Thoughts Between Sundays

Some of what crosses my mind between Sundays


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Sermon: One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism

Series:  Font and Table

#1 “One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism”

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Taken at the Ignatius House Outdoor Chapel, Atlanta, GA

Ephesians 4:1-16 

William Willimon, [the now retired] Dean of the Chapel at Duke University tells the story of getting a telephone call from an irate parent one day:

“I hold you personally responsible for this,” the father told him.

“Me?” the campus minister asked.

“Yes, you. I send my daughter off to college to get a good education. Now she tells me she wants to throw it all away, and go off to Haiti as a Presbyterian mission volunteer! Isn’t that absurd? A degree in mechanical engineering from Duke, and she’s going off to dig ditches in Haiti.”

“Well,” said Willimon, in a feeble attempt at humor, trying to break the ice, “I doubt the engineering department taught her much about that line of work, but she’s a fast learner; she’ll probably get the hang of ditch-digging in a few months.”

“Look,” interrupted the father, “this is no laughing matter. I hold you completely responsible for her decision. She likes you. You’ve filled her head with all those pie-in-the-sky ideas!”

“Now look,” said Willimon, trying to keep his composure, “Weren’t you the one who had her baptized?”

“Why yes,” the father replied.

“And didn’t you read her Bible stories, take her to Sunday school, send her off [to Montreat with the Youth Group]?”

“Well yes, but….”

“Don’t ‘but’ me. It’s your fault she believed all that stuff, that she’s gone and thrown it all away on Jesus—not mine. You’re the one who introduced her to Jesus, not me.”

“But all we ever wanted was for her to be a Presbyterian,” the father said meekly.

“Sorry, you messed up. You made a disciple.”

You made a disciple.  I wonder how those words rang in the ears of the father who did not imagine his daughter as a mission volunteer, but rather as something else.  Yet, when she was presented for baptism, her journey to discipleship began.  When her Sunday school teachers read to her from the children’s Bible, when she colored worksheets on Sunday mornings and robed for the children’s choir, this young woman was being formed as a disciple.  When she was in the Christmas pageants and joined the youth group – perhaps even traveling overseas on a mission trip –  her formation continued.  Each night when her family said grace before they ate, each Sunday her parents took her to church, her discipleship developed.  As she stood before her church family – perhaps in a sanctuary different from the one in which she was baptized – and professed her faith, she claimed the promises made for her in baptism as her own, and she promised that she would continue to follow Jesus.  And so, she followed Jesus as she followed her call to college, and then to what she would do after. She was not only a Presbyterian, she was a disciple.  She is one who follows Christ.

Our text for today is one that I hold close to my heart.  In this letter to the church at Ephesus, the recipients are begged to, “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”

This passage from Ephesians lifts up not only who we are as Christians – but who we strive to be as disciples.  It speaks to our call to be centered and rooted in Christ, to the unity of the church, and how important it is to support one another by speaking the truth in love.  Baptism is not something you do once and then are done with it forever.  Yes, we believe in one baptism, but the event does not end when the water on your head dries.  Baptism is one point on the journey of faith we all take together. Because Christ accomplished our salvation in his death on the cross, we are to behave in certain ways. Sanctification, how we live as the baptized people of God, is an ongoing event.  As we journey with Christ, we journey toward Christ.[1]

“Live a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.”  In Baptism, we hear the call of Christ to follow him as a disciple. Baptism is the sign and seal of our incorporation into Christ.  In his baptism, Jesus identified with all sinners, so that he could die for all sinners.  Jesus commanded us to be baptized and to go out and baptize others.  When we present ourselves or our children for baptism, and when the water washes, splashes or trickles over us, we receive new life in Christ and present ourselves to be living sacrifices to God.  It is in baptism when we hear our calling, to be centered and rooted in Christ.  When we are baptized, we are sealed into life with Christ and sent forth to live that life, marked forever as a child of God.[2]

I have learned something about roots this summer.  I’m what you might generously call a novice gardener.  This summer, following an idea I found on Pinterest,  I planted flowers, vegetables and herbs in raised beds made from shipping pallets.  The seeds came up, my small plants were taking off, and things were going great.  I was eagerly anticipating the day when I would have more yellow squash than I know what to do with.  But something went wrong – some of the plants are not doing well, and I have realized that the beds are not deep enough for the roots to take hold and support the plants.  There is not enough room.  The roots do not have enough depth to draw nutrition and water from the soil into the plants.  As Christians, we need deep places for our roots to grow too.  Being rooted in Christ looks like having a faith that is strong enough to support us as we grow over the course of our lives.  Being rooted in Christ looks a lot like living lives that have prayer, study, service, and love done not to glorify ourselves, but as a response to the lives Christ has given each of us.  When we neglect our discipleship, when we skip worship or set aside our quiet time, when we act in ways that we know are not who we are as Christians, we place ourselves in shallow soil that will not give us enough of what we need to mature.  Our roots will not be strong if we do not continually feed them.  If our roots are strong – if we are strengthened by our faith, if we continue to feed ourselves with Bible study and worship, hen we will bear better fruit.  When God calls us to whatever call we are given in our lives, we can feel confident to answer that call knowing that our roots run deep into the one who will support us as we stretch into new directions.  When we are baptized, we water the roots that are beginning to grow, and provide a space for that rooting to begin.

Looking at this passage, we see that we are called to do something with our lives that are rooted in Christ.  It describes Christians who bear each other’s burdens, speak the truth in love, and seek to do that as a united body, not as factions.  The unity we strive for is an important place for us to begin thinking today.  Our society can sometimes seem so polarized in the spheres of politics and religion.  There are those who are right, those who are left, those who are blue, those who are red, and those purple people in the middle.  We are still divided by class, and 11:00 on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America.  As network budgets have decreased, it has become easier and cheaper to make unscripted programming – that’s the code word for reality TV – that centers around competition and conflict that can lull us into thinking that conflict is the norm and creating drama is a healthy way to be in the world.  Christ calls us to something opposite of this.  Christ calls us to unity.  Unity does not mean uniformity, does not mean each of us is the same, but that we can stand together.  We recognize that each of us has a different calling in the world, and yet we are called to work together.  If you take a look at verses 4-6, you will see the word “one” seven times: 4There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”  What roots us all, and holds us together is “one Lord, one faith, and one Baptism.”  You do not have to be re-baptized to join the church.  You do not get to be rebaptized every time you sin, or every time your faith deepens.  When we receive members for other churches and denominations, that baptism is “good” for us – we believe that you are baptized into the entire body of Christ, not just this small piece of it.  In Baptism, we can express our unity as Christ’s people.  When we think about Baptism, we think about all those all around the world who are united and stand with us as Christians.  We are united by our faith.

Yet, even those who are united disagree sometimes.  Or often.  Even if we profess to be brothers and sisters in Christ, we may not always see eye to eye on many issues – some big and some small. In the letter to the Ephesians, we see what we are to strive for as we live out our faith.  When our faith is deeply rooted, we can mature, and grow stronger in our faith.  And there are 2 marks of a mature faith described in this letter.  Those who are mature in the faith bear the burdens of one another in love, and are able to speak the truth in love.  Sometimes these are separate events, sometimes they are entwined.  This congregation knows a lot about how to be supportive for one another.  You make meals for each other, you drive one another back and forth to doctor’s offices.  It is rare for me to go visit someone in the hospital and not hear of a phone call, card or visit from a church member that has already happened.  The Mothers of Young Children share stories of the joys and heartaches of raising children, and in Sunday School, Session meetings, and Diaconate meetings, we pray for one another.  We understand that in life there will be events and situations that we need help navigating, and our congregation supports one another well.  However, bearing the burdens of each other is not just about good congregational and pastoral care.  It is also about bearing with one another when our quirks come out, when the traits that make us uniquely who God made us to be can cause us to be frustrated or upset with one another. G. Porter Taylor’s words really struck me when I read them this week “To bear with one another is to sacrifice for the other.  It is to help carry the other’s burdens.  Love is not an emotion, love is an act of the will.  Paul is not calling for the early Christians to feel warmly toward one another, but to act according to their calling.”

Sometimes acting according to that calling is hard to do.  Sometimes it means we have to acknowledge that we love the body of Christ, and so we might have to say that hard thing to someone.  A colleague of mine shared a story about one of her experiences in college.  There was a student who was involved in Campus Ministry with her, and it was becoming clear that he was struggling with addiction issues.  The community attempted to help, but the words were not getting through.  She shared with me about that day when she sat down with her friend and told him that he had a problem and needed to get help. She was wiling to do what was needed for him to get the help – check him into a facility, call his parents, clean out the apartment, but she was no longer going to enable him.  Their friendship was never the same – he did not get help for a long time, and they went in different directions in life.  Yet, she loved him – not romantically — but as a sister in Christ, and she had to tell him that he was ill.  We need to be cautious with how we tell these truths, and ask ourselves why we are doing what we do.  As a pastor, I have had many conversations where individuals will begin with “You need to know…” and several minutes later I realize that what has been framed as pastoral information is really gossip.  Gossip sharing is not truth-telling, and does nothing to promote the unity of the church.  Sometimes truth telling is cloaked in conflict, and sometimes we feel a need to tell the truth to make ourselves look better in a situation, or to stir things up. Those instances are not speaking the truth in the sacrificial love of Christ to build up the body.  I’m not advocating lying – hear that clearly, but I am advocating discretion before plunging in with words whose only purposes are to build up yourself or to tear another down.  That is vastly different from having to say something that may be hard to hear because it is necessary. William Sloane Coffin tells this story, “I remember several years ago a freshman asking if he could give me some advice.  ‘Go ahead’; I said.  ‘Well, Sir, when you say something that is both true and painful, say it softly.  Say it in other words to heal and not to hurt.  Say it in love.’” I encourage you to ask yourself some questions when you feel that you are being compelled to speak the painful truth in a difficult situation.  Ask yourself why? Are you saying words to hurt or heal?  If it is to hurt, then that is not speaking from a place of love. If it is to heal, then speak in love.  If you are feeling called to tell someone something like it is because it will offer you glory, or strengthen your position or standing, I encourage you to wait.  Wait and ask yourself if the issue will be resolved, or if you are simply throwing gasoline on a fire that is already burning out of control.  Christians are not called to thrive on conflict, nor are we called to avoid it when it might reveal difficult truths.  Pray. Remember that Christian love is marked by “lowliness, meakness, patience, and forbearance.”[3]

We are intimately related, as baptized Christians.  We believe in one Lord, one faith, one Baptism.  We are connected for all time to all other Christians.  As we are continually formed, not only into Presbyterians, but disciples, we continue to grow and mature in a faith that is rooted in Christ.  We speak the truth to one another because of this connection.  We are not all uniform, but that does not mean that we are not all united.  It is in Christ, and the waters of Baptism that we can find the courage to speak hard truths with the purpose of growing in love.  We love sacrificially, not egotistically. We strive to build each other up, even when it is hard.  What are your hopes for the future of those in this church, and the church as a whole?  I imagine it was a hard conversation for the father to have with his daughter who wanted to go to Haiti as a missionary.  I imagine that there were some painful truths that had to be shared – there can be when a child wants something different from his or her parents.  Yet, because of their rootedness in Jesus Christ, because of her following the calling she has been called to, I imagine that their conversation was one that happened to build up the body of Christ, that healed, rather than hurt.  I imagine that they both sent their roots down a little deeper that day, and then grew a little taller.  We are united by what happens at the font.  It is there we receive the welcome to the body of Christ that has been waiting for us all along.  And it is in Baptism that we begin our journey towards becoming mature Christians who seek to continually grow in love.  Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Julie A. Jensen
First Presbyterian Church, Cartersville, GA
June 24, 2012


[1] Taylor, G. Porter, Feasting on the Word Year B. Vol 3, 304

[2] (W-2.300).

[3] Jamie Clark Soles. Feasting on the Word


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Sermon for January 9th “Here is My Servant”

Here is My Servant

Isaiah 42:1-9

Matthew 3:13-17

When you hear the word “baptism” what comes to mind…?  Do you see a baby dressed in white, smiling parents gathered around a font while a minister pours water over the child?  Do you think of it as a peaceful event?  One filled with joy and excitement as someone is introduced as a child of God, and claimed as part of God’s family?  Do you remember the day you stood or knelt felt the water on your head, or watched the water poured over the head of your child as you heard the words “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit….”

The sacrament of Baptism – no matter where or when, no matter how old the individual, there are elements that are always the same – water, the reading of scripture and prayer; the promises of God and the congregation; the Holy Spirit; the remembering and retelling of our salvation story and who we are called to be.  We are claimed and marked by God in our identity as God’s beloved children.  We wonder how God will be at work in the life of the one who is baptized – how God will call this person to serve God throughout his or her life, and we imagine what that will look like.

What was Jesus’ baptism like?  There was no sanctuary, no font, no minister dressed in a black robe, no congregation – unless some of the Pharisees and Sadducees who were there to hear John preach earlier were still there.  Yet, there were familiar elements in Jesus’ baptism.  There is the telling of the story, as Jesus tells John why he needs to be baptized.  There is the element of water, and there is the voice of God, speaking directly to Jesus, calling him beloved and saying that God is well pleased with him.  As Jesus entered the river, as the waters covered his head, did he too consider what kind of ministry God was calling him to, what kind of servant God was calling him to be in the world?

It is possible that in those words, “This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased” Jesus heard echoes of another passage of scripture.  A passage he would have known well.  A passage from Isaiah in which the prophet describes the kind of servant God will send to lead God’s people. Our reading from Isaiah today begins with the words, “Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen in whom my soul delights;” The passage ends with the words, “See the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare before they spring forth, I tell you of them.”  Professor at Harvard Divinity School Stephanie A. Paulsell writes, “when Jesus rises up, newly baptized, from the waters of the Jordan, he enters into a ministry saturated with the vision Isaiah bequeathed to him and to us, a vision of leadership guided by mercy and a hunger for justice.  Jesus’ whole life was a passionate response to God’s call for this new way of living.”[1]

In the 4 Servant Songs from Isaiah that Ted and I will be looking at and preaching on over the next few weeks, a servant of the Lord is either spoken about, is spoken to, or speaks on his own.  In today’s reading from Isaiah, God says, “Here is my servant…”  What kind of servant was God talking about? The passage appears in the portion of the book of Isaiah called Second Isaiah, written during a time when the Jewish community was living in exile just prior to the capture of the city of Babylon by Cyrus of Persia.  Some scholars think the servant is Cyrus who returned the people from exile and allowed the rebuilding of the temple.  Others think the author of Isaiah was referring to Israel, which is what happens in Isaiah 49.  The author of the Gospel of Matthew makes it clear in 12:17-19 that he believes Jesus is in fact the servant about which Isaiah writes, quoting the beginning of today’s passage almost word for word.  When Isaiah 42:1-9, today’s reading, was written, the people felt defeated – -they had been overtaken by a foreign power, and were asking some of the eternal questions – where is God in the midst of this?  Where is our hope?  And God says to them, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations…”

It is not as important for us this day as to the exact identity of who the servant is, as to how the servant is.  In fact, in our reading for today, the question of who is never answered.  Our answer is not who serves, but how do they serve– what kind of servant did God send to God’s people?  What kind of leadership should we expect of one called by God, and then in turn expect of ourselves as we follow that example?

The servant Isaiah describes is not one you might expect when thinking about one who is sent to bring justice to the nations, to set captives free, to open the eyes of the blind. A servant is defined as someone working in the service of another.  That may be what we think of when we think of maids and butlers serving lords and ladies in country manor homes in the time of Jane Austin, or those working in service of a king or queen even farther back in time.  We do not think today in terms of “servants” but in terms of hired help – our CPA’s, nannies and assistants are not called servants, yet they do work in our service.  But the kind of servant God was talking about was different.  God was not sending someone to clean the house, deliver party invitations, or care for our children.  God was sending a person with the heart of someone who does not put themselves first, but rather puts the one they serve first. “Here is my servant,” says the Lord.  Here is the person working in my service, working on my behalf.  Here is the one speaking for, ministering for me.  Reading today’s passage in Isaiah, we get an idea of what kind of person God calls into service to work on God’s behalf.  Listen again to verse 3:  “a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.”  If you are a people in exile, how does this sound to you?  If you feel like your wick is burning dimly, like you are the bruised reed, how do these words sound – these promises that the servant of God will not break you, will not quench your flame. The servant God sends into the world is tender and faithful.  God’s servant does not extract justice by force or might or by breaking others down.  Instead, God’s servant, Paulsell writes, “protects what is weak until it is strong enough to stand, and keeps gentle hands cupped around a weak flame until it can burn on its own.”[2]

“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.”  These are the words that Jesus said to his followers later in Matthew – -see, I was sent to do this.  I am the servant of God.  This servant was sent to lead God’s people in a new way.  The Servant Song from Isaiah ends with the words, “See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.”  Jesus has been called to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out prisoners form the dungeon.  If you look at his entire ministry through the lens of this passage, you see it all here.  Jesus did indeed care for the bruised and those whose wick was dim – he cared for the sick of body, mind and spirit.  He did not crush or extinguish them, but stayed with them until they were strong and burning bright again.  He called for justice and equality, sitting at table with the outsiders who were not welcomed by anyone else – ministering to the overlooked, outcast and unclean.  He cared for the brokenhearted and unwelcome.  He brought justice for those who needed it.  And yet he did it all without raising a sword or entering into battle.

We are reminded that it is the God of creation – the God “who created the heavens and stretched them out; who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it “– it is God who called Jesus to be God’s servant and do a new thing.  In Jesus’ baptism he was at the beginning of a new way of being.  No one had ever existed like him before, and no one ever would again.  At his Baptism, Jesus is identified as God’s beloved and as God’s servant.  And this is where the real work begins for him.

And so it is for us as well.  In our baptisms, we too begin our work as children of God, we begin our ministries, and begin to live out our callings as servant leaders.  God does a new thing in our lives at that moment, but it is not the last new thing God will do in our lives.  Next weekend the Strategic Planning leadership Team begins their work of listening for the new things God is doing in our lives as a church, for listening to the new ways in which God is saying to us “you are my servants and I am not finished with you yet.”  Please be in prayer for the servants who are leading this process, and for our congregation as we move through it.

Baptism is not the end of hearing God say to us “you are my beloved,” nor is it the end of hearing God say to us “here is my servant.”  It is the beginning of a lifelong hearing those words said to us.  Sometimes they are whispered quietly in the night, sometimes they are shouted from rooftops.  Jesus ministry did not end when those words from Isaiah echoed through his head and he emerged from the waters, rather it was just beginning.  For us, as this new year begins, as we settle back into routines and catch our breath after the busy-ness of December, I encourage each of us to ask how we are called to be servants of God.  Not how we are called to serve God – that looks a lot like a to do list.  How are we called to truly be servants.  Have we been causing deeper bruises to those already bruised as we have gone about our work?  Have we been extinguishing wicks that burn dimly rather than sheltering them from the wind and helping the flames grow stronger?  The God who created the heavens and the earth called us to be God’s servants – and gave us the model to follow in Jesus Christ.  As we consider all of the things that come with a new year, all of the resolutions and things that come with it, I encourage you to think about this:  God said “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.” What kind of servant will you be this year?


[1] (Paulsell 2010)

[2] (Paulsell 2010)

 


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A Sermon For Children’s Sabbath

Sunday was an exciting day in the life of our congregation  -our first ever Children’s Sabbath.  Children led worship at all 3 services, and we also had a baptism at each service.  I’ll have more thoughts about how great the day was in my next post, but for now, I wanted to share the sermon the children helped me write.

Mark 10:13-16 (Contemporary English Version)

13Some people brought their children to Jesus so that he could bless them by placing his hands on them. But his disciples told the people to stop bothering him.

14When Jesus saw this, he became angry and said, “Let the children come to me! Don’t try to stop them. People who are like these little children belong to the kingdom of God. 15I promise you that you cannot get into God’s kingdom, unless you accept it the way a child does.” 16Then Jesus took the children in his arms and blessed them by placing his hands on them.

 

 

Through The Eyes of Children

For you, little one, the Spirit of God moved over the waters at creation, and the Lord God made covenants with God’s people.

It was for you that the Word of God became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth.

For you, [name], 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.

But 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 words come from what may be my favorite liturgy – a           This is a variation of the French Reformed Church Baptismal Liturgy.  Words said to a child as he is baptized – words that promise that we, as the family of Christ adopting her will teach her the Good news of the Gospel until an age when he stands and claims if for himself.  These are the words of our salvation  – – –for you – small one, for you, the one that makes your parents crazy when you cry and cry because you do not have language yet to say “I’m tired, put me to bed.”  These words are for the children who stand in children’s choirs and sing, who come on Wednesday nights, and then come to Youth group.  These words are for those who may never be brought to churchdarken a church’s doorstep again.  – For you – God became human and lived among us: , for you, Christ triumphed over the grave and ascended into heaven.  When you are small, the enormitiesenormity of these words do not have much meaning.  They do not make much sense – -Jesus did what for me?  Adult theologians still struggle over it.  And yet, when we baptize our childrena child, we tell themhim or her that we claim themher in the faith of one who has done all of that for us, and we promise that we will tell them, over and over again until they can claim it for themselves.

“Read it again, please?”  How many times do we want to experience our favorite stories over and over again?  It may be a book we have read so many times the pages fall out, a movie we have seen so many times we have it memorized, or a story we can tell by heart.  “Tell it again, please?”  Those were the words that I least expected to hear from a group of girls gathered around the table in Fellowship Hall on a Wednesday night as we ate tacos and talked about Samuel and Eli.  In preparation for today’s service and sermon, I spoke with some of the children of our congregation about how they saw God in today’s Old Testament reading.  We had already read the story once and talked about it, and they wanted to hear it again.  “But we will continue to tell you this news until you can claim it for your own…”  And so, I told it to them again –almost as you saw it acted out this morning, even though my taco was getting cold and my brownie looked so good….  And the girls, well, they wantedgot to be the voice of God.  Several small voices called out “Samuel, Samuel” at just the right time.  We finished the story, and they asked for And then it a third was time – I think because they wanted to try out different voices for God.  What would God sound like calling Samuel in the voice of a lion or a chimpanzee?  We never found out; it was time for Jamfor KidsJam and BibleMax and so off they ranwere running to see what the next thing.

A week later I was with a group of boys – -this time they were in middle and high school and the meal was fried chicken and fried okra.  They were humoring me, offering saying the right answers to my questions about Samuel and Eli and what they saw and heard in the textthings – until I called them on it.  “Are you saying that because I’m the Pastor and you think you that is the answer you have to give or because it’s really what you think?”  And with that question there was a whole different kind of conversation about Samuel and Eli and God.  This was a conversation that went deeper than the telling and retelling of a story.  It was about what the world looks like, just a little bit, through the eyes of middle school boys.  In this conversation, the story was told and retold – but in their own words.  They are in the process of claiming their faith as their own.  Some have made their public confession, some soon will.  They are putting language around the incomprehensible love of Jesus Christ, beginning to understand what that means for them.  “All this was done for you, little one, though you do not know any of this yet.  But we will continue to tell you the good news until it becomes your own.”

What these two seemingly different meals had in common, besides the location, was that the children were being listened to, intently, about what they had to say about God.  It was being written down and taken very, very seriously.  I made each table 2 promises whan I sat down with them.  First I promised them that there were no wrong answers to the questions I was asking, and second that I was not going to stand up in the pulpit and identify what anyone said by name.  I told the children we were writing a sermon about Samuel and Eli, and indeed we did.were.  Yes, someone was telling and retelling them their story, but then, and now, they got to say what they really thought about it.  For you see, once you are adopted into the family of God, you are invited to be one of the story-tellers too.  Just as our children have chores and jobs and ways they contribute to our lives at home, they are also a part of our church family.  The focus for today’s Children’s Sabbath is to see God through their eyes.  To see what they hear God telling us as a church about the story of Samuel and Eli.

Every child who encountered this text identified with Samuel.  If the listener was 4, then so was Samuel.  If the listener was 6, then so was Samuel.  If the listener was in middle school then so was Samuel.  Their hair color and eye color all matched – -our children saw themselves as in the child in this story.  They identified most closely with Samuel.  Samuel who had been sent away to boarding school at the church.  Samuel, who slept in the sanctuary of the church, which was probably pretty lonely.  For you see, Samuel may have been the only child there.  And the church was HUGE – like a cathedral.  In their minds eyes, it was like sleeping inside of a giant lighthouse or the inside of the Empire State Building at night after all the lights are turned off.  It echoed.  It was lonely.  Samuel was scared.  He wanted his mom and dad.  And one night, he heard a voice call out to him.  He did not know who it was, but he knew that his Pastor, Eli, would tell him.  God kept calling Samuel and Samuel kept running to Eli.  The voice sounded familiar to Samuel, but he had not heard it that many times – he did not know who it was for sure.  But he knew, without a doubt that Eli would help him.  And Eli eventually believed Samuel, and told him to listen for the voice of God, and answer it.

 

“Samuel, Samuel…” God called out in the night to Samuel, and Samuel kept running another direction.  Samuel was not sure of what he heard, and how true is that for us sometimes?  God tries to speak to us, but we are not sure it is God.  Sometimes when God speaks to us, we don’t know what God is telling us, or where the voice comes from.  With Samuel, when God calls, he thought it was Eli – he was not listening closely enough, not paying enough attention to what he was hearing.  And yet God kept calling Samuel.  God called and called and called.  “Samuel, Samuel.”  “Samuel, Samuel.”  Over and over again.  Samuel kept trying to answer, moving in the wrong direction until someone pointed him in the right direction and helped him hear the voice for what it was.  God called until someone answered.  For God does not give up calling us until we answer.

“Read it again, please?”  How many times have we heard the story?  I know it by heart, and yet, through the eyes of our children saw something new.  Your children told me that when our lives get hectic we sometimes cannot always listen to God because we are too busy listening to everything else. Around the table that night,  middle-schoolers spoke of distracted and chaotic lives, of being caught up in the day to day and wanting to hear God.  They spoke of rushing from place to place, and being too distracted to have the time to listen.  How busy are our children are that these terms are parts of their vocabularies and they can talk about it with a true sense of meaning?  What is God trying to show us through the eyes of our little, and not so little, ones?  Perhaps they do need a Sabbath?

Jesus told his disciples that the little children were to be allowed to come close to him, to experience him, to be blessed by him, and to learn from him.   13Some people brought their children to Jesus so that he could bless them by placing his hands on them. But his disciples told the people to stop bothering him.

14When Jesus saw this, he became angry and said, “Let the children come to me! Don’t try to stop them. People who are like these little children belong to the kingdom of God. 15I promise you that you cannot get into God’s kingdom, unless you accept it the way a child does.” 16Then Jesus took the children in his arms and blessed them by placing his hands on them.

To be honest with you, I’m not sure any of us really knew what to expect when we started planning worship for today.  Ted saw Children’sChilden’s Sabbath Sunday on the Presbyterian Planning Calendar, and was intrigued by the idea of a Sunday to celebrate Children.  With the help of Ellen and Rick and all of our other staff and volunteers, the worship for today began to come together.  Today’s worship service is led by our children, but is the work of our whole church, and I thank all of you who helped us make it happen.  Today, in ourToday, in this church, we gather to celebrate the gifts our children share with us.  We come to see them participate as our worship leaders for this special day.  By the time today is finished, we will have added two brothers and a sister to the family of Christ through the sacrament of Baptism.  We worship seeing God through the eyes of our children today.

We didn’t know what to expect, but we knew what we were striving for – -a day to say to the children of our congregation that you are important and you have important things to say to us about God.  When we baptize, we make someone a part of God’s family.  When our children participate in worship, they are not performing for applause or adoration.  They are helping us experience the Word of God using their particular gifts and talents – -just as the Choir does when they sing, or Ted and I do when we preach, or Rick does when he sings and Terry does when he plays the organ.  Our children are just as much a part of the body of Christ as we are, and we are called to listen to them.  Jesus told his disciples to let the children come to him, to let the children come and experience him.  He wanted children to experience his work and to see who he was and what he was about.  And Jesus tells his disciples that they cannot get into the Kingdom of heaven unless they experience it the way the children do.

Our celebration today is one for and about our children.  It is one of thanksgiving – -we give thanks to God for the activity of our children.  So often we hear that the children are the future of the church.  After being part of our service today, we make the claim that our children are just as much a part of the present of the church as any adult who is here.  Our children have just as many things to tell us about God and Jesus as we have to say to them.  They have things to say to us, good news to tell us until it becomes our own too.  A sampling of what the children of our congregation have remindedtaught me this in the last month or so:

First, theyThey really do hear what we are teaching – -they hear the stories we teach and re-teach.  They are indeed listening to us proclaim the good news over and over again, and are making it their own.

SecondYet, they live in a world of uncertainty, a world where in Middle School asking questions or being wrong or uncertain can lead you to being labeled as “dorky” or “uncool” – and while we, as adults tell them that is does may not think these things matter, when you are in Middle School, it as adults, they still really does, and we needmatter to pay attention to that and not brush it aside.  them.

But third, our  Our church is a place where they know that they can come and ask questions – -where it is OK to ask the big questions about faith and life, for just as Samuel knew Eli would be there when he needed him, our children know that we, as a church, will be here for them.  We will patiently re-tell them the stories.  We will help them to discern which voices are God’s and which are not.  We will wait with them throughout their entire lives as they in turn wait for those who follow.

For even as we age, we tell and retell each other our stories, we continue to tell each other the good news to those who may not be ablebale to claim it – until it once again becomes their own.  And sometimes, it is indeed through the eyes of our children that we see God at God’s clearest, and through the voices of our children that we hear God at God’s loudest, speaking to and loving us all.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.….

 


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For You, Little One

We had a baptism today for one of the happiest babies I think I have ever seen have water splash over her head.  I LOVE baptisms — of all ages, for sure, but of children especially.  I was thinking today as she was being walked around the Upper Room, being introduced to her church family about the serious business that baptism is.  Perhaps I spent too much time in the Directory for Worship this week preparing for Officer’s Training (where, upon my announcement that the first 2 chapters of the Directory for Worship are my favorite parts of the Book of Order, I was pronounced a geek.  I’ll gladly own it!).  It is serious business – this is when we claim this child as Gods, and make some pretty big promises that we, as the Body of Christ keep for her entire life.

Watching an entire community promise, on behalf of everyone in the entire world who is part of the body of Christ, to love and nurture this small child, to teach her about Jesus and the Gospel, to hep her grow and develop in her faith, well it moves me to tears.  Not so many today – I was too busy enjoying the joy of someone so young smiling at everyone she saw, having no idea that we all just claimed her as ours.  Being a voice to say that she belongs to God and we will be the ones to help teach her that feels like such an awe-inspiring task.

A friend of mine introduced me to the French Reformed Church Baptismal Liturgy, and I have used it before and adapted it.  I love the idea that we are telling the child that all the work of Jesus was done before we were even cognizant of it, and yet, we are the ones responsible to tell the child until he or she can claim it for him or herself.  “But we will continue to tell you this good news until it becomes your own.”  And if she moves away, if she claims it for herself at another place, we will still be part of it as the body of Christ, we will all be there with her in spirit, and know that we were some of the first to tell her the good news that God loves her and that she belongs to God.

For you, little one, today we made promises and poured water and claimed you as God’s in love.  It was serious business, indeed.

For you, little one,
the Spirit of God moved over the waters at creation,
and the Lord God made covenants with his people.
It was for you that the Word of God became flesh
and lived among us, full of grace and truth.
For you, [
name], 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.
But 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.”

From the PC(USA) Office of Theology and Worship


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"You are Mine"

A sermon for Baptism of the Lord Sunday.

Isaiah 43:1-7

1But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob,

he who formed you, O Israel:

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;

I have called you by name, you are mine.

2When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;

and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;

when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,

and the flame shall not consume you.

3For I am the LORD your God,

the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.

I give Egypt as your ransom,

Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.

4Because you are precious in my sight,

and honored, and I love you,

I give people in return for you,

nations in exchange for your life.

5Do not fear, for I am with you;

I will bring your offspring from the east,

and from the west I will gather you;

6I will say to the north, “Give them up,”

and to the south, “Do not withhold;

bring my sons from far away

and my daughters from the end of the earth —

7everyone who is called by my name,

whom I created for my glory,

whom I formed and made.”

It seems that this is the time of year when we think a lot about promises.  Specifically, promises we make to ourselves to be better people, or promises we make to other people to be better people.  Except, we don’t call them promises, we call them resolutions.  And very often, over 90% of the time, depending on which study you read, these promises are not kept.  Which is why I love that we have the text we have for today – -the reading from Isaiah that is full of the promises God has made and kept through time, and continues to keep today.  Today is a day when we as a church reflect on our baptisms; a day when we think about the promises we have made through the years as a community of faith to each other.

The promises we hear today come from the Prophet Isaiah, spoken to a people that have been conquered by the Babylonians and cast into exile.  These were a people who felt abandoned by God, were lost, wandering, and wondering if God really would keep the promises God made in the past.  These were people who feared what their futures would hold.  They had sinned, and they had been punished.  The prophet has chastised them mightily in the 42nd chapter of Isaiah, and yet the next thing they hear are these words of promise and comfort, the reminder that God has been with them all along their journey.  I wonder what a conversation may sound like between these people of God and the text we have today.  How might they respond to the words of Isaiah?

I wonder how we may respond to these words from the prophet.  Some of us who may feel as if we are in exile, or that we are wandering in the wilderness, some of us who may feel fearful of what is to come, or abandoned or lost.  What does the prophet Isaiah have to say to us this day?  What do we have to say to him?

1But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob,

he who formed you, O Israel:

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;

I have called you by name, you are mine.

We may lose sight of that along the way – the knowledge that we are created by God.  We were formed by God’s own hands into God’s own image.  In the first verse, Isaiah connects the act of creation with the act of redemption, reminding us again that the God who made us is the very same God who saved us.  We may forget the three words we hear over and over and over again from the prophets and the angels – do not fear.  We hear them, but do we listen, do we take them in?   These are the words of God to us.  These are God’s promises to us – do not be afraid for I have delivered you.  I will restore you.  Do not fear, for I have redeemed you.  I have called you by name and you are mine.

2When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;

and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;

when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,

and the flame shall not consume you.

These verses offer comfort and questions.  Do you ever hear them and want to say to God, “Really?  Are you sure?  Those waters of confusion and uncertainty our family just navigated felt pretty uncertain, and I don’t think you were there.  The firestorm we are walking through, well, where are you?”   We all have those times when we pass through the deep rivers, when we feel as though the world burns around us and we wonder if we will be consumed.  Some of you may be getting ready to enter the rivers, some may be in the midst of the oceans, and some may be on the other side.  Maybe it was the months of doctor’s visits and driving back and forth to the hospital.  There were the years of having several small children in the house, or the times of waiting to see if that was even a possibility.  We can be overwhelmed by grief and loss, by change in general – -big or small.  And in those times we may want to say to God when we hear this text, “Really?  Even though it sure felt like the rivers would overwhelm me, they were not going to?  Even though I was afraid, and drowning, and lost, you were with me?”  The images of being in the fire and not being consumed are intriguing, and yet so true.  It is after those times when it feels as though we are undergoing a trial by fire, we can make this claim:  We are still here.  We have not been consumed.  And it is only with God that is possible.

3For I am the LORD your God,

the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.

I give Egypt as your ransom,

Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.

Oh yeahYou are the one who we are here worshipping.  You are the one who does all of that for us.  You, The Lord Our God, The Holy one of Israel, You are the one who redeems God’s people over and over again.  You saved us through Your Son.  We are not saved by anyone else.  This is a promise and a statement of fact all rolled into one.  But why…

4Because you are precious in my sight,

and honored, and I love you,

I give people in return for you,

nations in exchange for your life.

The questions we may ask are: “Why me?  Why us?  Because I am precious in your sight?  Because I am honored by you?  Because you love me you will do all that?  Am I your beloved child with whom you are well pleased, as we hear in Luke?”

We do hear in the second chapter of Luke, “After Jesus was baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  Do you ask, “God, are you really saying that to me?”  The doubts that creep into our minds from external sources can be strong and vocal.  We wear all kinds of voices that demand perfection in looks, talent, grades, athleticism, and piety — whatever you see your flaws to be.  The voices – internal and external – that say we are not enough get really loud this time of year as we hear about a New Year and a New You.  What we sometimes miss, but cannot mistake in today’s readings is the voice that should be the loudest one of all – -“you are precious to me”, says God.  “You are honored”, says God.  “I created you”, says God.  “I love you”, says God.

5Do not fear, for I am with you;

We try not to be afraid of what may lie ahead of us.  It’s easer once we pass through the waters and the fires, when we don’t feel like we are drowning and burning.    We can be fearless when we remember God is with us in the fires and rivers, when we remember that God claims us as His children.  It’s easier not to be afraid when we remember that.

I will bring your offspring from the east,

and from the west I will gather you;

6I will say to the north, “Give them up,”

and to the south, “Do not withhold;

bring my sons from far away

and my daughters from the end of the earth —

7everyone who is called by my name,

whom I created for my glory,

whom I formed and made.”

Everyone.  They will come from north and south and east and west to sit at the table of the Lord.  Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.  Even though the earth should change and the mountains shake in the heart of the sea.  You are with us.

The conversation may sound something like that – -we as the people of God telling God that we are not always so sure of God’s presence with us and God reminding us that even though God does not prevent evil in the world, God accompanies us on our journey as we navigate to the other side.  When we can spend so much time, and energy on improving ourselves to satisfy everyone else, do we deny our identities as the baptized people of God?  Do we deny our indentities in Christ by buying into all the other voices that tell us we are not good enough?  God made us, God claims us, God will walk through fire and swim through oceans with us and always tell us God is satisfied with us because God made us.

Today’s text is one of identity.  It is when we pass through the waters of baptism that we hear the promises of God to call us by name, to be with us.  It is in our baptismal identities that we are marked as Christ’s own, forever.  We are marked with the sign of the cross on our foreheads, we are claimed as children of God, no matter our age.  We receive the answer to the question, “who are you?”  I am a child of God.  I am claimed by God.  I am Baptized.

There is a story — and it may be one of those clergy urban myths at this point, but I’m telling it anyway – that sounds like this:  Martin Luther used to wake up in the morning and the first thing he would do was place his palm on his forehead and declare “I am baptized.”  No matter what, this is how he would begin his day.  It was in his identity as one claimed by God and marked by Christ that Luther found the strength to face many days.  I wonder if on the morning he walked to the church in Wittenberg to nail the 95 Theses to the door if that’s how he began his day.  If he woke up and affirmed his baptismal identity, declaring, “I am baptized.”  Not “I was baptized” as an act that happened in the past, but “I am baptized” – -it is an act that happened in the past but it is something that continues to happen every day.  The claim of God continues to manifest itself each moment of every day of our lives.

There are days when sometimes if you remind yourself of these things, it is enough.  If you remember that God formed you, Christ claims you, and you are God’s beloved with whom God is well pleased, the rest falls away.  We are the baptized people of God.  If you are not yet, and would like to be, please speak to either Ted or myself.  It is in Baptism we receive the outward sign of the invisible grace.  It is that sacrament that marks us as God’s, that gives us the power to say, “I belong to God.”  Remember that God is the one who says to each of us “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name and you are mine.”  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

The Pastoral Prayer was from here.


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Beloved and Beautiful to Behold

Sometimes when I am writing a sermon, I come across an illustration that gets stuck in my head and it won’t get out.

Sometimes, God is calling me to preach a sermon where it fits and I can use it.

Not this week.  God had a different sermon in mind.

So I offer it here. (Follow the link — it will open in a new window.  I’ll be here when you get back).  Jan Richardson has some beautiful art and a haunting story for the lectionary texts for Sunday.

My favorite paragraph is this one, “In the coming days, may the waters of our baptism so cling to us that in their depths we see who we are, and from our depths reflect to others their true name: beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.”

I may use this for the Second Look at Family Night next week.   Or not.  But it has left me with some questions to consider:

What does it look like to live as someone whose baptism clings to them?

What does it feel like to live as someone dripping with baptism?

How often are we called beloved?

My hope is that we may all see ourselves as God sees us — as beloved, precious children beautiful to behold.