Submit Your Own!
By Rick Brand
A VOICE CRYING IN THE WILDERNESS
Dec. 9, 2012
Everybody is talking about preparing for Christmas. If we are not preparing for Christmas, we are accused on waging a war against Christmas. But most of the media are urging us to prepare for Christmas, and they are talking about decorating the home, they are talking about getting out the cards, they are talking about buying all the right presents for the special people. My wife just cannot imagine who buys a car for his wife without consulting with her about it, but apparently from the car commercials, a lot of people. But not very many of the people talking to us about preparing for Christmas are talking about preparing ourselves anew for the coming of the Christ child. That is what this strange prophet named John the Baptist is talking about. John the Baptist would probably get written off as a kind of Glen Beck kook now, but John the Baptist is talking to people about preparing themselves for the coming of a Messiah. And since not many other people are talking to us about how to prepare ourselves for the moments when God comes into our lives, maybe we ought to listen a few minutes to John
“And John went into all the regions about the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” There we go again. Right in the middle of a happy, joyful, Christmas holiday season, talking about sin. John goes forth as a voice crying in the wilderness about the necessity of repentance. About obligation to acknowledge we may have been wrong. To admit the need to change, to turn around, to seek forgiveness of past actions. And that is not something we particularly want to do at this time of the year. Who wants to have to look at ourselves now and feel badly about things we might have done. Right here in the middle of the holidays, who wants to worry about a change of direction in our relationships with anybody. Isn’t that kind of thing more appropriate for New Years’ resolutions.
Preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. That is not really something we are very good at anyway. Repentance, forgiveness, those kind of suggest a humility and modest kind of opinion of oneself. But we seem to be a kind of determined, dogmatic absolutely sure we are right, give no quarters, take no prisoners, never have to say I’m sorry kind of mood right now. Everybody is his own standard of behavior and if it offends somebody else where they need to get over it. This call for repentance for the forgiveness of sin has at the center of it, the assumption that not everything I have done has been good, and I know that I have done the best I could, I have done what made me happy, and so I have nothing to apologize for, nothing to have to repent of, no sins that need forgiveness. You spoil the Christmas celebration when you go and bring up this idea of repentance and forgiveness of sin.
Repentance may mean me turning around, but the only turning that we like to think about at Christmas is a kind of nostalgic turning. At Christmas time we like to turn towards the old traditions, the old familiar things, bring out all the old ornaments, cook all the old family favorites, fill the house with the smells of spruce, nutmeg, cinnamon and play the old carols all day long. Turn our attention towards those old friends we have not contacted in 11 months and write them cheery notes. John says that the preparing for the coming of the Christ child begins with repentance. The Shopping Mall Santas say that we prepare for Christmas by turning our thoughts towards all those things we want that want, that we think will bring happiness and joy to those we love, that we may us feel better about ourselves and our lives.
And there are a lot of different people who are eager to tell us what we need to have a better, fuller, more fulfilling life. Because of the making of saviors there is no shortage. John the Baptist says that the first thing we must do to prepare for the coming of the Christ is the terribly hard work of repentance and forgiveness of sins. Let’s face it that is a hard sell. None of us want to have to really repent. Oh, we have gotten pretty used to doing it in a liturgy like our confession of sin, but when was the las time you watched one child have to say “I’m sorry” to a sibling? When was the last time you knew you had really hurt a neighbor and you went over an apologized? It is not easy. We will gladly take the savior who offers us the easy way out. Down through history, one of the surest marks of a false prophet, it the promise of ease. Relax, put it on the credit card, Nothing down, no payments for five years, enjoy it now. Follow me. Everything is going to be okay. You won’t have to do a thing. The Serpent in the Garden was there with a Relax. You won’t die. You don’t like this tension in the relationship God that He won’t let you do everything you want to do. Well, go ahead and enjoy the fruit. in fact, it will be so much better, you will be like God.” Or listen to Aaron talking to the children of Israel when they were asked to do the hard job of waiting for Moses to come down from the mountain. They were getting anxious, starting to sweat a bit. what’s talking so long. So Aaron says, Relax. You want a God you can hold on to. A God who will always be visible and near. I can help you with that. Let’s make a Golden Bull. There are legions of saviors who offer us an ease way.
The Saviors who promise to make it easy for us rob us of our significance. Those who tell us just to relax and enjoy rob us of our human responsibility. They end up saying that we don’t really make a difference. The promise of ease and relaxation legitimatizes iniquity and pronounces a blessing on selfishness, cruelty and greed. John says Repent for the Kingdom of God is coming. John says What we have done and do matters. Those who tell us “God loves you just the way you are, everything will be great, you are meant to be even more blessed” say that we don’t have to take responsibility for what we have done because nothing we do really makes any different to God.
John the Baptist suggests that the first thing we have to do to prepare for Christmas is repent for the forgiveness of sin. Because John does not believe that Jesus comes to give us God at a 70% discount. Jesus does not come to invite us to relax. Jesus himself was facing the same question. Do you think that I have come to abolish the law? No, I have come to fulfill it. Jesus says he has come to forgive sins not to ignore or overlook them. Jesus is the one coming to make real the kingdom of God and to invite us to live in that kingdom. Jesus does not come to fulfill all our personal dreams rather he come to invite us to find our dreams fulfilled in his Will.
Some of you may remember a time when we had a craze of psychology that was described in a book with the title, I’m OK, youre ok. It was a savior who offered a promise to relax and take it easy. We’re both ok. Don’t worry about. Some Christian suggested that Jesus’ last words on the cross were, “If I am okay, and you are okay, what the hell am I doing up here?” John says the kingdom of God is coming and you can begin to be ready for it by repenting and asking forgiveness for sin.
Now the call to repentance is always a hard sell. Nobody likes to do it, but like so many other hard things in like once we have done them we find them to have powerful positive impact. Repentance is to move into a new direction. To stop pushing against the will of God and begin pulling with it. To stop wandering in the dark and start walking in the light. Repentance and forgiveness are the beginning of being a part of the challenge to be a part of the work of making the little places of God’s grace around us more visible and more extensive. The vision of it all beggars most of our imaginations-- it is a vision of cosmic dimensions--that is a whole creation living together under God’s sovereignty. “All flesh shall see it together. This is the same great vision that Moses saw at Sinai, it is the vision that Isaiah grasped in the temple. This vision that surround Peter, James, and John on the mount of Transfiguration. Stephen looked up and saw the vision at the hour of his death, Saul was captured by it on the road to Damascus and St. John saw something of it on the Isle of Patmos. The Glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. The vision of the coming of the Lord into the glory of creation. It is a vision which begin with our confession that we are not there yet, but which gives us a goal and a dream to keep living for.
Prepare a way for the Lord. It gives us a purpose. A purpose that keeps expanding. It does not call us to relax. It is the vision that kept the Rev. Tyrone Burkette and his congregation always on its toes. Tyrone was a young dynamic black minister who was called as the pastor of a white congregation in Minnesota. Naturally, the people thought they were pretty liberal to call a black preacher, and they managed to work together. They made the biracial thing work a little and began to add new members. Black and white together at the same table at the same hour. They were feeling pretty proud of themselves. Tyrone said the prayers of that congregation sounded like the prayers of the Pharisee when he thanked the Lord that he was not like that Publican. Lord, we thank Thee, that this congregation is not like all those other racist congregation. And lo and behold, Tyrone said, the Lord said well lets see how well you can make it work with some Hispanics added to the mix. Migratant workers began attending the congregation. Now they had three different groups. The congregation had to work to make their vision of an integrated church grow bigger in Christ. So they prayed, studied, listened, supported each other, and it seemed to begin to feel good and was working well, they had a comfortable feel about it, and the Lord said well, that is great so lets bring some Koreans folks to your church, and the struggle to continue to be an inclusive fellowship of all God’s people continued. Tyrone said the Lord never did stop. They kept being challenged to add another group. Take in another segment of God’s people so that all mankind shall see something of the deliverance of God. The congregation knew the glory of the Lord was being revealed in a small way by the way they were able to live and worship together and all flesh was seeing something of it together.
John calls us to prepare a way for the Lord at Christmas by repentance and forgiveness of sins. It is a call to prepare for something that is completely different from what the world around us talks about in its discussion of preparations for Christmas. Repentance and forgiveness, changing and removing those things that obstruct and prevent us from being ready for the will of God to work in and through us. God is active. He is at work reclaiming all that is His. We are not always able to see where God is at work fully. We may be more likely to notice the discomfort, the disruption, the disorientation, the difficulties in the press of another will and purpose pushing against our own. But there are signs. There are truth commissions and forgiveness in South Africa that were never expected. There Doctors for health and wholeness in the worst possible places in the world, Doctors without Borders. We can see Hospice volunteers affirming life and bearing witness to the sanctity of life even in the battle against death. We know of teachers, principals, schools where people are all hard at work to ignite a flame of excitement about learning, the thrill of reading and the explorations into the mysteries of life, Peace groups are working, The struggle for freedom is still raging in the middle east. All of these and more are the work of preparing the way of the Lord, and it is not easy as anyone who is a part of these struggles knows. There is opposition; but the Edge, the decisive edge, the saving edge, the edge on which faith dares to risk it all is that fact that God is working his purpose out as years succeed to years, God is at work with us in the efforts, and we are only called to prepare ourselves and as much as we can for the coming of the Lord where we are.
We prepare and God moves in mysterious ways. A while ago the American Red Cross was trying to gather supplies--medicines and bandages and stuff-- for the afflicted in Biafra. At a collection box one day a package showed up. Inside was this letter. “We have recently been converted. Because of our conversion we want to try to help. Can you do something with these? The workers opened the package and found several Klu Klux Klan robes. Those sheets would now be cut into strips and made into bandages to bind up wounds of black human beings in Africa.
To prepare for Christmas the way John the Baptist thinks we ought to prepare is not to relax, not to spend a lot of time trying to recapture old memories and old friendship. The way to prepare for the coming of the Lord is to repent, a broken and contrite spirit that seeks forgiveness for what it knows it has not done and should have done, for what we have done that we now can see was not what we should have done and to turn and place ourselves at the mercy of the coming Lord.
If you continue in my word
By Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Sermon for Reformation Sunday, Year B, October 28, 2012; based on John 8:31-32Today, for those of us who are Lutheran Christians, we celebrate Reformation Sunday. When I reflect upon the many Reformation sermons that I’ve either heard other pastors preach, read, or preached myself; I think there may be three different kinds of sermons. One type of sermon that is often preached is what I would refer to as the psychological-existential-biographical sermon. The content of this type of Reformation sermon often focuses on Martin Luther and explores the various aspects of his personality and many of his personal issues, such as: his rather strained relationship with his father; his existential angst focussing on his fears of God the angry Judge; his fear of death; his guilty conscience; his struggles with depression; his battles with the devil and so on. This type of sermon can indeed be rather entertaining—since Luther was certainly a colourful personality. The most obvious problem however with this type of sermon is that it is too Luther-centred and not enough biblical-centred. The second type of Reformation sermon that is often preached is what I’d call the historical-sociological-ecclesiological sermon. The content of this type of sermon usually focuses on all of the historical events of the Reformation age. For example, preachers might focus on the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church with its teaching and preaching of selling indulgences and the catchy sales pitch ditty of: “When the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” One might focus on the superstitions and lack of literacy among many church-folk, including the parish priests of that day. Or one might look at the implications of the invention of the printing press and moveable type as a key factor in shaping the Reformation. Or one might look at the growing nationalism in places such as Germany, and its increasing antagonism towards Rome and the elaborate building of St. Peter’s Basilica. Or one might focus on the darker, more crotchety and embarrassing side of Luther such as: the implications of Luther’s anti-Semitism—advocating the burning of Jewish synagogues and books, and the expulsion of the Jews from Germany. Or Luther’s political alliances with the nobility class and his counsel to them during the Peasant’s Revolt—to kill and destroy the peasants, and so on. Although providing the historical, sociological and ecclesiological setting of the Reformation is helpful and informative; perhaps one of the most difficult problems that this type of sermon raises is that we become so preoccupied with analysing the historical details that the sermon no longer is a sermon that edifies, but becomes transformed into an academic lecture. The third type of Reformation sermon, which, I think is the most powerful, is what I refer to as the theological-biblical-practical sermon. Martin Luther’s most significant contribution to Christianity, I believe, is his theological and biblical discoveries. Luther created a Copernican revolution in the world of theology. The predominant scholastic theology of Luther’s day was what he called a theology of glory. The basic premise was this: God rewards human beings with grace only when they deserve it by doing their very best, by working their hardest, by achieving their greatest goals—only then would God reach down and reward them with grace. Luther turned that premise on its head with his theology of the cross. His basic premise was this: We can do nothing to deserve God’s grace. At our very lowest, when we’ve failed, sinned, doubted and struggled, and feel farthest away from God; God in Christ is still with us to forgive, love and accept us unconditionally. This is what Luther referred to as “the great or happy exchange,” God in Christ removes our sins from us and takes them on himself by dying on the cross and gives us his righteousness. Luther’s theological discovery, of course was based on a new, refreshing way of reading the Bible. Prior to this, Luther felt oppressed by the condemning, law-oriented words of the Bible. Then, one day, he began to read the Bible in such a way as to awaken him to all of God’s promises, to realise the powerful message of the Gospel—that God’s love for us in Christ and his sacrificial death on the cross is unconditional, immeasurable, and eternal. For Luther, the power of God’s word became multidimensional—it could accomplish all things, and therefore is the highest authority in the life of the church. Luther equated the word as Christ himself—hence a living word, providing all that is necessary for life. In Martin Luther’s Treatise On Christian Liberty, he stated it very well: One thing, and only one thing, is necessary for Christian life, righteousness, and freedom. That one thing is the most holy Word of God, the gospel of Christ….Let us then consider it certain and firmly established that the soul can do without anything except the Word of God and that where the Word of God is missing there is no help at all for the soul. If it has the Word of God it is rich and lacks nothing since it is the Word of life, truth, light peace, righteousness, salvation, joy, liberty, wisdom, power, grace, glory, and of every incalculable blessing.1 Luther’s insight here, of insisting on the primacy of God’s Word, in all of its multidimensional forms, captures the essence of what Christ himself is saying in today’s gospel: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Indeed, it is the Word of God, in its multidimensional forms, including that of the written Bible that has proven to draw Christians closer together. For example, Bible Societies have been formed by Christians of many theological and denominational traditions. They are able to work together in translating the Bible into a wide variety of languages. Ever since the Second Vatican Council, the Bible and biblical scholarship has become more prominent in the Roman Catholic Church. In fact today, ironically, some of the best biblical scholars are Roman Catholics. Scholars of many Christian denominations gathered around the Bible to meet as the International Committee to prepare what we refer to as the Revised Common Lectionary. Now Christians of a variety of denominations around the world, including us Lutherans, read and base their sermons on the same appointed Scripture texts every Sunday in our worship services. This is a significant expression of Christian unity rooted in the Word of God. So Jesus’ promise in today’s gospel of continuing in the Word of God and knowing the truth and being set free is a reality for which we are most grateful. The more we read and study the Word of God; the more we hear sermons preached rooted in God’s Word; the more God the Holy Spirit is at work to reassure us of God’s unconditional promises of love and forgiveness; the more we are free to respond to God’s love and grace by living a life of faithfulness; of loving our neighbours and making a difference in the church and in the world. God’s multidimensional Word continues to be Good News and life-giving for everyone. May the Holy Spirit inspire and equip each one of us to be bearers of God’s Good News in our thoughts, words and actions. Amen.
1 John Dillenberger, editor, Martin Luther: Selections From His Writings (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1961), pp. 54-55.
An offering for June
By Rick Brand
ALL POLITICS ARE THEOLOGY
JUNE 10, 2012
St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, Henderson, NC
Rick Brand, Supply
The old man had had a most distinguished career. There was talk of retiring his number and putting him into the Hebraic Hall of Fame for Just Judges. Samuel had lead wisely and done justice, but he had gotten old and needed some help. He had appointed his sons to be assistant judges. It is only natural for those who serve God to want their children to serve God as well. If you have had a good life in service to God, might as well keep it going in the family. Billy Graham wanted to have his son Franklin continue the preaching ministry, but Franklin had to find a different way of service. Robert Schuller had his son as his assistant minister and then the Head Pastor at the Crystal Cathedral, but the son had gone to Seminary and when he preached he kept mentioning Jesus, and the people asked him to leave. Charles Stanley down in Atlanta had his son Andy all ready to step into his position at First Baptist until the family got all messed up in an ugly divorce. The Children got forced to take sides and Andy left First Baptist with a 1000 members to start a new church.
Something of the same problems happened to Samuel. The election of God to leadership in his kingdom does not follow the expected laws of heredity. The mantle of the prophet is not the Prophet’s to give to his children. God’s picks are not based on biology or society’s inheritance laws. Samuel’s sons did not get the same sense of holy calling. The boys begin to enjoy their work as Judges to their own advantage. They exercised their authority for their personal private gain. Private gain -- isn’t that why you work? You work for your own profit. I work to benefit me. Private gain --what is wrong with that? Yet we do frown upon Judges taking bribes. Bribes have a way of corrupting justice. The boys no longer cared that justice be done as long as they got the highest bribe. We know only too well how the power of money can distort the way decisions are made. Why else would both Romney and Obama being trying to raise so much money? Why do companies pay so much money for lobbyists at all levels of government? Bribery is a way of life, we are told, in so many other countries. Look what Wal Mart is accused of doing in Mexico. That is the way it works we are told.
But somewhere the boys crossed over the line. Got too greedy. Even the Mafia is supposed to have boundaries. Limits. We cheat them, but we don’t cheat each other. Most things have accepted structure to them. The Tour guide books tell you what the normal bribe is for different officials. There are boundaries. Friendly hugs of female members by male ministers may be o.k. but that extra little squeeze or pinch crosses the line and gets you fired. Samuel’s boys did not rule justly.
So the Elders of Israel come to talk with Samuel. Samuel may be getting very old, but Samuel is still the boss. Queen Elizabeth may be old, and have served for a long, long time, but she is still the Queen. Samuel is still the man. The Elders come and suggest that it is time for Samuel to get rid of his sons. The Elders of Israel - you know who they are. The elders of Israel are the nameless, faceless people of power. They are the alumni who decided that Butch Davis needed to be fired. They are the business men and women, the chamber of commerce, the mayors and council people from the coast who told the N.C. Senate that they did not like the prediction that the ocean level would rise three feet by 2100 and told the N.C. House to change the facts. The Elders of Israel are that group of movers and shakers that most of us never know who they are. They have decided that the boys have to go. But they have a plan.
Samuel, you can spare your boys and your family a lot of trouble, by agreeing with the people that it is time to change our government. You can hear the people’s desire for a King. Set up a King to make all the decisions and the boys will have titles but no power.
I am not sure how they do it in businesses, but I have seen it in churches. You can take care of personnel problems by reorganization of the system. If we create a new flow chart, then we can work around the difficult person. Samuel, we can take care of the problem which your nepotism has created by changing the government.
The Elders want to solve the problem of the wicked judges by creating a new form of government which will remove the power from the judges and give it to a king. The great thing about this is that now Israel will be like all the other nations around it. When Israel goes to talk to other nations there will be an equality of leaders. King to King. The people want a new political structure. It will solve our corrupt judges and it will make us like all the other countries around us.
But that is where this strategy for the management of political power becomes a serious theological issue. When Israel becomes like all the other nations, they will no longer be a peculiar people. When Israel takes a King, it will give up the unique role as God’s servant people. From its inception by the call of Abraham, go, I will make you a great nation, the children of Israel, the chosen and covenanted people on Sinai, are not like other nations. They are God’s chosen people. They are God’s chosen instrument to be the means of a blessing to all other nations. The people of Sinai covenant and the 10 Commandments are supposed to live their lives in this odd and demanding way of covenant. They are to live in obedience to the will and purpose of God. They already are suppose to have a King, a Supreme Ruler, who is God. Yahweh is Lord. To be God’s people meant that they were to be different from all other nations. If they now want to be like everybody else, then they no longer want to be God’s different people.
Samuel feels it is personal. He feels that the request to change political structure is a rejection of all that he has been trying to do. But God tells Samuel, “Don’t flatter yourself. The request for a king is not a rejection of you as a prophet. It is a rejection of Me as their Lord. God says, “I have been their King, their leader, and now they want another King.
“Well, if they are going to be that way about it,” says God to Samuel, “we will just give them a king. Let them have their silly old king. Tell them what they are getting themselves into. Tell them what a king will do to them, but if they would rather have a silly old king than to have me as the King, if they want to be like the other nations, then they can have one, but tell them not to come running to me when they get into trouble.”
Samuel calls the people together and tells them what having a king will be like. “A King will just keep taking. It is always the business of a centralized government to take. That is what government does to its people. It takes. It takes by drafting children for military duty. It takes by taxes. It takes by condemnation. It takes by regulations. It takes by centralization. It takes. It grows. It takes some more. It tells you which countries you can or cannot visit. It takes you where and how you can get your medicines. It grows. Before long the King will own everything.” Does it sound familiar? Isn’t that what you hear so often about Washington? Big government? Too much government regulations, too many controls. Samuel says A king will just keep taking and taking until your are begging God to come back, but it you want this King, don’t expect God to come rescue you.
And the people don’t care. They won’t listen. Sound familiar? People voting against their own self interests? People wanting to be like all the other nations, and refusing to see the dangers in that? The march of folly continues. The people votewith their cries. They want a king. They demand. The protest. Even after being told all of the negatives by a man they had respected for years, they go right on and want a king. This story and the whole survey of the bible argues that no particular form of political organization is preferred by God. Tribes, Judges, Kings, vassals, or whatever, Power and people may be organized in a great number of different ways and the major issue is one’s obedience to God.
The children of Israel were just tired of being different. Kosher food, circumcision, different rituals, and unique form of government all kind of combined to be a costly embarrassment to the children of Israel. The demands of being God’s peculiar people just got to be too much.
That is very much what we are struggling with in our society today. That is why there is so much discussion of the elimination of prayer at the Franklinton graduation. As long as everybody is supposed to be Christian, we don't have to be different. As long as we are a Christian nation, then there is no need to be odd. As society drops the endorsement of a kind of generic Christianity, and reflects the diversity of religious faiths in our country, those who want to be Christian are going to have to be willing to be different. To be a people set apart by our faith and practices. We want to be like everybody else and we want everybody to be Christian, but the changes now are going to force us to be different if we want to be Christian.
I remember, while in college, being in a hospital in Charlotte with some friends. They were amusing themselves by trying to identify the visitors coming into the hospital. That one has a brown paper bad with items from home, he is a family member. The balloons with “It’s a girl” was pretty easy. The suit with a brief case suggested to them an insurance agent. The nicely dressed person with a card in hand who stops at the information desk, they guess, is a pastor. You can always spot a minister they say. And I remember the sharp pain of oddness and embarrassment, and made a silent commitment to try to look a lot more like an insurance man. I wanted to look like everybody else. But I now realize that if the Grace of God at work in my life has not made me a little odd, a little different from all the other visitors, I must have somewhere lost the way.
The demands of God to be odd just becomes too much. But it is part of the calling of God to be his person. You are called to be a royal priesthood. You are a chosen nation. You are a city set on a hill to give light to the world. You are salt for a flavorless world. You are yeast in the midst of the dough of life. There is something in the call of God that makes us odd in the world around us. And the temptation is to try to be like the other nations.
There was a young girl in the paper a few years ago. An outstanding young woman basketball player, but her father was a Christian minister, and he would not let her wear shorts in public. So she was the only high school girl in N.C. who played in a skirt will all the other players were in shorts. It is hard being odd for God . Being the only one. The first year I was in Henderson, there was no schedule baccalaureate Service for graduates. So the downtown churches got together to hold one. We invited all the seniors of all the high schools. There were four who showed up, and you could see how uncomfortable they felt being the only ones.
The call to be God’s people in our day and in our place is a call to being different, of being odd. It will be a challenge of faith which lives in a profound sense of isolation. Why are we so different? If everybody else is that way, maybe we are wrong. Men and women, boys and girls, who hear and seek to follow the calling of God’s grace need to be warned about this demand for oddness, and that the oddness will need the help of the community of faith.
It has been said, all politics are local, and it is also true that all politics are theological, because they always end up asking us how power is to be used for the good of the community, how can we make this a good community, and what do we mean by good. The way we answer that question in obedience to the love and calling of God will make us odd, different, and that oddness will bring with it the temptation to give it up and to be like everybody else. Samuel was right, getting a king for them was not good.
Oh, Mark says that the people thought Jesus was crazy, out of his head too.
Obstacles to Baptism?
By Rick Brand
OBSTACLES TO BAPTISM
May 6, 2012
St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, Henderson, NC
Rick Brand, Supply
This strange story about Philip and the Ethiopian man is a fascinating story. Some of you may remember the line from an old Kris Kristofferson song about being a walking contradiction partly truth and partly fiction, well, like all Bible stories this story is a walking contradiction partly history and partly mystery. Partly human and partly divine. It is a story about our world and the human realities surrounded and sustained by the mystery of life and mercy. The story begins with this “angel of the Lord” who comes and speaks to Philip and tells him to go to a desert road between Jerusalem and Gaza.
Philip goes and there he finds a great caravan of politically powerful people. This a historical reality. These are important people in this world. But the other world person, the angel, tells Philip just to walk up and start talking to the most important person. As if one could just walk up to the entourage of Hillary Clinton and start talking. But this Ethiopian authority welcomes Philip into his chariot and they talk. Human events and holy guidance. And after the Sunday School lesson, the Ethiopian leaders asks, “See, here is water. What is to prevent my being baptized?”
Certainly it is a natural enough question. This is, after all, a politician who knows that there are lots of different levels and different rules by which life is run. All people are equal, but some are more equal than others. Come unto me all ye who labor and are heavy burden, but only if you have enough to pay the fair. Go into all the world, but don’t stay too long in the ghetto. The Ethiopian man has heard all the good stuff about the Shepherd who died for his sheep, the suffering servant who brings redemption and forgiveness by love, listening to Philip explain the plan of salvation and the four laws of redemption, the man now wants to know as Paul Harvey used to say, the rest of the story. What is the catch? What would prevent me from being baptized? This man knows about life and the human way of working. He knows the Saul Alinsky rule that the further away from the situation the more idealistic you can be about the solutions you propose. God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life. That is great, but lets get down to specifics, what about me, an Ethiopian black man. The Augusta National Golf Club is open to the rich and powerful, the elite leaders of American society, but not the CEO of IBM because she is a woman. IBM the sponsor of the Masters on TV. This man has played the game. He knows that the judgment on the rules and admission standards are determined by the members of the group and made for the advantage of the current members. What is to prevent my baptism?
He is not asking this question out of some ambition or desire for status. He obviously is a man who is seeking something or someone to whom He can give himself in order to find a sense of purpose and direction for life that he has not found in all his political and social successes. He has already come all the way from the Kingdom of Ethiopia to Jerusalem to worship in the Temple. He is a religious seeker. He worked for the political power of Ethiopia where they believed that the King was a child of the Sun and was too sacred a person to stoop to do secular stuff like run the country so the political decisions were always made by the queen-mother who was called by the title Candace. So this man, like many a church officer, must have become disillusioned about the Sun Child and so was looking for something more. He had come to Jerusalem seeking to worship a God of love and mercy, a God of discipline and judgment, a God of liberation. He wanted to find a God who was not detached and uninvolved in history. He was hoping to find a God who was on the side of the oppressed and burdened, who defended widows and children. He was a God-fearing gentile in the temple to pay homage to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. When he asked in the Temple about what would prevent his becoming one of them. They had told him.
Oh, they were happy to have him visit. They would take his money and sell him sacrifices, but he would always have to be in the outer courts. After all, he was a Gentile, a foreigner, you are a black skinned Nubian, and most of all, we have this rule which says, “He whose testicles are crushed or whose male member is cut off shall not enter the assembly of the Lord.” So you see your being a Eunuch means you can not be one with us.
So even when Philip presents the claims of the good news of Jesus Christ, before the Ethiopian man gets too excited, he asks, “What’s the catch? What is to prevent me from being baptized?” And one way or another it is always the next question that the sinner asks. “Whosoever will may come” is great, but what about Me? Me with my background? Me with my betrayals and disappointments?
The Ethiopian Eunuch was a man of black skin and you and I know there have been times are still those times and places where the issue of race rears its head to prevent a black man or black woman, that prevents a Hispanic man or Hispanic woman, or that prevents an Arab man or an Arab woman from being welcomed in a white church. What is to prevent some from being baptized, some who hear the promise and the joy and the love of the good news of Jesus Christ, who will have to stop and ask, “What is to prevent me from being baptized? and they will be subtly told that they do not have the correct color of skin.
But even more restrictive was this man’s physical identity. The fact of his physical mutilation. We don’t know whether this mutation was his own choice or an act done by his family while he was still a baby. We do know that even today there are customs of sexual mutilation done to female babies. But it was this question of his sexuality that definitely prevented him from entering the Assembly of the Lord. And Heaven knows that even more today than in many centuries in the past, this is one of the major issues in our church life together. This question of sexuality and sexual preference is a major barrier to baptism in some churches.
It has seldom been a real problem to prevent his being welcomed into the assembly of the Lord, but there have been periods in the church’s history when he certainly might have felt unwelcomed. He was a Rich and powerful figure. He was the Secretary of the Treasury. You might say he was in the 1%. There is a element in our Christian presentation in many places that seems to identify God only with the poor and the powerless, God has a preferrential option towards the poor. There is a strong drumbeat in the sayings of Jesus that challenge and judge the rich and the powerful. Can you think of any story that Jesus tells that makes the rich and the powerful look good? Would his riches be an obstacle to his baptism?
Yes, he as an Ethiopian citizen. He was a foreigner. He had different ways, spoke a different language, had different concepts of mercy and just, and many missionaries and evangelists tell us that what prevents many from being baptized is the expectation we have that they will accept our Western ways of living. They find our christ lovely and appealing, they hear the proclamation of the future of God and the pictures of the kingdom of God with great joy and hope, they hear the words that they are children of God with great comfort, but they do not want our Santa Claus or need our Easter Bunny, they can do without the vestments and the three point sermon. They welcome our Christ but do not want our culture.
Of course, here in our country we are not sure we want them in our land or in our church. Go back to where you came from. We can hardly offer them a warm gracious baptism and at the same time think they should all be deported back to where they came from.
But after it has all be said and considered Philip could not find one legitimate reason why the Ethiopian Eunuch could not be baptized. Baptism is the outward sign of an inward discovery and recognition. Baptism is the visible way in which we celebrate the discovery and acknowledgement that we are children of God. This story in Acts is shared with us so that we might see in living color how the good news of Jesus Christ, the message of Jesus who has come to show us the Father, that we might know that we are all children of God, and so live as part of the family. Baptism says this person is a child of God, “see what love the Father has for us that we should be called the children of God for so indeed we are.” That reality, that the Ethiopian Eunuch is a child of God is not affected by his physical condition, not changed by his wealth or poverty, not affected by his skin color, nor his nationality. He is a child of God and Philip is ready to celebrate that acceptance with him.
The overarching word that describes the Acts of the Apostles is Unhindered. The good news of Jesus Christ goes into the world unhindered. There are no Obstacles that prevent any one from coming into the joyful kingdom of God. There are no obstacles that prevent a person from realizing and accepting the fact that they are part of the family.
It is true that some people do not want to be a part of that family. There are people who do not think they are worthy to be in the family. There are those who rebel and run away from home. There are those who think they have to work hard and earn a right to be part of the family There are those who think that the assembly of the Lord is a select club that only those good enough can be accepted into membership. There are those who live a life looking for a family to be a part of.
That is what the good news of the gospel is to the world. The message that we are already a child of God. We are already one who is loved by the father. We are already forgiven and redeemed in Jesus Christ. There are only those who do not know, those who do not want to accept it, those who are too proud to receive it, and those who are too overcome with their own sense of guilt and failure they will not believe that they are included.
The message is that each and everyone one of us is a child of God. In Baptism we make visible the reality that has already been provided by God in creation and in redemption by Christ. There is only the need for the Prodigal son to come home to be welcomed as a son. There is only the need for the Ethiopian man to ask to be recognized. There is only the need for the rich young ruler to stop thinking that his riches made him a somebody and realize that he is already a somebody because God is his father. What is to prevent me from being baptized? Not a thing. You are already a Child of God, all we need now is to celebrate it and declare it in the public act of Baptism. Philip welcomed the Ethiopian man into the church, the people of God. Even as you and I have been welcomed as children of God.
No Experience Required
By Chris Berardi
As Caroline and I were completing our time at seminary I began the process of looking for a call, circulating my Personal Information Form, affectionately known to all search committees as a PIF. I believe that over a period of 4 months, I sent out close to 50 of them. Each one with a separate cover letter, detailing why I thought would be a great fit for each of those congregations. Some churches responded favorably – one turning out to actually be a great fit – and others responded with a “thanks but no thanks” (but in much more gracious working). I really didn’t mind these notes and emails letting me know that I was no longer being considered – it was nice to have closure. But, there was one phrase which sometimes was included in these notes that really riled me up: “we’re confident Princeton has trained you well, but we are looking for someone with ministry experience.”
Ministry experience? Did they miss that I had been involved in youth ministry since high school, that I was a Youth Director before coming to seminary, that I had 2 internships while in seminary? That living a life of faith is ministry? What did they want from me??
I know what they wanted. They wanted someone with experience in the position of Minister of Word and Sacrament. I’m sure that’s what they meant…I hope that’s what they meant. And they have a valid point. Many congregations need a veteran pastor to guide them. Most anyone out of seminary would fall flat on their face if they took a position as the senior pastor at a fifteen hundred member church! Even at a 500 member church. But to say that I had no ministry experience was to deny that God’s very calling to be Christians is itself ministry!
Jeremiah had grown up in a family that knew about ministry as a full-time job – his father was a priest. Jeremiah was also young when he first heard God’s call. Whatever ministry experience he had, if any, was not sufficient in his eyes for the task that God called him to. It was probably not sufficient in the eyes of many. And yet he was called. Whether he knew it or not (probably not), God had been preparing him for this day: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
All his life, up to this point, God had been preparing him – it was before he was born that he was consecrated and appointed as a prophet. And now Jeremiah joined with the great lineage of prophets who came before him and who would come after him.
Being the child of a priest, Jeremiah was probably very knowledgeable about his faith. He probably knew and was proud of what his father did. We don’t really know. What we do know is that the word of the Lord that came to him was not what he expected. But our calling is not always something we’d expect – it is not always something we think we would naturally be drawn to – “Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” Or perhaps we choose Moses’ excuse when he stood before the Spirit of God at the burning bush and was told that he was to return to Egypt, return to the place where he was a fugitive – “O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”
God’s call, however, silences our protests. “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy,’” do not think that your weaknesses will prevent you from doing what God has called you to. God’s call is great than any weakness, it is greater than our fears, it is greater that our expectations. God’s call comes to us and the only footing we are left to stand on is the ground he has prepared for us. All those PIF’s I sent out, all those phone interviews, eventually led me here, where you all laid hands on me and installed me as the associate pastor. The calling to Ministry of Word and Sacrament is in part a call to be a prophet – ministers are called to proclaim God’s word to a world in need – we will go where we are called – where we are sent, and we speak whatever God commands us to speak. Ministers, by and large, don’t take this lightly. “Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth.” Most all ministers probably have not had the same experience as Jeremiah, but the call to the Ministry of Word is the call to preach – and you do not preach what YOU have to say to God’s people – you preach what GOD has to say, what God IS saying. We do not need to know how to speak, we do not need maturity in our age, we do not need to fear, for it is God who is at work in us, and at work through us.
This call story, though, while we can apply it to Pastoral Ministry, is not about Pastors; it is about a prophet; but it does not need apply only to one prophet. Call stories like this one – whether for prophets, kings, or disciples – are scattered throughout scripture. Some are as clear as this one – as seemingly big as this one, others seem smaller. Some, like Jeremiah, have the experience of God telling them exactly what they are to do, while others just get this feeling that God is leading them in a particular direction.
Some, like Jeremiah, are called to be prophets, some are called to be kings, many are called to follow. When in our own lives we feel a divine tug in a certain direction in life, when something greater than you or me is at work in us, we have no need to be afraid, no need to put up a fight: “Surely, God, you’ve got the wrong person – I'm not right for that! Who am I to chair a committee, to serve on PW council, to work with youth? Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to organize a soup kitchen, nor how to share your love with those who are hurting, for I don’t have the experience.
“Do not say such a thing,” says our God, “for you shall go where I send you. Do not be afraid. I do not require any experience on your part.” Our calling as the people of God – our individual callings, do not require any previous experience. God takes us, you and me, plucks us up from our complacency, takes us just as we are, inexperience and all – and points us to where we should go – and it is THEN that we find the training we need - whether that be training for a church’s session, or being called to seminary, or to attend an orientation on working in a soup kitchen. Feel too young? Not a problem! Too old? Not a problem! Too depressed? Not a problem! Too biased? Not a problem! You think you are under-qualified and inexperienced? That’s fine! Not a problem! God can work with that! YOU SHALL GO TO ALL TO WHOM I SEND YOU…I AM WITH YOU.”
No experience necessary. This principle extends beyond even the community of faith. I recently made comment to my father-in-law, lamenting that I had no training in business – in management. Moments later he was handing me a stack of books – one was a book by Jim Collins, called “Good to Great.” Jim, along with a team of researchers, looked at a large number of businesses to determine how a company goes from being a good business to a great business. One of the findings was that all of the great organizations shared the principal of “first who, then what”. You get the right people in place before you focus on what you need to do, or even what direction you need to go in. An example given was that of a steel company, that went after farmers rather than seasoned steel-workers. The company knew that farmers generally have a ridiculously strong work-ethic: farmers “go to bed early, rise at dawn, and get right to work without fanfare. ‘Gotta milk the cows’ and ‘Gonna plow the north forty before noon’ translated easily into ‘Gotta roll some sheet steel’ and ‘Gonna cast forty tons before lunch’.” Rather than placing their steel mills in “traditional steel towns,” this company built its plants in Indiana, Nebraska, and Utah. These are steel mills in the middle of farm country!!
Never worked in a steel mill before? That’s fine! We still feel that you’re the one for the job! “You don’t need experience,” management told the farmers. “You just need to be the right person.”
God may call us to something we don’t feel qualified for, but God teaches us, provides teachers for us.
Last week the session received the Boyd’s as affiliate members of our congregation. In receiving members, we recognized that God calls particular people to be a part of this congregation. To work and pray with us. To worship with us. To serve with us. This morning’s reading reminds us that we do not work alone. It reminds us that we are not our own masters. It reminds us that One greater than us is at work in us. Whether we are called to join a particular congregation, to count the offering money after church or preach the sermon during church, whether we are called to work in the soup kitchen or with GAIHN, whether we are called to serve on PW council or on the session, called to pack food at God’s Pantry or rebuild homes in Tuscaloosa Alabama, God empowers us for the task. The places in life that you are called to may not always be where you think you are the best fit. But here’s the thing: that does not matter. Not one bit. Because God has called you there. And God will be with you there. “Do not be afraid,” he says, “for I am with you to deliver you”.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
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