If you were around last week, you heard me talk about the power of Jesus in calling his disciples. If you weren't around last week, I talked about the power of Jesus in calling his disciples. The point I wanted to make was that both Jesus and his disciples seemed very much like ordinary people. There was in last week's gospel nothing to explain Jesus' strange and irresistible call. He says "Follow me," and the disciples follow.
The conclusion that we are meant to draw from the gospel of John (that was last week) is that despite—or because of—Jesus' ordinary humanness, he is in fact an extraordinary person. That's a theme in John: here we have the Son of God, the Word of God in flesh, and nobody gets it. Nobody understands who he is until he's gone.
There's some of that in the Gospel of Mark. The disciples have even less of a clue who Jesus is than they do in John. Jesus' power to attract the disciples is also left unexplained in this morning's reading. Just as in John, he says "Follow me," and they follow.
But things are just a bit different in Mark's telling. Where John emphasizes in his stories of the disciples' calling Jesus' remarkable ability to see into their souls, Mark has a different angle, or angles.
First, the calling of the disciples comes in the context of Jesus proclaiming the good news. We can only become disciples in hearing the gospel. And what is that good news?
The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe.
Now is the right time, now is the moment when you can feel the kingdom of God all around you becoming a reality. The kingdom of God isn't something that will happen in the future: it's here, it's now. Some of you may have heard of a kairos moment, that time when both crisis and a new world open up and a decision is called for. That's what we're talking about here. Not to get too technical about it, but the grammar here describes "an action begun in the past and carrying on in the present." So God has been working up to this time, this very moment, and now it's here! Are you ready for it?
If you're ready for it, the proper response is to "repent and believe." This, I think, is one of those phrases that we think we understand—until we stop to really ponder them. "To believe" means "to have faith," but what are we to have faith in? "Repent" means "to turn away from sin," but which sins are we talking about, exactly? Mark doesn't say. Given that this story is followed by at least five stories about healing, it seems likely that we are to believe that Jesus came to heal the world and forgive its sins. But again, what are those sins? Wherever they're mentioned in Mark, it's in the context of Jesus' forgiveness. If I had to hazard a guess, I would say "sins" are those things that separate us from one another—lying, cheating, stealing, judgementalism—but perhaps Mark's message really is that whatever those sins are, they're less important than Jesus' ability to overcome them.
We've already talked about Jesus' strange and powerful effect on the disciples, so there's not much left to say on the subject. The ordinariness is there. When Jesus finds Simon Peter and Andrew, they're casting a net from the shore of the Sea of Galilee, which is a pretty simple way to make a living. James and John have a boat and hired hands, which implies that they're a bit better off than Peter and his brother. Still, while these men are hardly destitute beggars, neither are they from the upper class. They're pretty workaday folks.
Jesus calls Peter and Andrew with the words "Follow me and I will make you fish for people." A more literal translation would be "You all come after me and I will make you become fishers of men." It's less something they do than something they are.
One other thing to notice about this: as one of my commentaries reminds us, the fishing going on in this story isn't hook and line, it's by net. That means, for one thing, that being a "fisher for people" isn't a bait-and-switch operation: you don't dangle a lure down only to replace the promise of a tasty meal with a hook. Nor does it mean that fishers of people try to snatch this or that particular target out of the lake. A net collects everything in its path. So to follow that metaphor out, disciples (at least in Mark's view) aren't mean to save only a few people out of the world. They collect everybody, pull them in like fish caught in a net dragged across the mud of the lake bottom.
And if you follow that metaphor out, it makes Christians the bottom feeders yanked out of their comfortable environment. So: let's not.
But put together the disciples' new identity as fishers for people and the idea that they are meant to pull in all people, and their calling starts to make an entirely new sense. They are meant to pull all people, draw them all in, in the same way indiscriminate and all-loving way that Jesus does. The rest of the gospel is kind of an overview of what it means to fish for people: it means to heal them, to feed them, to forgive them, to teach them, to bless them, to accept them. It also means to encounter significant opposition, sacrifice, and even death. Jesus and his disciples pushed it, and they got what comes to the people who push it too far.
It occurs to me that at nearly every congregation I've ever been at, I have preached some variation on the message that the gospel calls outside the safe confines of our families and friends and congregation. We, like the disciples, are called to go out into the world, to share the good news, and to take part in the Kingdom of God as it becomes a present reality around us. The time is still now for these things, the moment has not yet passed. As a colleague told me, "God haunts those who are far off from him and sends those who are near to him to find them." That is as true today as it was when Jesus called the disciples on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
But it also occurs to me that at nearly every congregation I've ever been at, this message has been rejected for the most part. We—and I include myself in this indictment—have been happily generous in giving, and mostly welcoming of the people who come through our doors, but there hasn't always been much desire to go out there and find the people who need the good news. Some of the churches I've known actually did get out and do service ministry, but they had trouble accepting people who were different than them. Sometimes that was about class: they had no interest in connecting with poor people. Sometimes it was about cultural differences: they didn't want to be around Puerto Ricans or black people, they didn't want to accept that there were in fact gays and lesbians among them. Some folks weren't even interested in anyone who hadn't gone to high school with them. They were nice enough people, but become close friends with them? Forget it, it wasn't going to happen.
I simply want to say how difficult it is to be called to be fishers of people. We want to say "I want that one! He looks tasty! I want that one! She looks like me, she talks like me!" We want to be selective, when we're called to be all-inclusive. We want to be passive, when we're called to be active.
What it comes down to, I have decided, is a failure to imagine the world outside our community. We Christians seldom stop to ask who needs to be here with us. It doesn't even occur to us.
In a lot of ways, this is an inherited problem. Churches like ours were organized by people with similar experiences, often immigrants or the children of immigrants who worked the same kinds of jobs and lived in the same areas, whether in the country or in town. They met the needs of the people who formed them: they allowed immigrants to support one another, to keep their languages and traditions alive. We're no longer German farmers, or their children, but it's difficult to break that mold, that sense that church is for people like me. Even worse, when churches like ours were formed, they didn't really have to do very much to attract new members. All you had to do was wait for the new family to move to town and start cranking out kids. Sooner or later, they'd come floating through the door. That doesn't happen so much anymore, but down in the recesses of our collective memory, the model lives on.
I often tell churches that if they want to thrive, they have to learn to be active about going outside of themselves. I am convinced that the difference between congregations that thrive and those who don't is precisely the inability to imagine who is not at the table with them. There is simply no faithful, effective, lasting way to expand the table without imagining the other, without longing for the other as God longs. I believe all of that is true, but I'm also starting to believe it's beside the point. We don't do what is right because it gets us a reward. We do it because it's the right thing to do.
Another way to look at is that we do the right thing because it's who we are. Our nature, our identity, pushes us to do what is right. If that's the case, then no exhortation, no sermon, will ever be able to make us do what we don't want to do. If it's not in our nature, then it's not going to happen, no matter what, and all my preaching on the subject will only annoy you.
So, rather than laying a burden on you by telling you that you have to get up and get out there to pull people in, I'll simply leave you with some questions.
Have you ever heard the quiet voice of Jesus saying to you, "Follow me"?
Are your hands calloused and aching for the rough thread of the net? Do you dream of being able to cast and haul the net all day long?
Failing that, are the cool waters flowing over you? Are you willing and waiting for the net to close around you, to be caught up suddenly by the grace of God and dragged, ready or not, into the Kingdom of God?
Can you imagine who else needs to be here at the table with you? Or are you the ones who need to be welcomed?
There are some very interesting things to know about the characters in today's lesson, if by "very interesting" you mean "not interesting at all."
Oh, Lord. Is it going to be one of those sermons then, pastor?
Before you tune me out, though, allow me to explain. What I mean is that on one level, the people we hear about this morning are utterly and completely, well, normal.
For example: we don't know very much about Philip, to be honest. The synoptic gospels—that's Matthew, Mark and Luke—list him as an apostle. In the Book of Acts, he converts the Ethiopian eunuch. He has a Greek name, which is a bit unusual. John tells us he's from Bethsaida, the same place as Andrew and Peter. Later in the gospel, he asks Jesus how the disciples are supposed to feed 5,000 people, and at the Last Supper, he asks Jesus to show them the Father. That's about all we know, believe it or not.
Yet it’s more than we know about Nathanael. He only appears in scripture in this story and in John 21, where he shows up to go fishing with Peter, Thomas, and a few of the other disciples. There's a tradition that he's the same person as the Bartholomew mentioned in the Synoptic gospels, mostly because of where he turns up on the lists of the apostles.
Even Jesus is pretty normal in this story, at least on one level. There's nothing to show why he should have such a commanding presence over Philip. There's no angels, no supernatural powers, nothing. He simply says "Follow me," and Philip says "Okay." There's even less to say why Philip would go seek out Nathanael and tell him about Jesus.
"We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth," Philip tells Nathanael. But why? As far as we know from the story, nobody's told Philip this, not even Jesus. The only conclusion we can draw is that it was necessary to God's plan to have both Philip and Nathanael follow Jesus, and so they follow, whether or not they have a solid reason for doing so.
Even though he goes along with Philip's suggestion, Nathanael seems to greet the prospect of following Jesus with appropriate skepticism: "Can anything good come from Nazareth?" he jokes. Again this is quite normal. As just mentioned, Nathanael doesn't really have any reason to think Jesus is anything special. To make matters worse, Jewish tradition had it that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem, not Nazareth. Nazareth was nowhere, just a tiny little village out in the boonies. Think if somebody told you that the Messiah had grown up in Waukau or Pickett. Come again?
Jesus is willing to play along. "Here is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!" he says when Nathanael pulls up. The new disciple is a bit taken aback by this: "Where did you get to know me?" he asks. Have we met?
Jesus responds, "I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you." It's easy to read this as some kind of supernatural vision, but it might not be. It could be that Jesus really did happen to see him sitting under a fig tree and realize later that that was the person Philip had gone to see.
But Nathanael's reaction certainly seems to indicate something out of the ordinary is going on here: "Rabbi, you are the Son of God!" he cries out. "You are the King of Israel!"
Now it's Jesus' turn to be skeptical. "Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree?" he asks, literally: "Did you have faith because I told you…" This is one of those themes that we will see again and again in the gospel of John: people who believe in Jesus because they see a miracle, when they should have faith without having to rely on "signs." Jesus is sometimes almost hostile with such people, but he seems to be okay with Nathanael. He tells him that there's more to come: "You will see greater things than these. Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man."
That's a reference to a story in the book of Genesis, where Jacob has a dream in which he sees angels going up and down a ladder between heaven and earth. Jesus promises Nathanael that he will take the place of the ladder, building in his person a connection between God and man.
But wait, didn't I say there was nothing special about Jesus in this story? Why yes, yes I did. And that's true: we hear that Jesus is the sum of the writings of Moses and the prophets, that he is the Son of God and the King of Israel, the Son of Man on whom angels will ascend and descend. But all we see Jesus do in this story is talk, basically.
If you asked John, "Was Jesus a normal guy, just like any other?" he probably would have said, "Yeah, pretty much."
And if you asked John, "Was Jesus the highest, the most holy, Son of God, God himself in human flesh?" he probably would have said, "Yeah, pretty much." The two sides of Jesus co-exist in the gospel of John like in no other. It's really not too much to say that John thinks that it is Jesus' very ordinary character that makes him so holy that makes him so ordinary...For John, what makes Jesus so holy, so worthy of being holy, is his radical faithfulness to God his Father. It's his human nature that turns him to God, and into God.
But if it’s all right with you, I want to stick with Jesus’ human nature for right now. One of the things that we see about Jesus in this story is that he is quite comfortable in selecting very ordinary, even humble, people to be his followers. In other words, he is not only "just another guy,"—Jesus from the block—but he's happy in hanging out with, working with, what are in the end just a bunch of guys. That's who he is, it's what he does.
That seems like a pretty simple idea, but it turns out to have enormous implications. I want to say three things about it.
First, when Jesus calls Philip—and even more so when Philip in turn calls Nathanael—it's a very free thing. There's no "follow me, or else." There's no coercion, there's no demonstration of Jesus' power, there's not even anything to show Jesus' special nature, as we say. There is simply, "Follow me," take it or leave it. For all we know, Jesus talked to a bunch of people who said, "No thanks."
I mention this because I think it's healthy to remind ourselves every once in a while that Jesus chose his disciples freely—and they chose him freely. What that means for us is that there's nothing keeping us here as disciples other than our free will. Because if you can't say "no," you can't really say "yes" in any meaningful sense. And if you can't say "yes," you can't really love anyone. Jesus chose his disciples out of love—he still chooses them out of love—therefore, he chooses them freely, and allows them to do likewise.
Second, along the same lines, when Jesus calls his disciples, it is a very equal thing. As I keep saying, there's no indication that Jesus is anything special when he speaks to Philip. Even at first when he speaks to Nathanael, there's nothing to say that he's anything other than an ordinary person. That changes pretty quickly, of course, and there are many occasions in the gospel of John where Jesus is happy to demonstrate to people how unusual he is. But here, when he assembles the team of his closest followers, he treats them as though they were his equals. He also treats them as though they were equals to everyone else around them.
Again, I think it's healthy to remind ourselves of this every once in a while. There are no special qualifications to being a disciple. You don't have be rich, you don't have to be powerful, you don't have to be smart, you don't have to be wise, you don't have to be beautiful. You're fine, just the way you are. Well, mostly.
No, no. You're fine just the way you are. What makes a disciple is the ability to say "yes" freely and in love, and because that's what makes a disciple, it means that anyone can do it.
If you cannot preach like Peter, If you cannot pray like Paul,
You can tell the love of Jesus, And say "He died for all!"
Goes the old hymn, and there's truth in it. Even the smallest baby has something to tell us of the love of Jesus. In fact, I would venture to say that I've learned far more about the love of Jesus from babies than I have from some adults.
Another side to this equality is the realization that we have everything we need as disciples. As I've said before, "the answer to how is yes." We have what it takes to solve our problems, you have what it takes to solve your problems, because you have been chosen as disciples, as equals of Christ. If you don't think you can solve your problems, you don't think Jesus can solve your problems, and that, my friends, is a problem in itself.
The point is that you don't have to wait on a pastor to take care of things for you. You certainly haven't needed me to take care of replacing the back door of the church building, nor have you needed me to keep the furnace burning, the Sunday School going, the collection being taken up or the communion trays being set out. I am fairly confident that one or more of you could preach the gospel were I not here—of course you could, Jesus would give you the words. Maybe Nadine would like it if I were around to do the bulletin, but even then, I suspect that somebody has a file going back years and years that they could steal from. I'm honestly not sure that there is something in my job description that you all couldn't do for yourselves, which is as it should be. You're disciples. You're equals, co-heirs with Christ.
Because you are free, because you are equals with Jesus—third and last—you can do at least some of the same things that he does. Philip said to Nathanael "Come and see," one ordinary person to another. You can do the same thing. If a baby can tell us of the love of Christ, we can tell other adults. We can show others in what we say and do. We have everything we need. No special requirements there. We can be simply and utterly ordinary people, and therefore very, truly, extraordinary.
In the end, the choice is ours. Jesus says "Follow me." We can "yes," or we can say "no." It’s up to us. Amen.
I passed along on Facebook the other day an article about a church-based credit union, and the work it was doing with poor members at risk of getting ripped off by payday and car title lenders. Then I heard about "To Your Credit," which is
the Archbishop of Canterbury’s initiative to create a fairer financial system focused on serving the whole community, where everyone has access to responsible credit and savings and other essential financial services.
It looks like they're going to be working several angles here: supporting local credit unions, lobbying for better lending laws in the UK, credit counseling and financial education, maybe providing services directly if need be.
Turns out this isn't a terribly uncommon idea. A quick Google search turns up church-based credit unions in Canada, Utah, New York, New Jersey, a couple in California, one that went under in Detroit, a few other places.
I still think it's a good idea. I'm a firm believer in the credit union concept: a financial institution serving the needs of a relatively small, relatively discrete customer base well and for their benefit, rather than enriching kleptocratic executives far removed from the scene. Churches make natural partners because of their associative nature, and because of their non-profit bent. I'd happily put my money in a church-based credit union if one were available, and I'd happily serve on the board of one if asked. I'd be even happier if the idea caught on and made the big banks sweat a little.
I was interested to stumble across this piece from the National Catholic Reporter:
Nationwide, only 24 percent of Catholics go to Mass on an average Sunday, down from 55 percent in 1965.
Our parish is doing a little better than the national average on Mass attendance. We see about 30 to 35 percent of our members on an average Sunday. We have 1,100 to 1,200 people at our five Sunday Masses (four in English and one in Spanish).
Who comes? Generally, it's the elderly, little children and their parents.
Who doesn't come? Young adults, ages 18 to 40, especially if they are single.
[E]ven allowing for demographics, we have a problem. We wondered what we could do. So, in the spirit of Pope Francis, we decided to ask them, "Why don't you come to church?"
And what did they find out?
The No. 1 issue by far, which came up over and over again, was the Catholic church's treatment of lesbians and gays. Everyone, conservative or liberal, disagreed with the church on that.
It seems that hospitality is the big problem in lots of different ways. The Young People in this session say that they feel unwelcome in the church because they're science-minded, or because they might disagree with the church on the ordination of women. One man expressed concerns about political statements made from the pulpit. A woman had this experience:
A young mother in her 30s with four children was upset about birth control. She spoke of moving back to our community after a decade of living elsewhere. Her first Sunday back, she was confronted by a woman about natural family planning. She was told she was not in a state of grace because she was using birth control. She felt the church's teaching on birth control was unrealistic.
I cannot imagine what it would be like to return to your home church after a decade away only to be harangued by someone about the most intimate decisions of your life. This congregation is lucky she didn't tell them to kiss her a** on the spot.
One of the most surprising parts of the conversation is a lawyer pushing back on the Catholic policy of closed communion. He says that all should be welcome at the table, even atheists, and makes comparisons to an Episcopal church that he recently visited. I don't know that it was ever true that Catholics were completely cut off from other traditions, but it sure seems like they're more willing to entertain other ways of being Christian, and to pressure Mother Church with what they've learned.
The exchange with the lawyer leads to my favorite bit in the article:
One young woman followed up on his comments. She now attends a United Church of Christ. She said that our song "All Are Welcome" is hypocritical.
We're not without our faults, admittedly. Despite our reputation, there are plenty of narrow-minded, unwelcoming UCC congregations out there. One fact that I love to repeat is that our current, explicit emphasis on openness and welcome began about ten years or so ago when some folks from the national church decided to do the same thing Fr. Daly's church did: they sat down with some people who didn't go to church and asked why. Legend has it that their focus groups would take up to three hours to simmer down after laying out all the ways they felt excluded from the church.
Without excusing the UCC, though, I do think this is more of a problem for the Catholic church. In congregational systems, there's pressure to conform to the beliefs and practices of the local community, whatever they might be. When those beliefs and practices are held to be true always and everywhere, it gets to be a bigger problem.
And let's be honest, conformism is still an issue. I just heard last night from a liberal Catholic writer about how she faces constant demands from conservative critics to submit to the authority of the church, even though she works firmly within its doctrinal and theological framework. One former priest I've known used to complain about "cafeteria Catholics" (not his words). He asked, "if you don't agree with the church on this point and that point and that one, then how can you call yourself a Catholic?" Presumably because you believe that those points aren't central to the faith of the church, but don't try selling him on that.
I wouldn't presume to tell the entire Catholic church what is central to its faith. I'm not even sure I have any good answers on how to keep Young People in the pews. If I did, my own congregation wouldn't look like a Q-Tip convention on Sunday morning.
But I suspect that a good starting point, at least for the youth of today, would be the one identified by a colleague of mine who is herself something less than orthodox. She says that in her experience, people don't really care about doctrine or beliefs. They don't even really care about "traditional" or "contemporary" worship. The important thing, she says, is how you make real the love of Jesus for all people.
What an idea!
I feel like there's an overlooked professional angle in the story of a disrupted lesbian funeral in Colorado. Pastors do get called in to do services for people they don't know. But if you don't know them enough to know their significant other—if you don't bother to sit down with that person before the service—then you have no business doing the service. Period. Because if you're not providing comfort to the surviving partner, what are you doing? And why?
Even if you have moral qualms about providing services to gays and lesbians, during the service is not the time to work that out. Once you've begun to mediate the grace of God, it is an absolute abuse of that grace to pull the rug out from under somebody. You do not do this. Period. You work this stuff out later, behind closed doors. A pastor who adds to the misery of a grieving family—no matter how sinful they think they are—has abandoned professional responsibility. Worse yet, they have betrayed the gospel of Jesus Christ. He decides who's a sinner and who's not, not the pastor.
Along the same lines, I've had Catholic priests tell me they would never turn down anyone in a communion line, even if they knew they shouldn't receive, according to the rules of the church. Have a conversation with later, sure. In public? No.
Anyway, maybe I don't hang around with the right a-holes, but I can't think of a pastor I know who would do such a thing. On behalf of pastors everywhere, allow me to say: sorry, I'm cringing just as hard as you are on this one.
This is the last in the series of essays I've been asked to write for my ministerial profile. For this one, the assignment was to write on one of the "marks of personal and professional formation for ministry" (scroll down to section 3). I chose mark 2: "A sense of theological identity and authority, while being responsive to the opinions and values of others, including those whom the Member will serve."
Well, everybody knows I'm an opinionated crank. What about the rest of it?
Nearly all of the congregations I have served in my career have been more conservative than I am: socially, culturally, politically, in terms of theology. Since I'm not very far from the center of the UCC, that means by extension these churches have been quite a bit more conservative than their denomination.
I'm really okay with that.
I came into ministry thinking it was my job to drag people into the modern world. I quickly gave that up, and have never regretted doing so. I have become more and more convinced as I go along that to work in freedom and equality means to accept "no" for an answer. If people aren't interested in the vision of "a multicultural and multiracial, open and affirming, just peace, accessible to all, united and uniting church,"1 that's their right. It won't change my mind on what the church should look like, but it is their right. An honest "no" is better than a false (or half-hearted) "yes" to the invitation.
Wise pastors know when to stop talking and start listening. My first church had a tough time getting along, which I at first responded to by asking them to receive communion from the common cup. They hated it. Finally, one of the lay leaders said that for her, the symbol of unity in the Lord's Supper was the moment they all raised their cups or ate their bread together in the pews. That was the sacramental language that made sense to them. Once I validated it, we were able to start talking about what it meant to be together in Christ.2
My work as a pastor, I have learned, is to ask questions. I know perfectly well what I think, but what's important is what the church thinks, helping the community to bring their commitments to light and to take responsibility for them. When we all listen together for the good news, rather than try to tell one another what it must be, we all can share authority and allow for separate identities, opinions and values. Then it really makes no difference who's liberal or progressive and who's conservative. We are all just brothers and sisters in Christ.
1A reference to one of the other marks.
2I also resisted the use of creeds in that church, because my book-larnin' told me that the UCC was a non-creedal church, and we shouldn't impose beliefs on anyone. That same elder told me that for her, the creeds were a way to connect to her ancestors, affirming the same faith over time. Ever since, I've been more open to the idea, though I often forget to include them.
I would like to start this morning by answering two questions. One of them you may have heard or thought about before. The other you've probably never stopped to consider. You could be forgiven for thinking I'm an idiot for asking either one of them.
That being said, here they are.
- Why do Christians worship on Sunday rather than Saturday, like the Jews?
- Why are most baptismal fonts—including our own—shaped like a polygon with so many sides?
Oddly enough, it turns out these questions have more or less the same answer, which is to say: eight.
It goes something like this: people in the ancient world attached a lot of meaning to the number seven. It was a lucky number, a magic number. Whenever good things happened, they happened in sevens. Whenever bad things happened, they happened in sevens. When Joseph dreams about good harvests in Egypt, he sees seven fat cows, and when he dreams of famine, he sees seven lean cows.
Seven also represented a completed cycle in the ancient world. Today we talk about "three strikes and you're out," but back then, they would have given you seven. (This does not say much for their designated hitters.) For example, you might remember the story from Genesis of Jacob working for his father-in-law in order to win the right to marry Rachel. He works seven years—meaning symbolically that he gave as much work as he could have been reasonably expected to give—only to find out that he's been duped into marrying Rachel's older sister Leah. So he works another "bridal week"—another complete cycle—in order to marry Rachel.
Or again, in the New Testament, Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive someone who has sinned against him. Seven? No, Jesus says, 70 times 7! That's just how perfect you have to be.
It's appropriate, then, that the Jewish God rests on the seventh day. Everything is complete in creation, and now it's time to take a little break. Following that example (following God's command), the Jews also take time off for rest, relaxation, and worship on Saturday, the last day of the week.
When Christians were kicked out of the synagogues, they needed to develop their own ideas about the Sabbath. They chose to emphasize the resurrection whenever they came together. So they would meet very early in the morning to celebrate the Lord's Supper, symbolically allowing Jesus to rise from the tomb. If you've ever wondered why Lent doesn't include Sundays, this is it: in the Christian tradition, every Sunday is a "festival of the resurrection," a little Easter, and who would fast on Easter?
In any case, the early Christians wanted to emphasize the resurrection, a kind of new beginning for the world, and so they chose to hold their services on Sunday, the eighth day of the week, if you get what I mean. Seven is complete, eight is a fresh start, eight is new life, eight is beginning again.
We've mostly lost track of that symbolism over the years, but it has lived on here and there. One of the places where it survived was in the forms of church architecture, so to this day pulpits and baptismal fonts very often have eight sides. In a pulpit, you proclaim the new beginning, and in a font, you experience it. In the waters of baptism, you are made new again, just as God made the world for the first time.
Which of course brings us to scripture. I don't think I need to say all that much about the first beginning, as it were, in Genesis. This new is as new as it gets, being created from nothing, or from previously undifferentiated chaos. God creates the "heavens and the earth," but the water is apparently already there, "with a wind from God" sweeping over it. But then the Lord makes day and night and pronounces them blessed. He imposes some kind of order on the world where there has never been any before. Later, God will make plants and animals and humankind, but today we get just a taste of the process of creation, just enough to remind us that if God could make the world new for the first time, he can do it again with Christ.
The new creation uses the same stuff as the old. In Genesis, "the waters" are the raw material out of which comes day and night and everything else. That's all that's there: water and God's Spirit blowing on it.
In Mark's story of Jesus' baptism, we see the same things, used differently. Maybe it's useful to think of this as a story about the eighth day of creation—we've gone through the whole cycle once, and now we start over, with everything that's been created still there, just like Sunday starts a new week without destroying the seven days that have gone before it.
So there's water: this time it isn't a building block, but a cleansing agent that helps the people to repent and have their sins forgiven them. Instead of being the chaos out of which order is created, here it is what brings order to the world.
And there's the Holy Spirit: rather than brooding over the waters and nursing them into a new creation, it fills Jesus and comes down like a dove over him. He himself is the new creation, our new life and our new world in the form of one man. Interestingly enough, unlike Matthew and Luke, there's no indication in Mark's telling of the story that anyone other than Jesus sees the Spirit or hears the voice. We, the readers, are the witnesses to these events. We are informed of Jesus' unique nature, something that is mostly hidden from from the other characters until the very end of Mark's story.
So life finds a new beginning in Christ's baptism, creation itself finds a new beginning. That new beginning is symbolized in worship on the eighth day of the week, as I say, and in the eight sides of the baptismal font.
Perhaps these are answers to questions you didn't know needed to be asked. But don't we all need a new beginning?
That sounds like a rhetorical question, but it's really not. I wonder if many of you feel like you want or need a new beginning at your stage of life. Do you find yourself running out of answers to questions about the meaning or purpose of life? Do you sense the limits of your bodies and wish that you could be healed? I do, every time I bend down and feel the pain ripping through my knees. Do you ever wish that you could leave behind the agony and the unfulfilled hopes and dreams of your life and get a fresh, clean start? I do.
I don't want to go into much detail, but by now, I've let enough of my story out in dribs and drabs that you probably know that the past few years have not been easy for my family and me. I think about this sometimes, and it's always surprising.
2007 was a pretty good year. The kids came to live with us at the end of July. Just a few days after they arrived, I was—no kidding—profiled in a story for the New York Times. (Brag, brag.) The rest of the year and through 2008 was difficult, but okay. We had to adjust to being parents, and the kids had to adjust to being kids, or at least our kids.
Bill and his Mama happened to be looking at costumes on special after Halloween, thinking they'd find something good for the dress-up box. Boy howdy, did they. They got a zip-up dalmatian suit with a tail and ears that instantly transformed Bill into "Spots," a wonder dog who loved to get love and attention from his people. We even took the door off an old dog crate and covered it with blankets to give him a hiding spot when he needed time away. Once we couldn't figure out how to get Billy to eat the rest of his dinner. Spots ate it right up, though. Another time Spots came out in church to help me give a sermon on how Jesus took human form so that we could learn to love God. Spots was a shameless ham, if you couldn't guess.
2009 was a very tough year. Again without saying too much, things weren't going well at home.
2010 was the year the floor fell out beneath us. That was the year a truck flipped over in the ditch in front of our house and crashed through the yard, narrowly missing Bill. Believe it or not, that was one of the better memories of that year.
We thought we had hit bottom, but in 2011, the very earth opened up under us, and we fell further. If, like Keith Richards, I could blot out the memory of the entire stupid year, I would.
Oh, how I needed a new beginning. How I needed the power of eight. In 2012, I got it. That was the year we moved to Fond du Lac. I started a new job, Bill started a new school, Jen...moved to Fond du Lac. We pulled ourselves if not out of the hole, then at least level with the ground. It was still a difficult year, but things were at least moving in the right direction.
2013 was a little better. We bought a house and settled into a new life. But it wasn't until 2014 that I could say things were actually going well. That was the year I came here, course. I finally got a true new beginning, one that not coincidentally led me back to the pulpit and the baptismal font and the communion table, for it is in these things that we find the new creation.
It's only a few days into 2015, but so far, so good. My wife says I shouldn't say such things for fear of jinxing our luck, but all indications are that this will be our first truly good year in…wait for it…eight years. That is, as I say, in large part thanks to you. I love you all and I love to be here with you. I find a new life here, an eighth day. It's not because you're all such wonderful people, though you are, but because it is in Christ that we find the new creation. The world began again that day in the River Jordan in God's beloved Son, with whom he is well pleased. Because he is the new creation, he is now our all in all, our new beginning and our ultimate destination. In you we find him, and the new beginning, and in him, we find you. For that, thanks be to God.
We are given the promise of this new life in the waters of baptism and find the promise fulfilled after death, much as Christ received the promise from John and came to his new beginning in the resurrection. We remind ourselves of the promise that will be fulfilled when we give thanks for our baptism. I invite anyone who wants to be refreshed, to look forward to a new start, to come forward and receive again water from the font. It's not the Jordan, but I can promise you that the Holy Spirit is upon it. Amen.
Dang, forgot a rose for between my teeth. Now where did I put that? Anyway, in the next-to-last in our series of essays for my ministerial profile (hire me, dammit), I've been asked to write a short essay on "what I am passionate about." Next up: what did during summer vacation reflecting on one of the marks of authorized ministry.
I keep coming back to the work of building covenant communities. As I said in a previous essay, life in covenant has to be free, and it has to be equal. People have to want to do the right thing by one another: they have to choose to care for and be responsible to one another without compulsion.
That sounds easy in theory. In practice, it's quite difficult. There's two parts to it. One part is to cultivate the practice of hospitality. Members of the community have to learn to be deeply and authentically welcoming to one another, and to expand the circle to include to people they don't know. This goes beyond holding the door for visitors on Sunday morning. Christians need to make friends with people in a way that is again free and equal. That means opening themselves to different ideas, opinions, habits, without judgment or trying to change others. That's hard work, particularly in congregations where members have known one another forever. When communities become too closed off, they lose perspective and so the ability to be truly welcoming. Knowing how much concern there is in the church these days about vitality and the ability to draw new members, I am very passionate about helping churches understand real hospitality.
Communities also have to learn to take responsibility for their own lives, rather than cede control to the pastor or blame social forces. They have to become citizens, active participants in the kingdom of God. This is challenging for them, but it's also a challenge for me as a pastor. It means learning not to give answers, provide solutions, or make things happen. I have keep reminding myself to listen, to ask questions, to hand power and control and decision-making back to the other members of the community. It's not my vision or determination that will save the church, after all.
Growing as friends and fellow citizens is how we learn to become more like Jesus. I am very passionate about modeling that, and about seeing it take root in people.
Things so far I've seen blamed for the massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo:
- Radical Islam
- Lack of respect for Islam
- Established Religion (that by somebody who should know better, and despite that France hasn't had an established church in over 200 years)
- Lack of respect for religion
- Lack of faith
- Lack of humor
- Lack of Christian values (no, seriously, somebody made that argument)
- Mental illness
- Anti-immigrant sentiment
- Brave determination to stand up for freedom of speech
- Recruiting for ISIS (might be something to that one)
I haven't seen these yet, but they're probably out there:
- The Gay
- Kim Kardashian's butt
- Pope Francis
- President Obama
The one thing nobody seems to have gotten around to is blaming the men who chose to pull the trigger and kill in cold blood 12 (maybe 13) people.
I don't mean to be facile. The men who carried out this attack seem to have been better prepared than the Tsarnaev brothers, but there is the very dark possibility that they had no clearer motive than the Boston bombing suspects. It could be that the guys at Charlie Hebdo just pissed them off, and they decided to do something about it. At the moment, I'd have to go along with Juan Cole's thesis that the attack was meant to "sharpen the contrasts" between Muslims and others in French society, leading to an anti-Muslim backlash and eventually to an easier time of recruiting new members for terrorist cells. But it might be that, like many of the mass killings we see in the United States, there really wasn't a reason for this beyond simple, inchoate rage.
Anger resulting in violence could be the result of the pressures of modern life—we know that anxiety has been going up for decades—perhaps the result is these seemingly random outbursts.
Darker still is the possibility that, despite any reasons claimed or imputed, this is just part of a violence inherent in human nature. What if there's a natural level of violence in society trying to restore itself, over and against the generally declining rates of war and murder in the world? You could say the devil gets into people, or that it's just statistics. Either way, it's senseless, and it cuts across our desire to make meaning out of horrific events. The only thing worse than a roomful of dead journalists (or dead first-graders) is a roomful of people who got dead for nothing.
As for idea about how to respond to what's happened:
- "I will not be afraid," or some variation on it
- This attack only proves the necessity of mockery
- This attack only proves the necessity of blasphemy
- Freedom of speech!
- Responsible speech!
- ___ people should speak up
- ___ people should shut up
And of course, grenade attacks on mosques in France, because the proper solution to violent idiots is more violent idiots.
I don't care much for the violence, of course. I also don't like the idea that there should be limits on speech, or even the exhortations to "better" speech, meaning less satire and more respect for religion. A wise friend taught me long ago that the answer to bad speech isn't better speech, it's more speech, trusting that the more people talk, the more bad ideas and hate will be drowned out. I think his idea was that if you played enough Parliament/Funkadelic, all the hate would go away. I like it.
I joke, but the point about more speech is a solid one. It leads me to what I think is the proper Christian response. It's not blaming others for what happened. It's certainly not to resist evil by getting caught up in some asinine battle against Islam or radicalized Islam or Terror. That's not what Christ did, and it's not what we're supposed to do. As near as I can figure, the right call is to provide our own more speech. You say what you like—I really do trust that more is better than dumb—as for me, I intend to speak a word of peace.
Peace, light and eternal rest be with the dead, and comfort to their families.
Peace be upon my Muslim brothers and sisters, whom I love and accept as equals.
The peace of Christ be with you all. Don't give into hate, idiocy, fear, or violence. Peace be with you, and give peace to the world around you.
We often think about covenant as a kind of "super-contract," an agreement that can super-duper never be broken. Think about the covenant of marriage, for example, or real estate covenants, which are supposed to last forever. In scripture, many covenants take the form of a contract or a treaty, as those things were put together in the ancient world.
But if you read the covenants carefully, something else emerges. There's typically a rehearsal of the relationship between the parties, and the stipulations often read less like quid pro quos than descriptions of the characteristics that result from following the covenant. So here's the end of Jeremiah 31:
And he will come to Zion as Redeemer,
to those in Jacob who turn from transgression, says the Lord.
And as for me, this is my covenant with them, says the Lord: my spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouths of your children, or out of the mouths of your children’s children, says the Lord, from now on and for ever.
Stop sinning, and I will make you and your children and grandchildren the kind of people who know right from wrong.
I'm just an average sort of pinhead, but what I take from this is that covenants are less instruments of legalism than understandings of who we are (therefore what we do) as a result of our connections to one another. That certainly works when thinking about marriage covenants. When spouses speak their vows to one another, they don't spell out each and every bit of behavior that they want to see in the course of the marriage. Instead, they say something about the kind of person they want to be in light of the relationship. Covers more bases, if nothing else.
That's the way we should think about covenant. Not: What does God command me to do? But: Who am I supposed to be as a child of God? Much better and much less authoritarian, but I repeat myself.
P.S.: Given today's news, here's a nice thought to end on. In Genesis 15, God says, "Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great." Now what kind of people do you think we should be as a result of our relationship with God like this?