Posts Tagged ‘baptism’

The church does not belong to us. It belongs to Christ.

Our two lessons this morning remind us of some critical shifts in the early days of Christianity. At first, Christians were primarily Jews who saw Jesus as a Messianic figure. They worshiped in the synagogues, followed Hebrew dietary laws, and celebrated the Jewish feasts. When Jews were persecuted, Christians were, too.

Then along comes Paul.

Paul first appears as Saul, a fierce persecutor of these followers of Jesus. He oversees the public lynching of Stephen, he of strong leonine faith, who is often called the first Christian martyr. When Saul is on the way to do more of the same in Damascus, he has an otherworldly conversion experience, a blinding encounter with Jesus himself. And in that moment, Saul becomes Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles.

Paul’s new mission is one of preaching. He takes that same fierceness with him as he brings the message of Jesus far beyond the Jewish community. The letters attributed to him make up the bulk of the New Testament, and his writings are critical in establishing Christianity as its own faith, distinct from Judaism, one in which people of different tribes were meant to be together in community.

The church does not belong to us. It belongs to Christ.

Paul’s mission pointed back to Jesus’ own ministry, calling attention to the fact that his own message was quite broad. In Jesus’ first sermon in Nazareth, as he reads Isaiah’s words about God’s liberating power, the two stories of the Hebrew Bible he uses to illustrate his point are both ones in which prophets are sent to Gentiles, not Israelites. And Jesus regularly violated strict Sabbath observance in order to make a larger point about God’s limitless power.

With God’s urging, Paul took these moments and ran with them. The gospel, with Paul as its instrument, was not meant to divide, but to unite – to heal, to reconcile, to reach far beyond boundaries.

The church does not belong to us. It belongs to Christ.

Our lesson this morning finds Paul on the road again, heading from Athens and arriving in Corinth, about fifty miles to the west. The Romans had rebuilt Corinth as a major trading hub where Romans, Jews, and Greeks all mixed together. After he arrives, Paul connects with Aquila and Priscilla, Jews who had been kicked out of Rome. The three find common ground over their shared trade of tent-making. And Paul gets a place to stay while he puts his powers of persuasion to work in the synagogue, bringing the message of Christ.

Paul’s efforts there are critical in establishing the Church in Corinth. Though Paul eventually left to continue his ministry elsewhere, his authority loomed large enough in the community that they still regularly sought his wisdom. And he thinks of enough of them to reply in depth to the questions and struggles of faith that they have.

Much of Paul’s letters to the Corinth address the divisions that mark them – and there were plenty, apparently. There were conflicts over whether or not to eat meat sacrificed to idols. There were conflicts over what role the Lord’s Supper was to have in their gatherings. There were conflicts that arose because of the cultural stew that the city of Corinth reflected, and Paul tackles them head on, over and over again.

The second part of our lesson highlights one of these divisive moments. Chloe, a leader in the Corinthian church, has sent word to Paul that factions are forming. Paul blasts them for these arguments. It is not, he says, about whether you “belong to Paul” or “Cephas” or “Apollos”. Christ, he says, is not divided. And if Christ is not divided, Christ’s church should not be, either. Paul reminds them that it is Christ who was crucified, not Paul. It was in the name of Christ that they were baptized.

He has this stumbling little tangent, too, which I love – a reminder that Paul didn’t really have the time or the resources for editing. He writes: “I only baptized Crispus and Gaius. And no one else. Except for Stephanas. And his household. Actually, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else. We did do the nose. And the hat. But that’s not the point! You were baptized into Christ, and into the message of the cross and its power. That should be what unites you!”

And Paul’s message was so effective that the church was never divided again.

If anything, the church seems to be marked by division: division between Orthodox and Catholic, division between Catholic and Protestant, division between Presbyterian and Lutheran, division between evangelical and traditional, division between conservative and progressive…So let us be absolutely crystal clear about this: the church does not belong to us. It belongs to Christ!

This is the message that ought to ring home for us today – not just today, but especially today. Later on in the service, we will baptize little Norah, and we will welcome her parents, Adam and Victoria, into membership, as we also officially welcome the Kim family into the life of Oglethorpe Presbyterian. Each and every time we baptize and welcome members, we should be reminded of this fact: the church does not belong to us. It belongs to Christ. And it is in Christ that we should find our life, our meaning, our purpose.

Even the word “church” ought to remind us of this focus. “Church” is an old, old English word that comes from Greek by way of German. And in Greek, it owes its root to the word Kyrios – that is the Lord, or Christ himself.

The problem comes when we confuse life in a church with life in the church, with life in Christ. We can easily get caught up in institutional survival, or denominational division, or even political disagreement, such that we fail to recognize what our calling actually is.

This is the challenge that confronts us every time we talk about church membership. If we fail to make it clear, we can be led to believe that membership means some kind of exclusive access to God that sets us apart from the world. And this is what leads into division, reinforcing the very separation and conflict that Paul was trying to discourage.

What membership should mean is this: it is a public commitment to be part of a community that is in an ongoing relationship with Jesus. And in that relationship, we try to reflect that the character of Jesus we meet out into the world.

I am not saying that there is nothing at stake in church membership. Quite the opposite: church membership is one clear way to demonstrate that we believe in something larger than ourselves, and that we are willing to be part of a shared vision, one we shape just as it shapes us.

And yet, joining Oglethorpe Presbyterian does not mean cutting yourself off from the world. We do not have some kind of inner road to truth that other congregations or denominations or religions lack. We are, simply put, a community of people doing our best to be part of what it is that God desires in this little corner of God’s amazing world. And this work does not end when we leave the property; in fact, it is just beginning, spreading out through all space and time!

Wherever we go, our goal should be to create little glimpses of grace – moments that point not to ourselves, or to Brookhaven, or to Oglethorpe, or to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), or to Paul or Cephas or Apollos. They should, instead, be windows onto to the God whom we are coming to know more in Jesus each and every day!

Immediately following worship today, our Mission leadership is going to be hosting a Town Hall forum on some of the opportunities we believe God has led us to prioritize, ways of being this church that belongs to Jesus far beyond the walls of our buildings and the lines of our property. Some of these ministries have a long history here, and some are brand new. And each of them, we believe, are visible reminders of God at work in this broken and beloved world.

This is the church into which we are baptized – a church that does not exist for its own sake, but for the sake of the gospel and its healing, reconciling power, with its words of compassion, words of peace for us, and for all. May we have the wisdom and the faith to embrace its claim upon us!


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Water. Mayim, in Hebrew: the waters of creation when the Spirit breathed on the face of the deep. For forty days and forty nights, water fell from the skies, flooding the whole earth. The infant Moses found safety floating on the waters of the Nile. And when he led the people out of Egypt, it was the waters of the Red Sea that parted. In the wilderness, it miraculously sprang from rocks. The Psalmist spoke of the deer longing for water as the soul longs for God. And in captivity in Babylon, the people sat by the waters and wept tears of grief.

Water. Hydor in Greek: the baptismal waters of the Jordan River. As Christ began his ministry, at Cana, he changed the water into wine. On the Sea of Galilee, Christ found his first disciples. He calmed the storm and walked on the face of the water. On the night he was betrayed, he washed the disciples’ feet. And when he was crucified, as the soldier pierced his side, blood and water flowed to the ground together.

Water. So simple: a mere two Hs and an O. So necessary: without it, we cannot live. And yet, so fearsomely powerful: the destructions of floods and tsunamis. In our Scriptures, it is a sign of judgment and sadness, a cause of suffering and fear. It is also a symbol of plenty and purity, a reminder of sustenance and salvation, a source of blessing and celebration.

In the sacrament of baptism, in the waters that flow, we find the Word made visible. The Word is the focal point of Presbyterian worship. It is the Word that follows our gathering and preparation, and lays the groundwork for what follows. For Christians who track a significant portion of our roots back to the Reformation, it’s no surprise that we give emphasis to the Word. The Reformation was when churches were changed by understandings of authority and access. The printing press was the innovation that sparked the translating and sharing of Scripture, such that it became an important mark of Protestantism.

And yet, there is more – much more – to “the Word” than Scripture. Sermons are meant to be expositions of Scripture. Our time with the children, too, is when we share the Word. The Word can be offered in song, in dance, in drama…all of these things can be reflections of the Word of God. And of course, there is Christ himself, in whom the Word became flesh.

It is the Word that gathers us here, for which we prepare. It is the Word to which we respond, that sends us out into the world. And the Word is made visible in sacrament. This is an old idea, that the sacraments of baptism and communion are the Word made visible. We can trace their trajectory back to the Reformation and John Calvin, and through him, back to Augustine in North Africa in the late 4th century. In other words, for Presbyterians, communion and baptism are the Word of God just as much as, if not more than, the sermon.

Like many Protestants, we Presbyterians have two sacraments: baptism and communion. For us, they are practices that Jesus himself commanded us to do – and yet, they are not the only things he commanded us to do. They involve the tangible: water; bread; cup – and yet, they are not the only tangible reminders of faith. They are community moments, too, taking place when the congregation gathers for worship – and yet, they are not the only things we do together. And they remind us of our connection to that great cloud of witnesses, to the whole sweep of salvation history – and yet, they are not the only moments that do.

If you were to draw a Venn Diagram of these things, though, they would likely pinpoint on these two moments: communion and baptism. And more than that, they are rituals where what happens on the outside is just a mere shadow of what is happening on the inside. In other words, there is nothing magical about the water or the bread or what is in the cup. And yet, as we share in them, we recognize what it is that God has been, is, and will be doing with and through us: calling us to newness of life, feeding us so that we might feed, setting us free to love and serve.

We can see this connection being made in our scripture lesson this morning from the Letter to the Hebrews. Twice in our reading, Jesus is referred to as a priest in the order of Melchizedek. Digging a little deeper, we can find connections that go back through the Psalms to Genesis.

Melchizedek first appears in the story meeting the patriarch Abram. He is identified as king of Salem (later Jerusalem). He is also the first to be called a “priest” – in his case, the god El Elyon, which may or may not be identified as Yahweh. In any case, he was not an Israelite. And yet, the point is that someone of Melchizedek’s stature and devotion easily saw that Abram was a righteous man – and through him, he recognized that the God Abram served and loved was worthy of pure devotion.

The Psalms, linking the dual roles of priest and king, saw Melchizedek a Messianic figure, linking him with King David. And now, the Letter to the Hebrews connects the dots from the God of Abram to the person of Jesus, with Melchizedek as an important key, helping to identify Jesus, too, as priest and king.

King is an archaic term to us, but it would have been one that his contemporaries recognized as a sign of God’s blessings and a rejection of King Herod and his ilk. As a priest, just as the priests of the Temple sought to reconcile the people to God through animal sacrifice, so Jesus himself was the reconciler. At the same time, he is himself the lamb, the sacrifice. It is in his death and resurrection that he is the bridge through which God draws close to us, even when we turn away.

It is with this same sweep of Biblical history that the sacraments carry us today and beyond. Whenever we celebrate them, we recount the story of salvation all the way from the first moments of Creation to Easter’s empty tomb and beyond. And we do so in order to remind us that we, too, are part of this holy stream that connects it all.

It’s almost absurd to say that we believe these things. And that is where we can lean into what the word “sacrament” means in its purest form: mystery. The sacraments are mysteries, holy mysteries that we will never fuller understand in this life time, where God is the one who closes the gap, who accomplishes through us what we could never accomplish on our own, who heals and holds and forgives and nourishes and sends and challenges and encourages and embraces us, even when we fail to recognize it ourselves.

Friends, what the sacraments are meant to do is to remind us of the transforming power of the Word of God. We are called to be not only those who hear, but do: we are called here and sent away to be God’s ambassadors of reconciliation to a broken world. In a sense, we ourselves become sacramental, the Word made visible, tangible, real.

As we baptize today, may these waters of baptism remind us of what it is that God calls us to be and do.


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What needs to die so that Christ can live in you?

In the 16th century, a Spanish nobleman named Ignatius changed Christianity forever. He left comfort behind to join the priesthood, establishing the Society of Jesus, an order of Catholic priests.

One of Ignatius’ legacies is the spiritual practice known as Examen. Examen is a daily discipline of reflection designed to develop attention to where God is at work in one’s life. There are many variations on the practice. The one that has come to mean the most to me is one which focuses on two questions at day’s end: What gave you life today? And what drained life from you? The hope in doing so is that, over time, you are drawn closer to those things that are life-giving; and in doing so, you draw closer to God.

It is a practice that parallels with our text from Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome this morning. In it, Paul uses the image of baptism, of descending into the water and coming out again, as an image of death and resurrection. Not just an image, though, but an act that binds the follower of Jesus with Jesus. Going under the water, we die to sin. Coming out, we rise, renewed and refreshed, to live in faith and hope.

And for most of us, the journey of faith is not “one and done”; rather, it is one of multiple spiritual baptisms, of deaths and births – some large and some small – that happen time and time again. None of us rise out of the waters of baptism to live lives of perfection. If we do, then we certainly don’t need any of this, since we’ve already got it all figured out.

This leads us back to this daily practice of Examen; and thus our question today: what needs to die so that Christ can live in you?

As Christians, as those who try to follow Christ’s example, we are called to serve others. We are commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves. Let’s be clear, though: we can only love our neighbors if we love ourselves. It is easy to confuse the call to service with a personal desire for martyrdom. But we are followers of Jesus. We are not Jesus. We do not carry the sins of the world. We don’t even carry our own: that’s Jesus’ job!

We can only honor God if we are willing to honor the image of God – that goes for the image of God within others and the image of God that is on our own truest selves.

Faith requires examination. And the purpose of this examination is so that we grow in clarity about what it is that weighs us down. When we do, we also grow in awareness of what it is that the world puts on us and what it is that we pick up of our own accord. Just as there is faithfulness in saying “yes” to things that could possibly make us squirm, there is also faithfulness in saying “no” to things that drain life from us. The thing is that saying “no” is what gives us the freedom to say “yes”.

So what needs to die so that Christ can live in you? What is it that you need to say “no” to so that you can possibly say “yes” to what God is putting before you? What is it that needs to go under the waves so that you can come up renewed and restored?

That’s the essence of our topic today, this idea of weaving the big story with our stories. We have the temerity to believe that our daily lives are sewn into the grand drama of the universe, of God’s creation and redemption and salvation and hope and resurrection. In other words, that Easter morning resurrection was not just a once in an eternity experience. Instead, we should experience that resurrection each and every day. As those things that pull us away from Christ die little deaths, seeds of new life should take root and blossom.

The Sanders have been doing our own version of the daily Examen in our house for a while now. In order to span the generations, we call it “happy sad time”. Each of us shares something during the day that made us happy and something that made us sad. It has become part of our evening ritual every bit as important as brushing teeth, reading bedtime stories, and saying prayers. There are many days that boo-boo’s top the sad list. And yet, the gift that has emerged is a growing awareness of how we interact with the world on a daily basis. It has become our way of figuring out what has to die so that Christ can live within us.

There is, I believe, faithful purpose in practices like Examen. There is also, I believe, practical purpose as well. The paradox of letting things die in order for Christ to live is that, by doing less, we actually accomplish more.

When we deprive ourselves of sleep, we may think we are getting more done. But if we are honest without ourselves, we know that what we do, we do with diminished capacity. We do it poorly. We do it under duress. And we do it with less attention than it demands. If we take seriously our call to self-stewardship, including so-called frivolities like play and sleep, we are actually fine-tuning ourselves toward faithfulness, toward that daily baptism of newness and renewal.

Here’s the hones truth, some good news and bad news. The bad news is that there are only 24 hours in a day. That “to do” list that currently haunts you? It will continue to do so. Whatever it is you have to accomplish, you will always only be able to do so within the confines of the amount of time it takes the earth to rotate on its axis.

But there’s good news, too. Are you ready? There are only 24 hours in a day.

Whatever anyone else expects you to do with that time, including your own expectations, what God expects of you is to spend that time as stewards of what God has given you! That includes work and obligation, yes. It also includes sleep and rest. It includes joy and fun. It is, in short, an effort to allow our lives to be transformed so that we spend more and more of our time doing those things that give us life.

This past week, my college alumni magazine came in the mail. The first section I always turn to is the alumni news, where I get to see all of the amazing things that I am not doing with my life. Do you know what I’m talking about? How often do we spend time comparing ourselves with others? How often do we marvel at those who have gone on to greatness, and sowing some seeds of disappointment within ourselves in the process?

How much more faithful would it be to focus on what it is that God expects of us? Friends, success is a fraud. It is a false idol. So is happiness, but that’s a topic for another day. As people of faith, we are never called to be successful. We are always called to faithfulness. After all, it is faithfulness, not success, which gives context to our failures.

We are not asked to defy the laws of physics. We are not called to do physical harm to our bodies and psyches in order to please the gods of others’ expectations. What God expects of us is to spend our time faithfully and wisely in order to give glory to God! For us old school Presbyterians, the archaic language of the Westminster Catechism put it this way:

Q: What is the chief end of man?

A: To glory God and enjoy him forever.

Our whole created purpose in God’s eyes is this two-fold expression of enjoyment and glory! If we can begin to see our lives through this lens, then the invitation to let things die in order that Christ might live in us might finally grab hold.

Today, we are ordaining and installing elders. In the Presbyterian Church, elders are those we entrust with leadership, wisdom, and discernment. I am very aware that many of our elders and deacons have busy lives. And what we say is that, through the voice of this congregation, God is calling them to these ministries of leadership and service.

I want us to be just as clear about what ordination is not about. We do not ordain elders and deacons so that they can be busier. We do not ordain them to add one more thing to their “to do” lists. If ordination and installation – if leadership and service – are things that drain life rather than give it, then they are not of God. They are not what God desires of us. They are not what God has created us for.

My hope, instead, is that we will live into this vision of letting things die in order for Christ to live within us. So as we absorb the absurd promise that death actually gives way to life, that is when this grand story of God’s purpose really weaves itself into the fabric of our day-to-day lives. Resurrection becomes the moment that smashes our false idols and makes room for Jesus. And when we allow this to happen within ourselves, as we demonstrate that love of self God desires us to know, that is when we can begin to do the same for others, for our neighbors, for those whom God calls us to love and serve.

You see, this grand story, this sweep of God’s history, is not just tied into the lives of those of us here. The bricks and mortar of church buildings cannot limit God’s tapestry. God’s weaving is meant for all created in God’s image. The disaster is that there are so many of God’s children who either think that God doesn’t care for them at all or who believe that God expects more of them than they can ever reasonably accomplish. Our role is to let them know otherwise, and that there are communities of faith that practice realistic, faithful expectations so that the world can look more and more like the one God desires.

So here is my invitation to you today. I invite you to adopt some version of that daily examination, the Examen, in your own lives. I invite you to spend a few minutes at the end of the day reflecting back on the day’s events, taking note of those things that gave you life and those things that drained life from you. I trust that as you do so, you will grow in awareness of those things that ought to die so that Christ can live in you.

I also trust that, as we grow in our awareness of Christ’s presence, we will be able to nurture that awareness in others, to invite them into the astonishing journey that promises life out of death.


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Suffering produces endurance. Endurance produces character. Character produces hope.

Our lesson this morning comes from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Church at Rome. He has been busy traveling and preaching, spreading the gospel as he goes. This particular church, though, is one he did not start. He is coming to visit them, and wants to establish some kind of connection before his arrival. What he doesn’t yet know is that Rome is the city in which he will die.

Suffering produces endurance. Endurance produces character. Character produces hope.

It is also important that we remember where Paul came from. He was a Pharisee who went by the name of Saul and, in the early days of the Christian movement, he was one of its fiercest opponents. He oversaw the martyrdom of Stephen at the hands of a murderous crowd. His dramatic conversion came while he was traveling up to Damascus to continue this cruel work.

Suffering produces endurance. Endurance produces character. Character produces hope.

All of this, of course, comes in the shadow of the cross. Jesus, the hope of the world, had been betrayed by those closest to him. He was tried, tortured, sentenced, and executed. And on the cross, he breathed his last before being buried in the tomb.

Suffering produces endurance. Endurance produces character. Character produces hope.

The early days of Christianity seem to be most pronounced by their suffering, a reality that continues to shape so much of Christian theology. There are places where this is still true. One need only speak with the families of Ethiopian and Egyptian Christians viciously beheaded by ISIS militants to know that this is true.

At the same time, our situation as 21st century American Christians is about as far removed from these kinds of contexts as possible. Our day-to-day existence is relatively carefree. We may be living in a society that is less and less “churched”, but the truth is that this is something we have to face as a minor inconvenience, not a life-threatening situation. Even so, this history continues to shape how we see the world.

Suffering produces endurance. Endurance produces character. Character produces hope.

There are many reasons why I am focused on this question of suffering today. The headlines are part of it – while the world is, in many ways, a far less volatile place to be, the 24-hour news cycle has turned up the temperature to the point that anything – anything – is worth spending hours analyzing. Things are happening halfway around the world feel like they are happening to us. If that drove us to compassion, that would be a good thing; instead, it tends to stoke the flames of our fears.

That’s part of it. But the bulk of it is that I have been spending a lot of time lately with families who are going through their own sufferings. Well-meaning people, in their efforts to provide comfort, offer up their own explanations, things that they would be better off keeping to themselves. And it all seems to swirl around suffering, around this idea that God must have meant for their suffering to happen in order for some greater purpose to bloom and flower.

I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t settle well with me. It bothers me when people say, “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” It’s not that I don’t believe it; it’s just that I most often hear it when ascribing horrific things to God.

In my estimation, no one has ever put it better than William Sloane Coffin. For ten years, Coffin served as Senior Pastor of Riverside Church in New York City. In 1983, his son Alex was killed in a car accident. Ten days later, Coffin delivered the eulogy. In it, he delivered these words that have rung in my ears ever since I first heard them:

For some reason, nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn’t go around this world with…fingers on triggers…fists around knives…hands on steering wheels. God is dead set against all unnatural deaths. And Christ spent an inordinate amount of time delivering people from paralysis, insanity, leprosy, and muteness. Which is not to say that there are no nature-caused deaths — I can think of many right here in this parish in the five years I’ve been here — deaths that are untimely and slow and pain-ridden, which for that reason raise unanswerable questions…The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is ‘It is the will of God.’ Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.

Suffering produces endurance. Endurance produces character. Character produces hope.

You see, here is the thing about suffering. I do not believe that God causes suffering. If that were the case, I would have a hard time standing up here with a straight face, suggesting that worship is a worthwhile activity. Instead, I believe that God is more powerful than suffering, and can take suffering, broken heart and all, to transform it for the sake of the good that God desires.

There is an Old Testament story that illustrates this best, I believe, that of Joseph and his brothers. They are jealous of the attention that their father, Jacob, showers on Joseph. Not only that, they are bugged by the fact that Joseph seems to lord it over them. They plan to kill him, but change their mind at the last moment and merely sell him into slavery in Egypt. Joseph, somehow, manages to rise through the ranks to become the Pharaoh’s right-hand man. When famine strikes the land of Canaan, his brothers come to Egypt seeking sustenance and, as luck would have it, Joseph is the one who provides for their well-being. “What you intended for ill,” Joseph says, “God intended for good.” In other words, while is brothers were seeking to punish Joseph for his arrogance, God took what could have been misery and was ultimately able to bring good out of it.

That, I believe, is what is at work in what Paul writes to the Church at Rome. He knows that, as a minority community, they suffer. And while God did not intend nor create that suffering, God is able to take that suffering through a process and transform it into something that is ultimately good. In suffering, we learn how to endure. In that endurance, we cultivate character – a character that is, in the end, steeped in hope. And hope, we believe, has the final word.

The suffering of Christ was transformed into resurrection. The suffering of the early church was transformed into Paul’s conversion. And the suffering of Paul was transformed into the growth of the church. This is our hopeful inheritance! This is what the church exists for! This is the church into which we baptize: a community that lives to make hope alive and real in the world.

Friends, there are many out there who have rarely, or even never, set foot inside a church. To be brutally honest, I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing. There are many churches that have gotten convoluted in their purpose. As the theologian Jürgen Moltmann puts it, “The kingdom of God isn’t there for the sake of the church. The church is there for the sake of the kingdom.” In other words, we are not the perfection God desires. Instead, the church is meant to be the vehicle through which the kingdom is built. Sometimes that building is quite literal, as Habitat homes go up. Sometimes, it is built in the subtlest of ways, in prayers that come in moments of desperation. Whatever the case, we are called to be those builders!

There are many out there who need and deserve to hear this word of hope. In the absence of it, we are fumbling in the dark, creating God in our own image and finding meaning in all the wrong places. Without it, we are vulnerable to bad theologies and empty platitudes that may be offered with the best of intentions, but often do more harm than good.

Instead, when we recognize that God has not given up on us yet, and when we share that gift with others, we begin to sketch the outlines of God’s desires for us in a world where suffering still exists. But rather than seeing as suffering existing for its own sake, can we begin to see it as something we might have a hand in transforming?

After all, suffering produces endurance. Endurance produces character. Character produces hope.

Above all, though, let us remember this important point: we are not just the church when we are inside this building. If we are, then we have confused the kingdom with the church. As the children’s song puts it, “I am the church; you are the church; we are the church together.” It is not when we enter this place, but when we leave it that we truly become church, called out and into a world that suffers, a world that hungers and thirsts for hope.

And that hope? It does not disappoint; because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the gift of the Holy Spirit.

May it be so, now and always.


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Make New

For you, little one, the Spirit of God moved over the waters at creation, and the Lord God made covenants with the people. It was for you that the Word of God became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth. For you, Jesus Christ suffered death crying out at the end, ‘It is finished!’ For you Christ triumphed over death, rose in newness of life, and ascended to rule over all. All of this was done for you, little one, though you do not know any of this yet. So we will continue to tell you this good news until it becomes your own. And so the promise of the gospel is fulfilled: ‘We love because God first loved us.’

These are the words of the liturgy that I typically use when we baptize children. I have no claim on authorship –preachers and theologians have adapted them through the years, but they originated with the French Protestant church. And though I wish I could say this was intentional, it was not my thought to choose this text in a week when the French people have been reeling from their national tragedies. It is a moment like this when I am reminded how the Spirit intervenes and binds us, all of us, regardless of nation or creed, together.

What is so compelling about this prayer to me is how it is, at the same time, both intimate and universal. God brought everything into being – for you! God came as Christ – for you! Christ ministered, died, and rose – for you! You, whom I can fold and hold within my arms, have captured the imagination of our limitless God. “For you, little one…” You!

This comes in the echoes of our lesson this morning, where John baptizes his cousin Jesus in the wilderness, down in the murky waters of the Jordan River. John has been preaching about Jesus, building him up. He knows the crowds have been coming out to see him; he must be aware what a wild figure he strikes, too, that he has grabbed their attention, and that they will listen closely to whatever it is he has to say. Jesus, he says, “is far more powerful than I! I’m not even worthy enough to bend down and touch his filthy, dusty sandals. You think water is powerful? Wait until you see what his holy fire can do.”

So when Jesus comes to John, it is understandable that he would demur. The way he has talked about Jesus, it’s not right that he should baptize him; it should be the other way around. Jesus should be baptizing him into righteousness. Jesus simply says, “Do this. It’s the right thing to do.” And as the hands of the wild prophet release Jesus from under the waters and back to the safety of the open air, the skies ring out: “My Beloved!” as the entirety of holiness joins in to celebrate the moment.

“For you, little one…”

Can we even begin to get a handle on this concept? Do we believe that baptism really represents God’s undying pleasure in us, and that this pleasure has very little to do with whether we had a say in the matter ourselves? Not only is baptism both intimate and vast at the same time; it is also a moment where we admit how little we really know about God’s love. The French liturgy puts it this way: “All of this was done for you, little one, though you do not know any of this yet. But we will continue to tell you this good news until it becomes your own.”

God’s love for us does not depend on our love for God. Christ’s death and resurrection did not wait for us to say that we were on board. In the language and metaphors that dominate our household right now, God loves both superheroes and supervillains alike. God may not love what they do, but God still loves them. In other words, baptism is our collective act of faith that God will continue to act in our lives in ways we can only begin to glimpse.

“For you, little one…”

While in seminary, I got to know Ben, who attended the church where I worshiped. He was in his sixties, and had some kind of cognitive issue that meant he was more like a child than an adult. He was a huge movie fan. He gave every film he saw the same review: “Very good.” He had grown up in the church, and had been baptized as a child. Somehow, though, he had never been confirmed. The reason, it turned out, was that he had never been considered “adult” enough to articulate his faith. The more the Session contemplated it, though, one thing stood out clearly: Ben knew that church meant a place where he was included. And in his life, there weren’t many places like that. In many ways, Ben understood God’s love far better than most of us ever will; he joined the church the next Sunday.

Being a Christian is more than being able to understand or explain the faith. Being a Christian is grasping that, far beyond anything we could ever do, the skies are willing to split open for us and name us as God’s beloved! And so, as God’s people, we continue to tell the stories of our faith – of faith both intimate and vast – to others, so that they might receive the gift of making stories of their own. We work alongside God to create a community where people know, more than anything else, that they are included, welcomed, and beloved, too.

“For you, little one…”

As we continue into this new year, and on this day as we consider what baptism meant for Christ and what it means for us, I want to ask you this: what needs to be made new for you? Where is it that you need to know renewal? Where in your life has the dust of the trail built up to the point that you need it to be washed away? Where is your soul parched and in need of refreshment?

Maybe it’s in a relationship – with a loved one, a spouse, a sibling, a colleague, a friend. What once was precious and clear has become murky and worn. Or perhaps it’s in a career; an area of study; a passionate hobby or commitment: what once gave you joy is now a burden. Or maybe it’s in your spirit, your life of faith and commitment to that intimate, vast God. What once was active and crisp has turned passive and soft.

Whatever it might be for you, let’s be clear about this: renewal isn’t about returning to what was. That’s nostalgia, not faith. Renewal is a paradox, such as heading into the desert to find water. When we descend into the depths, the hope is not that we would go back to “the way things used to be”. Instead, the hope is that we would hand over those things to God so that they would return to us transformed and more beautiful than we ever could have expected!

I know of many churches – and I am pleased to say that Oglethorpe Presbyterian is not one of them – that lament the loss of bygone eras. Many pastors of struggling churches have members who recount the multiple, massive Easter services of the 1950s and 1960s and wonder why they can’t recapture those glories. The truth is simply this: being faithful does not mean going back; being faithful means an incarnate living in 2015. And since nothing else looks like it did fifty years ago, why would the Church be any different? It’s not that we seek to merely mirror culture, but rather that we give all that we do over to God so our efforts would be redeemed toward the future that God has in store for us!

The purpose in all of this, the goal, is that we would continue to draw closer to God who is already nearer than breath, who loved us before we even knew how to love, who embodies the vast intimacy we so dearly crave.

“All of this was done for you, little one, though you do not know any of this yet. So we will continue to tell you this good news until it becomes your own.”

May it be so. Amen.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASometimes, the questions are clearer than the answers.

Let me begin with a disclaimer: there will be no math in today’s sermon. You all have put up with me talking fairly frankly about money a couple of times over the past few weeks, and so I will not be doing so today. Instead, as we continue moving toward Stewardship Dedication Sunday, I want to pull back to build a bigger picture of Stewardship – in other words, what it means to take care of the things and the people whom God has entrusted to us; what it means to welcome folks into our community and what it means to be a part of this particular community of faith.

And as we do that, let’s jump right in to the lesson we just read from the prophet Micah.

We don’t know much about Micah. Even his name is a question. It translates to, “Who is like the Lord?” and is about the clearest thing we know about the prophet.

We know that he came from humble origins, called from life as a shepherd, into the prophecy game. We also know roughly the time that he preached, largely during the reign of King Hezekiah. And we know what he preached about, which is where we find our way into the text.

Micah comes into his new profession as an outsider. He comes from a small town outside of Jerusalem, not Jerusalem itself. He has spent little, if any, time mingling with those who hold religious authority. He finds the idea that you would put ritual and religious observance above faithfulness and commitment to fairness both new and repellent. And he has seen what the building up of religious authority has done to those outside of its sway.

This hopefully gives some context to the words we read today, that it is not from the seat of power that God’s ruler will come, but rather from quiet little Bethlehem. And it is not with bigger and better burnt offerings that God is pleased, but with concepts like justice, mercy, humility.

Micah is within a strand of the Hebrew Bible that helps prepare the fertile soil in which Jesus’ message will take root. Born in backwater Bethlehem, preaching and teaching among society’s despised and rejected, Jesus seems to be just the kind of leader that Micah anticipated. For those who are steeped in the stories and lessons of the New Testament, the prophetic tradition rings extremely familiar. The authors of the gospels returned to the preaching of Micah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, among others, to highlight the connection between their Christ and the faith out of which he sprang.

For a moment, though, let’s step back into Micah’s time: his preaching claims that God is more intimate with those on the margins of culture than with those in the halls of power. In a time when political rulers and theological scholars were entwined, this is quite the threatening notion. The very status quo is at stake. And that’s what is so striking: the same ones whose job was the maintenance of religious tradition are the same ones who saw fit to preserve the prophet’s words, ones which seem to cut to the very heart of their own authority.

In other words, within the community of faith, the true community of faith, there is always a healthy dose of honesty and self-awareness. The tradition has its place. No doubt about it. And so do those who question that tradition for the sake of faithfulness. The goal in all of this is truth. And that truth is beyond ours – a truth that, in fullness, can only belong to God.

That’s the challenge, isn’t it, the ever-elusive notion of truth? I’m sure that has always been the case, but in a world of sound bytes and spin the 24-hour news cycle, truth with a capital “T” seems always just beyond our grasp. And if we move beyond the current moment and reflect back on our lives, what each of us has known as true has changed and evolved with life experiences as we are exposed to new ideas, events, people.

This is not only true for us as individuals, but for us as a congregation. One of the things that I have come to appreciate about Presbyterians is our continual desire to ask questions and look beyond the face value of things. When we elect leaders within the congregation, we give them support and trust while also holding them accountable. When our denomination makes decisions, we do so through a deliberate process that always acknowledges we might be wrong – or, at the very least, we know we are not completely right. The way we often talk about it as being a “reformed church, always reforming.” We are not, by any stretch, perfect; and so we hope that our movement is a forward one, ever closer to God’s glory.

For years, the Presbyterian Church believed that women should not be in leadership. Then provision was made for women to serve as deacons; later, the office of elder was opened to women; and finally, a little over 50 years ago, women were ordained as pastors. The capital “T” truth as I see it is that, for many years, we neglected the gifts of ministry that women brought to the table. And the church was poorer for that. It is not that we are now dwelling in full richness, but we have made important strides.

There are many denominations, even Presbyterian ones, who do not agree. In a time when women are CEOs and heads of state, I admit that I don’t understand churches who continue to be led by men only. My hope is that they, too, will see they have kept God’s gifts from fully serving the Church.

But before we wrench our arms from their sockets patting ourselves on the back, let’s keep ourselves honest here: we don’t have it all figured out. We most likely won’t ever have it all figured out – at least, not in this lifetime. And if we are ever convinced of purity of our rightness, well…that’s the moment to beware of.

This, I believe, is a healthy tension. The knowledge that we won’t get it completely right should keep us properly humble. And yet, it should not paralyze us into inaction. Instead, we act, trusting God to make it right when we get it wrong.

That’s the community of faith, I believe, into which we are baptized. And when we welcome Hattie Pierce in baptism later on in our service, we do just that: we welcome her into this imperfect, grace-noted, hope-striving community. When she is here, we remind her that we are always made new, over and over again, in the presence of Christ. Baptism is a once in a lifetime event. And yet, every time we celebrate the sacrament, each of us is called to that renewal within our lives and relationships.

Last month, I invited us to reach out to those whom we know some but want to know more. The invitation was to go beyond our church community and to extend the possibility of friendship with someone we don’t know well, to find out what makes them tick. Several of you have shared your experiences with me about that, and I hope that more of you will do so.

Here’s what I learned: one time is not nearly enough to go deep. Learning what makes someone tick is unlikely to happen in one conversation. And yet, we are also more likely to grow in empathy when we meet someone face to face and hear their story, what shapes them, what moves them, what motivates and inspires them.

And that’s the point that Micah stirs up for me: tradition has its place. It is important. But by itself, it is insufficient. If the church ends up being an echo chamber for those who agree with us, then it has become like Jerusalem: interested in the status quo, maintaining its power and influence, even when its circles are ever-shrinking. If the church and its members are more like Micah, if we grow into prophets of the marketplace, engaged with a multitude of voices and experiences, then tradition is held in tension with faithfulness and the dynamic of an ever-changing world. God does not change. Instead, we grow in our understanding of God.

So my invitation to you is to continue those conversations. Nurture and grow those relationships. Always, always, break down the walls of your own private and public echo chambers. Open them up so that we collectively hear the voices of those who come from the outskirts, the villages, the margins. Keep it flowing so that our identities themselves become wrapped up in questions about God and God’s desires. After all, sometimes the questions are clearer than the answers.

We began today by talking about this mysterious figure named Micah: what we knew about him, what we could guess, and what we could learn. And since the prophet’s name translates as a question, there is no better way than to let his own question ring out: What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God? What else, indeed, is there?

Justice. Mercy. Humility. Let these be our watchwords today and always.


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Change is not a moment. Much like flowing water, change is a process.

Water plays a central role for us today.

It’s Mayim, in Hebrew: the waters of creation when the Spirit breathed on the face of the deep. For forty days and forty nights, water fell from the skies, flooding the whole earth. The infant Moses found safety floating on the waters of the Nile. And when he led the people out of Egypt, it was the waters of the Red Sea that parted. In the wilderness, it miraculously sprang from rocks. The Psalmist spoke of the deer longing for water as the soul longs for God. And in captivity in Babylon, the people sat by the waters and wept tears of grief.

Water. It’s Hydor in Greek: the baptismal waters of the Jordan River. As Christ began his ministry, at Cana, he changed the water into wine. On the Sea of Galilee, Christ found his first disciples. He calmed the storm and walked on the face of the water. On the night he was betrayed, he washed the disciples’ feet. And when he was crucified, as the soldier pierced his side, blood and water flowed to the ground together.

Water. So simple: a mere two Hs and an O. So necessary: without it, we cannot live. And yet, so fearsomely powerful: floods that destroy and tsunamis that consume. In Scripture, water is a sign of judgment and sadness, a cause of suffering and fear. It is also a symbol of plenty and purity, a reminder of sustenance and salvation, a source of blessing and beauty.

In the church calendar, today is the day we set aside to celebrate Christ’s baptism in the River Jordan. And in doing so, we are also called to remember what it is that baptism means: renewal, forgiveness, blessing. We also, in an accidental way, end up skipping over some fairly important moments in the faith story.

You see, it was just two and a half weeks ago that we celebrated the birth of the baby Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ, Emmanuel, God with us. And then, at the end of the twelve days of Christmas, we celebrated the arrival of the Magi, those Persian holy ones who came to worship the child, bringing with them not only gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, but also the weight of history, reminders of God’s fingerprints at work through – and, often, in spite of – the forward movement of time.

Suddenly, a week later, Jesus is a grown man – tradition puts him at age 30 – and he’s headed out to the wilderness to be submerged in the water by his cousin John.

We have just skipped over several decades. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that we are missing some important stuff! And Scripture itself isn’t much help. After Jesus’ birth and the visit of the Magi, the Bible mentions three things: his family’s flight to Egypt, his circumcision and presentation at the Temple in Jerusalem, and his teaching of the elders when he was still a youth. In other words, after the cute little cuddly baby, we suddenly get adult-onset Jesus. He’s fasting in the desert, getting baptized in the wilderness, and turning water into wine. It’s not a bad debut, mind you, but what about everything in between? Where are his years in Hamburg before he got the Ed Sullivan gig? Isn’t there anything else about Jesus’ first thirty years we might find worth reading?

I don’t know about you, but I find it all a little frustrating, these gaps in the story.

There are some ancient traditions about Jesus the adolescent, such as you find in the infancy gospel of Thomas, but very early on the church decided that these fables had very little to recommend to the community of faith. They read today like a gritty superhero reboot, where the young Jesus abuses his superpowers until he comes to terms with them and begins to use them for good. It’s amusing reading, but I agree that it doesn’t offer a whole lot to help us learn more about God and God’s relationship with us.

And maybe there’s a point here worth digging into, a point about change. Presbyterians don’t like that word, change. How many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb? That light bulb? My grandmother gave that light bulb to this church!

And yet, we are ourselves are supposed to be changed, different, transformed because of our relationship with God. Baptism is a reminder, an outward sign, of that change. But that’s just it: change is not just a moment; much like flowing water, it’s a process.

I know people who have dramatic conversion stories, where their lives were turned over in the blink of an eye. And maybe that describes you. At the same time, most people of faith I know do not have such an experience. Instead, their life is filled with conversions – some big, some small – that add up to create that process. When we read the story of Jesus, though, this transformation is missing in the gaps. Where is the process, or the moment, that changed him, once and for all? How are we supposed to change if we can’t follow his example? That’s the frustration.

Or…is that the whole point? Maybe we are not supposed to be Jesus after all.

Let’s put it this way: Jesus was human, yes, and that’s the bridge that gives us access to godliness, our shared humanity. But Jesus was not merely human. He was also divine. And if you’re convinced you’re divine, well, let me put it this way: I’ll let you know when we run out of wine up here.

That, I think, is what we can learn from the gaps in Jesus’ biography that Scripture leaves. We are not meant to be Jesus. We are meant to follow him. And that’s what makes all the difference in the world. When we follow Jesus, we set out on a process of change, a journey of which baptism is a mere step.

It’s this process that I want to spend the next few weeks talking about. There’s nothing magical about 2013 becoming 2014. It’s purely an accident of history. Even so, I think we can see it as an opportunity. As we turn the page on another calendar year, we can begin that process of turning a page, a fresh start on faith, in our own lives.

Last week, I invited you to make one commitment with me to begin this year, and that was to pray daily. And I’m going to keep encouraging you in this commitment. Each Sunday, I’m going to ask you how it’s going; and I invite you to do the same to me. After all, accountability is a two-way street.

So let me be clear about what I am asking you to do. First, start slowly. Five minutes is enough to get going. Spend those five minutes in silence. Set an alarm so you’re not distracted, or wondering how much time is left. Trust technology to work for you. Begin those five minutes with gratitude and thanks – if you need to say it out loud, go ahead. And then…wait. When distracting thoughts come (which they will) let them float on past. In the silence, what do you hear? What do you sense? Something? Nothing?

When the alarm sounds, write down your experience. I’m not talking anything fancy: a sentence or two is enough. After all, it’s not the details, but the discipline, that matters. That discipline will lead to good habits. Those habits will reveal patterns. And in those patterns, I promise, you will see clarity of purpose and a life of balance.

Are you ready? God is…

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Does God take swimming lessons?

Between my experiences of parenting and interacting with our Preschoolers, these are the kind of deep philosophical questions I find myself facing recently. This particular one came about in a way that bears repeating.

I was coming back to the church from a late lunch when I spied one of our Preschool parents leaving the playground with her daughter. When the little girl saw me, she pointed at me and said, “Look, Mom! There’s God!” A few days later, I figured out what had led to this distressing confusion. As her class prepared to enter the sanctuary for chapel, her teacher said, “OK, boys and girls. We are about to go into God’s house, so we need to be quiet.” So they entered “God’s house” to see…me. Wearing a guitar. Logical conclusion, right?

About a week later, I ran into the same family as I was leaving the Y. The mother later told me that, after I left, her daughter had run to the door. “What are you doing?” mom asked.

“I’m looking for God,” she replied, and then added thoughtfully, “Do you think he takes swimming lessons?”

Most ministers have a story like this; I guess I just didn’t expect to encounter this for another ten or fifteen years. My own image of God is shaped by childhood pastors. Harry Fifield baptized me, and he seemed so old to me that he must’ve born the same year as God. Paul Eckl confirmed me, and even though he was much younger than Harry, he had that mellifluous preacher baritone that sang with divine resonance. But I never would’ve envisioned God as a red-headed forty-something with a guitar.

How do you see God? What is it that shapes that image of God in your mind? Is there a Biblical story that gives you insight into God’s character and paints a picture for you? Is it the parable of the prodigal son, where God becomes the father who runs to welcome the wayward child home? Is it the story of the lost coin, where God is the woman who sweeps the house frantically looking for the precious item she has lost? Is it the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, where God is portrayed as vengeful, judgmental, even brutal? Or is it the image of a dying Jesus on the cross, a God willing to die for the sake of a world that somehow never saw fit to return that love? How do you see God?

Today is the one day a year that we set aside as Trinity Sunday. The whole idea of the Trinity, of a single God whom we know as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is one that arose in the earliest centuries of the church as Christians struggled to make sense of confusing Biblical imagery. Our two texts this morning touch on some of that confusion. The Creator God is divine; but so is Jesus, who is somehow both God and God’s son at the same time. And the Spirit is thrown in the mix, too, as the divine breath in Creation, the descending dove in Jesus’ baptism, and as the advocate whom the Father sends after Jesus’ resurrection. So God is three, and yet, God is one. We come up with ways to wrap our minds around this concept, like ice, water, and steam, in which one chemical compound can take three very different forms.

At the end of the day, though, I think the essence of the Trinity is this: the God we worship is a God whom we can never perfectly grasp – at least, not in the here and now. And yet, there is this paradox that God breaks into the world, giving us glimpses of perfection, moments where we begin to get a sense of what God might be up to. Each of us experiences this differently. For me, the moment almost always comes in the form of surprise, when I see something I thought I knew well and discovering that there was something lingering under the surface the whole time, an unexpected grace that jumps out and grabs me. For all I know, it could be that God does take swimming lessons, and that walking on water was just a convenient way to work around a subpar backstroke.

You see, that’s the astonishment for me in the exchanges with that Preschooler: I know myself well. I know my strengths and I know my faults. How in the world could someone ever think that I am Godly? And yet, that’s just it: the glimpses of God we get rarely come in the form of a Monty Pythonesque, sky-opening, British-accented proclamation. Instead, they come through the most mundane of interactions with the most imperfect of people. Each of us bears God’s imprint. That’s what it means to be created in the image of God. And when the light hits us just right, we reflect that image onto a world – and often when we least expect that this is what we are doing.

Have you ever had a friend thank you for advice you offered years ago as part of a conversation that you don’t remember at all? Or has someone ever marveled at you for doing something so ordinary that you’re shocked that it merited any kind of notice? Or has a colleague looked at you in wonder, saying, “How did you do that?” in a way that reminded you of your unique gifts? Each of these, in some way, is a reminder of how God works through us, and how we are rarely aware that such a miracle is even possible.

We Christians can be some pretty nervy folk. We have the temerity to suggest that God can work through us, and that the church can be a vessel for God’s actions in the world. But when we’re doing it right, we know that it’s not the individual who ought to be touted; we know that it’s not the institution’s accomplishments that we should celebrate. Instead, we know that it’s God working through, and usually in spite of, us.

Friends, I think this is what Trinity Sunday has to offer us: God does not exist in a vacuum. God is not alone. Whether it’s the presence of Jesus giving us a thorough example of God’s desires, or a Spirit sent to uphold, encourage, and challenge us, the God that we Christians worship and serve is a God who must exist in community. In isolation, God makes no sense – because the essence of God is a being that is not for its own sake, but for the sake of others. And when the church reflects that image on the world, that is when we become most fully engaged with God’s activities.

We love and serve the poor not because it makes us feel good, or because we think it will help us earn our way into heaven. And we love and serve the poor not only because Jesus tells us to, but because it is so ingrained in our beings that if we didn’t do so, we would be cutting off an authentic part of our own selves. We extend the hand of invitation to others no matter what they are like not because we see every visitor as a potential donor who can help us with our budgetary challenges, but because we ourselves have experienced that welcome and know what a gift it is. And we give of ourselves in our time and talents and treasure not because we fear the death of our beloved institution, but because we don’t understand why you would want to hoard these things in the first place. We share because it has been etched on our souls to do so!

What does God look like to you? Does it need to be stretched beyond the bounds of understanding? Do you need to be moved from your place of comfort to get a glimpse of something new, challenging, exciting, and life-giving? My prayer today, for each of us, is that it would be so.


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Are you thirsty?

Most of us here are probably fortunate enough not to have experienced parching thirst, that desert, no water around for miles, tongue swelling kind of thirst. I have had times when I’ve been thirsty, sure: dehydration headaches, which are always self-inflicted, and never for a lack of access to water. And I remember as a kid, coming in after running around outside, panting, trying to catch my breath while I sucked down a glass of water. But thirst? Body draining, mind numbing, soul sapping thirst? Fortunately not…

To live in a time and place of relative comfort can make it difficult to connect with the lessons of Scripture. It can be hard to get into the mindset of the original audiences of these texts. When we read Isaiah’s words of comfort, of God’s constant presence, they might have meaning for us, but probably not in the same physical way that they did to the people who first heard them. Their nation had been assaulted on all sides, ultimately defeated, and they are being taken into exile. They will be dragged across rivers and deserts, from their homes in Israel and Judah and off into foreign Babylon.

Now, let’s remember: the promises that came to Abraham and his descendants were about a homeland. When the people were in captivity, it was to that place that Moses led them. Lowly David had risen to be king, united their northern and southern kingdoms into a formidable nation, and had elevated a new capital in Jerusalem. This land was to be theirs, a sign of God’s covenant with them. And now they are being taken from it?

It does not take a leap of the imagination to understand why people might lose faith in the face of such dispossession, convinced that this is God’s judgment against them. And let’s not water it down: the prophets make it clear that their captivity is a direct result of going astray. Their relative comfort has made them soft. They have taken their blessings for granted. They don’t live in a way that befits God’s people. In short, they may have never known thirst, but they will soon be parched.

All of this is merely the backdrop for our lesson this morning from Isaiah, which was meant for those about to be taken into exile. And what is so striking about it is that Isaiah goes to pains to let them know that their defeat and exile is not evidence of God’s desertion. Instead, it is a time to be reminded of God’s abiding presence that goes far beyond any national aspirations or boundaries. Yes, they will be marched across rivers; but, “I will be with you,” God says. And yes, they will be driven across deserts, as though walking through fire; but, “you will not be burned,” God says.

Nations will rise and fall…fortunes will come and go…there will be feast, and there will be famine…but come what may, the presence of the living God will always endure.

I don’t know if any of this connects with you today. I don’t know if you’re feeling more thirsty or sated in your life these days. We are wrapping up a very successful capital campaign here at OPC, one that has generated an amazing response of your gifts, your time, and your energy. We have just come through the Christmas season as well, with its own emotional touchstones. We have turned the calendar on a new year, having defied the odds and avoided yet another predicted apocalypse. It is an exciting time, a good time, a time for celebration…and yet, I know all too well how quickly these kinds of successes can fade. Family tragedies enter the picture. National grief breaks our hearts. The future becomes unclear. There is illness, there is pain, there is disruption. Life, in short, is messy.

There are many ways in which the life of faith is told most clearly in our baptism. A few of you were old enough to remember being baptized, and I’m willing to bet that it was a spiritual high point for you. And yet, that peak eventually fades into the distance. Or maybe you were too young to remember it for yourselves, but your parents remembered it for you; it was their own height, an emotional moment frozen in time. And that, too, eventually drifts away. Life in Christ is rarely one peak after another; in fact, life itself is never that. There are valleys, there are pits, there are stray paths and there are aimless wanderings.

In short, we may not know physical thirst, but I am willing to bet that each one of us knows it spiritually. Maybe you feel this way now. There are times when we are simply going through the motions. We pass the peace because the bulletin says to. We come to Sunday School because we always have. We pledge and give because the announcements let us know that it is time to do so. We serve because our names are in the schedule. There are times we do this when doubt is stronger than faith. There are times we do this when it seems that evil has the upper hand. There are times we do this when we are worn out, wrung dry, numb…

The paradox, though, is that these moments can be gifts. They can serve as reminders not to take what we have for granted. They can connect us, even if momentarily, with those ancient exiles stuck in deserts of wandering. They can help us remember those who are constantly in need, dedicating ourselves to making the world a better place, for their sake, as well as for God’s. And they can nudge us into places of thirst, where we can choose hope over fear that our cup will, again, overflow…maybe not yet, but it will.

These are the moments, I believe, when we can gain strength from the fact that even Jesus needed such reminders. Even he needed to be baptized, for the waters to wash him clean after weeks in the desert. Even he needed the skies to split open, and for the light to shine upon him again. Even he needed for the voice to descend, to tell him that he was loved, and that God was pleased.

When we come to the table today, I invite you to come as parched souls, thirsting not simply for the water that sustains physical life, but for living water that sustains our very being. Take your time; don’t hurry. Pause as you take the bread and the cup, letting it fill you like never before.

And when you leave today, do the same when you reach the font that stands at the entrance. Touch your fingers to the water. Dip your hand in. Let it drip from your forehead and run down your arm. Feel the waters washing everything else away. And when this feeling fades, do it again, and again, and again, until your cup overflows with life-giving grace, extending from your very essence and out into a dry and weary world!


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The community of faith goes on…

What we do here this morning requires a little bit of explanation, this “ritual” known as confirmation. In the Presbyterian church, it is our usual custom to baptize infants. And that’s the case with both Carter and Trent. The reason for this is simple: we know that God is at work in our lives long before we become aware of it. And so the parent – in fact, the whole community – makes the promise that we will do everything we can to encourage the child in the faith that we have inherited, surrounding them with signs and reminders of God at work in their lives.

What happens today in confirmation is that we ask these two young men if they will confirm the promises that their parents made for them at baptism.

There is a potential risk to all of this, however, as a story might illustrate best.

Maybe you’ve heard about the three rural churches plagued by pigeons that roosted in the rafters of their sanctuaries. The three pastors commiserated on their mixed success with pest control. The Lutheran pastor said, “Well, we had some success with this spray we got at the Ace Hardware. That kept them away for a week or so, but they’re back.”

The Baptist pastor was pleased that they had fared a little better: “We used our massive sound system from our contemporary service and played a series of sonic booms. That drove them away for about a month, but they’re back, too.”

The Presbyterian, however, was downright triumphant: “Well, my friends, we’ve solved our problem. The pigeons are gone.” His colleagues were stunned: “How did you do it?”

“Well,” he said, “We baptized and confirmed them, and we haven’t seen them since!”

Now – that’s not the track record of OPC. But I want to be clear about it: if we treat Confirmation like a graduation, then there is a temptation to act as though what we do here is mark an ending. The truth is that confirmation, or membership in the church at any age for that matter, is the beginning of the journey, not the end. It’s the raising of the curtain at the start of the play, as we learn our roles and try out our parts. Take note, all of you: if we ever think we can graduate from faith, then what we are saying is that we can reach a point where we know all there is to know about God.

The community of faith goes on, because knowledge of God is everlasting…

That continuity is what we touch on in the lesson from Acts this morning. The disciples have numbered twelve for some time. But once Judas betrays Jesus and takes himself out of the picture, they need to find a replacement. The lot falls to Matthias, the number is twelve again, and the disciples move out into the world as apostles and evangelists.

The community of faith goes on…and we, some two thousand years removed from that moment, are inheritors to that ongoing tradition.

What we do today is something that tangibly reaches back to that moment when Matthias steps into the spotlight. When we get to the actual moment of confirmation, we will invite forward all of you who have been ordained as ministers or elders to come forward and lay hands on them as we pray for them. It is something we do from time to time in our lives together; and for me, it’s one of the most visceral moments, a reminder of that community of faith stretching back. As we stand up here in ever widening circles, some of us can remember when others stood around us – at confirmation, at ordination – and the invisible hands of those saints who are no longer with us rest on our shoulders as real as memory allows. It’s as though those circles continue to widen further and further, going back into our shared history, until we arrive in that upper room where Matthias kneels with eleven hands laid upon him.

Of course, the church looks very different now from the way it looked then. It’s a theme we return to again and again here: the fact that we are part of an ever-changing church in an ever-changing world. And that’s the remarkable thing: while so many things have come and gone, the community of the faith goes on…

Some of you helped with one of the confirmation projects, which was a survey about faith and church. The last question was an open-ended one: “If you could ask God one question, what would it be?” My favorite answer was, “May I have ten more questions?” But all of the answers showed with powerful clarity one thing in particular: the life of faith is marked, most of all, by struggles and doubts. We, all of us, have questions about our ultimate purpose, about why suffering exists both near and far, about whether there really is anything beyond the life we know. Faith is not a panacea. It is not the easy answer to all of life’s questions. It is the very essence of the challenges that life gives us.

And that’s the hope for what we take away from being together today. The faith community goes on, not in spite of our questions, but because of them. We are here, together, because we believe that we are better because of it. It’s like an ember in the dying flame: outside of the fire, it can burn for a while; but it will burn longer when it’s amidst other embers. The church is called to be a community that struggles together. When one member rejoices, we rejoice with them. And when one member suffers, all suffer with them. Because we’re not the only ones in the mix: we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who stretch back into the centuries and remind us that the God whom we serve is eternal.

In a few moments, we are going to affirm our faith. And when we do, we will use words adapted from Carter and Trent’s faith statements. What I think they reveal to us is that, though the questions may change and the world may be different, we are stronger as a community of faith when we are together.

Friends, the world may be a different place than it was when the church was first born in ancient Jerusalem. And the church may look different as a result. But the Holy Spirit who gave us birth is eternal. The God of creation has been and always will be. And the Christ whom we serve calls us into a relationship with the divine now and forever.

And so, the community of faith goes on…Amen.

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