Welcome to the Gray

Jesus continues his lesson to the disciples in this sermon on the mount. We first encountered the Beatitudes, the blessings of God. Then last week discussed how Jesus’ viewed himself as a fulfillment of the Jewish Law Code, Torah. Today we see a new rhetorical tactic. Jesus quotes the Judaic Law, then he offers a new interpretation. “You have heard it said that way...but I say to you this...” Let us hear now what Jesus has to say.

Matthew 5:21-37

"You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not murder'; and 'whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire.

So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

"It was also said, 'Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.' But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. 

"Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Holy One.' But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great Ruler. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be 'Yes, Yes' or 'No, No'; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

Teach us to choose blessing
and life rather than death, O God,
so that we may walk blamelessly,
seeking you
through reconciliation with all of your children. Amen.
Men, how many of you have had your wife ask while looking in the mirror, “Does this dress make me look fat?” By the sound of the laughter I suspect that most of you have enough wisdom to answer regardless of what you really think, “Of course not, Honey! I don’t know what you’re talking about! You’re gorgeous.” Women, how many of us have asked our husbands questions with impossible answers? 
Or how about this one, your grandchild offers you a self portrait that looks more like someone threw-up finger paint. How do you respond? “Wow! What a fabulous artist you are. Thank you so much.”
So what about these little white lies? Are they wrong? One of the Ten Commandments is, “Thou shall not lie.” Yet all of us are guilty of this simple excursion away from God’s code of ethics. Is this wrong?
When Moses descended from Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments, he carried on the tablets general dictates about behavior. Keeping Sabbath, Preserving Life, and Honoring God formed the crux of these new rules.
The Israelites were just freed from slavery under the Egyptian Pharaoh, and they needed practical guidance during their desert wanderings to the Promise Land. This law code was offered in a particular context for a specific people group. 
Fast forward a few hundred years and we arrive at our Gospel Lesson today. Jesus continues his Sermon on the Mount, having just told his disciples that he is the fulfillment of the Law—not the end of it. Naturally, he begins to reinterpret the well-known commandments, explaining this idea of fulfillment.So he touches on a few hot topics: murder, sex, divorce, and swearing/taking oaths. 
You have heard it said, “Thou shall not murder. But I say to you, why would you ever allow your anger to get to that point in the first place?” How can sacrifices in the temple be authentic, if they are offered with hard hearts? How could the ancient Israelites testify to God’s goodness when their inner conflict trumps that of Rome’s? Jesus is drawing a familiar but antiquated law into his first-century context. Instead of the law generally stating “do not murder.” Jesus moves into the crux of the matter. Deal with your anger. Do not let arguments and grudges fester. Ask for and offer forgiveness. Then murder won’t be an issue.
Then he tackles adultery, lust and divorce. “You have heard it said, ‘Thou shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you, betrayal is more than sex and secrets.” Again, we see him turning to something that every Jew on the hillside that day would have understood. It was not about jabbing out one’s eye or literally cutting off a hand because we might sin with it. Instead, Jesus redefines what it means to lust or express infidelity. Jesus radically brings concern of women into this conversation. We tend to lose this in our own contemporary context where women are clearly apart of the adultery and lust conversation. Further, “You’ve heard it said ‘“Whoever divorces his wife let him give her a certificate, but I say, don’t divorce unless there is infidelity.” In the first century men could divorce their wives without cause or reason. They received a certificate so that they were not wrongly murdered for adultery, but they lived the rest of their lives without care. Jesus was saying, “Stop leaving women by the roadside when they no longer suit your needs.” He did not want men to cast aside their “property” of wives without regard with their well-being.
So often the Jewish people in the New Testament get a bad reputation in light of situations like this. We tend to view their religion as rigid and uncompromising, as if it was a black-and-white approach to otherwise complex life scenarios. A harsh mix of dogmatic rules and inconvenient lifestyle practices. But I think we miss a really important part of Jesus with this mindset. On the contrary, Jesus’ fulfillment of the Law brings it back to life for his followers. Jesus keeps it relevant. He considers the cultural setting of his followers, and he helps them make sense of something ancient. In other words, Jesus reminds the disciples that the Law is about life. Torah was given to the Israelites for protection and connection with a life-giving God. 
Through the fulfillment of Jesus, the Jewish people were reminded of this truth. The Ten commandments are not meant to answer every question we have today in twenty-first century America. If we turn with legality to a law code that was composed for a specific people group thousands of years ago, we get into trouble with major misunderstandings. The same is true even if we rely on Jesus’ new interpretation in the first-century. 
You have heard it said, “Thou shall not lie.” But I say to you, “Men, choose life! Tell your wife that indeed, she is thin and beautiful. Grandparents give life to your grandkids! Praising those abstract portraits. Choose life! Choose it for yourself and your marriage and your family.” 
When Jesus shows us how he fulfills the law, he gives us permission to understand the work of God in our cultural and timeframe. So, it is not about Jesus teaching things that are wrong, nor does it mean we have to understand Jesus literally. Jesus welcomes us to the gray areas of life, and says, “Even here, you can experience abundant life under the reign of God.” Jesus gives us room to discover liberation in the limbo of everyday.
So as we get caught in situations where these is no clear right or wrong, consider what is best for preserving relationship with the people we serve and love. Instead of approaching conflict with uncompromising certainty, is it not gentler and more productive to consider the deeper causes of the conflict? We must ask, “What gives life?” If there is no guidebook for how to navigate a certain scenario we might ask of our options, “What gives life?” 
Let’s consider two situations in our culture today. Divorce is quite common. 50% of all marriages end in divorce, right? Does this mean that we are outside of the covenant of God’s law? Well, if we take Jesus literally, it does. But we are rejecting that interpretation, remember? Otherwise we would all be without our eye and hand and on our way to a burning hell for calling a friend foolish. However, if we follow Jesus’ example, we can discuss divorce with a modern perspective. 
We have under our belts the nineteenth amendment, the women’s liberation movement of the 1970’s, and continued breaks in the corporate glass ceiling. Women no longer need protection as a divorced person because they are no longer a piece of their husband’s property. Though divorce still has a negative connotation, it does not need to. Of course it is devastating and heartbreaking when relationships fail. And there are ongoing negative impacts of broken marriages that children must unfairly endure. On the other hand, when an abusive marriage further destroys the spouses, or when children are caught in ongoing verbal cross-fire between their parents the family does well to ask, “What gives life?” And if there is more abundance outside of the marriage, then perhaps divorce is the best option. Not the perfect one, but the most life-giving in that particular place at that particular time. Do you see how Jesus sets us free to respond to life in ways that enhance it rather than bind it up with rules? 
Where else do we need to confess that life is not a black-and-white representation of good or bad, right or wrong? In what areas of gray, can we experience growth and choose life while still serving the law of God? How about church? There is no right or wrong way to do and be church. How we act as church on Taylor Blvd. in South Louisville can and should be quite different than how surfing wine drinkers in Northern California might experience church. If Jesus were sitting here with us today, how might he expand the Ten Commandments even further to empower our church to choose life. How can Lynnhurst church offer life to her community? How do we express our faithfulness as a contemporary church? There are lots of ways...but perhaps that is another sermon for another time. I invite you to think on this more. 

Ultimately, we have a choice. Just as the Deuteronomy Lesson we heard today also indicates. We can choose life or death. We can choose to cling tightly to an ancient law code–either Moses’ or Jesus’ —that ultimately will result in death for us contemporary followers. Or we can choose life. We can find ways to imagine God’s law in the context of our community. We can continue enlarging the reign and love of God for all people. It might get murky at times, and it does not erase the pain or trauma of no clear solution. But in the end, the Law and love of God always gives life. Lynnhurst, let us together choose life! 

Salt | Light | Law

Message Version.
Matthew 5:13-20
13 “Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage.
14-16 “Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven.
17-18 “Don’t suppose for a minute that I have come to demolish the Scriptures—either God’s Law or the Prophets. I’m not here to demolish but to complete. I am going to put it all together, pull it all together in a vast panorama. God’s Law is more real and lasting than the stars in the sky and the ground at your feet. Long after stars burn out and earth wears out, God’s Law will be alive and working.
19-20 “Trivialize even the smallest item in God’s Law and you will only have trivialized yourself. But take it seriously, show the way for others, and you will find honor in the kingdom. Unless you do far better than the Pharisees in the matters of right living, you won’t know the first thing about entering the kingdom.
What does godliness taste like? That’s what I thought while I was mulling through this passage this week. I had a delicious lunch with some friends at a Cuban restaurant.  Does God taste like fried plantains? I also cooked this really delicious vegan meal a few nights ago with beautifully green broccoli, fluffy couscous, and roasted squash. Does God taste like fresh vegetables and wholesome grains? “Let me tell you why you are here,” Matthew says, “To be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth.”
Another way to think about it, we are hear to bring out the God-colors in the world. To be  light. All the time we say and sing that Jesus is the light of the world. But here it says that we are the light of the world. Do you reflect the colors of God? I don’t know about you, but in this bleak white winter blanket that is freezing our ground, I miss the summer and spring and fall God-colors. But that is outside. and our food. what about in here? in us?
What does God taste like and look like--in us as individuals created in God’s image, but also as a people committed to following God’s law? Tastiness and light. What do we make of this?  
Then we have this whole third section that points us to Judaic Law, the Torah. The Torah is the first five books of the Bible, say them with me if you can: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. If you did it in order you get extra points. Jesus makes clear here, He is not interested in starting a new religion. 
Jesus is Jewish. Matthew, the author of this book, is an incredibly devout Jew. Neither Matthew or his understanding of Jesus lead them to a new Law. Jesus was not to destroy Torah. He loved it. It was his history. His identity. His understanding of God and how he related to God. And yet, he knew that all Jews were waiting on something, or someone, the Messiah, to set them free. 
So here Jesus is. The embodiment of everything that a devout Jew holds near, telling people that they are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In other words, anyone can be salty or well lit. 
Do you realize that Jesus was not trying to start a new religion. It it unfortunate that everything Jewish in our Bibles is on the left “The Old Testament,” and everything Christian is on the right, “The New Testament”.
 We approach it as Jewish vs. Jesus. Or Jewish then Jesus. But Matthew and Jesus saw it differently. Jesus was the fulfillment of Torah. 
He wanted to complete Torah, not replace it. He was here to lead the most righteous, devout group of people Palestine had ever seen. They were going to transform the world. 
This is important for us today. As we sit here in a church on Taylor Blvd. on the Southside of Louisville, Kentucky in the United States two thousand years after the fact. It is important for two reasons. First, we are the Gentiles that were eventually included in this new religion. As the Jesus movement grew and as Jewish disciples, especially Peter and Paul and Barnabas, as they debated about whether or not the new converts needed to follow Torah, they eventually found ways to include those outside the Jewish faith. So, it is a gift that we are said to be salty and lighted too. 
Do you consider yourselves as well lit as Jesus? Paul tells us that our bodies are temples. Jesus says later that God is the vine and we are the branches...entangled together in profound ways. These are tangible images that point to mystical concepts. I’ll talk more about this in a minute.
But I said understanding that JEsus was not trying to start a new religion is important for two reasons. When Jesus fulfills the Torah, the Judaic Law, I believe he says, “individual piety is no longer enough. Now that I am here and helping you to see God more closely, it is time that your beliefs inform your actions.” Ethics are as important as doctrine. To be salty, to shine on a hill is to live like God would live. To help others taste godliness and see God-colors, the people who know this taste and light must live in ways that perpetuate it.
This is probably not the first time you are going to hear me talk about this. Yesterday I attended an all-day retreat at the Passionist Earth and Spirit Center. I am in a class with several others who want to learn the discipline of meditation. As we experimented with the early stages of trying to tame the mind through stillness and quiet, our teacher, a long-time meditator and Catholic priest, said something that made my inner light shine. 
In an effort to encourage our novice attempts to still the mind, he affirmed that it is natural for the mind to wander. “Focus on your breathing,” he says. Let the thoughts come and then just as quickly let them go and refocus on your breath. “The goal of meditation is not to be a good meditator. The goal is to be a good person.” As we practiced turning our attention inward, to the center of the body, the abdomen rising and falling with each breath, we ended each session with the sound of the gong three times. The first time is to recenter one’s self and remember our breath in case the mind had wandered. The second gong tells you to focus on just one relationship. One person to whom you wish peace and wholeness or forgiveness or warmth. One person who needs compassion or joy. Then as the third gong reverberates you slowly open your eyes, ending the session.  
Meditation is not about stillness and quiet for the sake of stillness and quiet. It is about tapping in to the light of God that burns within each us. When we train ourselves to recognize it and make room for it, we are able to live like Jesus was teaching in this sermon. Jesus is saying, “Being salty is not just about preserving good things like Torah. Shining bright is not just about light. It’s about being a good person and sharing those gifts with others. This is the fulfillment of God’s law.” 
When the taste and colors of God shine from our being, our actions and thoughts align more fully with God’s compassion for the world. Jesus is completing the Law each time we let our light shine. Jesus embodies this saltiness and light as he teaches about the Law. 
And because this light is in each of us, the Law continues to find completeness when we stop living for ourselves and start offering compassion. Compassion is certainly a color of God. 
Let’s think for a moment ways that we can be salty and light-bearing. Like our Godspell song sang this morning, “The tallest candlestick ain’t much good without a wick.” How might we live as people whose wicks are burning brightly? 
Well, first, we need to be aware of where the light of God needs to shine. Of where there are people groups who do not know anything about the salty characteristics of God’s flavor. In the headlines this week there has been the Keystone Pipeline XL debate along with stories about the poor villages surrounding Sochi, Russia. Victims of the 50 Billion dollar expansion as construction waste is dumped on their land in the middle of the night.
The ways we destruct the earth, are ways for how we destruct ourselves, depleting our salt levels and placing bushels over our lights. The toxic chemicals we dump into our rivers and atmosphere, we eventually ingest back into our own bodies. They are chemicals that breed cancer, promote infertility, and murk our lungs so that chronic conditions like asthma are said to be normal. 
When we are looking for the taste and light of God, is this all there is to find? Also in the news this week we see people trying to help others shine. You see, we must advocate for salt and light in places that are bland and dark. I see people like Nicholas Kristof working to do this. He is a journalist devoted to the education and liberation of women across the globe. He published Dylan Farrow’s letter about the sexual abuse she sustained from her adopted father, Woody Allen. The allegations are rampant about how Farrow’s famous mother Mia Farrow convinced her of this untruth and planted lies in her young mind about what she remembers as a seven-year-old girl. To the opposite, Allen has put forth his own statement of innocence. Regardless of who or what we believe, the fact remains that worldwide millions of women are subjected to rape and domestic violence and other forms of abuse because they live in patriarchal societies. And when the abuse is reported, words like “allegation” precede any statement about what happened. alleged abuse. alleged rape. alleged affair. Women are subjected and demonized because they are not understood as light-bearing children of God. It is alleged.
Not so with Jesus. Jesus invites us with this message about salt and light and law to join his mission. We are to protect those caught in systems where God’s light does not shine. And what happens when we do this? What happens when we allow people into our homes who need a place to sleep and two months turns in to two years? What happens when we go out of our way to be sustainable during fellowship hour? What happens when we send care packages to a US platoon? What happens when we lobby state and federal legislators for bills that protect the marginalized people in our country? What happens when we rally on behalf of those whose wicks have been cut off? 
When we wake-up to our own light, our own connectedness to God and God’s Law, we do not need to hold so tightly to our grudges. We are able to let go of hurts. Our own temptations fade as we realize more fully that the kingdom of heaven is inside each of us. Our pride dismantles and grace abounds as he realize the light burns fuller when we uncover the light in others. 
Those of us who freely recognize our light, are able to help others trapped under systemic bushels of tyranny. This is experiencing the totality of God’s Law. 
Jesus knew this, and he wanted his followers to understand it. It is why he said he is here to fulfill or complete the Law. He showed everyone exactly how to live from the light within rather than the ego that thinks only of self and pleasure. The passage ends with the statement that unless we do far better than the Pharisees, we won’t know the first thing about living in the kingdom of heaven. This is not to put down his religious elders. In fact, the Pharisees upheld every letter of the Law. 
They tithed, they were circumcised, they kept kosher, and they obeyed all orders about cleanliness, ritual, and other literal expressions of God’s protection. With this statement, Jesus does not condemn the Pharisees. Instead, he broadens the parameters of God’s Law. To be more righteous than those who are already the most righteous means tapping in to the liberation inside. 
It means waking up to the trauma and destruction happening in our world and responding in ways that show light. Jesus challenges us to accept that God’s light is not relegated to the pious elite. 
The Law, in light of Jesus, means that everyone can taste God’s love because everyone shines with God’s colors. We do not need to relegate our differences to the left or right side of holy books as much as we do not need to manage the differences in our beliefs from one church to another. Under the complete Law of God we are able to celebrate that we are all citizens together in the eclectic, expansive, but oh so near, kingdom of heaven. 

Lynnhurst, taste and see that God is real. The kingdom of heaven shines from the core of your being. Jesus said so, himself, “See, the kingdom of heaven is near.” So effectuate change that others must know what Godliness tastes like and just how brightly God shines. So let your light shine. Amen.

You're So Lucky

We arrive at a new stop on our lectionary journey today, and we will stay here for the remainder of Epiphany. The baptized Jesus now has a band of followers—men and women who have left their fishing nets and cooking duties to follow this new prophet they call Rabbi. 

Like any good teacher, the master begins to share information with the students. Unlike our professors today who stand behind a lectern and rely on a microphone and effective audio visual presentations, Jesus assumes a place of honor by seating himself on a mountaintop. Then he begins teaching a new way of life. Our lesson today is Matthew’s first recorded words of Jesus’ ministry. This is where it all begins:

Hear now a reading from the Gospel of Matthew. Listen. Listen for the Word of God.

Matthew 5:1-12
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely* on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Bless the reading of this word, O God. That in its hearing we might know you more fully and discover the mysteries of life. Amen.
The mountain that held Jesus and his followers wasn’t really a mountain. It’s a hill today, called the Mount of the Beatitudes, named for this teaching. It’s a beautiful coastal place overlooking the Sea of Galilee (abt. 64 sq. ft), which is just a bit smaller than Lake Cumberland (abt. 100 sq. ft). The point is that we should imagine something a bit more quaint. Someplace, not huge, but comfortable with lots of locals. More than this, it is a spot where the Roman officials would have also been milling about, hearing these radical words. You see, Jesus’ first sermon put the political authorities on edge. 
In this Sermon on the Mount, we see Jesus map out his vision for life. It is a vision that contradicts Rome’s ideas of luxury. Jesus preaches humility and acceptance, no matter who you are or where you come from or how you earn money. You know when the contralto soprano screams out the highest pitch note she can muster from deep within her core...and then the mirror shatters? Jesus shatters the predominant culture with this sermon. But unlike the broken mirror, Jesus reveals a much clearer picture, reflecting a better world. 
I have a younger brother by about two years. Our elementary school mainstreamed children with disabilities. This means we were learning our multiplication tables alongside peers with learning disabilities and helping our down syndrome friends with the skills of reading. My brother loved this aspect of his education. A young couple in our church, during this same time, excitedly announced their pregnancy, and the church journeyed with them through the nine months. 
It was not until their healthy daughter was born that they learned that she was down syndrome. When my nine-year-old brother learned of this surprise, he spontaneously shouted, “Oh my gosh! She’s so lucky!” He meant the mother. The mother is so lucky! When our mom probed him about this exclamation, he said with such innocence, “Because they are the nicest people in my school.”
We might chuckle at this tale as I remember my parents and their friends smiling then, appreciating my brother’s naivete while knowing more fully the complexities of life with a disabled child. The adults understood how this young mother’s original ideas of parenthood may have been shattered. (Though, this woman is one of the most loving, outstanding mothers I know.) On the other hand, I imagine Jesus smiling and shouting just as triumphantly as an innocent nine-year-old, a little boy who is in touch enough with the outcast friends around him to know that they are the nicest people in the school. 
Now let us widen our lens. Many of us listened to our President deliver his State of the Union address this past week. I always struggle with this particular speech, no matter the president. One administration simply cannot accomplish all that is laid out for our union. It is overwhelming. One commentator in the NY Times explained why the White House must take such an all-inclusive approach to this speech. If Barack Obama were to focus on just one issue and explain how he and Congress plan to tackle this issue to the point of success, the country would wake up the next morning, ready to deal with that issue. This is not good, according to the commentator because, instead, it is better for the American people to wake up the next morning thinking, “Wow, the President has a lot of good ideas.” And, theoretically, this is what the State of the Union does. 
I wonder what the disciples woke up thinking the morning after Jesus’ State of the Union address. Did they think, “Jesus had a lot of good ideas?” Or did they think, “This guy is going to get us killed if he keeps saying these things in public?” Or were they confused thinking, “This sermon is not in line with Judaic Law?” What would we think after hearing this message on blessing? What would the US Congress think? What would the UN think? What would international diplomats think if the President of the United States, who stands behind the podium in his custom fit navy blue suit and perfectly cinched silk necktie quoted Jesus: “Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are the merciful.” This surely wouldn’t make for very effective foreign policy. ...Or would it? 
Does this put into perspective how Jesus shattered everyone’s ideals about what makes life blessed? Jesus says we do not need to worry about climbing to the top of the food chain anymore. Jesus does not care if we are the statistician instead of the starting point guard. Jesus blesses those whom society casts aside. Jesus does not side with those in power. Jesus picks the person who is always picked last. Jesus comforts the woman caught in adultery and sets free the prisoners. The Beatitudes allow us to disregard everything that makes for racism, sexism, and fear in order to work against those powers of evil.
The Beatitudes say we have the promise that one day soon all of our pains will make sense. This is what we do when we are in the midst of struggle. We find ways to make sense out of the trauma and tragedy. We want an explanation. So Jesus explains, “Blessed are you because you get to know God in ways that are so much deeper than those without need.” Let me say that again. 
If you are a victim or marginalized or forgotten, Jesus blesses you. Then the church advocates for you to be released from that victimization, marginalization, or neglect. You receive the blessing from Jesus because in your greatest moment of need, you have a connection to God that others who are not victimized, marginalized, or forgotten will never understand. This is why you are lucky. The Beatitudes challenged us to accept the outsider as the insider. And this is the power of church! Church embodies this blessing and transforms it into freedom when she is taking Jesus seriously. 
The Beatitudes allow us to tell ourselves it will be okay. By shattering the ideal, Jesus is saying, “that’s not what makes life worth living.” It allows the young mother with an unexpected surprise to navigate life with new expectations for her child. It allows American citizens to hope in something beyond a superpower nation. And it allows third-world refugees to hope in salvation from a living hell. After all, Jesus told us last week, “The kingdom of heaven is near.” 
Congress and their partisan politics will not have the last word— the kingdom of heaven is near. Unjust economic policies that cut-out the middle class will not have the last word—the kingdom of heaven is near. More than the media telling us what we need to buy, more than all of the ways we devalue ourselves because we are not sexy enough, Jesus says, “You are so lucky!” You are lucky because you know a God who knows your name, who loves you, who welcomes you with open arms into a kingdom of new life. The kingdom of heaven. 

Friends, we are all so lucky, even when, especially when life says we are unlucky. This is why we continue in our work together, bringing the kingdom of heaven to this earth, now, in the way that Jesus taught us. That others might understand this shattered blessing. Blessed are all of you.  Rejoice and be glad because your reward is great! Amen.


Preparing for Something New: Kingdom Living

Matthew 4:12-23
(Had I know this congregation was so full of expert fishermen I may have recruited some additional help on this sermon. Soon enough I’m going to know all of your secrets and employ those gifts more!) 
It is a precarious thing to respond to the call of God. Once upon a time a baby girl was born to nominal Christian parents in Brooklyn, New York at the turn of the twentieth century. As she matured, her avid reading and skillful writing landed her a job with a premier newspaper company. She busied herself with social projects, writing about class warfare, international revolutions and other intellectual pursuits. By her mid-twenties she lived a comfortable life on the beach in Staten Island with her successful, educated partner. When a series of spiritual awakenings prompted her to respond, Dorothy Day could not ignore the call of God on her life. I want to tell you a little bit more about her.
Dorothy Day ca. 1970's
The decision to baptize her newborn daughter into the Catholic Church sparked a break with the child’s father. Later her own conversion to Catholicism, and finally the arrival of the Great Depression inspired in Day a burden to respond. Using her gifts of writing and a new friendship with a Frenchman, Peter Maurin, she learned Catholic ideas about social justice and working with the poor. Day published her first issue of the Catholic Worker in 1933. It is still in circulation today. Obviously she did not know then what we know now about the fantastic movement this began. 
As the publication grew throughout the 1930‘s, by hosting prestigious writers like Thomas Merton, what began as a writing project evolved into a literal “house of hospitality.” A place for impoverished people to receive shelter, food, clothing and other basic needs. Day and the workers at the house required no fee and no religious expression of those who came in need. Day’s commitment to pacifism, Christian doctrine that all are created equally in the image of God, and the eradication of poverty around the world, houses of hospitality are an international phenomenon. Dorothy Day passed away in 1980 after a lifetime of social work and civil disobedience.
by Nicholas Brian Tsai
Dorothy Day responded to the voice that said, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of people.” Now she is being considered for sainthood in the Catholic Church. She offers this in her biography, “The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us!”
This woman, one of my favorites, was unassuming when she responded to the call of God on her life. She did not have grandiose plans for fame or success. She only did what she knew best--she wrote. Then she welcomed the poor. Then she preached nonviolence. Then she argued for fairer policies. Then she died a hero with her movement still going beyond her. She was one simple woman who took seriously the message of Jesus. 
She represents for us Jesus’ invitation that he offered to Andrew and Peter, James and John, and then others. Follow me. I know you also have your own mentors in the faith that have readily understood the message of Jesus and followed him to radical places. They heard the call to follow. Perhaps you have stories of your own adventures with leaving the comforts of what you know, or good work like fishing, to be bold in your devotion to Jesus. As we consider this invitation to follow Jesus this morning, let’s explore for a moment what leaving our nets on the shore might entail.
Jesus proclaims, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” I often wonder what this means. Did Jesus see himself as the kingdom of heaven? Is this why anyone, women and men, rich and poor, religious and not, can/should follow him? The kingdom of heaven is for all people. The teachings and love of Jesus are for all people. 
Or did Jesus see himself as a sort of traffic sign with an arrow pointing the way to the kingdom. In this way, perhaps it is more a place of ecstasy and perfection, and less of an idea or inner longing. A place where God’s rule considers economic policies that do not favor a few and where decent work is available for all who are able to contribute their gifts and interests. There are no systemic cycles of poverty and neglect in this kingdom of heaven. Is this what Jesus means?
Regardless of what we do not know about the kingdom of heaven, what we do know, is that it is near. The kingdom of heaven is near. And we know that the kingdom is about good news. Good news for those who are marginalized and alone. The kingdom of heaven brings healing and security. When we look up from our fishing nets or our computer screens, or the shores of our beach homes like Dorothy Day, and we hear the voice of Jesus inviting us to follow him, we find ourselves walking away from the familiar into unchartered territory. Follow me, Jesus says.
Consider how quickly Andrew and the others left their fishing supplies without any hesitation. What did Andrew’s father say when he returned home at the end of the day with no fish? I imagine Andrew explaining the urgency he felt in his heart as Jesus invited him to leave the nets and fish for people. Can you picture Andrew’s dad losing his temper? Perhaps he said, “Well, son, that’s just perfect. You meet some traveling prophet and think he holds the secrets to the kingdom of heaven and meanwhile we all go hungry because there aren’t any fish in your nets! The nets you left on the shore beside our boat!” 
Have any of you participated in a similar scenario when responding to the pulsing presence of God in your life? It is radical to hear the voice of God. And it is not easy to position ourselves toward the kingdom of heaven. It is inconvenient, and it might separate us from people who we thought were with us. Follow me, Jesus says. Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near.
It might be tempting to hear Jesus’ call here in simpler terms. Some Christians say we are called to right belief. Or church membership. Others would say service. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that the call to “follow me” is a call “to absolute discipleship.” I think he’s right. Jesus does not mince his words, and he expects everything from his followers. It’s why the rich young ruler had to sell everything and give it to the poor. It’s why the woman at the well was told to “go and sin no more.” Life with Jesus is a no holes barred way of living and yet it is for all of us. 
This is where the beauty of community is heightened. We are in-between the peaks of Christmas and Easter; so, we are in a time where daily life with Jesus might feel weary or even confusing. No bright stars. No doves this week. No earthquakes or crosses. Just us, living life as a church community wondering what’s next in the midst of the ordinary. Just a voice reverberating in us that invites us to participate in the kingdom of heaven. We are called to help Jesus bring healing and good news. Do you hear the voice? Or do you hear stories about people like Dorothy Day, or Martin Luther King, Jr. (who we celebrated this week) or Mother Theresa and think, “Good for them! I’m glad God is not asking that of me.” 
I wish discernment was an easier thing. I bet Dorothy Day went to bed many nights confused about how to move forward as she waited on a sign for the best way to respond to the poor. We have many resources that show us how civil rights leaders struggled with how to continue their fight for equality. Mother threresa revealed her ongoing doubts about the existence of God in her journals. Today we see policy makers fighting uphill battles with ongoing cuts to important programs like food subsidy. Do they wonder if their work is in vain? Churches struggle for young members. Do they wonder what it’s all for? The task of interpreting the call of God on our lives can be murky, especially in a world as inundated with as much advertising and busyness and noise as ours. 
Are we sure it’s God who is the one calling? How can we be certain that the next step is the right one? There is a famous statement made by an early church preacher and author. It is a prayer, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you, God.” And for this reason alone, it is worth our effort to hear God and to move into the kingdom of heaven. We are aimless without God. So we must leave our nets to follow.
Are you wondering what’s next for you, Lynnhurst? Where will God move? To what is God calling you? Who is God calling to serve as your next pastor? When you dream of the future of this congregation is there an excitement about the possibilities? Are you eager to join God in the work of proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of heaven? What nets must you leave behind in order to experience the good news of healing and redemption? From what must we repent to see and feel and live in the kingdom of heaven more fully?  
I close with this quick story. The first time I ever traveled on a country road wasn’t until college actually. We were driving through rural Alabama, navigating around cotton and soy bean fields as we yielded to the narrow bends of the two lane road. Tyler grew up in this particular area and knows the roads like the back of his hands. We were coasting along on cruise control, lost in our conversation and enjoying the scenery. When suddenly a pick-up truck with a trailer lost control. The trailer detached and sped across the road, thankfully missing our car but landing in a ditch. Obviously we stopped and Tyler helped the drive gather his thoughts and deal with the situation. 
It’s a simple metaphor but I think it makes sense. When we are comfortable at church and cruising along with our programs and lifelong friendships, life is fun and good. The scenery is pleasant and the conversation expectedly easy. And yet, there might be oversized needs in the world that quickly or unexpectedly interrupt us and pass by us, nearly threatening to rock everything that is stable. We risk missing the kingdom of heaven because we don’t want to hit the brakes or change our pace. We may not want to lay down our nets. But to ignore the call of God on our lives is to live with unrest. To not push through and discern the course of action we must take as Jesus leads, is to miss the chance to bring healing and good news to another friend in need. I believe that when we respond, there will always be a way to promote justice and love and peace. Even when there are not enough resources, or when we lack funding or energy even. Jesus teaches us how to gather as a community. He, who makes a way when there is no way. Dorothy Day also said, “If I accomplished anything in my life, it is because I wasn’t embarrassed to talk about God.”

God loves us so much. God loves us so much that God invites us to share in the kingdom of heaven. I love you too. And I think whatever it is that is waking us up, and prompting us to lay down our nets and see the needs crossing or showing us the issues swirling in front of us, when we are able to change course and heed the call to follow Jesus, we enrich this church and the community around it. Amen.     


Preparing for Something New: A Name

This is the second Sunday of epiphany. Let’s remember the path we follow with our biblical story. First the wise men traveled from the East to see the small infant in his mother’s arms. Their lives were changed and they returned home on a new path. Last week John the Baptist met Jesus when he requested baptism. He was anointed for ministry when the dove of peace and justice descended from heaven. This week, we read John’s version of the baptism then Jesus attracts some followers. 

John 1:29-42
The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’*
The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas (which is translated Peter).
Bless the hearing of these words O God. That what is ordinary might transform in your presence to something extraordinary. Something that might just change our lives and inspire us to change the world. Amen.
America met Rob Ford this past year. Do you remember Toronto’s headline-making mayor? He burst onto the public media scene, quickly becoming comedic obsession for the writers at SNL and the Daily Show as reports about his illegal behaviors while mayor mounted. Illicit engagements with women, then binging on mass amounts of alcohol, then drug use. Society watched as this man’s reputation fell to shambles. I wonder if our media-frenzied attention to this man’s downfall, like with other celebrities caught in public scandal, mimics the crowd’s fascination with battle and death at the ancient Roman Coliseum. But in the case of Ford, unlike a slain gladiator, Ford tried to make amends before the end of the year in the presence of the pastor and congregation at West Toronto Church of God. Standing at the front of the church, he resigned to stop smoking crack and consuming alcohol. In fact he named this confession for us. It was his “come to Jesus moment!” 
Well known atheist and satyr reporter Bill Mahr had this to say in response,
Jesus must admit that anytime anybody ever comes to him is after they’ve totally screwed up. [The audience laughs.] To save time, Jesus must change his message to, “Hi this is Jesus, if you were caught smoking crack press one, drunk driving, press two, sexual harassment three. For all those scandals please stay on the line.” 
Well, as you can imagine, the audience fell into uproarious laughter. And though it’s fairly irreverent, it is funny. Laughing is fine. But Mahr misses a crucial point. Arguably, he misses the point of the entire Gospel with this joke. We do not see anywhere in scripture Jesus redirecting an addict or a slut or a depressed person to voice mail, or whatever the ancient equivalent. In fact, Mahr had the first part of his joke absolutely right. We do all royally mess up, and when we realize our need for confession, we have our own come-to-Jesus-moments. Don’t we? We could easily remain here the rest of the day if we were all going to share our “Come to Jesus Moments.” Fortunately, the Gospel is so much than calling in to Jesus all of our misdemeanors. We come to Jesus for reasons in addition to our need for forgiveness. 
The wise men traveled from the Orient to see a king, and because their astrology signs were not aligned correctly due to the mysterious super-bright star in the West. John the Baptist was timid about his initial encounter with Jesus, not because of his sin, but due to feelings of unworthiness. He was humbled by Jesus’ request for baptism. In our story today, we see people already transfixed by this street walking, water dripping, preaching prophet who seemed to move about in the city wherever he pleased, saying whatever came to mind. Just one day after his baptism, according to John here, John the Baptist sees Jesus walking down the road and claims, “Look! Here is the Lamb of God!” And it was enough to spark an entirely new social movement, a revolution.
For the five years that I lived in Los Angeles, I never saw a celebrity. I can’t believe it. In fact, I’m convinced now that I probably did see at least one and just didn’t recognize them without all the glam. On the other hand, a friend of mine frequented a tucked-away and delicious Mexican eatery along the Pacific Coast Highway where he saw Minnie Driver, Martin Scorcese, Woody Allen and other A-listers pull in for a salty Margarita. My friend is too unassuming to point a finger as he yells out “Look! Paris Hilton!” “Look! Beyonce and Jay Z!” 
At which point every non-celebrity would turn to look. That’s what we do. We look! We look at these mega-rich characters as if they are paragons of wealth and success and fame. Sure, as Christians we know there is more to life than oversized designer handbags and privet jets and exclusive golf club memberships. But when we see it in person, the wealth intimidates us as our lustful gazes continue. Is it because we hope these icons will show us the way to our own success? Is it that they manifest the American Dream--showing up with just $100 in their pocket and now $50,000,000 later they’re on top of the world? Maybe, but I think we look to celebrities for deeper reasons. We long for Beyonce to end racism for good. We expect Leonardo DiCaprio to star in a movie that will expose the evils corporate wealth to end corporate rule. We feel betrayed when our political candidate votes array from campaign propaganda. We are frustrated when yet another financial giant is caught in fraud. We are angry when racism persists. 
I wonder what the first-century Jewish people were hoping for when they obeyed John’s cry and followed his pointing finger to see the Lamb of God walking down the street. 
You see, as the ancient Jewish people needed saving. They did not have freedom of religion or freedom of speech. They lived in subservience to the empire, careful not to interrupt the movement of political officials. They waited on their Messiah to rescuing them. The Messiah that was predicted to them by the prophets of the Old Testament. And if they were going to conquer Rome, combat the corporate giants if you will, they knew they needed a strong warrior. One who would rescue them by force and defiance. 
If whatever name John the Baptist called out to highlight Jesus on the road that day, “Lamb of God” is not what the Israelites had in mind.
A lamb is not at the top of the food chain.
A lamb does not snarl at its predators.
A lamb does not charge forth with aggression and terror.
A lamb does not throw spears at men in armor.
A lamb does not threaten to overpower the king.
No, the Israelites were waiting on the “Lion of Judah!”
They were waiting on God as the sword that symbolized military rule like in the book of Hosea.
They were waiting on the next monarchy rule after Kings David and Solomon.
They were waiting to re-establish their own empire and dominion.
Lamb of God? 
The first nickname given to the Messiah, reflects a docile, baby animal. 
What could this mean? Perhaps this name points to the development of the world’s first grassroots movement. We meet a person who invites us to ‘Come to Jesus’ moments. Jesus, the Lamb of God, does not say, “If you’re sick with cancer press 1. If you’ve lost your job press 2. If your divorce causes sadness press 3. No, when we follow John’s voice and look to the Lamb of God, we hear words that transform us. 
Jesus says, “Come and See.” You do not need to abolish sin or darkness or spitefulnes from your life to come to Jesus. Nor do you need to be rich and residing in a mansion in Malibu. You do not even need to pass a drug screening. “Come and see,” Jesus says. We do not need to be dressed up or well kemp. We do not need to be skinny or not afraid. We do not need to happy or popular, healthy or strong. We need only to look and hear the invitation, “Come and see.” 
To Andrew and his friend Jesus says, “Come and see what life is really all about.” And so they went.
The men spent the entire afternoon with this Lamb figure. I suspect they asked questions and conversed throughout the evening while munching on hummus and figs. So transfixed were they by this new celebrity that the next day, they brought Simon along with them. And oh wow did he ever have a “come to Jesus” moment. The Lamb of God boldly said to Simon, “You are to be called Cephas.” Scripture tells us it means Peter or rock. The Lamb of God just changed the man’s name. No longer is Peter known as “Simon, son of John,” but now he is “Peter the Rock,” the foundation on which the Jewish followers who look to Jesus will birth a new religious movement.  
Are you catching how all of this relates? These “Preparing for Something New” sermons? Each encounter with Jesus sparks something new. So I say to you this morning Lynnhurst, “Come and see! Come and see what happens when we follow Jesus.” Where will we go? 
In first-century Palestine Jesus went to homes of sinners and saints alike. He spoke with outcasts, and he touched bleeding women. Jesus did not just push boundaries with his name Lamb of God, he turned the entire city of Jerusalem on its head.
Where is Jesus going today? Are we willing to follow this Lamb of God? This non-militant, peace-mongering, hippie? I wonder if Jesus would be in our churches today. I definitely think he would take us all to a Beyonce concert. I have no doubt he sits with us at our Al-anon and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. How about in the nursing homes with those who are neglected or abused? “Come and see,” he says. I think Jesus might buy a house in a trailer park that the city wants to condemn. Or maybe he is still on the move, like in the Bible, depending on us to welcome him into our homes. 
When we “come to Jesus” it stops being about us. We might even get a new name. (I wish we were like the Catholics and offered baptism names. There is real power in the idea of claiming a new identity as we remember our baptism, like we spoke of last week. But I digress.) When we come and see Jesus, the simple patterns of our life stop repeating themselves. Our identity reshapes itself into a people who follow the Lamb of God.  
Wether one commits to following the star and finding a different path home, or seeing a dove that brings forgiveness, when we commit to following the Lamb, we embrace something new. New directions bring new decisions and dimensions to ministry. Are we prepared for this, ready to push against the status quo. Are we ready to turn our community on its head in the name of Jesus, Lamb of God? Friends, we must band together to continue in our fight for justice, for those who are still searching for a lion or a gun or their next hit of heroine. There is no right or wrong way to “come to Jesus.” We must only simply come. “Come and see,” says the Lamb of God. Amen.


Roe v. Wade Celebration

I really adore this flyer. Some friends and I are going to this event to support KRCRC, Clinic Escorts, Planned Parenthood and the other organizations at the bottom of the flyer. Message me on Facebook if you'd like to join us, especially you Women's Center folk! I love cheap beer for a good cause. And if there is ever a time we need to support reproductive justice organizations, tis now!


Preparing for Something New: Baptism

Matthew 3:13-17
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

We stick slogans and names on our car bumpers. We wear our sport team’s paraphernalia. We poke pins into our lapels. Some of you pay close attention to the labels on your clothing and automobiles, carefully noting the country of origin, designer, or lack of label. Many of us also read the consumer information about our food, noting the presence of genetically modified organisms or if there are any cross contaminants like nuts or dairy. Smokers are particular about their brand of cigarettes and hipsters frequent only certain movie theaters. Some of you hang patriotic or holiday flags outside your home. Perhaps you wear a cross around your neck or share political rants on Facebook.  And then there are a few of us who go the more permanent route by marking our bodies with tattoos and piercings. 

Who are we? Who do other people know us to be? Our identity is robust. Our identity is a web-like formation that affirms our choices and goals in life. Often we are careful and intentional about how we reveal parts of our identity to our friends, coworkers, families, and acquaintances. They each might know different parts of us. This is a normal part of psychological development. So in this way we market ourselves to each other and to our society. Why do we do this? How is it that you know so much about me now because I let you know that I prefer local, organic food; I bleed blue; Diet Pepsi is never okay when I ask for Diet Coke, Mac is always better than Microsoft, and my Myers Briggs temprement is INFP? But even these outer labels only tell so much, don’t they? Maya Angelou’s mark of character is how one reacts to an unexpected rain storm, tangled Christmas lights, and rush hour traffic.

We long to be known and understood. We fall in love with people who appreciate the parts of us that others may not fully understand. We don’t have to filter our identity quite as much with those who live in our close circles. As our identity testifies to our deeper values, an important question rises to the surface. With each choice that we make in revealing ourselves to other people, what are we marketing? What ideas and ideals about life do we promote with each bumper sticker, jewelry selection, and item purchased? As Christians who gather in a sanctuary most Sunday mornings in the calendar year, how does our identity reflect our beliefs and concerns about the world? 

Let’s consider the Bible story for moment. Matthew tells us that Jesus approaches John the Baptist. Jesus asks John to dip him into the waters of the Jordan River. Why? John was baptizing followers with water for the forgiveness of sin. Jesus needed no forgiveness. So John was probably aghast when the Saving One, Jesus, approaches him for this ritual cleansing. 

Jesus wants to participate in the act of baptism. Essentially, Jesus wants to identify publicly with God by saying, “As I move beneath the surface of the water, I duck into the grace of God. It is God whom we follow. So let me show you how to receive God’s mysterious love.” Despite his confusion, John baptizes the One who needs no cleansing. After Jesus rises from the water God sends down a dove. 

It was just last week that we read about the star identifying newborn Jesus. Today we read about a dove identifying adult prophet Jesus, God’s child, with whom God is well-pleased. The dove, also a contemporary, international symbol of peace, symbolizes that Jesus will embark on a journey of justice. With this new identity as God’s beloved, Jesus spends the remainder of his life living into and out of this identity. We do well to follow this step of obedience.

Wouldn’t it be amusing if we all identified by our baptism ritual? It would be cool too. What if we walked around introducing ourselves with handshakes and the words, “Lauren Jones Mayfield, fresh water immersion, indoor church baptistry.” As my new friend extends her hand with the reply, “Jane Doe, salt water sprinkling, Atlantic Ocean.” We don’t do this as a matter of fact, because it is weird. And yet, this image mimics well our theology of baptism. Our baptism is a corporate confession of our dependence on God. Through the symbol of getting wet by baptismal waters, we receive God’s grace.

In the UCC tradition, when a new sister or brother is baptized into the family of God, the congregation participates in the liturgy with a corporate response. You, the congregation, promise to join in the covenant. I love this. It is like the congregation is saying to the baptismal candidate and to one another, “Remember your baptism.” We say this any time we are in a season of renewal, in fact, not just on Baptism Sunday. “Remember your baptism!”

It’s like we are saying, “Remember what to do in case of a fire.” 
Grab the extinguisher, 
get out of the house, 
ring the alarm. 
Stand in line quietly (if you’re in elementary school.)

Or it’s like saying to the couple on their fiftieth wedding anniversary, “Remember your wedding vows.” Remember your love and commitment. 

Really, it’s like we are saying, 
“Remember to whom you belong.” 
“Remember whose you are.” 
“Remember what’s important in your life as you are a member in the family of God.” 

Baptism is an identity marker. And it’s one part of our identity that we do not need to earn. God is the one who shares grace with us. The active work of being faithful follows our baptism, or precedes our baptism even, but during the event itself, it was we who are still and God who moves. Isn’t that beautiful? 

I suspect it is why John the Baptist was caught so off guard when Jesus approached him. He knew he was unworthy to untie the sandals on Jesus’ feet. And yet, here is the man whose birth was made known by a brilliant star in the night sky, whose teachings are already making a name for himself, who is supposedly the new king of Israel, wanting to be baptized? Through his baptism, Jesus identifies himself as a child of God. Through our baptisms, we proclaim that are we God’s children. And when we remember our baptisms, we recall that we value the people and the ideas that God values. 

Sojourners recently published an article written by pastor in Texas. Evan Dovile is also a regular blogger and guest contributor to many Christian online networks. The article title is “14 Things the Church Needs to do in 2014.” Have you seen this already? He writes in the opening paragraph that “New Years resolutions are supposed to give us tangible goals to better ourselves for the year to come.” I wonder if for our purposes here we might think of our church’s new year resolution as the call to remember our baptisms. Let me explain.

The entire list of fourteen tasks for the church is pretty excellent in my opinion. But it’s not an easy list; that is certain. Instead of reading all 14, I’m going to walk us through two or three of them. The second job Rev. Dovile suggests for the 2014 church calls us to honestly answer the question, “”Why in the world would anyone want to come to this church?” Wow. Consider all the churches in Louisville. (There are over 600 churches in this city.) Now consider just how many churches you drive by on your way here to this one. (I counted approximately nine on my drive this morning.) And now expand this to consider it from the perspective of people who are busy with life, tired from work, who enjoy sitting with the Sunday morning newspaper at a favorite coffee shop, or might use this time to run errands for the week ahead, or to workout with a local running group. With so many options for Sunday morning worship, and with the bad rap that religion gets from right wing conservatives, and too many other obligations fighting for our attention, what is that Lynnhust United Church of Christ offers to this community in such a way that to not attend church on Sunday morning is to miss a blessing from God? 

This is a really hard question to ask, Church; and maybe even a harder one to answer honestly. According to the article, it is questions like this that force us to examine our ministry, our outlook, and our mission. And yet, when we are able to approach the possibilities, and when we can fully respond with exciting confidence to this answer, when we can say, “These are precisely the reasons someone would want to come to this church...reason A, B, C, and D....” then we experience and remember our baptism! 

What if all of us were excited enough and empowered enough to say, “Billy would want to come to this church because we remember our baptism!” 

You see, when we really remember our baptism, who knows what might happen. 
We might see the power of salvation and redemption loosed.  
We might see doves descending from heaven. 
We might see an increase in attendance, Then again, maybe not because maybe we might see that that isn’t what’s necessarily going to carry us into the next century. 
We might hear the voice of God gazing upon faithful stewards saying, “Look at my children with whom I am well pleased.” 
We might discover that our purpose in life is not to sit on pews but to change the world.
We might learn, Lynnhurst, new secrets and joys of abundant living that are so effectual and powerful that we cannot not come to this church. This church that makes the world a better place for all of God’s children. 

So I say to you this morning, “Let us answer this question: why would anyone want to come to this church. Let us remember our baptism.”

As your designated pastor for the next six months, I really want to help you think through your answers to this question.

Another one of Dovile’s things for the church to do in 2014 comes in at number 13 on his list. It is this: “Stop targeting ‘young people’ (especially if you aren’t going to do what it takes to keep them.” Yikes! And yet, I couldn’t agree more. Listen to what he writes. It’s so spot on. “Young people aren’t lazier than the previous generation and it’s not the IPhone’s, MTV’s, or the devil’s fault that they aren’t attending church. Listen to this extended quote from him,

There is this unwritten understanding that ‘we want people to come and experience the Jesus we know even if it          doesn’t speak to them.’ This is another door slammed in the face of the next generation. The younger generations do not want to join committees or organizations; they want to join causes...this is a shift the church must recognize. The church has lost its particularity in society. Why go to church if it means serving on a committee when you can make just as much of a difference with CASA or United Way or Habitat for Humanity? Churches that have a cause to unite others with ministries they are passionate about will generally have the younger generation more invested.

What do you think when you hear that? How does that feel? Does it resonate? Is this idea of church-as-a-cause a foreign concept, or one that makes you think, “Duh! Church should be a cause to make a difference”? Either way, it leads right in to his closing point, number 14—promote justice!

 As I see it, these three points are entirely related and useful to us. Understanding what is particular about Lynnhurst Church, knowing our cause, our mission in this community, then unfurling it in ways that bring justice can spark a social revival here in South Louisville. When we remember our baptism we remember that we are God’s children working together to bring forgiveness and reconciliation. 

Let’s quickly speak to at least two reasons people might want to attend Lynnhurst. Your work with South Louisville Community Ministries. This is fabulous. You support an organization whose sole purpose is to increase the dignity of life for members of this region through various services offered in an interfaith, ecumenical context. This is that justice peace. This is worth celebrating.

Another reason I think people may want to attend this church is because you get what it means to be a family. You welcome others into your family with open arms. Many of you have attended this church since childhood, while some of you are relatively new; yet, all of you treat one another with respect. Many fellow ministers in Louisville, when they learn of my move here have said things like, “Take care of those people! That’s my home church and they are amazing and precious.” In a world where people struggle with intense feelings of isolation, loneliness, and abandonment, feeling like they are not worthy of community, Lynnhurst you have a unique gift to offer...the loving arms of hospitality and warmth of presence. This is a gift, and it is real here. I see that dove hovering around in this way.

And what else? What are the other reasons that people in this world, this city, would want to attend this church?

When we remember our baptism we remember that we don’t have to market ourselves to a new generation with expensive campaigns and sleek strategizing. We simply have to do the particular work to which God calls us. The gospel is for all generations—young and middle-aged and elderly. I believe that when the Church is busy enacting gospel principles in her community, people see things changing, and they want to participate. We just have to be the church, working with the world to let people know that they, too, are beloved children of God. When we remember our baptism and then find the strength to come together in this community to make the world a better place, the dove of peace finds new places to descend with her justice. 

Remember your baptism, Lynnhurst! And together let’s discover God’s redemption and vision for 2014. Amen.