A New Teaching

get well cards

Mark 1:21-28 NRSV

My first grade teacher, Mrs. Banks, will always be remembered as one of my favorite teachers. And it is not because she was one of my first teachers, or even because she had such a cool last name. It is also not because of all of the wonderful things that she taught me. Because, the truth is, I do not remember a single lecture or lesson she taught. Mrs. Banks is my favorite teacher, because during that school year when I spent a week in the hospital to have my tonsils removed, she came to see me. She came to my hospital room and brought me cards that were made by my classmates.

It is not the words of the teacher that are remembered, today. It is her actions.

Mark writes that people in the synagogue were amazed at the power of Jesus’ teaching. “They kept asking one another: ‘What is this? It’s a new teaching with authority!’” But notice that Mark does not mention any words. There is no mention by Mark of even a hint of the content of Jesus’ lesson or sermon. For Mark, it is not the words, but the authoritative action of the teacher that is important. This is what made Jesus’ teaching “new.”

Throughout Mark’s gospel, Jesus is continually portrayed by the term, “teacher.” But Jesus is a different kind of “teacher.”

In chapter four, the “teacher” stills a storm.

In chapter five, the “teacher” raised a dead girl to life.

In chapter six, the “teacher” feeds a hungry crowd.

In chapter nine, the “teacher” cures an epileptic.

In chapter eleven, the “teacher” curses a fig tree.

And here in our text this morning, the “teacher” is the one who exorcises a demon in the synagogue. Jesus is a different kind of teacher, because Jesus is continually putting the word of God into action. Jesus is continually on the move, working and reworking, creating and recreating, restoring, renewing, reviving, healing, saving, transforming, acting.

I think it is important for us to notice the location of this demon. It’s not in all those places we expect to find demons today. This demon is sitting on a pew. A sad reality of this fallen world is that evil is real and evil is present and evil is experienced in all places, even in the church, sometimes, especially in the church.

I believe the church is afflicted with a number of demons today, but the one that perhaps concerns me the most is this demon of defeatism.

Defeatism: We have too many people in the church who have just accepted the evil in this world as normative. We’ve given up that things in this world can get better, that we as a people can do better, be better. Our leaders brazenly look into the camera and lie to us without consequences. A school shooting in Kentucky barely gets noticed. The gap between the super rich and the super poor continues to widen; the poor are denied healthcare and living wages; public education is undermined; husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters are being separated by those who once touted family values; Opioid drugs are killing our children; and we in the church sit back and say that there’s just nothing we can do about it. “This is just the way things are.” “This is the new normal.”  Or worse, we say: “Thank God the Lord is coming back soon.”

We actually have the audacity to call this defeatism, “faith”; instead of calling it what it really is, “demonic.”

I believe the point Mark wants us to hear is that this new, unprecedented teaching of Jesus has the authoritative power today and takes authoritative action today over the evil that afflicts this world. Mark wants us to know that although evil surrounds us, even while we are sitting here in church this morning, although we are tempted to believe that things are only going to get worse, the teacher is coming, and he is coming not with mere words, but with authoritative, imminent action for a better tomorrow.

When this teacher comes and teaches us that there is hope, he is not just “whistling in the dark” or “grasping at straws.”  He is not coming on some “wing and a prayer” “wishing upon a star.” He is not coming with mere words and tiresome clichés. He is coming taking authoritative action.

The teacher does not come with a mere history lesson of God’s past actions, but comes beckoning us to see what God is actively doing in our world today and will do in our world tomorrow.

As John Claypool has said, Jesus comes teaching us that our faith is and has always been “a faith of promise; never a faith of nostalgia. Our faith is always looking forward; never backward.”

Our faith never sulks, pouts or grumbles for the good old days, but always marches for, works for, fights for, and anticipates good new days.

When someone comes to see me who has just been diagnosed with cancer or another dreadful disease; or has just lost their job, their income; or has just lost their spouse to death, or worse, to separation or divorce; or has been afflicted in any number of ways; and I say to them “it is going to be ok,” I am not simply saying “cross your fingers” and “hope for the best,” or even saying something like “there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”

I am saying with the authority of God, the creator of all that is, the one who has been revealed in Holy Scriptures and in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, that things are going to be better.

Because our faith that is rooted in the Holy Scriptures is one that has always, and will always, draw us into better days.

When God first approached human beings, it was never from behind (“Hey you, turn around, come back here”), but always from out ahead, out in the future, promising, beckoning.

God came to Abraham and Sarah in their old age with a promise. God came promising that they would one day father and mother a nation. And you know something? Abraham and Sarah did the very same thing that some of you do when I tell you that things are going to be ok. They laughed. They scoffed: “We are much too old to have any future.”

God came to Moses showing him that he would lead Israel into the Promised Land. And Moses responded the same way some of you do, the same way Abraham and Sarah responded: “Nah; not me!  You know that simply don’t have what it takes to have such a future.”

But we know the rest of the story, don’t we? We know the rest of their stories, but we also know the rest of some of our own stories. No, Abraham, Sarah and Moses, nor any of us, had what it takes, but thank God that God did. And God acted. We look back at our afflictions, where we have been, and how far we have come, what we have gained through the storms, and we say something miraculous like, “If I could go back and change anything in my life, I don’t believe I would change a thing.”

This is why we point to our God in a very different manner than people of other faiths point to their God. When we are asked: “Where is your God?” we should never say “Back there,” or “in here,” or even “up there.” Rather we should point straight into the future and say: “My God is out there, pulling me into a better tomorrow!”

This is the teaching that Jesus puts into action, and this is the teaching that he calls all of us to put into action.

It is what compels some of you to give the rest of your lives helping people overcome addiction, teaching people how to read, serving sack lunches to hungry adults or stuffing book bags with food for hungry children. It is what propels some of you to volunteer at the hospital, visit a nursing home, send a card, make a phone call. And hopefully it is what has brought you here to this blessed place this morning, and it is what will send you out to be a blessing in all places.

For our God is a God of promise—A God of hope who is made known more in actions than in words.

I believe this explains what the wife of a colleague of mine said to me under the care of Hospice, just a couple of days before her death.

She talked about her life. She talked about how good God had been to her in the past. She talked about her service through the church alongside her husband. Then she began to talk about her present situation and about the cancer that had returned and had spread throughout her body. She talked about her pain. She said she knew that she had days and not weeks left on this earth. She talked about how difficult her death was going to be for her family, for her husband and children. Then she said with this special smile that I will never forget, “But I’m going to be fine! I am going to be fine!”

She was going to be fine because her God, whom she knew through her teacher, Jesus Christ, had never approached her from behind. But always from out ahead, out in the future, always promising, always beckoning, always acting, transforming, renewing, restoring, resurrecting. Her God was never back there, somewhere in the distant past, but her God was out there, always assuring her that her best days of living, her best days of life, were ahead of her.

And in what she knew to be her last few days on this earth, she  had miraculously been taught to say, “I’m fine. I’m going to be fine.”

Aren’t we all?

 

Invitation to the Table

This table belongs to our Authoritative Teacher. And it is this Good Teacher who is still inviting each of us to it today. Come and recognize that Christ is here. He is still breaking his body. He is still pouring himself out for you. Come, there is room for all. Let us prepare now as we remain seated and sing together.

Commissioning and Benediction

Go now and share the good news with the world that we are students of a Teacher who teaches us from out ahead, out in the future, always promising, always beckoning, always acting, transforming, renewing, restoring, resurrecting. May we share it with our words, but more so with our actions.

And may the love of God, the grace of Christ and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with us all.

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Going Fishing

flounder

Mark 1:14-20 NRSV

The gospels are full of great fishing stories.

Like the one when Jesus is having church down at a place where every pastor in land-locked Arkansas dreams of having some church, right on the beach. Luke tells us that the congregation gathered that day is so large (the dream of every pastor), they keep “pressing in on him to hear the word of God,” almost pushing Jesus into the water.

Jesus sees two boats belonging to some fishermen who are out washing their nets. He climbs into one of the boats belonging to a fella named Simon and asks him to put it out a little way from the shore so he could teach the crowds on the beach from the boat, setting up a little pulpit on the water.

After the Benediction is pronounced and church is over, Jesus says to Simon, “Let’s move the boat to some deeper waters and go fishing.” And this is when, for Simon and all of us, that church really begins.

Simon says, “Jesus, we’ve been fishing all night long and haven’t caught a thing. But, if you say so, I’ll cast my net one more time.”

It is then that Luke tells us that they catch so many fish that they had to call in re-enforcements and a second boat. Filled with so many fish, the nets almost break.

Do you remember Simon’s reaction to this glorious catch?

“Praise God from whom all blessings flow for this miraculous catch of fish!”

Nope, not even close.

Scared to death, Simon says the almost unthinkable: “Go away from me Lord!”

Then, as it usually is with the stories of Jesus, we learn there is much more going on here than a few folks going fishing. As our scripture lesson in Mark reminds us, this is story in Luke is not a story about catching fish. It is a story about catching people. It is a story about bringing new people aboard.

And like Simon, this scares us to death.

Growing up in Northeastern North Carolina surrounded by water, I quickly learned that there are basically two types of fishermen.[i] First, there’s the fisherman who really doesn’t care if he catches anything at all. He’s perfectly content sitting in his boat with a line in the water. He couldn’t care less if he gets a nibble all day long. Enjoying the sunshine and fresh air, brim of his hat pulled down over his eyes, he’s so comfortable, he is so at peace, so at home, he might even doze off and take a little nap. He’s just happy to be in the boat. He’s got a bag lunch, some snacks and a few cold beverages, and a bumper sticker on his truck that reads: “A bad day fishing is better than a good day at work.”

And besides, if he did catch anything, which by the way would be by sheer accident or dumb luck since he’s not paying any attention whatsoever to his pole, that would just mean for some work for him to do when he got back to shore. And one thing that fishing is not supposed to be is work!

I am afraid this describes many in the church today. We’re perfectly content just to have one line in the water, not really caring if we ever bring anyone else aboard. Because bringing aboard others always involves work. It involves sacrifice. Because you know about others? They are just so “other.”

So, our faith is reduced to making sure that everyone who is already in the boat is happy, peaceful, and comfortable. If we catch something, that’s well and good. But if we don’t catch anything, well, that might even be better.

Then, there’s the fishermen who are really intentional about catching fish. My Nana and Granddaddy were definitely of this type.

On the water with Nana and Granddaddy, I didn’t know whether to call what we were doing out there “fishing” or “moving.” Because oftentimes, as soon as I could get some bait on my hooks and drop it in the water, I’d hear Granddaddy say, “Alright, let’s reel ‘em in. We’re going to this place over there where the fish are more hungry.” I remember spending as much time watching the bait and tackle on the end of my line fly in the wind as we moved from place to place as I did watching it in the water. But guess what? With Nana and Granddaddy, we moved a lot, but we always caught a lot of fish!

To be the church that God is calling us to be, we have to be a people on the move. The danger with many churches, is that we can get in a rut of staying too long in some comfortable and contented place, like, let’s say, 1955.

In the 1950’s, we as the church grew accustomed to people coming to us. We didn’t have to move. For variety of social and cultural reasons, all churches had to do to attract a big crowd was to open their doors and turn on the lights. There was a great church construction boom in the 1950’s, as the prevailing church growth mentality was “if you build it, they will come.” And people came. Some came because they had nowhere else to go. Most people stayed home on the weekends. Going to church and maybe to Grandma’s house afterwards for Sunday dinner was the highlight of their weekend, if not their entire week.

However, here in the 21st century, hardly anyone stays home. People are constantly on the move, on the go. So, in order to share the good news of Jesus with others today, we have to be on the move.

We have to constantly reel in our lines to go to meet people exactly where they are, not where we might want them to be, but where they are, especially in those deep, dark places where people are hungry for love and starving for grace; where they are thirsting for liberty, justice and equality.

The problem is that too many churches today are sitting back, half asleep, with one pole in the water. They are not moving, not going out. They not only could not care less if anyone comes to them, but if by sheer accident or dumb luck someone new does happen to come aboard, churches expect them to come aboard in a manner that measures up to their own expectations. That is, they expect people to come aboard who look like them, behave like them, and believe like them. Many churches claim their doors are opened for all; however, they really do not mean “all.”

I will never forget that Nana used to go fishing with this special pocketbook. It was leather. And she must have lined with plastic. Nana always went fishing with this pocketbook, because when Nana was about the business of catching flounder, Nana did not discriminate. What I mean by this is that Nana very graciously welcomed all flounders aboard the boat, even if they did not measure up to the expectations of the North Carolina Wildlife Commission.

I remember measuring a flounder: “O no! This flounder is an inch too short, I guess I need to throw him back.”

“Oh, you will do no such thing!” Nana would say, “He’s ‘pocket-book size!’”

Here’s what you don’t know, Nana’s son, my uncle, my mama’s brother, at the time, was a North Carolina Game Warden. Nana risked getting into trouble not only with the state, but with her own family.

I have heard it said, “If following Jesus does not get you into some trouble, you’re probably are not doing right.”

The reality is that as a pastor I am constantly getting into trouble.  And what’s crazy to me is that I get into the most trouble when I preach sermons on unconditional love, when I preach against hate and discrimination and for loving and including people who do not measure up to our cultural, societal, or religious expectations.

I once heard a member of one of the churches I pastored say that he was downright ashamed and embarrassed to be a member of our church, “because it was becoming a haven for those people.”

This person truly believes that the sole purpose of the church is about making sure that everyone who is already in the boat is contented, comfortable and happy. He does not have a clue that Jesus calls us all to fish for people, Jesus calls us to bring others aboard without discrimination, leading them to make the life-giving, world-changing confession that “Jesus is Lord.”

And God help us when the church is embarrassed to stand up to our friends and family and shout with the Apostle Paul: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation!”  What’s the rest of that verse? “For everyone…Jew and Gentile. (Romans 1:16). Everyone.

I am afraid that there are people in every church who remind me of fearful ol’ Simon, who upon looking at all those different fish in the boat, responded to Jesus with those unthinkable words: “Lord, go away from me.”

As the church, as the body of Christ in this world, we are called to only exclude those Jesus excluded, and that is no one, even if it gets us into some trouble.

Late Disciples of Christ pastor Fred Craddock loved to tell the story of one local church. Although their sign out front read, “A church that serves all people,” when all people would show up to be served, the grumbling became so intense that it continually drove the newcomers away.

“Would you look at how long his hair is? Do you see all of those piercings! Oh my word, how those children are dressed! He sure is odd. She’s certainly strange. Don’t tell me we are now going to be a church for those people!

About ten years went by. When, one day, Craddock was driving down the road where that church was located when he saw that the building that once housed that church had been converted into a restaurant.

Curious, he stopped and went inside. In the place where they used to be pews, there were now tables and chairs. The choir loft and baptistery was now the kitchen. And the area which once contained the pulpit and communion table now had an all-you-can-eat salad bar. And the restaurant was full of patrons—every age, color and creed.

Upon seeing the sad, but very intriguing transformation, Craddock thought to himself, “At last, God finally got that church to serve all people.”

O God, help us to be fishers of people, without conditions, without limitations, without judgment, without embarrassment, but always with the grace of Christ. Amen.

Invitation to Communion

No matter your size, color or lack of color, beliefs or lack of beliefs you are welcome here. Because here, around this table the only ones who are excluded are the ones Jesus excluded. No one.

Commissioning Benediction

Now as we depart this blessed place to be a blessing to every place we go, let me leave you with these words of commissioning and benediction:

Let’s go fishing

by loving all of our neighbors— Actively, Intentionally, unconditionally,

And may the One who is faithful to all

be with us all as we depart this blessed place,

And help us to be a blessing to every place we go,

until we gather again. Amen.

 


[i] I heard Rev. Jesse Jackson allude to these “2 types of fishermen” at the Oklahoma Regional Men’s Retreat at Camp Christian, Guthrie, Oklahoma, 2016.

Come and See

Statue of LIberty

John 1:43-51 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 faith 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 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.

We heard it put in vulgar words this week referring to Haiti, El Salvador and nations on the African continent”

And we’ve also heard it if we’ve invited anyone to church lately, and I am hoping that all of you have invited someone, are inviting people! 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 am sometimes tempted to start preaching a little sermon, defending God and the way of Jesus, making the case for following Jesus, arguing 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 one day answered Andrew and his friend when they 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]

And Nathanael came. And Nathanael saw this one who surprisingly 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 ask anyone: ‘Have you given your life to Christ?’” Nowhere does the Bible tell us to go up to our neighbors 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.

And here’s the thing. When we first bring up the subject of church, if they can see that we are truly being sincere, if they can see in our eyes that we are being honest and genuine, if they can see 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 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 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, be the embodiment of Christ in this world.

Come and see a church who strives everyday to keep the dream of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr alive by being a pro-reconciling, anti-racism church.

Come and see a church that supports and works with local law enforcement and the community to build relationships and provide a safe place to converse about behaviors that adversely affect people of color.

Come and see a church that believes in religious freedom for all religions, not just Christians. And come and see a church that does not believe religious freedom gives us a right to discriminate or to do harm to another.

Come and see a church that invites and welcomes a Muslim leader of the local mosque to speak at a Men’s dinner to break down the walls that divide us, to build bridges and create friendships will all our neighbors.

Come and see a church where you brain does not have to be checked at the door. Come and see a church that believes science is real and caring for this planet is a God-given, moral responsibility.

Come and see a church that believes all people are created in the image of God, male and female. Come and see a church that values the leadership of women, ordains women, and believes women’s rights are human rights.

Come and see a church that is deeply rooted in the American dream, a church that was conceived by immigrants in the early 19th century, a church where the words of Emma Lazarus that are engraved in the foundation of the Statue of Liberty are engraved in our historical and spiritual DNA:

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Come and see a church that hosts Christmas parties for the poor and the marginalized and purchases Christmas gifts to give to impoverished strangers.

Come and see a church that regularly sends care packages to widows and remodels apartments for the orphaned and is committed to the Word of God, and, with the prophet Isaiah, isn’t afraid to speak truth to power:

Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees,

who write oppressive statutes,

to turn aside the needy from justice

and to rob the poor of my people of their right,

that widows may be your spoil,

and that you may make the orphans your prey! (Isaiah 10:2)

Come and see a church that serves its community by feeding the hungry, volunteering in the hospitals, tutoring the illiterate, and caring for those who are homebound or in nursing homes. Come and see a church that sends supplies and volunteers to give hope to survivors of natural disasters.

Come and see a church that seeks to be a place of grace, believing that 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, and all means all. 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.

What’s that you say? 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!

O God, to all cynics who believe that nothing good can come out of the church these days, help us to say, “Come and see.” Amen.

 

Invitation to Communion

Now, I invite you to come and see a table that has been prepared for you.

Come and see bread that was broken for you

Come and see a cup that was poured for you.

Come and see the very life of God, the creator of all that is that has been given for you.

Come and see this love, this grace.  Touch it, taste it, consume it, for it has the power to change the world.

 

 

COMMISSIONING AND BENEDICTION 

Go forth as a church that is on the move,

A church that is committed to using all of our gifts

To work for peace and justice to flow like a mighty stream.

Go forth to share your faith, person to person to person.

Go forth and invite someone to come and see a church that

seeks to become the radiant hope that is needed in our world.

And as we go forth,

may we experience our God rejoicing over us and with us.

And let us go forth confident that

                        unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word!

 


 

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

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

Ripping Open the Heavens

Mark 1:4-11 NRSV  Dove

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 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 about 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.

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, free 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 else.

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 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, then we pervert the very intentions God has baptism.

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 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 only lived two months. Right before she died, Hazel says that her mother took her sister into 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 of 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 did not occur in a controlled environment such as a baptismal pool or font in the confines of a religious building, but out in the untamed, wide-open wilderness.

And we are told that when Jesus came up out of the water the heavens were suddenly “ripped” or “torn” apart. The imagery describes a God who cannot take the separation any longer. God has had all that God can stand and rips the heavens apart.

The question for us this morning is: If the heavens were closed, whod do you think closed them? Who placed the restrictions and limitations on God’s grace? Who placed the barriers between God and people? Who created systems and structures to mediate God’s presence? Who is it that has insisted on certain rituals and beliefs to regulate God’s grace, to control God’s love, not for the sake of good order (like we tell ourselves and those we wish to exclude), but for the sake of our own power?

As a minister, I could write a book about the 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 church buildings. 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.

This is why 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.

This is of course the reason why 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.

When we take a 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, into 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, by male or by female…

When we begin to understand that God, the creator of all that is, ripped open the heavens at our baptisms 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, tame 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 I forgive you. I am with you, and I will always be with you. You are my beloved daughter. You are my beloved son. You are my Church. You have the grace and the power to be my hands and feet in this world!” …

When we understand this good news, then our baptisms become what they were always intended to be: free, unfettered, abundant grace, and then we can begin to be the people we were intended to be.

Thank you, God, for blessing us with memories of Jesus’ baptism and ours. Thank you for removing all of the things we have created to separate us from your grace. Help us to go forth with your calling, direction and blessing to share this grace with all people. Amen.

 

Commissioning and Benediction

Go now into the world remembering that God, the creator of all that is, has ripped the heavens apart to shower all God’s people with grace. Go and share this good news with all people. May the abundant love of God, the unfettered grace of Christ, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with us all. Amen.