always happened. It is the way it is intended to happen. It is to be shared personally, person to person to person.

Our scripture text continues…

The next day, Jesus went out to Galilee and found a man named Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Then Philip, much like Andrew who went and told Simon about Jesus, went out and found his friend Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote: Jesus, son of Joseph from Nazareth.”

And here’s where the story really gets interesting. Nathanael doesn’t respond with the eagerness and enthusiasm of Andrew or Simon when they first heard about Jesus. In fact, Nathanael responds much like we expect people to respond to Jesus today. He seems somewhat reluctant, cynical, skeptical, dismissive, and even rude. We can picture him arrogantly rolling his eyes asking, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”

We can picture this, because we have seen it. We’ve heard this before. Well, you’ve heard it if you have invited anyone to church before, and I am hoping that you have. Because that is how our faith works. It is how church works. It is shared personally, person to person.

Do you remember hearing the cynicism? “Can anything good come from the church these days?” “Does anything good ever come from organized religion?” Nathanael responds the same way most people respond to us when we bring up Jesus or the church these days.

However, notice how Philip responds to the cynicism of Nathanael. Philip does not respond in any of the ways I would respond. He doesn’t snap back, get defensive, or walk away disappointed or angry. I would probably start preaching a little sermon, defending God and the way of Jesus, making the case for why he needed to follow Jesus, that the things that he had heard about Jesus, Nazareth, and organized religion are not all true.

No, Philip doesn’t do any of those things. He lets Nathanael’s criticism roll off his back and simply answers: “Come and see.” What is interesting is that this is exactly how Jesus answered when Andrew and his friend asked Jesus where he was staying. Jesus said, “Come and see.”

Andrew went and saw, and he saw that Jesus never really stayed anywhere. He saw that foxes have holes and birds have nests but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head (Matthew 8:20). He saw that Jesus was continually on the move, on a journey, teaching, leading, touching, healing, forgiving, feeding, giving, welcoming, accepting, restoring.

Jesus simply said, “Come and see,” and when Andrew went and saw, he saw that he had indeed seen the Messiah.

And when Nathanael dismisses Philip, Philip simply responds: “Come and see.”

Professor of preaching Michael Rogness points out that our task is “not to prove the truth of the Christian faith” to a skeptic or a cynic. It is not even to persuade others to become Christian. Our task is simply to say to others: ‘Come and see.’”[i]

Philip could have responded, “But Nathanael, this Jesus knows an awful lot about the Bible, and he teaches with such authority.” He could have said: “But I have seen him perform miracles, heal the sick, and raise the dead.” Or he might have said, “There is something special about this man, about his teaching that just draws people him.” However, Philip simply said, “Come and see.”

And Nathanael came. And Nathanael saw this one who knew him by name, this one who saw the good that was in him, this one who loved him and promised to open up heaven for him.

Seminary president David Lose remarks: “Such simple…and inviting words.” “Come and see.” Words, he says sum up “not only the heart of the Gospel of John, but the whole Christian life.” Because the Christian faith, he says, is “all about invitation.”

“It’s not about cramming your faith down someone else’s throat. After all, nowhere in the Bible does it tell us to say, ‘Have you given your life to Christ?’” Nowhere does the Bible tell us to go up to strangers and ask: “Have you accepted Jesus into your heart?” “Have you been saved?” Or worse: “If you died this very day, do you know where you will spend eternity?” Or even worse: “God loves you and wants a personal relationship with you, but if you reject God, then God will send you straight to hell.”[ii]

No, we’re just asked to say (not to push, guilt or scare) but to say: “Come and see.” “Come and see for yourself what Christ means in my life.” “Come and see what Jesus has done for me.” “Come and see how Jesus informs my thinking, guides my life, gives my life meaning.” “Come and see for yourself the good things our church is doing in the name of Christ.” “Come and see.”

It is not our job to convert or to save; only to invite: “Come and see.”

And here’s the thing. If they can see that we are truly being sincere, if they can see in our eyes that we are being honest and genuine, that we are sharing from our hearts, we should expect them to be skeptical and cynical. We can fully expect them to dismiss what we are saying, or even make some smart-aleck response like: “I didn’t know anything good could come from church people these days!”

And when they do, when they hesitate or smirk, we need to understand that that’s okay. In fact, in this world, it is to always be expected. Because this good news that we are sharing—the good news that God, the creator of all that is, not only knows us by name, but loves us, sees the all of the good in us, gives God’s self to us, and promises to open up heaven for us—this good news does seem too good to be true.

Thus, we should completely understand if they pause at our invitation, if they look unsure, or even if they walk away. All we can do, all God wants us to do, is just say, “Come and see.”

Come and see a church that never stays put, but is always on the move. Come and see a church that does not invite you to come to church but to go and be the church.

Come and see a church that throws Birthday parties at the nursing home and parties on Christmas Day at the hospital.

Come and see a church that adopts folks into their membership who are homebound or are confined to a bed in a nursing home.

Come and see a church that rebuilds homes in West Virginia and takes medical supplies, clothing and reading glasses to Nicaragua.

Come and see a church that serves its community by feeding the hungry, building handicap ramps for the elderly, knitting prayer quilts for the sick, paying utility bills to keep homes warm for the poor, and by donating school supplies for children in need and pet food for dogs and cats in need.

Come and see a church that hosts baby showers for unwed mothers and baptizes unmarried couples who live together. Come and see a church that believes none of us are better than others, and all of us, each one of us, including the pastor lives in sin.

Come and see a church who, without condemning or judging genuinely welcomes all people to join their mission to be the Body of Christ in this world. Come and see a church that believes we are all called to be ministers; we are all disciples called to build up the Body of Christ by inviting others to join us.

Come and see a church that believes that the grace of God extends to all and that there is nothing in heaven or on earth, or in all of creation that can ever separate any of us from the love of God through Christ our Jesus Lord.

You don’t believe it? Of course you don’t. We don’t expect you to.  It sounds too good to be true.

So why don’t you just come and see!

[i] Michael Rogness, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2314

[ii] David Lose, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2314

Repeat the Sounding Joy

communionThe following was written by Alison Lord Stuart on January 12, 2015 for The Daily Reflector.

A good question to ask ourselves in the cold of January is just what will we take from Christmas into the New Year.  Maybe argyle socks, penny loafers, a cherished memory or an unspeakable loss.  Whatever it is that we fold in for the long journey, we will be different because of it.

Throughout December, I was mesmerized by certain words found in Joy To The World; “repeat the sounding joy.”  I have thought of the beauty wrapped into “sounding joy” and often wondered what it could be.  Then I heard it one morning at First Christian Church in Farmville and almost like an epiphany, I knew.  After the serving of Holy Communion, it was the sound of Communion cups being placed in pew holders. Similar, indeed, to the sound of pew benches being turned back after the serving of the same Sacrament. Both sounds indicating that our singular and corporate seeking of God’s forgiveness is fully present and fully heard.

For Believers, it is a majestic, full bodied, orchestration of sound.  The perfect balance; the fulcrum of falling short and being the beneficiary of unconditional love.  In a long week, month or year, it is a sound to be coveted. It is the sound of hope.

God’s will is that the discordance of our sin doesn’t have to be the end of our song or life story.  Forgiveness, strength and renewal are at God’s Table, there for the asking, freely given and freely received.

The sounding joy given to us by a Risen Savior is grace. It is in the wiping clean of our tarnished slates, in forgiving ourselves and others, and experiencing the dignity of a new beginning.  It is best heard when we rest our weary souls in the hollow of God’s hand, listen and repeat, repeat the sounding joy.

Only Love Drives Out Hate


I met a woman recently who said: “Jarrett, I cannot wait for you to meet my husband. He is a retired minister.”

“I would love to meet him,” I said. “I bet we have a lot to talk about.”

“You sure do!” she responded. “He hates a lot of things about church just like you!”

Initially, I responded to the woman by laughing and saying something like: “That’s right! I am certain that we will have a lot to talk about!” However, as I got in my car and drove back to my office, I thought about the tragedy of being primarily known in this world for what I hate.

If you have read my articles or listened to my sermons, you have heard me express some of my negative emotions regarding the church. I have criticized the church for being self-righteous, judgmental, exclusive, sexist, racist, homophobic, and ignorant. I have said that the church oftentimes looks more like a country club for the pompous than the Body of Christ doing the things Jesus did and loving the people Jesus loved. The reality is that there are many things about the church that I hate.

As I drove and reflected on the woman’s words, I was reminded of the words of Martin Luther King, Jr: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” And I ask myself: “Jarrett, what are you doing, what are you preaching and writing, how are you living, that shines the light of love?”

“Jarrett, What are you doing to be humble, accepting, and inclusive? What are you doing to do justice on the behalf of every person, to value the sacred worth of all people: male and female, black and white, Hispanic and Asian, gay and straight, open and close-minded, Christian and non-Christian? Jarrett, what are you doing to look like, act like, and be like Jesus in this world?”

If I can begin to work on these questions, maybe a time will come in my life when another person will approach me one day and say: “Jarrett, I cannot wait for you to meet my spouse. She is a retired minister. Her light shines in this dark world just like yours. She loves people and the church just like you!”

Baptism by Fire

baptism debate

Mark 1:9-11 NRSV

If you were to ask me what my favorite part church is, I would say that it the service of Christian baptism. I have always said that it is a good day when the preacher comes to church on Sunday with a Bible in one hand and a bathing suit and pair of dry underwear in the other.

Thus, I love this day on the Christian calendar that we call The Baptism of the Lord. Although I would much rather be getting wet this morning, and getting some of you even wetter, this day at least gives me the opportunity to reflect on the wonderful service of baptism.

Baptism is essentially about grace. Baptism is about new beginnings, fresh starts, and clean slates. Baptism is about dying to the old, broken self and rising to a new, better self. Baptism is about the confession, forgiveness and washing away of sins. It is about coming to know that there’s nothing in heaven or on earth that can ever separate us from the love of God. Baptism is about knowing God is with us, not away from us, for us, not against us. Thus, baptism is about living with a hope that is certain and eternal.

Baptism is about initiation into the Kingdom of God. Baptism is a commissioning to be the body of Christ in this world, the hands, legs, feet and mind of Jesus on this earth. There is a reason that baptism is often called a sacrament. Baptism is sacred. It is holy. It is grace, pure and unfettered.

There is perhaps nothing in the church that is more beautiful than baptism. How ironic is it then that some in the church have taken baptism and have created something very ugly. Throughout church history, baptism has created more controversy, schisms and arguments than perhaps any other ritual, service or rite.

Throughout my own ministry, I have seen people angrily walk out of church meetings over it. I have even seen people who have transferred their membership to another church over it. I know people who have written nasty emails, made harassing phone calls, and started vicious rumors—all over arguments about baptism. I know of churches that have even split over baptism.

I have had staff members threaten to resign if we changed our church’s bylaws to accept members who were baptized as infants or by sprinkling. In their eyes, they simply did not get wet enough to join God’s Kingdom. I have heard people argue that some were not old enough, mature enough, good enough, sincere enough, or even married enough to be baptized. A pastor friend of mine from Concord, North Carolina, was kicked out of the Baptist State Convention because a couple of folks he baptized were not straight enough. I even know people who have gotten upset, because the people being baptized in their church were not white enough.

The irony is that we have taken something beautiful that is essentially about God’s free and unfettered grace for all people, and created something incredibly ugly by placing restrictions, limitations and conditions on it. There have been more rules and regulations written in the bylaws of churches about baptism than any other service of the church.

Some churches believe that you can only baptize in a flowing creek or a river (the water has to be moving) because that was how Jesus was baptized. A stagnant pond, lake, and of course, a baptismal pool will simply not do. Some people believe you can only baptize when the church is gathered for a worship service. And most people believe that a baptism can only be performed by an ordained minister, who is, of course a male.

And once a person’s baptism has been accepted and approved, sanctioned by church officials as worthy of the grace of God, then one can use his or her baptism as an admission ticket to become a full-fledged member of the church. They can take communion, serve on a committee, become a voting member of the church board, and of course, one day, go to heaven.

Pastor Karoline Lewis once preached a sermon to her congregation emphasizing that baptism is not something that we do, but something that God does. She said that when we baptize someone in the name of God, we believe that it is God who is actually doing the baptizing. And she insinuated that when we make baptism something that we do, that we control, that we place limits and restrictions on, we pervert the very intentions God has for baptism, for God’s grace can never constrained.

After the sermon, a woman who was in her nineties approached her. “Karoline,” she said, “Is that really true?”

“What?” the pastor answered.

Hazel responded, “That God baptizes you.”

“Yes, it’s true. This is what we believe. Why?”

Hazel then told her pastor about her sister who was born several years before she was born. Her sister was born very ill in the home and never left the house because she was so sick. The family knew she would not live long. She lived about two months. Right before she died, Hazel says that her mother took her sister in her arms and lovingly baptized her.

When Hazel’s parents went to the pastor of their church where they had been lifelong members to plan the funeral, the pastor refused to hold the funeral in the sanctuary because he had not baptized the baby. The funeral was held in the basement of the church.

Hazel, almost a hundred years later, then asked her pastor, “Karoline, does this mean my sister is OK? Is she really OK?”

“Yes,” she said. “Your sister is OK.”

There was Hazel standing in front of her pastor, weeping for the sister she never knew, crying tears of relief and grace.

This is what happens, says Karoline, this is the ugly consequences restricting, placing limitations on the grace of God.

Of course, such restrictions and limitations on God’s grace is nothing new. The Jewish law was full of rules and regulations controlling who can and who cannot have access to God. Throughout history people of all cultures have sought to control and tame the grace of God.

This is why we need to be reminded of Jesus’ baptism. First of all, it was not in a controlled environment such as a baptismal pool or font in the confines of a religious hall, but out in the untamed, wide-open wilderness.

And we are told that when Jesus came up out of the water, that the heavens, according to some translations, were suddenly opened. Now there is a Greek word for open, but that word is not used in Mark 1:9. The word that is used means “ripped” or “torn” apart. The word describes a God who cannot take the separation any longer. God has had about all that God could stand and rips the heavens apart.

The question for us this morning is: who closed the heavens? Who placed the restrictions and limitations on God’s grace? Who placed the barriers between God and humanity? Who creates systems and structures to mediate God’s presence? Insist on rituals and formalities to regulate God’s grace, control the means of God’s love, not for the sake of good order (like we would like to think), but for the sake of our own power?

As a minister I cannot begin to tell you the amount of trouble I have gotten myself into over the years for baptizing people outside the controlled confines of the church’s bylaws. I have baptized people on days other than Sundays in places other than the church building. I have baptized people in rivers, in swimming pools, in small ponds, even in the Atlantic Ocean. I baptized one man with his head laid back in the basin of a sink at a nursing home, trusting that it is God, and not me, who is actually doing the baptizing. It is God, and not me, who rips the heavens apart to shower God’s people with grace.

For the same reason, I honor, respect and accept all baptisms—sprinkling, dunking, pouring, infant, adolescent and adult. And I believe baptisms can be performed by any Christian, clergy or laity, male or female. I do not believe people ever need to be re-baptized because some self-appointed or otherwise-appointed baptismal authority believes their baptism somehow did not “take,” failed to meet certain clerical requirements, or was not sincere enough or wet enough. There is but one Church, one Lord, one faith, and one baptism.

With Karoline Lewis and other ministers who understand that expansive abundance of God’s grace, I welcome all people to the Lord’s Table, because, well, the last time I checked, it’s the Lord’s Table. While some ministers only extend the invitation to those who have been baptized a certain way, I cannot, nor can I imagine Jesus turning anyone away.

What are we going to do? Require baptismal ID cards to be presented to the deacons before receiving communion? Are we to say to those who have not been baptized or not sure they have been baptized: “Sorry, you sitting there in the pew wondering if you have been baptized or not. When the plate of bread and tray of juice come to you, don’t take anything. Just politely pass it to the more worthy person sitting next to you who has the official seal of approval? Because, here at First Self-Righteous Church, we believe it is better to hedge our bets on the side of human reason and control rather than God’s abundant and unfettered grace.”[i]

When we take something as beautiful as the service of baptism as it was performed in the wide-open wilderness, with God ripping apart the heavens to get to God’s Son, to get to God’s people, to reveal God’s love and grace to the world, and we turn it into something that is restrictive, legalistic, divisive and exclusive, some sort of qualifying test for membership, communion, and salvation, then we have missed the whole point of who God is and who we are called to be as God’s Church.

However, when we begin to understand that at our baptisms, whether we were a tiny infant or a grown adult, whether we were sprinkled, dunked or poured upon, whether by clergy or by laity, male or female—When we understand that God, the creator of all that is, ripped open the heavens to come close enough to us so we could feel God’s breath and hear God say: “I love you. I have always loved you. And there is nothing that can ever limit, restrict or constrain this love. There is nothing in heaven or on earth that will ever separate you from this love. I know all of your shortcomings and all of your sins, and I forgive you. I am with you, and I will always be with you. You are my beloved son. You are my beloved daughter. You are my Church in this world”—When we understand this truth, this good news, then our baptisms become what they were always intended to be: pure, unfettered, abundant grace, and we can live with a hope that is as eternal as it is certain.

[i] Sermon inspired by: Karoline Lewis, Baptism of Our Lord, https://www.workingpreacher.org

Why the Christmas Tree Is Still Standing in January

Chrismon TreeEphesians 1:3-14 NRSV

There are many influences in this world that guide our lives, inform our thinking, and give us direction and meaning.

One of those influences is the distinct seasons of the year. Seasons result from the yearly orbit of the Earth around the Sun, the center of our universe, and the tilt of the Earth’s rotational axis. In other words, the changing of seasons means that the entire world is changing. Seasons change us in a powerful way, because the world changes. Winter, spring, summer and fall influence the things we wear, the things we eat, our hobbies and recreation, even our general mood.

The proprietors of capitalism realize the tremendous power and influence the seasons have over our lives and culture. Notice how they have manipulated them in the name of profit. For example summer begins not on June 21st but with Memorial Day sales in the department store and the opening of the tourist season. Autumn begins not on the 23rd of September, but with Labor Day sales. And winter did not begin on December 21, but actually on the day in November we call Black Friday.

A long time ago the Christmas season began on Christmas Eve and then was celebrated for 12 days until January 6 when Jesus’ baptism was observed. However, the money makers understood that there would be a greater payback if they could convince us that the Christmas season actually begins the day after Thanksgiving and lasts through New Year’s Day.

This is the reason that Christians in mainline churches that observe the Christian calendar are often a bit frustrated during Advent and this second Sunday after Christmas. Christians, who have been influenced and conditioned by the world, wonder why we have to sing those painful, solemn, anticipating, waiting hymns of Advent instead of the more cheerful Christmas carols during those Sundays after Thanksgiving. And we wonder why on earth the Christmas tree is still standing in the sanctuary and we are still singing carols days after the black-eyed peas have been consumed. After all, we have been taught by our world to believe that having any Christmas decorations up after New Year’s is, well, tacky.

However, what guides our lives, informs our thinking, and gives us direction and meaning is not anything that is of this world. The main influence on our lives is the birth, the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In Ephesians we read:

With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory (Eph 1:13-14).

Like winter, spring, summer and fall, Jesus change everything. When we embrace Jesus as our Savior and Lord, it is like the whole world tilts on its axis. Our whole world revolves around Jesus the Christ who is the center of our universe. We live for the praise of his glory. We believe Christ is God’s plan for all time.

Thus, our new year does not begin on New Year’s Eve watching a ball drop in a square shining bright with the lights of commercialism and materialism joyfully singing Auld Lang Syne with a few friends. Our new year has its beginning on a dark November morning around a simple Advent wreath, lighting one meager candle solemnly singing Come Thou Long Expected Jesus.

Our new year does not begin with a celebratory toast commemorating our accomplishments of a past year. It begins with a small cup of juice confessing our sins and our shortcomings, recognizing our need for repentance, forgiveness, and a savior.

Christmas is not about the exchanging of many gifts or even the love our family and friends have for us. Christmas is about one special gift of God’s self in the birth of that Savior revealing the love of God for all people.

The first Sunday in January is not about putting Christmas and an old year behind us and looking forward to a new year. It is about reflecting on the influence the birth of the Savior has on our lives, our community and our world.

The month continues with the season of Epiphany where we witness this Savior go down the banks of the Jordan River to begin fulfilling God’s plan for all time through his public baptism.

We watch with amazement, as although he is the Savior of the World, he is still driven into the wilderness where he experiences the trials and temptations of this world, the same ones we all experience.

Then, astonishingly, we hear our names called when he calls the names of Simon, Andrew, James and John asking them to drop everything to follow him wherever he leads them. And with the other disciples, we follow. We follow courageously, anxiously, unwittingly, even somewhat reluctantly. But we follow.

We were with him when he healed the sick. We were there when he gave sight to the blind, touched and restored a leper, brought peace to a man possessed by demons, defended and forgave a sinner. We were with him when he lifted up the poor and challenged the establishment by speaking truth to power. We were there when he became angry at the religious people and turned over tables in the temple of organized religion.

The month of February features Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent. It is a season of acknowledging that we were also with the disciples when they deserted him. We, too, left him in the garden of Gethsemane when he was arrested. We acknowledge our association with Peter who denied that he ever knew him, and we confess our connection with Thomas who betrayed him on that dark night.

Lent is the season that our need for forgiveness is most fully revealed, as is our need to renew our mission to deny ourselves, to pick up our own cross and die to self.

And on Good Friday, we learn that if we give ourselves away, if we die to self, if we join Jesus in that prayer to our God, “not my will, but yours be done,” when the evil of this world throws everything that it has to throw at us, when evil comes to destroy us, when evil finally seeks to take the very life from us, evil does not and cannot win. For what it has come to destroy has already been given away. Our lives have already been placed into the hands our God who holds them for all of eternity.

During the season of Easter, we celebrate this good news. We celebrate the good news that God is always working in this world working all things together for the good. God is always wringing whatever good can by wrung out of life’s most difficult moments. God is always lavishing our sins with grace, transforming our sorrows into joy, our despair into hope, our defeats into victory and our deaths into life.

During the season of Pentecost we celebrate the good news that Christ continually comes to us through God’s Holy Spirit. God continues to guides this world. We believe that the same grace and love that Jesus taught and lived out throughout his ministry is still alive in this world today.

Then we enter into a season that the Church calls “Ordinary Time.” It is a season to reflect on what the birth, the life, the death and the resurrection of the Lord mean to us and our world. However, when one truly does that, one discovers that there is no such thing as any ordinary time. All time, when Christ is influencing it, guiding it, informing it, giving it direction and meaning, all time is extraordinary. There is no secular time. There is only holy time. When our lives are directed by Jesus, even our darkest, most dreadful, difficult days are divine days.

And our year does not end on December 31, but on a Sunday in November we call Christ the King Sunday. We celebrate the good news that when it is all said and done, in the last analysis of it all, Jesus Christ, the God who is fully revealed in his birth, life, death and resurrection, is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.

Thus, the good news for all of us this day is that it is January 4th, and the Christmas tree is still standing, the lights are still burning, and it is not tacky or even strange. Because like winter, spring, summer and fall, when Christ came into our lives, the whole world tilted on its axis and everything on this earth, including us, changed forever. We are no longer on the world’s clock, on the world’s schedule or calendar. Our hope and our calendar is set on Christ, God’s plan for all time, and we live for his glory. It is Christ, and only Christ, who guides our lives, informs our thinking, and gives us direction and meaning. Thanks be to God.