Wednesday, January 28, 2015

"Nets are Not Good Hospitality"

As you will read (or hear, if you listen to the sermon) below, Jesus calls some disciples saying "I will teach you how to fish for people." Which is kind of a scary image, given the danger of nets and that they are rarely used for helpful purposes. Entrapment, coercion, offering bait with hooks in it - these are not healthy forms of evangelism (I refer to this as "weaponized evangelism"). I prefer the idea of evangelism as invitation. Inviting people into something - God's realm of love and fellowship - as opposed to scaring them away from something - God's eternal wrath and punishment.

How have your experiences in the church, or with a church, been invitational, and how have they felt more like weaponized evangelism? Please share below in the comments if you are willing.

You may read the sermon below or listen to it.

“Nets Are Not Good Hospitality”
Sermon, Year B, Epiphany 3, January 25, 2015
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: Jonah 3:1-10, Mark1:14-20

“Follow me and I will teach you how to fish for people.”

As I thought about that this week, I’ve had another thought: “Nets are dangerous!” Nets are not particularly safe. I don’t know if you have ever used one, but other than say a net underneath a trapeze artist, nets are generally use to capture. Not to help.

And if you have ever used one, fished with a net, even if it’s a simple fishing boat net that’s at the end of a stick like a tennis racket, it’s really easy to get tangled up in them. For you to get tangled, or your tackle, or someone else, or something else. Very easy to get tangled up in a net. That’s why they are so effective for fishing, hunting, and trapping. They are almost impossible to escape unless you’re really clever.

So this phrase “fishing for people” is actually kind of a horrific idea if you take it at face value. Fishing for people, whether with a net or with bait that has a hook in it, if you seek people like you seek fish. Nets are not invitational. “Come to my party! [and throw a net over them]”. Or baits with hooks in them. That’s not good hospitality.

It is an interesting image. I don’t want to fish for people, Jesus. That sounds really harsh/. I don’t want to trick them with the literal bait and switch or just trap them against their will. I don’t want to do that. That’s not being the church., to coerce or to trap, or capture. Not that Christianity hasn’t tried it in the past, and sometimes continues to do so. To use this fishing metaphor a little too literally, capturing and entrapment.

Sadly, that word “evangelism” has a ring of coercion to it, of being forced, trapped, or simply abused into a certain way of thinking. I think that these men that Jesus was calling to knew that he wasn’t talking quite so literally as that. He was using language that they knew. They were fishermen, they understood that language. “I will teach you how to fish for men.” I think they knew that he wasn’t saying, “Come with me and I’ll teach you how to treat your neighbor the same way that you treat these fish.” That does not sound like the kind of thing that would be said by the guy who said to love your neighbor.

He’s talking about bringing people along on a journey of experiencing God. Of coming into God’s fellowship. Coming into the community of love. Of experiencing hope, love, dignity. A gathering of people. Think of the way that a net might gather people, but not in a coercive or forced. To gather people into that kind of a community. A net of safety, a net of love. Fellowship. Mutual help. It’s a gentle net. And the bait does not have a hook in it, nor does it come with any strings attached.

I think that’s the kind of fishing that Jesus is calling these men to. And calling us to. To be fishers of people.

But do we listen?

Do we listen to that call to be fishers?

Perhaps we hear the wrong thing when we hear that call to be fishers. We who are good and sensitive people, who want to love our neighbors, who like to be kind, who don’t want to be rude or overbearing, we who think that we should not force our religion on others, or ensnare others. Maybe when we hear Jesus’ call to be fishers of people we think of the more entrapment kind of fishing, instead of the invitational.

I used to think that evangelism was pretty obnoxious, because the evangelists I saw and experienced were obnoxious. They were the very forceful, loud type of people. I saw in their methods that shouty-screamy judgmental method. I saw it on TV, or occasionally would literally see the guys on the street corner doing their evangelism, shouting declaratives, trying to convince people to believe in their way in order to avoid eternal punishment. “Believe and be saved!” they would shout. That never caught with me, because I had always thought (and still do!) that we don’t need to believe to be saved. We are already saved, already loved by God. God’s love doesn’t depend on whether we believe in some certain way or do some certain thing. So that wasn’t attractive to me at all.

Or the methods of “Come to my church and get the proper truth.” No church has all the truth, or the proper truth. God is too big for any of us to speak for God entirely. Or that old, “Repent, for the end is near!” kind of evangelism. Also a big turn off.

It seems that in these methods I saw that there was nothing of value in the evangelism except the selfish gain of the evangelist. Either more money in the offering plate (which probably did not go to mission of helping people, other than to do more of the shouty-screamy evangelism), or something that they can brag to their friends about how many people they saved this week. Or just more fish simply to consume and leave on the beach, or sell to the next person who comes along. There is an abusive side to that.

But that’s not evangelism, trying to convince them why they should believe, or telling them that they have to believe in order to avoid something (God’s wrath and anger).

I don’t think that was Jesus’ way of evangelism, either.

This past year, especailly, as I’ve been working with the coach and reading about church growth, evangelism (that scary word!), church vitality – I’ve learned that have a couple options here. We can reclaim the word “evangelism” for ourselves. Because it just means to “tell the Good News”, to bear the Good News. That’s all it is. To be the speaker of Good News, and we are called to be evangelists. But, it’s also such a loaded word because of the baggage with it, so maybe not worth reclaiming. Or not yet, anyway. And in the meantime to use another word, which is a way I think is much better to think about it: to be invitational. Not to be evangelistic, but to be invitationalistic. Or however you want to spin that word.

To invite.

That’s what Jesus did. He invited people. He didn’t force or coerce. He invited. He said, “Follow me.” It’s just an invitation. “Follow me.” There is no coercion, no abuse, no threats. He doesn’t say “Follow me or die” or “Follow me or....” some other punishment. Just “Follow me”. And he calls us to say the same. To invite people into this new world, this new way of being. Follow me and experience God’s realm of love. Follow me and experience God’s compassion, mercy. Follow me and know that God loves you. It’s not about avoiding God’s wrath, but inviting in to God’s community of love.

Jonah, in the passage we read, is off on an evangelistic tear of the non-invitational kind. He goes to Nineveh and says, “Repent, or God will destroy you!” I don’t think that’s good evangelism. It’s not a good method. “Repent to avoid God’s wrath” is a weaponized form of evangelism. But Jesus’ evangelism calls his disciples to go fish for people. To call them not to avoid God’s wrath, but to invite them into the love that is already there. To invite them into a community of love, and to stop living in fear of losing that love. To stop living in fear of God’s wrath, or God’s punishment, by understanding that God loves them and wants us all to be whole and to have dignity and to live without guilt or shame. To be the whole people that God made us to be. That’s being invitational. Spreading the Good News by inviting people to experience it. Telling people about it.

And being invitational requires no skill or talents. All Jesus did was say, “Follow me.” Or as he encountered people, he healed them, fed them, listened to their stories. That’s being invitational as well. “Tell me your story: I’ll listen”. That’s a lot of what we do in our street ministry. Listening to stories. Inviting people into a relationship. That’s the Good News. Nd it doesn’t take any particular skill or talent. We invite people to things all the time. Birthday parties, dinner parties, invite someone to a movie or to an afternoon of watching TV, out to dinner or to a play... we invite people all the time. And sometimes people say “No”. But we don’t stop inviting.

But it does seem that when it comes to church things, sometimes we get the first “no” and we stop. Or we’re so afraid of the “no” that we don’t invite at all. Or so afraid of appearing obnoxious that we don’t want to invite. But if it’s just an invitation, just an invitation, “Come and experience.” That’s not so bad.

We’ve been growing this congregation, inviting people in, and we want to continue to grow it more. We have a wonderful fellowship here. We’re doing good things in the community of Eau Claire. It takes invitation, and that’s all it takes, is to invite people. That’s you and me extending them. Also our website, our Facebook page, ads in the newspaper, twitter, emails, the sign at the end our driveway. Those are all invitations that say “Here we are – come in!” But that personal invitation is so important.

So in 2015, sitting here at the beginning of the year and looking forward to the rest of the year, let us be fishers of people, inviting them into this community of fellowship and love. We have a game day in two weeks: that’s a great entry point for people. Invite them to come play some games. That’s pretty normal, and not scary to people. We will also be having our Wednesday soup and scripture at lunch and in the evening during Lent. Those are easy things to invite people: “Come and have a meal with us!” Hard to say “no” to that. Just be invitational. I’ve said that a lot in the next few months, and will keep saying it. Just be invitational. Be fishers of people, inviting people to experience our fellowship of feeding one another, and trying to make the world a more loving place.

I think that’s a pretty easy sell, so to speak, to invite people into that. Come into our community where you will be cared for, as we care for one another. You will be prayed for, like we pray for one another. You will be fed, like we feed one another and like we feed people on the street and care for them there. Or care through our St. Francis Food Pantry and our quilting. Everything that we do is about listening to Jesus’ call to follow.

To do what Jesus asks us to do, which is simply to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to take care of the poor, and to love one another. To let that be what we are about, and to invite people into it. In 2015, be fishers of people and invite them. Be welcoming. Be open to all those who are around us, so that all may know and come into understanding that God loves and that we are all valued, all important to God, all matter to God. And we are all loved by God.


"Not a Word Fell to the Ground"

The text today from the Book of 1 Samuel had the phrase "And God let none of his words fall to the ground", talking about the prophet Samuel, who was then a boy. 

As I thought of that phrase, and looking into 2015, I started wondering "What word or words would I like God to not let fall to the ground this year?" And so during the sermon, I asked that question of the congregation and had them write it down on foam stars (representing Epiphany) that were given to each of the people here. The full directions I offered are toward the end of this sermon.

What would you write on your star? Please share in the comments section below.

Read the sermon below, or listen to it.

“Not A Word Fell to the Ground”
Sermon, Year B, Epiphany 2, January 18, 2015
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber

Three rich texts here this morning. I think they work together in a way. At least, they’ve been working together in my head this week as I’ve been thinking about what it means to be at the beginning of 2015 and in this time of Epiphany. Also thinking about what it means to be where we are in the life of Plymouth Church. Over the last year our worship attendance has been steadily going up. Giving is up over the previous year. Good things are happening here.

What do these texts mean for us?

Three things in here that have clicked with me this week. I’ll talk about them quickly, and then we have some time for you to use the markers and stars we handed out. You’ll have a chance to write some things down and think.

The first is Psalm 139. My favorite Psalm. It is so intimate. The picture of God that it gives is an intimate God that knows us, knows us by name. That phrase, “You have searched me and known me.” God has searched us. God does not wait for us, but comes to us. Seeks us out. Searches us. God wants to know us, wants to be in relationship with us. And God knows us by name. Knows who we are. As individuals and as a church. As a community. God has also searched us and knows who we are. This is a God that wants to be close to us. Not a distant God, but a close God.

The other phrase is from the story of Samuel. We have at the beginning that God calls Samuel by name, “Samuel, Samuel!” Samuel then does become a great prophet in the history of Israel. He’s there to help set up the first kingdom as well as many other things. At the end of this passage is a foreshadowing of that: the words, “And the LORD let none of his words fall to the ground.” That’s a striking image to let none of his words fall to the ground.

Sometimes we say things, and they just plop to the ground. No one hears them, or cares, or listens to them. But his words went out, stayed level, went into people’s ears, presumably to be heard. And in Samuel’s case, people did listen. Mostly.

Wouldn’t it be great if our words didn’t fall to the ground? Though there are things I’ve said over the years that I wish had immediately just fallen to the ground before anyone heard them. But in terms of our good words, our positive words, our words of healing, comfort, building up, goodness. It would be nice if those didn’t fall to the ground. If they went out, if God helped keep them up and going out to the people.

So if you say, “Clean up your room” they respond with “I would LOVE to do that! Thank you for reminding me!”

Or if you say to a friend, “I really need to tell you my story. I need for you to listen to me.” And they listen. They let none of your words fall to the ground.

Or as we have prayed for so many years in the church, “Let there be peace on earth.” Imagine if that didn’t fall to the ground.

If God did not let any of these fall to the ground.

So what is a word or words you might be thinking of that can guide you through this year that you don’t want to have fall to the ground? That you would like God to keep lifted up and listened to?

The third phrase that struck me is from the Gospel. The question Nathanael asks, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” At the time, Nazareth was a small village way out in the hinterlands. Jerusalem was the important city. It was the capital, the political and religious center of Jewish life. Though really, Rome was the political and power center. But for the Jewish people, Jerusalem was the important city.

I mentioned this phrase in last week’s sermon as well, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

Just like today, back then there was a sense that good things only come from the largest cities, or the most powerful people, the richest people, the most important areas. There was not an expectation of anything good coming from that which was small, on the margins, off to the side.

I think that we hear that and feel it also today. Can anything good from: Alabama, Cadott, Syria, the community college versus Ivy League, a public school in Altoona versus a swanky private school in Madison. You can fill in the blank yourself.

I think we hear that, and feel that, sometimes today, even about ourselves. We might ask the question, “Can anything good come out of Plymouth?” We think we are a small church without all the bells and whistles of the big churches, without the big budgets, the large staff. We are tempted to ask, “Can anything good come out of Plymouth?” Those are words that need to fall to the ground. Instead ask, “What is the good that can come from Plymouth?” Or “What is the good that can come from me? From us?” None of us are particularly powerful, or rich, or prominent. But there is good that can come out of us as well.

So, we are at the beginning of a new year. A year full of possibility. Time to build on the successes of last year and go forward. A time to let go of the mistakes we made individually, as a family, as a church. and to let go of the failures. I know that in your lives, you have all had setbacks, and also movement forwards. There have been deaths, financial anxieties, and struggles with children and struggles with parents.

Move into this year. At this time of Epiphany we remember the star that led the magi to find Jesus. The shining star that led them to Jesus, who is the light of the world, and we remember that Jesus is the light.

So I will give you some time to think here. Lynn will play some music. And what I would like you to do is to think that as you come into this year, what is a word that you would like to hold before you. A few weeks ago when Lynn led worship she talked about our Epiphany words. Think of a word, words, phrase, hope, whatever you would like to have guide you into this year and that you want God to keep from falling to the ground. Write that on your star, to let it guide you this year like the magi’s star.

There is no right or wrong here, and it’s all between you and God. You don’t have to share it with anything.

So what is the word you don’t want to fall to the ground, and then related to that word, ask, “What good can I do related to that?” Ask yourself how you can live that out, letting Jesus’ light shine through you to help keep that word from falling to the ground. Then write that on the star as well.

And you can also think of what good you can do on behalf of Plymouth, or the good that Plymouth can do this year.

Take a few minutes and think, and write, or draw a picture, or simply meditate. And then I will end with a prayer.

[after a time of music]

Let’s pray: Epiphany God, you have searched us and you know us. You know what is in our hearts. You know what we have written or thought here today. We lift up all of these words, all these words, all these guiding stars that they may be fulfilled in your grace. That we may be the light that we want to be, and that we may be the light that you want us to be. We offer you our hopes for ourselves, for our community, and for this congregation of Plymouth United Church of Christ. Help us keep these stars before us to lead us to Jesus as your star led the magi to him so many years ago. Amen.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Always the Way it Wasn't - a play for Advent.

My friend Carole Spenser and I wrote this, with some input from Jens, asking the question, "What might Mary and Joseph, later in life, think about when they look at back at that first Christmas Day and Jesus' life?" Especially, we thought, What if they were asking that while watching a modern Christmas special on TV?

Sometimes funny, sometimes serious.

What do you think Mary and Joseph would say today? Or if not today, what might they have said 30 years or so after Jesus' resurrection, if people asked them about the first Christmas day or other aspect of Jesus' life?

Please share your thoughts below. 
If you would like to perform this, you have permission if you contact me and ask, let me know when and where it will be performed, and include in all your ads, bulletins, etc., the title of the play and the words "Written by Rev. David J. Huber and Carole Spenser." I also would like to have a recording of it. No cost to use.

“Always the Way it Wasn’t”
Play by David Huber, Carole Spenser, Jens Nielsen
Premier performance Dec. 21, 2014 at Plymouth UCC, Eau Claire, WI

Cast: Mary, Mother of Jesus – a female
Joseph, Step-Father of Jesus – a male [though no reason to hold to strict gender interpretation]
Setting: Christmas Eve in a typical midwestern living room. Two chairs set up facing the audience, in front of a TV (real or imaginary) with a small table between them. Table should be empty, though maybe a newspaper or a crossword puzzle book could be on it. Perhaps even some knitting. Even a “Jewish Mother Quarterly” magazine, or a “How To Parent The Messiah for Dummies” book. Joseph and Mary are in their 60s or 70s.

[SOUND CUE: AFTER the scripture readings, play “White Christmas” - Joseph will enter while it plays]

[Joseph enters, sits down. He’s tired, but feeling some anticipation]

[SOUND CUE: Turn off music as Joseph gets ready to speak]

Joseph: Come on, Mary! The Christmas show is starting.

[offstage] Mary: I know! I’m coming!

Joseph: Don’t want to miss our son!

[enter Mary with a tray with snacks and two drinks]

Mary: I know, I know. But, Joseph, you do remember it’s just an actor playing our son, right? [put the tray on the table]

Joseph: Obviously it’s an actor. I’m not that addled. I was there when he died, too, you know.

Mary: I know, I know. I just worry.

Joseph: Always worrying about other people, you are. That’s one of the reasons I love you.

Mary: Oooh.

Joseph: Did you make my hot chocolate?

Mary: Right here, dear. Where I always put it.

Joseph: Sorry. I just get so... excited. We’ve been telling this story for almost 2000 years, but I never get tired of it.

Mary: It looks so staticky.

Joseph: Ugh, Charter never gives us a good signal when it’s something we actually want to watch. [Fiddles with dial/remote/TV]

[Music cue: “Silent Night” begins playing]

Mary: Ooh! There it is! Reba McIntrye is singing Silent Night!

[pause 10 seconds listening to Silent Night]

Mary: Silent Night? They do realize a birth happened, right? It was anything but silent.

Joseph: All the screaming.

Mary: The animals bleating. You yelling at me.

Joseph: Push! Push! Push! [laughs]

Mary: [mocks “push push push”] Straw everywhere!

Joseph: And me allergic to it. [sneeze]

Mary: And the angels singing!

Joseph: Wouldn’t shut up. So loud!

Mary. Yeah. But what a child. So beautiful.

Joseph: Who would have guessed! [pause] I was so happy to claim him as my son.

Mary: You almost didn’t.

Joseph: I was ready to leave you. Oh, I would have done it honorably! But your story about how you got pregnant was pretty far fetched.

Mary: You know I would never lie to you.

Joseph: I didn’t know it then. We hardly knew each other!

Mary: Then Gabriel came.

Joseph: Then Gabriel came.

Mary: Pretty weird, if you think about.

Joseph: “Marry her,” he said to me. “It’s okay.” Craziest thing I ever experienced. Well, for a few decades. The whole walking on water, feeding the 5000, healing the lepers stuff, ending on trial in front of Pilate.. that was pretty crazy, too.

Mary: It was all so strange.

[Music cue: “Away In a Manger...”]

Joseph: Look, they’re showing us in the manger.

Mary: Look at those animals. Standing perfectly still, all facing the baby Jesus. So staged.

Joseph: Ha! They were actually all over the place! And look at how you’re dressed here!

Mary: Her clothing is white as snow! And look at her hair. Like she’s spent the last three hours brushing it. Not a single strand of straw in it. Have none of these people witnessed a birth?

Joseph: You don’t look like someone who just gave birth. Certainly not in an animal stall.

Mary: Took me days to feel clean again.

[Sound cue: “The First Noel” begins to play]

Joseph: Oh, and look at this: the shepherds are arriving already!

Mary: And their clothes are clean, too.

Joseph: Do you remember five of them?

Mary: I remember the stink.

Joseph: I remember three. Not five.

Mary: And no help at all! Just stood there, staring and stinking.

[Music cue: “Angels We Have Heard on High”]

Mary: Now the angels are there.

Joseph: What a mess they were.

Mary: Wings blowing dirt and hay all over. Jesus coughing. Then the hiccups!

Joseph: But their singing was glorious.

Mary: Glorious. [beat] I’ll never forget that sound.

Joseph: The most perfect music I’ve ever heard.

Mary: And I’ll never forget the light. I could feel it. I could actually feel the light, Joseph! Like a bath of grace and love.

Joseph: Light? Yes, filled the whole manger. So bright, but never hurt the eyes. I never saw the world so perfectly as I did with that light. It stripped away all the dirt and the facades and exposed the true essence of everything. // Looking at you in that light – that’s when I knew that I truly loved you, and I knew then why God chose you to be Jesus’ mother.


Joseph: Remember, I went out to get some more water?

Mary: That’s when you saw the star!

Joseph: The star! It came out of nowhere. I know it wasn’t there the night before. It was so bright!

Mary: I was so exhausted, I couldn’t go look. Birthing is very tiring. The Mary in this Christmas Special, though – I bet she could have gone out to see it AND managed to build an addition to the stall to receive visitors AND made enough crafts to stock the souvenir shop.

Joseph: This is all pretty romanticized.

Mary: Not like it really happened. Neither one of us knew what we were doing! Newly married, in a strange town, neither of us with experience of birthing...

Joseph: I wish this is how it happened.

Mary: It would have been a lot easier.

Joseph: And happier. [pause] They never show in these specials the part where Herod kills all the baby boys in Bethlehem.

Mary: Or us fleeing to Egypt to protect our son.

Joseph: [pause] Gabriel told me to marry you and that our son would be the Messiah, but no one told us how to raise him.

Mary: So stressful! God’s son, plopped into our family. Would God protect him? Was it up to us? What if one our decisions led to his death? What if he got sick, what if he fell off a cliff, what if Herod got hold of him?

Joseph: God was awfully silent while we were trying to raise his son.

Mary: Yes.

Joseph: It really was annoying!

Mary: And no warning about what would happen. I’m not saying I would have done anything differently, but if I had known what would happen... it just seems so cruel, what God did to us. God’s son, sure. But we were the ones who loved him, raised him, changed his diapers, taught him...

[sound: someone singing “We Three Kings”]

Joseph: The kings are arriving already? The star just came out! How did they travel a thousand miles in a half hour?

Mary: They didn’t show up for.... well, I don’t remember how long it was. But it wasn’t that night!

Joseph: Weeks?

Mary: Months?

Joseph: The gold was helpful.

Mary: The myrrh was weird.

Joseph: And I’m allergic to frankincense. [sneeze]

Mary: But the thought was nice. And why was it that the only people, other than those shepherds, that came to see the son of God were some men who weren’t even Jewish?

Joseph: None of our people really understood him.

Mary: No, I suppose not.

Joseph: And that’s how the special ends – everyone in the manger, smiling and happy as though that’s the end of the story. [Turns off the TV]

Mary: No painful childhood.

Joseph: The other parents didn’t like him.

Mary: When he left us to go follow John the Baptist, that was hard.

Joseph: So mistreated when he came home.

Mary: He didn’t fit in. It never seemed to really bother him. But it bothered me! It bothered me to see him abused by so many.

Joseph: All that healing he did, but the authorities still ridiculed him.

Mary: The blind people he gave sight to.

Joseph: The new life he brought to so many.

Mary: Calming storms. Raising Lazarus.

Joseph: Giving speech to the mute.

Mary: That devastating Friday in Jerusalem.

Joseph: Just for saying that we should love one another. [pause] And it seems so little has changed.

Mary: Who would have guessed at the time that our story would be told and retold by so many?

Joseph: Did you have any idea at the time just what was happening?

Mary: Certainly not the significance.

Joseph: You can be proud of what you did, Mary.

Mary: I only know I was doing my part.

[Music cue: “Joy to the World”]|

Christmas Eve service of Lessons and Carols

No sermon here, no text. Just a link to the audio of our Christmas Eve worship of Lessons and Carols, filled with the story of Jesus' birth and lots of great music: favorite carols, but also great solos and duets by our singers.

Click to listen

Christmas is the day that we celebrate Jesus' birth. He more than likely wasn't actually born on December 25 (good chance he was born in March, but we just don't know). It is the story of God's incarnation on earth, God's indwelling with humanity.

What does Christmas mean to you? For some, it is a time of great joy. For others, it is a time of distress and bad memories. We have commercialized the day an awful lot, and put a lot of pressure on people to have a "perfect Christmas", as Normal Rockwell as possible. I find that unfortunate, though Christmas is still my favorite time of year: cold, snow, sitting in front of the fire place, sharing presents and good food with family I love.

Share your stories below if you would like to do so.

Made, Loved, Held - Sermon from January 11, the Baptism of Jesus

Sunday January 11 was "Baptism of Jesus" Sunday, when we read the story of Jesus' baptism. For this year, it was the version from the Gospel of Mark, which is somewhat different than the other Gospel accounts in that Jesus does not speak. Last year, I explored a little on the idea that although all the Gospels say that the heavens opened and a voice and the Holy Spirit came down, they all say that Jesus saw and heard - none of them mention whether anyone else saw or heard this, or if it was just Jesus. This year, I explored the words of the voice from heaven that said, "You are my beloved". We also sang Bryan Sirchio's song "Bugs for Lunch", a song about John the Baptist.

What does it mean to you to be called "Beloved"? What does it mean to you that your neighbors are also "Beloved"? How do you live that out? Please share your thoughts below.

“Made, Loved, Held”
Sermon, Year B, Baptism of Jesus, January 11, 2015
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: Mark 1:1-11
We read this passage, minus the baptism part, back in December on the second Sunday of Advent. So if it feels familiar and recent, it is.

We have in this passage, John the Baptist. John is pointing the people toward Jesus. Maybe not specifically by name, though John would have known – he was Jesus’ cousin, after all. They had grown up together. You may remember the story of Mary and Elizabeth being pregnant together and Mary visiting her, and John leaps in Elizabeth’s womb because of Jesus in Mary’s womb.

So I’m sure John knew that Jesus was the one to come. But perhaps he didn’t. And as he is pointing people to look for the messiah, he may or may not have said who he was by name. We don’t know.

But John is out there in the Jordan, pointing people and saying, “One is coming. Be ready. Prepare yourselves!” He is in the Jordan River, baptizing people. And as he baptized, saying that there is one greater than him who is soon to come, who will baptize not with water, but with the Holy Spirit.

“He is more powerful than I! He can do something I cannot.”

Then Jesus shows up. He comes from Nazareth in Galilee, and he is baptized.

Now we started reading this gospel at the very beginning. These are the first words of Mark’s gospel, and Mark is likely the gospel written first as well. There is something missing here: there is no birth narrative. The writer of Mark is not concerned with how Jesus was born or how he came into the world. What matters is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, starting with baptism. The Gospel starts with Isaiah’s prophecy, and then introduces John the Baptist as the fulfillment of that prophecy. Then John tells of one who is to come, and Jesus shows up as the fulfillment of that prophecy.

And in this whole thing, Jesus doesn’t speak. He says nothing. He doesn’t speak to John. John doesn’t speak to him. It does make me wonder if maybe they had discussed this months or perhaps even years before, setting up that Jesus would have to be baptized by John. We do get in the other gospels some dialogue, with John saying, “I’m not worthy to baptize you – you should baptize me!” There is no conversation. Jesus says nothing.

But God speaks! Or at least a voice from heaven says something. I think we can safely assume, I think, that the writer of Mark here meant God. Or if not God, some heavenly being speaking on behalf of God.

Isaiah speaks, John the Baptist speaks, God speaks. And Jesus is silent.

A powerful silence. Silence has a power to it.

There is in this passage a moment of time and geography. John is in the River Jordan outside Jerusalem, baptizing people. He is in a very specific place and time. As he’s doing this, Jesus starts from over here in Nazareth in Galilee, far away, and starts walking. He comes to where John is and walks into John’s space and time, has his baptism, and then continues out of John’s space. Very linear. There is also that John is connected with the past, through Isaiah, the prophet from 700 years or so before John’s time. That is another line meeting in this space and time. Then at the moment of Jesus’ baptism, we a vertical movement of the heavens opening up, the voice speaking, the spirit descending down onto Jesus.

I wonder, had they talked about this ahead of time, or hadn’t they? Was John prepared for what happened? Did he know what was going to happen when he baptized Jesus? Was Jesus prepared for it? Are any of us ever, truly, prepared to meet or to experience God? To be in the presence of the Divine, feeling the Holy Spirit touch us? Those of who are baptized receive the Holy Spirit, but the Holy Spirit is also around us all the time.

We can be prepared, maybe, for the moment, but can any of us – were any of us? – truly be ready for the full effect of encountering God? The life-changing, life-altering, cosmic whiplash that can be a meeting with the Divine? It can turn our lives upside down in good and wonderful ways, but upside down nonetheless.

I’ve had some experiences, I’ve talked of some of them. A few dramatic, but most have not. Most has been a slow unfolding, subtle day-by-day realization of God’s presence with me. But usually not the way I expect. Not at the times that I would have chosen. Not the way I would have planned for them. God is a surpriser. God likes to surprise.

God will come whenever and wherever God wants, regardless of what we put on our calendar. Or regardless of how we have mapped out our time and our days. Think of Christmas. We just celebrated Christmas. That was a surprise! God coming as a baby boy in a backwater town on the outer edge of the world’s mightiest Empire, born to a young girl who was an occupied non-citizen of that empire.

Even those expecting a messiah were not expecting that. Probably the messiah ought to have been born in Rome, seat of the mighty empire, though they were the enemy of the Jewish people and so the messiah ought to be born in Jerusalem, the holy city. God’s city. God’s home, The Temple, was there. All of God’s priests were there. The messiah should have come out of Jerusalem. That’s the big important city for the Jewish people. Certainly should not have come out of Nazareth, a town way up in the north, a city of of traitors in Isaiah’s time, a land of dullards and country bumpkins.

But God likes to surprise. So we may say to God, “Okay, God, if you are there, if you could show yourself on Tuesday morning. I’ll be meditating on scripture in my kitchen. You know where my kitchen is. Come to me there, and show me that you’re here. I need you to be very clear.”

Except God won’t show up on Tuesday morning in your kitchen while you’re reading scripture in your kitchen. A little bit of God will come, God is always present.

But maybe God has already shown up on Friday afternoon when you were impatiently getting your groceries and seething at the incompetence of the checker. Or the screaming child behind you. Or the moron who cut in front of you. But you missed it, because God can’t come from Nazareth, right? God can’t be the incompetent clerk, or the screaming child, or the moron who cut in line in front of you. God can’t be any of those, right?

And we may say, “Okay, God, so when you come Tuesday morning, I don’t want any drama. Just show up, say you love me, assure me you’re there, and then leave me alone. Don’t ask me to change anything. Don’t ask me to live differently. Leave me the same way. No interference. Okay?”

Ha! Totally, “No, not okay. I will come when I want, and I hope that when I come and you experience me, your life WILL change. Things will be different for you, in good ways, but also challenging ways.”

Like I’ve said before about the Lord’s Prayer, when you pray “Your will be done”, I hope that we understand the danger of that prayer. If we truly mean “Your will be done”, not my will or my ego or my needs or what I desire, that’s a lot of ego-need to give up. That’s giving up a lot of need for control, for a sense of power, for a need for clarity and routine and calm, to say “Your will be done.”

So maybe in this movement that Jesus has coming from Nazareth, to John for his baptism, and going beyond... maybe that wasn’t so linear. Maybe he didn’t go where he expected to go after his baptism. When Jesus is with John and the heavens open and the voice comes down and says, “You are my beloved”, right after that, Jesus goes into the wilderness. I could be wrong, we don’t know, but I have a feeling that Jesus was not expecting that after his baptism he would go into the wilderness. I think that was a change of plans. He probably thought he would hang out with John for a while, or go to Jerusalem, or go back home. There is an encounter with the divine here. He comes from Nazareth, goes to John, and then instead of moving in the direction he had probably planned, he goes elsewhere.

Everything in my life was going fine, and then I encountered the divine. Or we might say that everything was going fine and then we encountered Jesus. Now I have to change. Or if not change, I have to pretend that meeting Jesus didn’t mean anything.

I had everything under control. Everything planned out.

Then.... God.

But it is a wonderful life, and a god thing, giving up that sense of needing to be in control, giving up the sense of thinking only about myself, or my own needs, giving up my need for power, trying to give up ideas like that wealth equals winning or life is about accumulation of things, power, status. I don’t do this perfectly, God knows. Sometimes I don’t do it even particularly mediocre.

But there is in following God this call to be more generous, more giving, more loving, more tolerant, more open, and more willing to see God not just in certain ways, but to be open to God’s surprises. Be open to God’s surprising movements, especially in the people around us. That’s a wondrous thing, to realize how present God is.

To see God in the people living on the streets. To realize they are a reflection of God. To see God in the screaming child. God in the incompetent store clerk. And the guy who cut you off in line. And to realize that maybe the store clerk isn’t just an incompetent clerk, but maybe someone who is on the first day of her job. Or tired because she has three jobs to support her child. Or maybe just having an off day. Or maybe the clerk is struggling to hold himself together against the demonic voices in his head because his insurance company decided not to cover his medication any more because it cost too much so he hasn’t been taking it for a while. Or the veteran who has PTSD and needs some help.

To see God in the people around us, and to hear their stories. Which stories are about God.

John the Baptist is pointing the people to Jesus. He says that the messiah will come, and then, “There he is!” And now we have that job. We can point to Jesus, as well. There he is! He’s you, he’s me, he’s that gentleman, he’s that child killed in Afghanistan, she’s the girl going hungry at school, he’s the one who responded to the 150 car pile up in Michigan the other day, she’s the people who were slaughtered at Charlie Hebdo in Paris, and God is in the suffering souls of the men who did the shooting.

We point to Jesus, and invite people to come with us to experience God, and to experience this world that God inhabits and cares for.

In baptism, we learn we are beloved. Jesus is the beloved. All who are beloved are a reflection of Jesus. And all people are beloved. All of God’s people, all of God’s creation, are beloved.

The hard lesson that I have had to learn, have been slowly learning and trying to embrace more though it’s not always easy: if I am beloved, as is symbolized in baptism, if I am beloved, then so are the people around me. I’m not the only one who is beloved. Everyone is. Everyone is, and they are so regardless of how much I like them, regardless of how much I think of their worth. They are beloved. They are God’s beloved. And just as we are all God’s beloved, we are also someone’s jerk. I’m sure that for everyone one of us, there is someone in the world who thinks we are a jerk, an incompetent, or that we’re annoying. I don’t know of anyone who is so perfect and so good that everyone thinks the world of them. We are all somebody’s jerk. But more importantly, we are also all beloved by God.

And if we are all beloved, then let us treat each other as though we’re beloved. Like the song about John the Baptist that we sang says, “If you’re on the wrong road, go the other way.” We always have the opportunity to repent and change direction. God always forgives, always welcomes us back.

The song also says, “If you got two coats, give one away.” Take care of the people around you. And don’t forget your bugs, but I’m not going to judge if you decide to forget your bugs. I’m a pretty adventurous eater and have eaten many strange things, but I’ve never had the courage to eat any kind of insect. Not my thing.

I end with a story from Julian of Norwich, one of the great medieval mystics of the church.

“And in this he showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed. And it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, ‘What may this be?’ And it was answered generally thus, ‘It is all that is made.’ I marveled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to naught for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God.

In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it. The second that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it.”

That, I think, is the message of baptism. We are made, we are loved, we are kept.

Imagine a world in which we truly believed in the belovedness of ourselves, and the belovedness of those around us.

If you’re on the wrong path, go the other way; if you have two coats, give one away. And know that you are God’s beloved.