RSS

Category Archives: Church

Changing Your Mind

(a sermon for March 24, 2019, the 3rd Sunday of Lent, based on Isaiah 55:1-9 and Luke 13:1-9)

“Pastor, I would like to have a talk with you about your sermon.”

Friends, let me just say from personal experience that there’s hardly ever anything good that follows a statement like that!  And so it was on this particular morning when a parishioner from the church I was serving at the time came to confront me – in Christian love, of course (!) – as to her great displeasure with my message from the Sunday before. I do not think of myself as a Pharisee, she began; and I don’t appreciate your intimation that I am some sort of vain sinner!   Furthermore, she went on, I don’t come to church so you can tell me what I’m doing wrong in my life; I want to know that I’m doing everything right!  I want to leave worship on a Sunday feeling warm and fuzzy and as though in the midst of everything in this life I’ve done pretty well, and maybe even doing just a bit better than everybody else! I don’t want, nor do I really need you to tell me to repent!

Well… I thanked her for her feedback; told her how much I appreciated her honesty and that I was sorry she was upset; offered to give her a printed copy of the message so perhaps she could prayerfully reflect on it all a bit longer; and then I urged her to return next Sunday when perhaps the message would be, well… warmer, and fuzzier.

Honest; that’s what I actually said to her!  Of course, if I am being honest, how I really wanted to respond to that – gently and yes, with all Christian love – was to say, have you read the bible?   Do you even know Jesus?  I mean, talk about the need for having ears to hear the gospel; it ain’t all about “the warm and fuzzy,” you know!  There is more to our Christian faith, after all, than simply manger scenes and Easter eggs and sheep safely grazing in green pastures!  There’s also the matter of redemption, about the fallen nature of humanity and of sin; you can’t just ignore that!

Well, at least that’s what I wanted to say (and thank you for letting me get that out!), and yet… I also have to confess, all these years later, that I do kind of understand where she was coming from! A lot of it comes from the nature of the word itself: repent!  For a lot of us who’ve grown up in the church, this word repent immediately brings forth the image of some sharp-tongued preacher standing in a pulpit or from the television screen, shaking a judgmental finger and threatening that unless “unless ye repent, ye shall likewise perish!” (KJV) Never mind that this is not the tone by which we usually proclaim that portion of the gospel, at least not in our tradition of faith; but truth be told that’s the image of church and Christianity that a whole lot of folks carry with them!  And I’ll grant you, the words do sound harsh, it feels utterly judgmental and in all honesty, that parishioner was correct in pointing out that it’s not what we want to hear when we come to worship on a Sunday morning (at least not when we feel like it’s been directed at us!).

But here’s the problem:  biblically speaking and in terms of the meaning of our Christian faith, it’s not inaccurate.

Consider our gospel text for this morning, in which Jesus is asked about a recent event involving some “Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices,” which, though we don’t know the exact set of circumstances, appears to refer to a massacre of a group of Galilean pilgrims in Jerusalem at the hand of the Roman Governor. Moreover, at about the same time, there had been a structural collapse – without warning and wholly accidental, apparently – and this “tower of Siloam” fell and killed eighteen people.  And so now, in the aftermath of all this and in the midst of their grief there’s people coming to Jesus and asking a perfectly legitimate question:  why?  Why would such a bad thing happen to good people; or rather, Jesus, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?”  Did this happen, God forbid, because they… well, deserved it?

And Jesus answers them in a very interesting way:  “Do [I] think those murdered Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans? Not at all.” [The Message]  But, says Jesus, “unless you repent, you will all perish like they did.”  Oh, and those eighteen people who died in the tower accident?  They weren’t any better or worse than than your average Jerusalemite; but “I tell you… unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

And there it is, not once but twice in five verses:  Unless ye repent, ye shall likewise perish!

I love how Matthew Skinner at Lutheran Seminary reacts to these verses in Luke:  “Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling?  Not here. This time it’s loudly and pointedly.”  Suddenly it’s not about why bad things happen, nor about how “the godless will be struck by an asteroid,” and definitely not about how the fact that we haven’t yet been struck down is evidence of a special blessing.  No, what Jesus is talking about here is the need for us to repent of our sins and to do it now… before it’s too late.

No wonder that woman was upset with me – or with Jesus, actually – because no matter how you hear it, there’s an admonition that cannot help but hit us right between the eyes. I mean, Jesus, is that really true?  Am I really all that bad of a person that I am quite literally one misdeed away from a major catastrophe?  What about forgiveness, Jesus?  What about the love you have for all the little children, of which I am one?  Surely, when you say that “unless you repent, you’ll die,” you’re not talking about… me?

Apparently, yes… and therein lies the challenge of this text, and indeed, of our very faith.  But let me suggest to you, friends, that it’s also our good news.

You see, as Jesus often does, he follows this call to repentance with a parable: the story of a man, his vineyard and an utterly barren fig tree.  In biblical times, and even to this day, fig trees were often planted in the midst of vineyard gardens for the sake of its always delicious and usually very abundant fruit.  However, as Jesus tells the story, this particular fig tree had yet to produce any kind of fruit for three years now, and it’s not seeming likely that this is going to change anytime soon. All this tree is really doing is taking up space in the soil and sucking up valuable water in the vineyard!  And so, as any wise gardener would suggest, the time had come to cut this barren fig down; to tear down its roots and perhaps start afresh with a new seedling, one that might actually grow to bear fruit.  This tree’s done nothing, so hack it down!

But no… as Jesus tells the story, the vinedresser says otherwise:  “’Sir,’” he says, “’let it alone for one more year, until I did around it and’” put…. [fertilizer!]… on it, and “’if it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not you can cut it down.’”

A reprieve!  And, might I add, an opportunity.

Turns out that Jesus’ story isn’t as much about judgment and punishment as it is mercy! That useless, withered fig tree could have easily and legitimately been destroyed, and yet it isn’t; it’s given another chance to grow and to become fruitful.  Turns out that this is a story all about expectation, “the expectation,” writes James Lemler, an Episcopal priest and writer from Connecticut, “of a radical change and turning about of things.” Because make no mistake, it’s not simply that the barren fig tree is saved from destruction, it’s that now there’s an expectation that next year things will be different. “The tree must change.  It must produce fruit by this time next year – or else.”

Same with you, says Jesus.  You’ve got the opportunity here; you’ve been given that second, third, and fourth chance to grow and to finally bear the fruit of life and faith, but now what matters is what you do with that: and unless you repent, change, turn around and do what needs to be done to bear that fruit, just like any other barren, lifeless fig tree that’s taking up space in the garden, you’ll perish!

What’s interesting, you know, is that most often when we in the church talk about repentance, we’re kind of thinking apology!  You know, referring to the deep regret we feel over our transgressions, about moving from egregious sin to moral uprightness, about making that 180-degree turn from where we’ve been to where we’re headed; which, actually, in some places in scripture is an accurate definition: it’s the Greek word metanoia, which translates as turning around completely.  But here when Jesus talks about repentance, he’s not merely speaking of changing your direction but also, and primarily, changing your mind, and your heart, and your soul, and your life.  James Lemler again:  Jesus’ call to repentance was a plea “to turn to the God who loves and redeems his people.  He wanted them to change their minds and their lives to reflect the compassion and care that God had given to them.  And he wanted them to bear fruit: the fruits of repentance, of new life in God and God’s love – the fruits of grace, joy, hope, and peace.”

Friends, it’s about being on the journey of life and living, doing things the way you’ve always done them regardless of the consequence or even of its futility; but then, all at once, changing your mind and going another way that you know is going to be the better pathway.  Repentance is simply, and not so simply, changing your mind; or, as Frederick Beuchner has beautifully said, it is “to come to your senses.  It is not,” he writes, “so much something you do as something that happens.  True repentance spends less time looking at the past and saying, ‘I’m sorry,’ than to the future and saying, ‘Wow!’”

Repent, says Jesus, or else you’ll perish. Change your mind, because if you don’t, very soon you’ll be headed in a direction you don’t want to go. Turn around, and take a different pathway, because right now you’re going nowhere fast. Come to your senses, otherwise you might well lose yourself, and you’ll miss everything that is to come and what, by God’s grace and infinite love, has been promised and is even now being set before you.

“Unless ye repent, ye shall likewise perish!”

So… here’s Jesus, simply sitting there, quietly and patiently, waiting for us to respond to what’s he said to us.  That’s the thing about Jesus, you know – and by extension, that’s the thing about preaching his gospel – he’s waiting for us to give an answer to what he’s said.  Sometimes it’s not about the “warm and fuzzy,” with everything all tied up in a nice purple bow for Lent; sometimes  Jesus’ words just hang in the air before us and we end up leaving this place today wondering… how we’re supposed to respond and what happens next.

I wonder as we’re sitting here this morning about the ways our minds and hearts need to change; I wonder about the fruit that we haven’t borne.  Have we failed to acknowledge the reality of the living God even when we’ve known just how much we’ve yearned and hungered  for that presence and power in our lives?  Are there mistakes or transgressions – no, let’s call them exactly what they are – is there sin in our lives that has gone unconfessed?   And by the same token, is there forgiveness that we’ve refused to accept… or to give?  Is our behavior – our attitudes, our language, our treatment of others, our priorities, our practice of everyday life – is it less than it should be as one who has been named and claimed as a child of God? Has what we’ve been doing, how we’ve been living proven to unite those around us or is it divisive; does it make for peace or does it create injustice; is it about love or something else; but most importantly, does it honor God and model his son Jesus, and does it further the work of his kingdom?

If not, I would say that the time has come to consider changing our mind, and our hearts, and our lives;  because, hard as it may be for us to hear, the time for that kind of change won’t last forever.

And besides, why wouldn’t you want to? In the words of Isaiah: “Why do you send your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy… incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live… seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near.”

The time and the opportunity for repentance is now, beloved. May it be for each of us time well spent and…

…may our thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN.

 

Advertisements
 

Tags: , ,

Attentive to the Word

(a sermon for February 3, 2019, the 4th Sunday after Epiphany, based on Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 and Luke 4:14-21)

I know it’s an increasingly rare thing these days, what with every phone having a digital camera and photos being stored in a nebulous “cloud” in cyberspace, but I would dare say that most of us here probably still have one or more of these:  some sort of bin filled with old photographs; with a great many of them still in the developer’s envelopes, waiting for someone to find the time to sort them out and maybe even put them into albums (remember photo albums?).

I’d also wager a guess that most of us have pretty much the same pictures: countless shots of birthday parties, Christmas mornings, camping trips and first days of school; not to mention two generations’ worth of pictures of the same people sitting around the same kitchen table at the in-law’s house!  And even if you get to the point with all these pictures where you know you’ve got to start reaming out the lot of it, you discover that every photograph sparks a special memory and so you hang on to them for a few more years!

“Photographs and Memories…” the pastor as a young child!

Actually, the blessing and the curse of old photographs is that they are stark reminders of what we used to be, and perhaps are no longer;  trust me, every photo album we have makes it increasingly clear that I used to be much younger, a whole lot thinner, beardless and less gray than I am today!  What’s more, old photographs have a way of making us confront the truth of where we’ve been on the journey of life, the choices we’ve made and opportunities either seized or lost.  Not that this is a bad thing, mind you – most times, in fact, it can be life affirming (!) – but sometimes these old pictures also manage to remind us of who we were as opposed to what we are, and maybe even what we’re supposed to be but somehow lost along the way!

Think about that in the context of our Old Testament reading for this morning, from the book of Nehemiah, which is the story of the people of Israel returning home to Jerusalem after having spent many years living in Babylonian exile. Actually, this was what was left of the people of Israel, because after years of slavery, there were far fewer of them than before; and those who remained were poor, demoralized and frightened, having literally suffered for generations only to come home to face a totally ruined land and a city that’s been destroyed.  All they could really do now was to buckle down and begin the process of rebuilding their city and their lives.

To that end, two men of God come forward: Nehemiah, who’d been appointed Governor of Israel and sent to help the people rebuild their land; and Ezra the priest, who comes to help rebuild something almost more difficult than the city wall: the integrity of their faith and worship.  You see, over the years of exile much of the tradition and practice of their faith had been lost, along with their understanding of the law, and perhaps most importantly, their memory of God’s presence, his power and his gifts to them across the years.  To quote Old Testament Walter Brueggemann here, it was the “memory of those gifts and that relationship [that] was the glue that bound the Israelites together.  It was what kept them close to God, reliant upon God and responsive to God.”  But now after so many years there were fewer and fewer who even could remember God’s Word, much less follow it; so in essence, these people of God had become but a shadow of their former selves. Quite literally, all that was left of their faith were the stories told by parents and grandparents, and even those were fading from memory.

So on this particular day, just after the walls of the city had been rebuilt all the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate,” that they might hear the Torah being read.  Understand how significant a thing this was; it was the first time in many, many years that the Word of God had actually been spoken aloud!  And what makes this even more significant is that it wasn’t Ezra the priest who initiated the event; it was the people who told Ezra to “bring the book of the laws of Moses, which the LORD had given to Israel,” so that everyone, “both men and the women and all those who could hear with understanding” would be able to hear the Word of God.  But here’s the key point of this story, friends; we’re then told that “the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.”

It’s a big moment, and it goes on for over six hours (!), but the enthusiasm of the people never wanes!  Rather, it grows with each word spoken; this word of the Lord that was at once brand new to them, and yet was as familiar and as close to them as their very breathing!  And while this is going on, some of the people are pacing up and down the square, shouting “’Amen, Amen,’ lifting up their hands,” as Ezra blessed the Lord.  Others are on their knees – faces to the ground in humility and awe – and all of them, every one of them, are weeping: weeping for themselves and weeping for their nation; mourning for what had been lost so many years before; rending their hearts in the realization of how far they’d strayed from their faithfulness to God’s law.

So there was mourning; but the point here is that at the end of this incredibly holy experience, there was joy!   It was as though in the reading of the scripture – this “album” of Israel’s memory of God – they had regained their identity as God’s people, and at that moment their lives began anew, because they knew that from that moment on, they would live as they were always supposed to live; they would be who they were always meant to be:  a people who lived knowing “the joy of the Lord [was] their strength!”

Flash-forward about 500 years; at a synagogue in the village of Nazareth, where a local boy – the son of the carpenter, no less (!) – is about to preach in his hometown pulpit.  Now, the locals had known Jesus and his family nearly all of his life; and what’s more, there’d been word from places as far away as Capernaum that Jesus was mightily impressive as a teacher.  So as they’re gathering at the temple they’re all thinking, this ought to be good.  But turns out that what they hear from Jesus is neither expected nor wanted.  Jesus simply reads from the prophet Isaiah,“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor,” proclaiming release to the captives, sight to the blind and freedom of the oppressed; and then he rolls up the scroll, hands it back to the usher and sits down, saying, “Today the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

But unlike Ezra’s reading of the word, this short sermon is not met with tears or prayerful affirmation; just anger!  In fact, if you read on beyond today’s passage, you’ll find that almost immediately their amazement over “the gracious words that came from [Jesus’] mouth” turned to rage, and the hometown folk were ready to run Joseph’s boy out of town and hurl him off a cliff!   And why, we ask?  Well, perhaps it was true what Jesus said about how “no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.”  Or maybe there was something about his reading of that portion of God’s Word that hit too close to home for those folk in Nazareth; perhaps revealing somethng about who they were as opposed to what they were supposed to be as God’s people.

Who knows for sure; but that’s the thing, you see, about the word of God… because however you might hear it or even receive it, there’s something about it that always reveals the truth; and that truth will affect us!

I think that one of the big mistakes we make about scripture, and by extension our very faith, is that too often we think of God’s word as merely a blanket laid out for our lives and living; because then it has no more function than to make us feel all warm and fuzzy in the chill of life.  And yes, do not misunderstand what I am saying, it can be and often is that; but God’s Word is also meant to reach out and take ahold of us, so to enliven and redirect our lives.  It is meant to confirm and reconfirm our faith, setting us on a new and right and ultimately different path.

That’s what was so powerful about what the people of Israel heard that day at the Water Gate in Jerusalem, and that’s  certainly what the people of Nazareth could not handle about Jesus!  Simply by lifting up God’s Word, Jesus challenged them to a different way of thinking and doing and being: to be involved in a ministry directed not to the proper, the good and the pious, but rather to the improper, the sick and outcast; and then, by the way, proclaiming the vision to be fulfilled by his very presence!  It’s unsettling, to say the very least; but then, that’s what that’s what God’s word is supposed to do:  it unsettles us, it challenges all of our assumptions, it moves us forward and it gives us life; all the while moving us closer to where we’re meant to be, this new realm, a kingdom of God.

That’s the Word of God, beloved… so it just stands to reason that you and I ought to be attentive to it!

Ultimately, the reason we’re here every Sunday morning is so that we can be truly be attentive to the word of God; this word that calls us to be the church and challenges us to follow Jesus as true disciples’ bringing good news to the poor and healing to those afflicted by all manner of pain and suffering.  It’s that word of God that truly holds us together as the church; and yet how many times have we treated holy scripture as though it were little more than story or poetry or mere philosophy? How often have we left here inattentive to the word of God?

Once when my son Jake was in grade school, he had to read the book “Treasure Island,” for purposes of a book report; a task, which by his own admission (and mine, too, to be honest!) was pretty rough going.  Truth be told, as classic a tale as is that story, the words of Robert Louis Stevenson don’t always translate well to the vernacular of our time!  So finally, we decided that the best thing we could do was to read the story aloud, of course in the requisite pirate voice, complete with “arrghs” and “ahoy mates” for proper effect!  And it worked; because what happened is both of us began to hear not only what a great story “Treasure Island” is but also how beautiful and lyrical that language can be!  It was all about our having been attentive to what’s being said and to give voice to what it all means!

What would happen, friends, if as God’s people we were not simply reading the Bible or hearing scripture be read on a Sunday morning, but truly being attentive to God’s word as contained in that scripture?   What would we learn about God, about our faith?  What would we discover, you and me, about our own lives and living?  What would our lives then become?  And what would we end up doing here as the church of Jesus Christ?

I wonder… all I know is that if we were to truly be attentive to the Word, along with devoting ourselves, through prayer and study, to seek to understand it – and, might I add, to open ourselves to the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit as we do – there’s no telling where and how we might be moved as God would lead!

Scripture tells us that “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” (John 1:1); and we know in faith, that God will have the last Word. What you and I need to remember is that what God has said and will say in this time between the now and not yet needs our full attention!

So let us truly listen, beloved, so that God’s word indeed takes root in you and me and this church, and lead us into all rejoicing.

Thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN.

c. 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

Tags: ,

God Believes in You

(a sermon for January 13, 2019, the 1st Sunday after Epiphany, based on Isaiah 43:1-7 and Luke 3:15-17, 21-22)

It is very striking to me that while the story of Jesus’ baptism that we just shared ends with the heavens opening up and the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus “like a dove,” it actually begins in an atmosphere of turmoil, with the threat of such a baptism being something akin to “chaff [burning] with unquenchable fire.”

It was one of the very first infant baptisms at which I had the honor and joy of officiating as a newly-minted pastor; and since at that little church where I was serving we didn’t often have the opportunity to celebrate that sacrament, let me tell you it was a big deal not just for me but for the whole congregation! Not only were we anticipating a much larger than usual congregation that morning, there was also going to be this huge reception afterward; plus – and I’ll take some credit for this (!) – since, again, this kind of thing didn’t happen all that much in the life of that congregation, we decided that this baptism would provide the perfect “teachable moment” for the children of our small Sunday School.  What would happen, you see, is that we’d spend some time before worship teaching the kids all about baptism – what it means, how it happens and why it’s such a special time of celebration – and then they’d come into what was referred to there as “big church,” sitting all together in the front pew to watch and see Rev. Lowry baptize this little baby!

Perfect, right?  What creative, progressive Sunday School is supposed to be all about (at least circa 1983!), right? Well, maybe; except that just before worship as I’m about to enter the sanctuary one of the Sunday School teachers rushes up to me and says, “You better come out back with me right now… because we’ve got a problem.”  And yes, we did; apparently, just about the time the teachers had begun to explain what their minister was about to do out there during the service, one of the little girls in our Sunday School – maybe five or six years old and whose family had actually just started coming to our church  – started crying.  I mean, really crying: weeping, wailing and utterly inconsolable!  And by the time I got there, it had only gotten worse: this little girl was now at the point where she could barely take a breath between wails; she just kept pointing her finger at me and crying for all she was worth, “No, no, no, no NOOO!”  Trust me, nothing was calming this little girl down, most especially not the efforts of the student minister who for all his bright ideas was absolutely clueless as to how to resolve the situation!

Eventually, thanks to her mother who, thankfully, was very quickly on the scene, we got to the heart of the matter: that somehow this little girl had gotten it into her head that in this baptism I was about to perform, that strange man in the robe might actually drown the baby, and that idea was terrifying to her and so of course she cried!  But here’s the thing: as silly and as bizarre as that sounds as I’m telling you about it now, her fear was actually based on some reality; for it turned out the only other church this little girl ever been to in her young life was of the variety where adult baptisms were the norm, and then only by immersion!  So basically, all that she remembered about baptism involved people being placed fully underwater at the hand of a minister (!); so thinking about that in relation to a tiny, helpless baby… well, no wonder the girl was crying her lungs out!  Suffice to say that once we understood what was happening, we were able to explain that our baptisms had to do with sprinkling rather than dunking (!) and that rather than being in any kind of danger the baby was perfectly safe, and loved, and yes, even blessed!  It did turn out to be a teachable moment in more ways than one (!) and, as I recall, all went well from that point on; nonetheless, even as the baptism was taking place I could still feel that one little girl’s steely gaze on me the whole time from her seat in the front pew… just in case I got any ideas!

Well, there was a different, but no less intense, sort of turmoil on the day of Jesus’ baptism, and what’s interesting about our text for this morning is what leads up to Luke’s account of this very dramatic and important event almost seems to have more to do with what James Howell refers to as the full “ferocious mood” of John the Baptist than it even does with Jesus! Even before we pick up the story today, Luke’s already treated us to some of the ravings of this so-called wild man of the wilderness:  “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come… even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (3:7, 9)  Not exactly a feel-good prelude to a baptismal celebration!

But we need to understand there was a method to this “madness,” as it were:  that John was in fact, explicitly proclaiming a baptism of repentance, calling the people of Jesus’ time to abandon their sin and turn their hearts wholly back to God, so that they might truly be ready for the Messiah who had in fact already come.  Moreover, we’re told, John had not at all been reticent about speaking truth to power and for all his troubles was  just about to be “shut up” in prison by none other than Herod Antipas himself!  All this to say that Jesus’ baptism, this incredible scene of divine affirmation and blessing, all happens within a backdrop not only of sin and degradation, but also “in the thick of intense political and religious opposition, downright belliger[ence]” on John’s part and even “not shying away from the use of brute force!” (James Howell, again)

Which makes it all the more amazing that this is the scene in which Jesus – this man without sin, this Messiah, this one destined to baptize his followers by the Holy Spirit, and whose sandals John did not even consider himself worthy to untie (!) – walks right up to his cousin (‘cause remember, Jesus and John do happen to be related!) and asks to receive this baptism of repentance.

And now, here’s Jesus, going under the water (no sprinkling here; it’s full immersion in the waters of River Jordan) and then coming up out of the water.  Here’s Jesus, praying his own post-baptismal prayer, when suddenly the sky “opened up and the Holy Spirit, like a dove descending, came down on him.”  And then here’s a voice, speaking directly to Jesus himself, but in a way that all who were gathered could hear:  “You are my Son, the Beloved,” or, as The Message translates it, “You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.”  Again I say it:  amazing… amazing that in a world filled with such turmoil and marked by such sin and conflict amongst the people that a baptism of repentance would be necessary for the sake of their souls, the power and glory of God to destroy evil in the person of his Son Jesus, the one chosen and marked by his love. The infamous theologian Karl Barth put it this way: that this baptism was more than mere theatrics; for “when Jesus was baptized, he needed to be be washed of sin – not his sin, but our sin.”  For you see, right from the very start, you see, it was about our forgiveness and our redemption; by offering to wash our sins away in his baptism, Jesus provides you and me a new baptism… a baptism of promise.

Actually, it all comes down to a very basic and dare I say, singular Christian truth:  that God believes in you.  God believes in you, friends, and he believes in me; enough that he would claim us and reclaim us as his own again and again, even as we stand in strong need of repentance because of sin and our utter unworthiness before God. And lest you think this preacher’s becoming overly judgmental, let’s be clear: with the exception of Jesus, we are all sinners, all unworthy and all without hope save in God’s sovereign mercy.  But the good news is… because of Jesus, who was baptized and now offers us the baptism of promise, God believes in us; we also are “precious in his sight, and honored and beloved” by God; and because of this we are saved indeed.

Over the years in various congregations where I’ve served as pastor, I’ve have the privilege of leading confirmation classes for the churches’ youth and young adults.  Confirmation, of course, is the rite of the church where those who were baptized as infants are given the opportunity as young adults, after prayer and study, to “confirm” the Christian faith as their own, which has proven to be an interesting and often enlightening experience for confirmand and pastor alike.

Which is not to say it was always easy:  like the year there was this rather headstrong and opinionated ninth grader in the class who right from the “get-go” seemed determined to challenge every bit of spiritual wisdom I ever sought to impart!  And it began the very first day:  I’d just finished explaining all the requirements that our church and its pastor had for them to be confirmed later that spring, and immediately this kid (whose name was Jason) raises his hand to ask, “Rev. Lowry, does being an atheist make a difference on whether I can be confirmed?” Well, yes, Jason, it kind of does, I answered, and then adding in a very pastor-like fashion, but the question is, if you don’t believe in God, what do you believe in?  “Do you have to believe in something?” Jason persisted.  Well … nooo, I said, you don’t have to, I suppose, but it’s kind of hard not to believe in at least one thing in your life.  “Like what?” Jason would reply, and we were off on to a dialogue that continued pretty much uninterrupted for the next eight months and which led, years later and long after he wasn’t confirmed, to a mature Christian faith nurtured and confessed in the mission field.

Actually, as I think back on it such has been the questions and dialogue I’ve shared with a lot of folks over the years:  “Does it make a difference if I believe in God, because I’m not sure I believe?”  Sometimes that question is borne out of an honest, sincere and relentless search for the truth; often it’s the result of a crisis in somebody’s life that has led to a crisis in faith; and maybe it’s the eventual and inevitable result of just so much piling on that there’s simply no more strength or will left to believe in… anything!  And quite frankly, there are those in this life who are determined to direct their lives in any direction except toward the divine, and who have a tendency to not so much ask questions about God as to fire them at you!

But I’ll let you in on a little secret: the truth is while there’s a whole lot I can and do say to that, there’s also very little that I can say; because even as a pastor, I can’t force anybody to believe in God.  All the sermons, proclamations and apologetic in the world mean nothing without an open heart to receive that message! But I can say this, something I believe in my heart of hearts: that while you may not believe in God – today, or tomorrow, or ever – I am sure that God believes in you.  I know this as surely as the sun will rise in the sky tomorrow morning and that the new life of spring will surely, if eventually, follow the dead of winter; I see it in the wonder and beauty of nature, in the strength and resilience of the human Spirit, and in hope, joy and peace that can only be the handiwork of an infinitely loving God… and I know it because Jesus has already made it real in his sure and certain promise of life abundant and eternal.

Perhaps you’ve come here today not at all sure that you believe… or at least that maybe you have a few doubts; and if that’s the case, I’m glad you’re here.  Because this, beloved, is the place where we rejoice in the God who does believe in us so much that he reminds us again and again, “Do not fear,  for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine…” and why?  “Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”

You are precious in my sight! You are honored to me!  I love you… I love you!

God believes… thanks be to God, he believes!  I hope and I pray this day, beloved, that this will help you to believe as well!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

Tags: , , , ,

 
%d bloggers like this: